That Time When My Fiancé Bought Me a Taylor Swift CD

He drops me off at work, mentions he’s going to hit up Target to see what they have on sale before they close.

“Ooh, maybe you could get the new Taylor Swift CD for me?” I say not too seriously. A friend had it on in the car the other day and though I was sceptical at first, I kinda liked her full-fledged immersion into pop.

“Haha, ya right,” he jokes. A fan of Johnny Cash, Patty Griffin, and Guns N’ Roses, Taylor Swift is not someone he would ever listen to on his own volition.

I forget about the conversation the rest of the day but guess what is waiting for me on the passenger seat when he picks me up?

1989

“You didn’t!”

“I did.”

“You actuallly got it for me!”

“Well, you said you wanted it.”

Not only did my fiancé buy me Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, but he bought me the deluxe version, complete with 3 bonus tracks and 3 voice memos about her songwriting process, as well as 13 polaroid photos of her with various song lyrics written in her hand at the bottom. I felt a little silly and teenager-like having all this T. Swift hoopla on me when I’m not even a huge fan, but on the other hand, I was impressed by how much she gives her fans. You can tell she really likes them. Considering a lot of musicians don’t even put their lyrics in the album booklet anymore (which is the only reason to even buy physical CDs rather than just getting them off iTunes, in my opinion), it was really refreshing to find all her lyrics in there AND a foreword to the album.

I have not followed the ins and outs of Taylor Swift’s life at all—just liked some of her hits now and then—but this foreword offered a pretty personal glimpse into her life. I think that’s what’s attractive to her fans—she talks to them like friends, like she’s learning and growing with them. I’ve always thought she was a good songwriter, but she’s also a pretty good prose writer.

For the last few years, I’ve woken up every day not wanting, but needing to write a new style of music. I needed to change the way I told my stories and the way they sounded. I listened a lot to music from the decade in which I was born and I listened to my intuition that it was a good thing to follow this gut feeling. I was also writing a different storyline than I’d ever told you before.

She goes on to discuss moving to New York City, something she said she’d never do. The big synth-pop sound of  her opening track “Welcome to New York” starts the album off with a bang that lets you know we are not in Nashville anymore.

Everybody here wanted something more

Searching for a sound we hadn’t heard before

. . .

It’s a new soundtrack

I could dance to this beat

forevermore

That’s probably my favourite song on the album and it’s fun to sing to when driving, bass up, windows down (and yes, even my fiancé sings along!). “Welcome to New York” could become the next New York anthem (after “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys and Jay Z). Full of adventure and hope, it sounds like everything I remember feeling when I visited four years ago. I like songs that bring you back in an instant. “Style” is another fun one to sing to while driving. For a slower one, “You Are in Love” (one of the bonus tracks).

Anyway, I don’t often write about celebrities or albums but it’s been years since I’ve bought, let alone received a CD, and I felt this was one worth talking about.

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Listening for Sounds of Hope

Every writer is trying to describe old things in new ways. It’s a good bandwagon for me to join, to distance myself from my high school days when I was dubbed “the queen of clichés.”

the tree

I’m looking out my apartment window and see a tree. I live in the city but on nights like these, I am back in my childhood home of tire swings and hedges and well pipes you bang your car into when you’re sixteen and first learning to drive. I listen closely, trying to describe what the city sounds like to my imaginary readers. How do I describe the sound of tires going across a road at 80 km/hr to someone who’s never heard a moving vehicle before? When I hear a dozen or more cars flying down my street, halted by a changing green, I hear an intermittent waterfall. But how do you explain a waterfall to someone who’s never heard water drip from a kitchen faucet, let alone nature’s caverns?

nature's caverns

Everything has a referent in this world. It’s like when the dictionary defines a word using another word you don’t understand, and you’re now looking up another word in the dictionary, only to look up seven other words. You’re caught in a cycle of referents so deep you don’t even remember the first thing you were trying to define.

I pay more attention to sound these days after watching a video of a British woman deaf from birth who, thanks to science, can now hear. Joanne Milne: a modern miracle.

If this doesn’t give me hope about recovering what was lost—something you thought was irretrievably lost—I don’t know what does. She probably never imagined her story would be rewritten to read: “Be opened!”

I imagine the deaf and mute man brought to Jesus in Mark 7:31-37 didn’t either. Jesus took him away from the crowd and spoke to him in silence. Fingers in his ears and spit on his tongue, he looked up to heaven and shouted for the silence to be broken. “Ephphatha!” For the doors to open—two doors, actually. Sound and speech restored. And how did the crowd respond? They were “overwhelmed with amazement.”

“The world is just sounding so, so loud to me at the moment” Joanne says in her BBC interview. She had to take the battery out of her clock hanging on the wall.

I don’t know what Joanne’s new world is like. I willingly moved from the suburbs to the city so I could be surrounded by loud and big and exciting and all those adjectives that cities have to offer young twenty and thirty-somethings searching for post-secondary meaning. I fall asleep easier to sirens and honks and activated pedestrian signals than I do to the low hum of a refrigerator or to nature’s insects chirping in the great outdoors or to absolute quiet. When I’m driving, I turn up the volume of my car stereo three or four notches higher than the default setting it was turned to when I bought it. It happened gradually.

Night Driving

I don’t know what it’s like to be surprised by loud. I grew up with it, so I don’t know if I ever did.

Joanne Milne is waking up to sound for the first time and it is a beautiful thing. It is an emotional thing. But, from her interview, it also sounds like it is an overwhelming thing. How do you go from utter silence to utter loudness? Was there something peaceful about listening to a blank soundtrack, images without audio interpretation? Did it foster the imagination in any way? And then I think of music and the beauty of waking up to notes played over time, at different lengths and pitches, tones and volumes, and if I would cry over the sound of a doorknob twisting to open, how much more would I cry/die over a Bach’s Air on the G String or Yann Tiersen’s Comptine d’Un Autre Été?

I wonder if the ideal process for an education into the sounds of the world would be to start small and work up. Clocks and hand clapping, doors and foot tapping, running water and cackling fires, church bells and street hustle, music concerts and outdoor festivals. But in our world of noise, you are educated not with a whisper but a bang—a big bang. You don’t learn things in increments. It’s everything all at once. Everything has a referent.IMG_5201

Joanne Milne is embarking on a life-changing education in middle age and I am a little envious of her wonder. I would like to hear the world through her ears—to remember what it’s like to be surprised by sound again. And then to listen closely and to write this hope in new and beautiful ways.

A group I recently discovered on NoiseTrade does this so well. I cannot help but imagine Loud Harp (note the name) is responding to Jesus’ fingers in their ears, their eyes, their mouths: “Ephphatha! Be opened!”

All that Jazz

When I think of jazz music, I think of the colour blue. Probably because the cultural reference that comes to mind is Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz which I quoted from in this post. But jazz is also blue in the way that one can feel blue: melancholy, sad, or depressed. A lot of jazz music has this melancholy sound. And then other jazz music has a funky, upbeat sound. And jazz is also blue in the way that it comes and goes “into the blue”—into the unknown. This is the improvisational and syncopated quality of jazz. The notes move in and out of time; you never really know when they’re going to appear, disappear, and in what variation. Listening to jazz is a lesson in unpredictability.

At the beginning of this month, my friend had a birthday celebration at Cory Weeds’ Cellar Jazz Club. I’m not a huge fan of jazz, but of course I wanted to go:

  1. Because it was my friend’s birthday and she LOVES jazz
  2. It’s a great location that is unfortunately closing down there at the end of February
  3. I want to learn to like/appreciate jazz

Interestingly enough, The Cellar Jazz Club is the same place I spent all of August long weekend in as an extra for a friend’s movie. It was great to be in that space again, enjoying it as it is meant to be enjoyed—as Vancouver’s only full-time jazz club that has been on Downbeat Magazine’s list of the world’s greatest jazz clubs for six years. You can read the Globe and Mail article about the Club’s unfortunate closure here after 13 years in its Kitsilano location on West Broadway.

The Cellar Jazz Club is literally in a cellar—you walk down a flight of steps from the street front and enter a dark, intimate space with red walls and a speakeasy feel. Vibrant, eye-stopping paintings of famous jazz musicians hang from the walls. Candles light the dark wood tables.

We dined and then we swayed and/or bopped to the slow and fast songs. Four musicians graced the stage: one playing drums, another playing electric guitar, the third playing a Hammond B2 organ (my favourite); and the fourth, Cory Weeds himself, playing the saxophone.

The food is decent but nothing to write home about. But you don’t go there for the food. You go there for the live music, and it is well worth it. In his opening remarks before the two sets (at 8 and 9:30), Cory Weeds requested that conversation be kept to a minimum so people around you can enjoy the music and, quite frankly, I didn’t even have a desire to talk because the music is that arresting. It fills the room. My eyes darted back and forth to the different musicians when they were soloing, trying to figure out when they knew to move in and out of the piece at the right time.

My birthday friend taught me about “comping“—what the other musicians do when their bandmate is freestyling—all those repeated chords, rhythms, and countermelodies that provide structure to the riffs of the soloist. It’s a fine dance between presence and absence, busy and sparse, supporting without stealing.

I feel like jazz music is replete with metaphors for life, especially in the arena of relationships.

I came away from that January night with a much deeper appreciation for jazz music, just as I came away from the Cellar Jazz Club in August with a much deeper appreciation for filmmaking. One location, two great new experiences.

Lesson One

where the magic happens

“You should probably cut your nails if you want to continue.”

His stubby ones are barely visible below callused fingertips.

I realize learning guitar isn’t going to be easy. Or pretty. Goodbye feminine nails I worked so hard to grow out.

Like trying anything new, I weigh the costs and ask how badly I want this.

“Practice half an hour each day, and you’ll have calluses built up by next week’s lesson.”

Yeah, I’ll get on that right away.

“And retrain the muscle memory in your fourth finger. It wants to go straight but it needs to bend so the chord sounds cleaner.”

I look at the troublesome finger playing D major, stuck straight as a pencil with no sign of arcing. Old and set in my ways, I doubt how much practice will help. My fingers resort to their former positions like good students.

“Save your money and teach yourself,” my brother had said. I had tried that, but teaching myself isn’t helpful when I’m teaching wrong.

I didn’t know there was follow-through in guitar like in basketball. I didn’t know to wrap my hands tightly around the neck like gripping a baseball bat. Heck, I didn’t know playing guitar was so much like playing sports, the fingers curved like a body over a high jump bar.

Practice makes better. How badly do I want to be better?

I remember I am finished school, worried my brain’s glory days are over and are now starting a gradual process of decline. I remember a university professor asking, “Which of the arts most powerfully and universally conveys human experience?”

The class was mute. When we finally answered, we said theatre. There are wrong answers in the humanities by the way. The professor said no. Music. Who are you?

Tonight I am taking scissors to my nails.

1 2 3 4 5 things I’m riding/wearing/reading/hearing

Considering it’s Friday before the long weekend, and it’s sunny and almost the end of summer (cringe), I thought I’d feature my five favourite things literature/art and urban-related as of late. This will likely be my first and last pinterest-y style post.

my sweet ride

1. My bike that I’ve been using to ride to and from work most days this summer. I don’t love so much the bike, but the basket. Look at that steel-wired frame. Not one of those flimsy wicker baskets at the front, which maybe look more cool but can’t hold much more than a purse. This baby can hold cartons of milk from the grocery store. It fits a backpack with a change of clothes and my lunchbag. Probably the best $30 I’ve spent. It’s much more enjoyable riding a bike when you don’t have to carry something on your back.

Coal Harbour on a necklace

2. This necklace. I came across Black Drop Designs at a farmer’s market in Fort Langley the other week and fell in love with this urban-inspired photo jewellery. I asked if she had any New York scenes – she didn’t. So I got Vancouver instead – Coal Harbour to be precise, even though you can’t tell what city it is by looking at it. That’s the benefit of New York’s skyline.

alphabet scarf, kind of like alphabet soup

3. My other favourite fashion accessory that represents the literary side of me – a silk alphabet scarf. Reading. Writing. Words. I love wearing letters around my neck. This should be the item I wear when I have writer’s block. Maybe it would inspire something with its random repetition and conglomeration of letters.

my friend’s debut novel

4. This book, Before We Go. My friend wrote it. We did our Master’s at UVic together. She was one of my first friends in grad school, who I saw Easy A with in theatres early in the year, feeling uncertain of this grad school thing we had gotten ourselves into, who I made sugar cookies with in her Oak Bay basement suite at Christmastime, along with the other girls in our West Coast Lit class who became a family-away-from-family. She’s starting her PhD this fall with a book already under her belt. I turned to the back cover when I bought it at Chapters and smiled. There she was. She inspires me.

You really should check out this novel, especially if you like young adult fiction. It just so happens to take place in Victoria, in only a 7-hour time span one New Year’s Eve. She balances the line between sorrow and laughter well, which is not an easy thing to do in a work of art.

The Land of the Living

5. Matthew Perryman Jones. Speaking of art, I read an interview with musician Matthew Perryman Jones the other day and it compelled me to do some research. He talked about this thing called duende that inspires his music.

Do you ever have those words or ideas you hear about and you know you will love what they mean or what they stand for even if you don’t exactly know what it is yet? I felt that way about this word. Duende. Dark sound. Mystery. The sadness that lingers on the edges of certain songs. Real love songs. The sadness that can’t be explained but you know is there. You hear it. You feel it. Impossible to describe but impossible to deny. Stumbling upon this word, I felt I had been given a tiny key into MPJ’s music. I discovered him through Noisetrade and fell immediately in love with his songs, not quite able to put my finger on what it was I loved about them. I think it’s this duende that lives in them.

Listen to this song – I think you’ll hear what I mean.