Songs the Empty Mirrors
and friends can’t live without…
The Times – I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape
We've all been there. One day you wake up, and you have no idea what to listen to. The records of your youth are still there, and still glorious, but they've been played to death. There is new music everywhere, but nothing that grabs you, and you feel like everything has been done. A creeping dread descends, as you wonder if music itself, your greatest passion, is about to fade to silence. Is this what death feels like? Read more...
We've all been there. One day you wake up, and you have no idea what to listen to. The records of your youth are still there, and still glorious, but they've been played to death. There is new music everywhere, but nothing that grabs you, and you feel like everything has been done. A creeping dread descends, as you wonder if music itself, your greatest passion, is about to fade to silence. Is this what death feels like?
In 2017, I found myself in exactly this rut. Streaming had accelerated it, since you devalue the experience of listening to a record when you don't pay for it, and have no incentive to let it grow on you. As a musician, this was even more painful, since it wasn't clear what genre I wanted to play anymore. I was half-heartedly making music, but it remained unreleased.
In a desperate bid to recapture something from my teens, I searched Spotify for the soundtrack to The Prisoner, one of Ron Grainer's finest hours that I played to death after getting obsessed with the TV show. What I found instead was a song by Ed Ball, released by The Times, and called "I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape".
I remember shouting out loud. Here was a band singing a witty number about the greatest TV show in history, with mod stylings at every turn. The rest of the album, a compilation of early material and offcuts, was full of power pop genius, including a cover of the theme from Dangerman. This was pop songwriting at its best and most natural, the rawness of the production only enhancing the quality of the songs.
Suddenly life had a purpose. I read everything I could about Ed Ball, learning about his many bands and monikers, his Artpop label, his essential role at Creation records (which was often said to exist to allow Ed Ball to continue making records), and his many and varied interests. Inspired by his Song for Joe Orton, I read Orton's diaries and complete plays, and moved on to other 60s playwrights. My life got richer and richer, and I found a new wellspring of creativity as Ed's whole philosophy percolated through to my daily life. In 2019, I started a record label - End of the Pier records - and started signing and producing local bands, finally releasing some of my own music for the first time in years. I hate the fact that Ed Ball isn't more famous, but perhaps his obscurity is what saved me. Faced with a future of musical mediocrity, The Times helped me escape.
End of the Pier Records
Jonathan Coulton – The Future Soon
The one song that I'd credit with "saving my life" would have to be The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton. Now, you're probably thinking "How did a song about turning yourself into a cyborg for a crush save your life?" Well, it didn't save my life in the mortal sense, but it gave my life DIRECTION, which is similar, in my opinion. Let me explain... Read more...
The one song that I'd credit with "saving my life" would have to be The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton. Now, you're probably thinking "How did a song about turning yourself into a cyborg for a crush save your life?" Well, it didn't save my life in the mortal sense, but it gave my life DIRECTION, which is similar, in my opinion. Let me explain...
Prior to hearing that song, I had this odd belief that songs had to always be from personal experience. As embarrassing as it is, I never put it together that songs can be about CHARACTERS and STILL HAVE MEANING. I really, really don't know why I didn't realize that until this song, but I didn't.
So I hear The Future Soon for the first time and I'm like "Woah, wait. This isn't a parody song, but it's humorous AND it's relatable. I wanna do that too." So from there I picked up the guitar again after many years of neglect and began learning to play for real (I had "tried" back in high school but blew off my guitar lessons). I also started writing songs. Nothing really good, but actually getting a real song written was huge, because if I made one, I could make MORE. From there I got to where I am today and am for once happy with what I am creating and where I am going with it. It has given me a purpose that I very much did not have before. I now have a drive to create and leave a legacy for my children so one day they can point to my song on the radio and with pride say "My dad did that."
The Real Michael Lee
Lizzo – Exactly How I Feel feat. Gucci Mane
Everyone has their own unique coping strategies for when they're feeling a little under the weather. Read more...
Everyone has their own unique coping strategies for when they're feeling a little under the weather. For me, the best thing to knock me out of anxiety is a little dance/cry/sing along to Lizzo's third studio release, Cuz I Love You. I always start with Exactly How I Feel ft. Gucci Mane, and then listen through the rest of the short but sweet album. If I'm feeling particularly "stuck" I will listen to this track on repeat until whatever I'm worrying over feels insignificant.
Exactly How I Feel ft. Gucci Mane combines the signature Lizzo spirit with affirming lyrics about embracing and expressing your feelings. Add the fast-paced dance beat and you're dancing by yourself in your room before you know it.
Listening to Lizzo is a bit like a possession. For two minutes and 24 seconds, I am taken over by the spirit of a strong woman who has fought to achieve her goals plus some. This Lizzo/me merger doesn't care that their flatmate is being passive aggressive, or that they haven't quite mastered their new job. They don't get hung up on things they can't control, and they definitely don't panic about going to parties.
Lemon Twigs - These Words
Released on the album Do Hollywood in October 2016, the Lemon Twigs debut album. The creation of the teenage D’Addario brothers, who were just 17 and 15 when it was recorded. Read more...
Released on the album Do Hollywood in October 2016, the Lemon Twigs debut album. The creation of the teenage D’Addario brothers, who were just 17 and 15 when it was recorded.
Influences from the past of classic pop and rock run strongly through this song and all their music, but it’s not a pastiche, the inspiration is obvious but the execution is unique and creative. Possibly being so young and unhindered by any thoughts of what they should be doing, they’ve entirely indulged themselves, throwing whatever sounded right into a richly textured matrix. It has quirky abrupt changes of key and pace and surprising little songwriting twists that wouldn’t be allowed on any grownup record. Like a Monty Python sketch, where they’ve suddenly thought, “OK, this is getting boring now, let’s just stop here and do something completely different.” they transition swiftly and skillfully between radically different sections. It’s all done with such skill and poise that it’s not at all jarring, just delightful. Surprise is a key ingredient in all great music and the D’Addario brothers supply it in abundance.
The musicianship is very impressive but never deployed for its own sake, always in the service of the songs. It’s the drumming especially that really makes this song (and all their music). Musical drumming, that accents the song and helps tell the story, was common in the glory days of the late 60’s, early 70’s but is now a sadly neglected art. The Lemon Twigs have resurrected it with a this-is-not-for-dancing flourish. Michael seems to be the drummer on These Words, but couldn’t find anything to confirm this. On the album the brothers alternate as songwriters, and this is one of Brian’s. His songs tend towards more keyboard led and considered, while Michael’s are more guitar rock-n-roll, but they compliment each other well and share a similar Lemon Twigs feel.
These Words is a lesson in first class songwriting as well as a showcase for Michael’s excellent drumming. I love the dynamics in this song, from the raucous intro into the dreamy laid back verse with just voice and solo piano and then on to the crescendo of the last chorus. Then there’s another Lemon Twigs moment during the middle eight, a crazy ragtime instrumental that morphs into a guitar solo. A great song, but the whole album is wonderful.
I was quite disaffected with music in the mid 10’s. A band I’d been in had fallen apart and there was nothing much about the current music scene that attracted me. Instead I’d gone back in time to find inspiration in the late 60’s and early 70’s: Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren, and the giants of British prog. But just rehashing the past seemed pointless, and there was little in the modern ‘prog’ scene that appealed to me. It all takes itself far too seriously. Listening to the Lemon Twigs record was like flicking a creative switch. They showed how a young band could take those influences and make something new, fresh, and exciting. It's no exaggeration to say that we're hugely influenced by this record in Spidercat, even if our output is very different.
Badger Brewington, singer, bass, and keyboard player with Spidercat.
Roxy Music - Avalon
In the late 1990s, living in a town I’d outgrown, stuck in a job I’d come to hate, I started to suffer from insomnia and stress headaches that I couldn’t shift. Read more...
In the late 1990s, living in a town I’d outgrown, stuck in a job I’d come to hate, I started to suffer from insomnia and stress headaches that I couldn’t shift. Relaxation techniques and medication made no difference. Then, one long sleepless night, I dug out a copy of a Roxy Music album, Avalon. It had once been a favourite of my father’s, and I had half-memories of some of the songs, but listening to it that night brought back that sense of being small, and protected, and free of fear.
Avalon – the title track in particular – is so calming, so gentle. It has never failed to stop my brain from churning. The evocation of an old Arthurian legend, mixed with smooth ‘80s sounds, myth and memory and melancholy all rolled into one, is perfect for finding peace from the world for a little while. It’s been helping me to do exactly that for decades, in all the places I've lived, and I’m grateful for it.
By Aliya Whiteley, author
Radiohead: Paranoid Android
I spent the 1990s making one bad decision after another. Read more...
I spent the 1990s making one bad decision after another. By 1997 I found myself doing a job I didn’t enjoy and wasn’t particularly good at (despite having studied to do it for years), mired in frankly perplexing relationships and living in a small, dilapidated cottage down a muddy track just outside a nondescript town in central England. To cap it all, the landlord’s dog woke me up every morning with its incessant yapping.
I didn’t know what I wanted back then, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t found it.
The only thing that made sense at the time – aside from beer of course – was music. By that point Britpop was waning and the better acts that emerged from that scene were moving onto more heavyweight themes and musical styles. I’d been a fan of Radiohead from the outset and was lucky enough to see them play the Oxford Apollo with fellow Oxford bands the Candyskins and Supergrass early in 1995 – probably the last time they were little-known enough to play a venue that small.
When OK Computer came out, it felt like the culmination of the direction they’d been travelling in through their previous albums. Paranoid Android hooked me from the first line (‘Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest’), which seemed to reflect my general outlook. Its contrasting sections, psychotic-sounding vocals (‘off with his head, man, off with his head’) and alternately frenzied and soothing guitar styles were the perfect accompaniment to my frazzled and confused mental state at the time. The reference to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker books, in the form of Marvin the Paranoid Android, was another plus. The song seemed to make most sense in the car. I’d drive off aimlessly, put OK Computer on repeat, wonder what the hell I should be doing with my life, and return hours later none the wiser but somewhat consoled.
Matter eventually improved. Not sure that Radiohead had much to do with it, but they were a cornerstone of my personal soundtrack of that era.
If you’re a songwriting nerd, it’s worth checking out Rick Beato’s brilliant deconstruction of the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpNFcfPQcYQ
"Sundrenched World" by Joshua Radin
While the song is very good, it may not be his best nor my favorite Radin track necessarily, but the song is very meaningful to me. Read more...
While the song is very good, it may not be his best nor my favorite Radin track necessarily, but the song is very meaningful to me. I discovered Josh's music during a very precarious time in my life. My marriage was falling apart and as a result, I had come to rely on music for solace and coping more than I had in a very long time--almost 10 years. Up to that point I had all but abandoned music as a creative expression for a number of reasons--none of them good. But as one part of my life was dying, another was being reborn.
"Sundrenched World" is the lead off track on Radin's "We Were Here" album. I would put it on and enter a new world of escape and possibility while my real world was crumbling around me. I realized there was an entire universe in three chords, a good melody, and a few choice lines of sung poetry. I was, and still am, mesmerized by the simple beauty of this song––the spare acoustic instrumentation, the whispery intimate vocal delivery, the heartbreaking harmonies, and the gorgeous string arrangement. The lyrics are so poignant and well crafted. All of it just rips me in half.
Hiatus notwithstanding, I had been playing music since I was a teenager and continued to play all the way through college. So you'd think I would have known what good songwriting was, but the fact is, I didn't. I was ignorant. I had no idea what it was really all about until I heard this song. And that's where it all started again for me. I became doggedly obsessed with being a songwriter and I haven't stopped since.
There are certainly more legendary names to turn to as songwriting mentors and Radin may never enter the pantheon of "the greats," but in my mind that's not what really matters. It's all about what hits you where you live at a certain moment in time and how you hold onto it from that point on.
Guy Grogan: Singer-Songwiter, Multi-Instrumentalist
All the Best by John Prine
I was 20 or 21 the first time I saw John Prine live in concert. I hitch-hiked 2700 km to see him play at the Ottawa Folk Festival on his first tour after having won a battle with cancer. Read more...
I was 20 or 21 the first time I saw John Prine live in concert. I hitch-hiked 2700 km to see him play at the Ottawa Folk Festival on his first tour after having won a battle with cancer. At that concert, he announced that his ex-wife was getting remarried and he was sending the song All The Best out to her.It was a little grim. A short couple of years later I was 24 years old and separating from my first husband. It was...a dark time.
John Prine went through two divorces, and wrote a number of deeply relatable songs on the subject. His ability to convey everything a person feels in just a couple words never ceases to amaze me. During that time of my life, I spent a lot of evenings sitting on my big empty queen sized bed, with my guitar and my stereo, listening to, and playing the songs of John Prine. Bruised Orange, Far From Me, Sour Grapes, Blue Umbrella, Speed of the Sound of Loneliness! So many great stab you in the gut break up songs, but All the Best in particular was one I played over and over and over. The feelings of emptiness in the verses, the lines about people just growing apart and love ending, and the very very subtle f-you in the ending chorus line of 'I guess I wish you all the best' just summed up everything I felt to a T.
There is a deep comfort to be found in someone else expressing similar emotions in song, and that is why John Prine is responsible for an awful lot of the songs that saved my life.
Kyla Tilley: Singer-Songwriter, Guitar Player
Black Sabbath - Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
The song and the album with the same name was the main reason for me wanting to pick up an instrument and start learning. Read more...
The song and the album with the same name was the main reason for me wanting to pick up an instrument and start learning. I was around 13 at the time and began with a cheap acoustic guitar, but soon found out that I was more interested in playing the drums and consequently started taking lessons.
There’s something about the sound, performances and writing on this album that really sets it apart. It’s heavy and heart-warming as well as sad and happy at the same time. There’s a width to the writing that wasn’t present on their first three albums and an experimental attitude I find compelling. Even though the overall sound is kind of lo-fi by today’s standards it is also part of the album’s appeal.
I still consider Bill Ward one of the most important influences on my drumming and Black Sabbath’s albums from the 70s an equally important source of inspiration for the writing I do. When it comes to engineering and mixing, I have my ears set as wide as possible but have always considered the honesty of their records and their willingness to experiment an important part of making a good sounding and interesting recording.
Niklas Finnas: Audio Engineer, Drummer and Drum Teacher
Devin Townsend - Deadhead
2010 was the worst year of my life. Read more...
2010 was the worst year of my life. That summer I attended Tuska Open Air metal festival with my dear friends. They were excited about Devin Townsend's first show in Finland. Devin who? thought I. In the middle of the sunniest afternoon the crowd got wild singing along to every song. The concert was filled with joy, happiness and humour alongside great music and musicianship. For the duration of the concert my mind was clear and sun shone to my heart. And the most calming song was Deadhead.
Deadhead is a perfect description of love. Beautiful and harsh at the same time. Devin's lyrics and singing style show different sides of that strong emotion. So strong that your heart feels like bursting.
This eight minute song consists of only a few riffs and three chords that are repeated hypnotically. The slow pounding beat drives your body like a strong heart beat of a person madly in love. Devin's signature "Wall of Sound" makes you feel like you are listening to the music at a huge stadium. Heavy and light at the same time.
Anna Ilveskoski - singer, vocal coach
George Harrison - Give Me Love
One of George Harrison’s jewels, ‘Give Me Love’ gave me breathing space Read more...
One of George Harrison’s jewels, ‘Give Me Love’ gave me breathing space on the occasions when my particular load felt unbearably heavy, trudging uphill to chaos in the office, in Hong Kong’s 30 degree heat with over 90% humidity at 7.30 in the morning. Harrison’s heartfelt performance, his plaintive lyrics beautifully balanced by an uplifting accompaniment with that joyful slide guitar solo, helped me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that all things must indeed pass.
Robert Severin, songwriter, singer, guitarist