On Art and the Act of Remembering

I write like a maniac because I’m terrified that I’ll forget something. I don’t always trust my eyes – don’t trust the memories of my favourite band on stage in front of me or the smile that might have conveyed more than a smile usually does or the way the rooflines in Paris jutted into the path of the lavender sunset. There is so much more to every moment than what I can see with these rose-tinted glasses I seem to wear so permanently. There are feelings and thoughts and sensations, and I want to remember them. I want to remember the longing for something that was never quite there but that could have been, the feeling of my favourite sweater enveloping my neck while I drank coffee in a new cafe, the rain that seems to pool on my forehead and in the ends of my curls when I’m too stubborn to pull out an umbrella. Writing is a way to capture all the details and nuances, and that’s why I do it so feverishly.

I texted Laura yesterday to say that Leeds feels so far away that it seems like we were never even there. It’s only been a month since we returned to Canada, and yet I can already feel the fear of losing all those memories – the memories of meditating in the park at golden hour, of interrupting study sessions to talk endlessly about love, of watching Call Me By Your Name at Hyde Park Picture House and walking through the tiled arcades and having Indian food and mango mojitos at Bundobust.

The memories aren’t slipping yet, but they’re already going fuzzy around the edges. I still remember what I wore on my first full day in the city and I still remember buying a 99 from an ice cream truck on a warm day in April and I still remember listening to jazz music and talking about how badly I want to learn to play bass and I still remember all the nights I returned to my dorm room thinking that life couldn’t get any better. But I don’t remember the pub quiz questions or the things I said when I wanted to say something else entirely or the type of plant I had on my desk that I had affectionately named Patti. Maybe I’m remembering the important things. The people and the freedom and the days when my heart was on fire. But I wish I could remember it all. And that’s why I write.

There’s a track on Florence + the Machine’s new album called “South London Forever.” The entire album is amazing, filled with chants of hold to each other and reminders that it’s such a wonderful thing to love and odes to Patti Smith and New York City and drinking too much coffee. But that track is the one that makes me think of England and of Leeds. How she speaks so lovingly of her days with the people she cared for, how the whole thing seems dreamlike and imagined, how ephemeral it is when she recalls the details. It’s a song that makes me want to write.

I have always felt like Florence’s music aligns perfectly with my own existence. “Shake It Out” has carried me through nearly seven years of heaviness that has always led to clearings of fresh air. “Third Eye” was released when all I really needed to hear was that I’m deserving of all the things I wish for others. And now there’s this record, and there’s Florence creating a monument out of the years that have passed, and there’s me, trying with all my might to do the same for Leeds.

It’s not that I expect everything to dissolve. It’s not that my memory is so bad that I’m certain that it will all slip away before the year is out. It’s that I want a physical reminder. Some sort of proof that it wasn’t all imagined, that it happened and it was real and all the things I remember matter now and mattered then and will matter in the future.

Florence is the guide. So is Patti Smith. So are Frida and Basquiat and Joseph Beuys and Georgia O’Keeffe. So is Robert Mapplethorpe. So are Richard Hell and Sam Shepard and Tom Verlaine. So is Donna Tartt. So are Rimbaud and Bukowski. Art may be about self-expression, but for me it has always been about remembering, about leaving something behind when we go, and all of these minds do it so beautifully.

I love the way Patti remembers, how she writes in Just Kids of sacred alignment, of the fact that she and Robert were both born on Mondays, of Robert’s first solo show landing on January 6th, the birthday of Joan of Arc. I love the way Joseph Beuys remembers, how his stories seem fantastical but for him were the truest of truths. I love the way Rimbaud remembers, how he exclaims in Evening Prayer that “from time to time my heart is like some oak whose blood runs golden where a branch is torn.”

I love how Donna Tartt remembers. How her books feel like monuments to time past, to art and history and antiquity. I love how Sam Shepard remembers, and I like thinking about the half-moon he had tattooed on the web between his thumb and forefinger, a nod to the weeks he spent in love with Patti Smith. I love how Robert Mapplethorpe remembers, how the visions inside his head became portraits and photographs that we can still hold in our hands even so many years after he left us.

It comes down to this: I consume art so I can be part of the lives of others. I consume art so I can understand what they’ve seen and how they’ve felt, the places they’ve been and the faces they’ve fallen in love with. I consume art because I see myself in the artists I admire, and it makes me believe that I can follow them.

Art is a document. It puts me in contact with the creators. It makes me want to live a full life, a rich life, a life that’s bursting at the seams, so that sixty years from now I’ll have hundreds of journals and poems and paintings and photographs that show the world how much I loved being alive. Art makes breathing something beautiful. Art makes listening to my favourite song something beautiful. Art makes sadness and anger and uncertainty beautiful.

I know the memories will always live in my mind and my heart, no matter how faint they may become. But the act of creating something out of those memories makes them all feel sharper. Makes them feel real and tangible. It turns thoughts of love into an envelope of warmth. It turns fleeting glances into eyes that will stay on mine for years and years. It turns people into statues and sunsets into paintings and simple sentences into notebooks full of poetry. Art makes everything stay. It makes me believe I can pile my life up and carry it around with me, every moment a mark on my skin that I can read and sing along to and stare at. That’s why I write. That’s why I use art to remember.

At the end of it all, I think every one of us wants to leave something behind. I’d love to fade away and know that there are thousands of people who have my poetry or my memoir on their bookshelves. I’d love to know that they underlined my words, that what I’ve written spoke to them, that they got my sentences tattooed on their arms or scoured bookstores for a first edition of the first anthology I ever released. I’d love to be someone’s Patti Smith or Florence Welch or Frida Kahlo. Yes, I’m making my art for me. But I’m also making my art for the world. And when I use my art to remember, there are so many more chances for me to do exactly that. To love the world in the best way I know how, just like all the others who came before me.

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6/12: A June Playlist

June always feels like a new beginning. One prefaced by an ending, often a large one: the last day of school before summer, the bell ringing shrilly through the halls of an elementary school as children rush out into the open, feeling freedom on their fingertips. A high school graduation, students lining up in rows, black robes swishing as they walk swiftly into their new endeavours, leaving behind the stale air that comes with false identities and forced cliques. June ushers in freckles and beach days, teaspoons of sugar poured over freshly cut strawberries, damp hair and campfires. It is made for shy smiles and pink sunsets and it makes the world feel gilded and glorious.

This year, my June was split in two. I rounded out my time in Leeds, cramming two weeks with art exhibitions and concerts and coffee shops and brunch dates. I flew home, binge-watching nearly the entire second season of Queer Eye while I pushed through an eight-hour flight. Back in Canada, I moved my bedroom around until it felt perfect, covered my walls with prints of Patti Smith and photos of Mick Jagger, started an internship at a music magazine, and attempted to reconcile my new life and my old life and the life I had in England. There was one breakdown; a good cry in the kitchen while I melodramatically proclaimed that I have no idea what I’m doing and that I’ll never be a writer and that nobody will ever want to read my poetry or ask me to sign a book. There has been a lot of baking and catching up on Fixer Upper and teaching myself how to write longer prose instead of sticking myself into a box that only includes blogposts and poems. Things have felt heavy, but they have also felt free, and a month that holds that kind of duality is not easily forgotten.

As per usual, the month’s playlist is a hodgepodge. It feels appropriate this time around, a digital representation of the mismatched cities and the polarizing emotions and the tension between new and old. I like watching how the output of my existence bends and curves to match the inside of my mind, reflecting joy and confusion and obsession and inspiration right back to me. That’s what the act of making a playlist is, and this form of documenting who I am and how I’m growing will never get old.

At the beginning of June, I watched Patti Smith play to masses of golden bodies at Victoria Park in London. Near the end she played ‘Pissing in a River’ before moving swiftly into ‘Gloria,’ and the latter has stuck out in my mind ever since. It was the first addition to the playlist, and one that snowballed into half a dozen songs pulled out of the dregs of history. These tracks –  the ones that are decades-old – are my present, my new discoveries, but for so many others they are the past, the remnants of teenage antics and endless dreams of a better future, and I like how it feels to toe the line between the history that has already been written and the history we’re shaping at this very moment.

Two weeks later, on my first day back in Toronto, a troop of us waltzed into the Air Canada Centre to see Harry Styles. My smile was massive and never seemed to falter. Abby and I carried our hand-painted flag through the crowd, twirling the pink fabric until it settled on our backs. I wore a suit, the lapels adorned with enamel pins of Basquiat and Patti Smith, and I will likely never feel cooler. I added ‘Kiwi’ to the playlist a few days in advance, listening to it on repeat to prepare myself for the last song of the encore and the inevitable hysteria unleashed by a boy who knows exactly how to get an arena of twenty-thousand people to dance and sing for him.

‘Michelle’ by The Beatles was added after it soundtracked a dreamy Gucci tailoring campaign, the video featuring Harry Styles and a chicken in a chip shop, an image that I never knew I needed in my life. ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ was a favourite in Leeds, one played in cafes and vintage clothing shops, a track that I’ve become borderline addicted to and that I often struggle to switch off. ‘Jackson’ by Johnny and June Cash is one of my all-time favourites, and something about the humidity and the unrelenting sun makes me want to sing an endless rhythm of We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.

‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ by Peter, Paul, and Mary was an accidental cliché, added a week before I left England. I saw the track mentioned online and was immediately reminded of how much I adore it, of how beautiful the lyrics are, of how I’d like to wrap myself up in the promises uttered throughout the song. ‘La vie en rose’ is a track I come back to over and over again, a song that makes me feel fancy and dramatic, one that’s perfect for summer nights when the sky seems to blush in the presence of the world. ‘Love the One You’re With’ by Crosby, Stills & Nash is on there simply because it makes me feel good, and when it comes to music, that is often enough.

There are new discoveries, too. ‘Oom Sha La La’ by Hayley Heynderickx was playing in & Other Stories while I tried on a baby blue dress that I really wish I hadn’t left in the shop. ‘Wandering Romance’ by Jorja Smith is sultry and effortless, and I love how it feels against my skin. ‘Babe’ by Sugarland and Taylor Swift and ‘Butterflies’ by Kacey Musgraves are on there because summer makes me believe that I actually like country music, a sentiment that usually wears off by the time September comes around. Regardless, I like the twang and the over-emotion and I’m happy to indulge myself for a month or two.

The final entry is perhaps the most important one. At the end of the month, Florence + the Machine released their fourth album. I listened to it on the train to Toronto, curled up in a window seat, wearing a yellow shirt that matched the sun. ‘South London Forever’ made my heart race and my mind start moving in figure-eights as I made desperate attempts to hang onto every note, every word, every chord. The song moves like magic. The best lyrics – But did I dream too big? Do I have to let it go? and Everything I ever did was just another way to scream your name – seem to be pulled out of thin air. It is a song that has already nestled itself inside my heart, and one that I’ll pull out a year or two from now when I’ve moved myself back to London and the city where my soul feels like an entity that hangs glittery and unmissable above my head.

June felt hazy and clear at once. The warm days make life feel like it’s digging itself under my skin, and at night the cool air and cloudless skies allow me to open my lungs and take a deep breath as I learn how to renew myself with each sunset. The things that are important – my writing, my relationships – are growing and expanding, thickening to mimic the lush greenery that shades the world and makes me feel safe. When I wake I make a conscious decision to lead with love, to use the hours ahead of me meaningfully. This growth isn’t easy. It stops and starts and stutters. But the songs that play through my mind and across my chest are companions, blips on the radar of someone else’s years of transformation, and I’m glad I get to weave them so tightly into the fabric of my own learning.

Gig Review: Patti Smith and Her Band at Victoria Park

I never actually expected to see Patti Smith live, let alone see her live twice in the span of nine months. I also didn’t expect that one of those shows would be in New York City and the other in London. Life has a funny way of realizing dreams that you didn’t even know existed, and it’s a wonderful feeling to allow those unexpected visions to wash over your body like slow-rolling waves. To stand in awe, watching someone you adore go through the motions that made you want to follow them. To immerse yourself in a crowd, faces lit up and hearts full of love, and to feel the unity that only comes along with collective experience. All of those boxes got ticked when I saw Patti at Victoria Park on Sunday night, and I’m planning on holding onto every one of those feelings as long as I possibly can.

I bought tickets to this show as soon as it got announced. I was on the credit card information page before I could even fathom what my hands were doing, my heart moving my limbs rather than my head. Back then it felt ages away, and I was in a state of both shock and denial when I boarded the coach to London on Sunday morning. It was only once I stepped onto the festival grounds that reality began to settle in, my body ignited with electricity and anticipation as I weaved my way into the crowd. And then she was in front of us and there were tears in my eyes and my voice left my throat and all I could do was watch while the woman on stage somehow managed to change me all over again.

As if the sheer fact of seeing Patti Smith wasn’t enough to kill me, she started off her set with a reading of “Footnote to Howl” by Allan Ginsberg. The incessant repetition of Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! felt like a recognition of the holiest parts of every member of the audience and of Patti herself as she stood there channeling Ginsberg’s words, reminding us all that The world is holy! The soul is holy! Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! I lost my breath for a little while, my mouth hanging open as I took in the scene before me: Patti’s grey hair hanging over her shoulders like a cloak, her brown boots pressed into the stage, her hands holding open a clipboard, a sticker pressed onto the back that read “Howl if you love City Lights Books.” She is as devoted to those who guide her soul as I am devoted to her, and all of that seemed to be boiled down into this singular moment at the beginning of the concert.

After the poem, the band plowed into ‘People Have the Power,’ a track that is decades old but doesn’t show any signs of losing its relevance. I made desperate attempts to sing along, but all I could really do was cry, and I eventually resorted to watching Patti do what she does best, my eyes swimming with tears and my face certainly displaying a rather insane array of emotions.  I managed to scramble out a few lines of the chorus, every member of the crowd standing with their hands in the air and their voices screaming words of revolution, and I have never felt anything more whole or unified.

‘Summer Cannibals’ followed, and it felt heavy and perfect. Patti hangs onto a golden fountain of youth, all her anger and passion and emotion coming out when she performs, and it was incredible to watch. She then played ‘Citizen Ship,’ another song that remains politically-charged and remarkably important, and the shift in energy was palpable as we all listened to her words, facing the truth of the lyrics and spinning the track into a call to action.

The force of her message didn’t stop there. The entire performance was laced with meaning, and she was preaching to the choir as she spoke and sang to the crowd. Her cover of ‘Mind Games’ by John Lennon was followed by simple words urging us to “make love, not war.” All our voices seemed to rise a little while we chanted Love is the answer and you know that for sure, every member of the crowd riding the high of kindred spirits and messages of love and peace and community. She played ‘Beds Are Burning’ by Midnight Oil, too, and the takeaway was always the same – that we can’t remain stagnant anymore, can’t continue to stand by while the Earth goes up in flames, can’t keep our voices quiet when we all have things that need to be heard.

The set was rounded out with a trifecta of tracks that will likely never come close to being topped. My jaw dropped when the first chords of ‘Pissing in a River’ wafted over the speakers, and I lost myself in the song as I added my voice to the air above Victoria Park, screaming an endless mantra of Come back, come take me back along with the rest of the crowd. She then moved into ‘Land’ and ‘Gloria,’ and my world shrank to that single moment as London was bathed in golden hour light and Patti played my favourite song and I got to sing along. The band left the stage after a final admission of Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine, and I stood in place for a moment before turning and making my way out of the festival, another shred of my heart left suspended above Patti’s body.

I am left in constant awe of the effect that Patti Smith has on me. The way she speaks up, pulling words out of her mouth that allow the followers at her feet to find freedom and creativity and light. Her movement on stage, how she dances just to feel something, her infectious gestures thrumming through the crowd as we all begin to mirror her. Her mistakes and fumbles and the unapologetic nature with which she backs up and does it all over again just because she can. She holds nothing back. When she’s there, she’s all there – her body and her soul and her emotions and light and love. And it’s all endless, stretching on into the future and never seeming to disappear.

Patti shows up, for herself and for the world. And people come out in droves for her, following the trail of light she leaves across the globe. She is purposeful and she creates meaning and she calls, loudly, for the members of every crowd to be and do the same. She wants to lift people up, and she does, she always does. Days later, I still feel the glow of her energy around me, but I feel my glow, too, and I’m sure I’ll feel that for weeks to come. She exists in me just as I exist in her, and I will always be grateful that I get to experience that in real life, throwing my entire being into a physical connection with a woman whose footsteps I will follow until they disappear.

Change is Good and Expectations Are Ridiculous (AKA Things I’ve Learned from the New Arctic Monkeys Record)

Arctic Monkeys were the first band I listened to with fervour. I was thirteen or fourteen, desperate for something other than what was being played on Top 40 radio, and they were the answer. I scrawled their lyrics in the margins of my school notebooks, I bought their records as soon as I got a turntable, and I made the pilgrimage from Stouffville to Toronto every time they graced the cover of Q or NME, knowing I’d only be able to find the magazines at the international newsstands downtown. Speaking about The Strokes, Alex Turner once said “there is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15 years old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception of things,” and Arctic Monkeys were that band for me. They’re no longer my favourite group, but they still have a grasp on my heart that I can’t seem to squirm my way out of.

We haven’t had a new Arctic Monkeys record in five years. There was a lot riding on Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino from the very second it was announced. It felt like the whole world had high hopes, all of us waiting for them to be met. When it was finally released on Friday, a lot of people were let down by the brooding, sometimes confusing, piano-driven tracks. I could have easily fallen into that camp, but I was obsessed with it from the first listen. It’s not my favourite Arctic Monkeys album, but I still think it’s genius.

I went into Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino with no expectations. Five years of waiting for new music helps dissolve the remnants of the previous album, and more than anything I was just excited by the prospect of having a new record to fill my days and add to my playlists. The record is unexpected, and my lack of personal expectations worked wonders in helping me embrace that. I was hooked straight away, and I haven’t stopped listening to it since.

Expectations are often the enemy of enjoyment. It’s difficult to adore something good when the picture you had painted of it in your head is the antithesis of the real thing. Going in with a blank slate means you can sink yourself into what’s right in front of you, instantly moving in close and reveling in all its intricacies and fluctuations. I like that I was able to do that with this record, because it resulted in an instant appreciation of the band’s progression. It’s obvious that they’ve changed, and I wanted to give them space to prove that they’re still as fantastic as they’ve always been – and they did exactly that.

It seems odd to me to expect a band to remain the same. Already, fans are bemoaning the fact that Tranquility Base doesn’t sound like AM and insisting that it’s nowhere near as good as Humbug. While I would have loved an album with roaring guitar riffs and heavy drum fills and sultry lyrics, we got something different. I’m happy with the intricate melodies, sprawling storylines, and romantic confessions woven throughout the new release. It’s different – really different – but I think that’s a good thing. The band are more than a decade into their career, and this is just another indication of how far they’ve come in terms of their artistry and craft.

Change isn’t something we can resist. It’s inevitable, as sure as taking a new breath in after exhaling the old one, and as certain as the tide ebbing and flowing in relation to the moon. I’ve learned this the hard way, having spent much of my life attempting to remain firmly within my comfort zone, my feet planted somewhere safe and familiar. Here’s the thing, though: nothing good comes from staying within the safe and familiar. Change is good. It brings us closer to who we want to be at any given moment. It helps us zero in on our dreams, rather than allowing them to stay fuzzy and unfocused in our peripheral vision. And, quite often, change brings us damn good art, whether it comes from ourselves or from others.

Change brought me Gabriel Bruce and his song ‘Come All Sufferers,’ an ode to pain and hurt and a reminder that there’s always time for healing, a track and an artist that I still listen to frequently. Change brought me stacks and stacks of notebooks, each one filled more rapidly than its predecessor as I scrambled to turn my thoughts into poetry, or at least into coherent sentences. Change taught me how to find art in my breath and my body, using my limbs to paint invisible smudges across walls as I move into the next pose of my yoga practice or remaining as steady and beautiful as a sculpture while I sit quietly in meditation. And now, change has brought me another fantastic Arctic Monkeys record. Change catapults us into the space we need to be in, and in that space, it’s much easier to find the lectures and the lyrics and the brushstrokes we need. It’s better to be somewhere new and different, surrounded by new and different things, than to live our lives in a constant state of futile resistance.

Arctic Monkeys seem to have embraced change with all they’ve got. Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino isn’t something that could have been made in 2006, when they released Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. It’s not full of songs that belong on Suck It and See or lyrics that would have been better suited to Favourite Worst Nightmare. It’s its own entity, an album that tells a story and transports the listener to a certain time and place. ‘Four Out of Five’ is the jam we all needed, ‘She Looks Like Fun’ is intense and slinky, ‘The Ultracheese’ is romantic and heart wrenching, and the title track sounds like it came from another world. The whole thing feels forward-thinking and futuristic, as if the band is ten steps ahead of the rest of us.

I like that Arctic Monkeys broke free of all preconceived notions, because it shows how committed they are to their own agenda. I like that the record is unexpected, because it breathes fresh air into a group that has been lauded over and over again for being the saviours of British rock n’ roll. I like that it doesn’t often make sense, because it means I find something new every single time I listen to it. This doesn’t feel like an album built to please, but an album meant to propel them forward. By the next record, I’m sure they’ll have changed all over again, and I like the idea that they’re evolving as often and as radically as they want to. It’s nice to watch bands experiment and grow, and I think Arctic Monkeys do that really well.

Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is a lesson in experimentation, an ode to fantasy, and a vivid, psychedelic dream, all wrapped up in a bow and called an album. It’s about the music, but it’s also about so much more than that. It’s about a band proving that change is necessary, about learning to loosen one’s grip on a particular outcome, and about accepting – and maybe, just maybe finding a way to love – what’s right in front of you. Sometimes the things we can learn from an album transcend the vessel they’re presented in, and Arctic Monkeys seem to have gotten really good at that.

4/12: An April Playlist

April was a month that felt more like a dream than like real life. The first couple weeks were spent in Barcelona and Paris and London, drinking copious amounts of coffee and waltzing through an endless string of museums and carrying my film camera and a notebook and a novel with me everywhere I went. I spent three hours on the beach in Barcelona, writing poetry and chasing the tide with my feet. Abby and I ate croissants and crepes and raspberry tarts on the side of the Seine at golden hour. I saw Monet’s Nymphéas at the Musée de l’Orangerie. I crossed Abbey Road and I finally saw The Vaccines in concert and I went back to the Tate Modern just because I could feel it calling me.

The second half of the month saw me return to Leeds after nearly a month away, and although I loved the time I spent travelling, I could not have been happier. We were graced with a few moments of summer, and that meant I spent days sitting in Hyde Park with my friends, meditating in the sun and eating full boxes of Fab lollies and drinking gin and tonics. I experienced a lot of intense growth and change, spurred on by the realization that being vulnerable and taking risks and saying what I mean is important and worthwhile. I found new writing inspiration and I got back to a frequent yoga practice and I continued covering my dorm room walls with quotes and notes to myself. And, of course, I listened to a lot of music, which is all collected here.

This month’s playlist is occupied mostly by The Vaccines, partly because I can’t stop thinking about how wonderful their concert at Alexandra Palace was, and partly because Combat Sports was released at the end of March and I refuse to stop listening to it. ‘Out on the Street’ is my favourite track on the album, its unrelenting melody and spiteful lyrics – Who put bars across your window of opportunity? – making it catchy and endlessly addictive. ‘I Can’t Quit’ is on here too, every listen bringing me back to the gig and the never-ending cascade of gold confetti that landed across the crowd while the band played it. I also added ‘Tiger Blood,’ because it’s an old favourite, and I always get a rush when I hear it. I like its anger and distaste and it reminds me to embrace the sides of me that feel deeply and loudly.

A lot of the other tracks on the playlist are influenced by The Vaccines, even if they’re not the ones who made the song. They walked onstage to ‘Waterloo’ by ABBA, and I’ve been starting each morning since then by playing it loudly while I attempt to get myself together. One of their opening acts, whenyoung, covered ‘Dreams’ by The Cranberries, and it reminded me how much I like that track. Justin and Freddie played Kendrick Lamar on a BBC Radio takeover, and it took me back to last summer and the days I spent listening to ‘LOVE.’ on repeat, so that got added, too.

Aside from The Vaccines, April also brought incredible new songs by I lot of bands I really love. Florence + the Machine returned with ‘Sky Full of Song,’ a track as magical and heartfelt as everything else she’s released. Her songs always seem to come at the perfect time, and I connected deeply to the lyrics as soon as I heard it. I managed to grab a copy of the limited edition 45 on Record Store Day, and although I have to wait another six weeks to be reunited with my turntable, I cannot wait to hear it on wax. As if that wasn’t enough, she also covered ‘Tiny Dancer’ by Elton John, and it may just be the most beautiful cover I’ve ever heard, so that has been a staple as well.

This month’s playlist is made complete with ‘Wake Me’ by Bleachers, ‘Take it all’ by Iceage, and ‘You Don’t Walk Away From Love’ by Peace. Bleachers has always been on my radar, but it took this track to really pull me in. It sounds and feels like love, and I like how enveloping it is. Iceage always seem to push boundaries in their music, and ‘Take it all’ is no exception. The song is dark and foreboding, an ode to destruction and surrender. Finally, Peace’s most recent single brings a shot of joy and light with a track that I can’t help but dance to.

The past month is not something that I’m going to forget anytime soon. I am hyperaware of the fact that my time in Leeds is slowly but surely coming to an end, and that means I’m spending every single day trying to create meaning and memories that I can hold onto for as long as possible. These songs are the soundtrack to all of that, and their melodies will forever be intertwined with coffee dates and plane rides and long conversations. I’ll be listening to them for years and years, every note and lyric bringing be back to days that felt like dreams.

Paint Sounds: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

The first encounter I had with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe was nearly five years ago. I was going through an intense stage of reading every music-related memoir I could get my hands on, and that meant spending a lot of time wandering the aisles of the entertainment section in any given bookstore. I’d gone through How Music Works by David Byrne and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes and 1963: The Year of the Revolution by Ariel Leve and Robin Morgan, but it was Patti and Robert’s shining faces on the cover of Just Kids that changed it all. I felt their eyes pierce my soul from their place on a shelf above my head, and I grasped the book and bought it without giving it a second thought. Something about them spoke to me, and it only took a few pages for my life to become intertwined with theirs. I’ve spent the subsequent years allowing their legacies and words and works to guide me, and they’ve never led me astray.

When I think of Patti and Robert, I see the two of them in their Brooklyn apartment, spending their nights listening to record after record, sharing their art supplies and their hearts and their work. I see them worming their way into the back room of Max’s Kansas City, fueled only by Robert’s intense desire to be accepted into Andy Warhol’s circle. I see them taking photographs with Sandy Daley in the Chelsea Hotel. I see them threading skull-shaped beads onto leather cord and exchanging the jewelry as if the necklaces were a physical representation of their connection – ‘til death do us part. I see their bodies connected by millions of thin red threads that could never be cut in two, the pair of them destined to stay with one another in life and in whatever they believed would come after. I see their desire to bare their souls to each other and to the world. I see the safe haven they created out of creativity and passion and emotion. I see their dreams as vividly as I see my own.

In many ways, it’s through Patti and Robert that I see my past and present and future. Their need to create eclipsed everything that hurt or threatened to tear them away from what mattered. They were persistent and determined. They followed their deepest urges and they spoke their own truths. They pushed through what held them back, and they released the chains on their ankles so they could dance with the visions they saw behind their eyes. They were messy and angry but they were also full of love and adoration for one another and for themselves and for the world. It is because of them that I feel like I can do the same, no matter how small my steps are or how quiet my voice is or how many steps there are left to take.

These are two people that I carry with me wherever I go. They are the background on my phone and the voices in my head and they often feel like my breath and my blood and my bones. I am always searching for ways to bring them closer to me, and the easiest way to do that is through their art. They documented their relationship and their lives in a way that allows me to sink closer to the core of their existence and to pull out the things I need to fill my soul. I’m in the midst of an intense period of revisiting their works and incorporating their whispers into my life, and I can’t help but want to share them with everyone around me. This time I’m doing it with music, too.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1985 and ‘Seven Devils’ by Florence + the Machine  

robert devil self portrait

I think Robert’s self-portraits are the most direct route to his mind. They evolved immensely over his artistic career, moving from shy and bashful to full-on and unrelenting. This one references his Catholic upbringing and obsession with religious imagery, and the black and white only heightens the sense of darkness that brims beneath the surface. His stare is defiant and challenging, but you can’t help but want to know what his world is like. Florence + the Machine’s ‘Seven Devils’ is a direct line to Mapplethorpe’s own offering. Rather than rejecting hidden desires and heavy thoughts, the lyrics embraces their power and turns them to something beautiful. I often think that Robert did the same.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Tulips, 1986 and ‘Muzzle Blast’ by The Darcys

robert-mapplethorpe-tulips-photographs-silver-print

The floral portraits stand in stark contrast to Robert’s more brutal work, but they exhibit a mastery that could only come from his hands. They are delicate and balanced, but they speak volumes. The tulips seem to be holding themselves back, waiting for the perfect moment to fall apart, and yet they remain poised and beautiful. I chose ‘Muzzle Blast’ by The Darcys for the very first lyric – We were in bloom – as well as the fact that it exhibits a lot of the same qualities as Robert’s photo. It’s subtle yet weighty, it’s quietly powerful, and it moves perfectly within the realm of Robert’s artistic vision.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Polaroid of Patti Smith, 1973 and ‘Lightning Bolt’ by Jake Bugg  

patti lightning bolt

Two years ago I took this photo into a tattoo parlour and got the same lightning bolt tattooed on my own knee. It was a way to make physical my connection to Patti, and to intensify my connection to Robert through her. The picture is beautiful, a split-second representation of their love and their art and the life they created together. Patti holds herself still, but her eyes give away the need she has to act and to set herself free. Jake Bugg’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ is an obvious choice, but I also like that the lyrics explore the idea of allowing things to fall together, of taking chances, of trying your luck. Both Patti and Robert played with fate, and and this track embodies that.

Patti Smith, Frida Kahlo’s Bed, 2012 and ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths

patti smith frida

Patti’s affinity for Frida Kahlo is just another reason why I feel so drawn to her. I’ve been dying to visit Kahlo’s house in Mexico City for ages, and I like that I’ll be following in Patti’s footsteps when I finally end up there. Her photographs celebrate the mundane and the everyday, highlighting the magic of a place where an artist spends most of her time or the monumentality of being in a space that was once occupied by someone you admire. ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths is haunting and sad, but I think that embodies Frida’s ethos as well as Patti’s life. There is beauty even in the darkest feelings, and I like the artists that attempt to chase that.

Patti Smith, Hermann Hesse’s Typewriter, 2003 and ‘Oxford Comma’ by Vampire Weekend

patti smith typewriter

Not long ago I was deeply moved after reading Hesse’s Siddhartha, and finding this image felt like another tiny way to intertwine myself with Patti. I like knowing that we read and see and chase the same things, and this only added another thing to the list. I am also desperately missing my own typewriter, which is sitting in Canada while I attempt to get the same magic out of a laptop in Leeds. Stumbling upon this photo instantly made my hands ache for the clack of the keys and the act of throwing all my digital technology to the side just to focus on the act of writing, and I am relishing in the feeling of being filled with desire, even if it’s a simple craving. ‘Oxford Comma’ is not necessarily an ode to the act of writing, but instead an unpacking of the English language, and I like that it holds the same curiosity as Patti does.

Patti Smith, Robert’s Slippers, 2002, and ‘Terrible Love’ by The National  

patti smith robert's slippers

This photo moves me in ways that I can’t always wrap my head around. Taken thirteen years after Robert’s death, the image fossilizes a love that endures even past the physical realm of existence. The slippers make me thing of the journeys they took together, of the discussions they had about the future, of the tensions between the two of them that still left room for love. In ‘Terrible Love,’ The National encapsulates the difficulties of love and devotion, while also reinforcing the need for partnership. Much of the song is punctuated by the lyric It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders, and that single line perfectly describes how difficult it must be for Patti to continue living on without her partner in crime and the man who helped her believe she could be an artist.

Patti and Robert gave the world to themselves instead of asking politely for it. They created their own reality instead of allowing their narratives to be inserted into a story they didn’t like. They found the best in each other, and they acknowledged that their best also included their struggles and fears and doubts. I like that I wear them across my heart. I like that I hold them up like a torch in the darkness. I like that I can’t shake their presence. They’re in my orbit and I’m in theirs, and the least I can do is honour them in every way possible.

Thirteen Steps to Finding the Right Words

There are certain things that define me as a writer. The inspiration, which I find in the colour of the sunset or a sentence picked out of a conversation or the face of a stranger I’ve passed on the street, but also comes from art and artists and the people who have done all of this before I was even brave enough to try. The motive, because writing is how I heal and how I make sense of the things in my head and how I slow my heart after something sets it racing. The writing itself, finding my voice and the right words and making something physical and inky and present out of feelings and observations that are ephemeral and often just out of reach.

The act of writing is what I wake up for and what I stand for and what I will choose over and over again, but it takes a certain form of synergy to make all the elements of my creative practice come together and form something useful. There are certain days when my body is set alight and I could scrawl something on every surface available, and there are others when it feels like death will come before I can manage to write a single string of words that makes any sort of sense.

When writing’s hard, I go back to all the things that remind me why I love it so much. I stop and think about why I spend so much time with a pen in my hand and my heart caught in my throat. I open Just Kids and I find my favourite passages, or I watch the monologue from Call Me By Your Name, or I read Bukowski or Rimbaud and I work on getting to the core of my feelings, on bringing them out in their rawest form.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that music is one of the things that makes me want to keep writing. I pick up on melodies that help me focus and chord progressions that draw the best words out of my skin. I listen to tracks on repeat because they carry some inexplicable trait that I want to find in my own art. Most importantly, though, I absorb every single word, and it’s the words that make me want to plow forward.

The most recent example of this happened a few days ago, when I put on Antisocialites by Alvvays as I was going through my nightly ritual of journaling and writing poetry and filling up my gratitude notebook. As I neared the end of the album, ‘Forget About Life’ turned into a magnetic force that drew me into its orbit, and I proceeded to listen to it on repeat for the next hour. It’s not a song that I always pay the most attention to, but it stood out at that particular moment because of its lyrics. The lines are simple, but their honesty shines through in a flash of blinding light. From When the failures of the past, they multiply to Do you want to forget about life with me tonight, inhaling this undrinkable wine, the words feel like real life and play out in a spectacular narrative, and that’s often what I’m trying to get at when it comes to my own writing.

There are lots of songs that make me feel like this. Songs with words that refuse to be shrouded by metaphors, finding beauty in being direct and truthful. Songs with lyrics that tell the most mundane of stories and yet still manage to make them sound like a fairy tale. Songs that capture emotion in physical form, turning love or sadness or defiance into neat sentences that fit inside a maze of notes and chords. These are the tracks that stick inside my heart, and the ones that I play over and over again when I need to get back to my own voice.

The songs I’ve gathered here are ones that make me believe in my writing all over again. The ones that make me strive to tell stories exactly as they happened. The ones that push me to take a feeling and lift it off my shoulders and quantify it so I can see it and unpack it and work through it. These are songs that make me feel deeply, that use words as weapons that scathe or as doves that soothe the wounds, that make me want to drown myself in poetry until I am unable to let in anything else. They weave words into electricity and passion, and they instil the same things in me.

I adore all of these tracks, and there is a long, extensive catalogue that I haven’t managed to list, but there are always certain ones that stick out. Florence Welch’s pleading, insistent voice on ‘Third Eye’ as she repeats over and over again: I’m the same I’m the same, I’m trying to change. Patti Smith interrupting a live set to spew real, raw poetry, yelling fiercely: I am an American artist and I have no guilt. The National singing about the safety and protection of love, and the comfort that comes with the words We’ll stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days.

There’s ‘Thirteen’ by Big Star, its simplicity making it feel like a real life conversation. There’s ‘Happy When It Rains’ by The Jesus and Mary Chain, the heart-wrenching admission of I would shed my skin for you. There’s ‘Lonely World’ by The Vaccines with its quiet, hesitant words of love. Every track is wildly different from the next, but they all put the words at the forefront, and they all remind me to do the same. That’s what I feel like I’m here for.

I don’t set out to write just like Patti Smith does, or to be as angst-ridden as The Vaccines or as wounded as MUNA. I want to write like me, even if that means gushing or spelling the same emotion out over and over until I get it write or stumbling over a single sentence until it’s perfect. These artists are models for me, a well of inspiration that I sometimes need to dive straight into. They’re not there so I can set my own feet inside their every footstep. They’re there to remind me why I do this, to heighten my feelings and mark certain moments with their sounds and highlight things that I might not be noticing. These artists are lighthouses, not guardrails. They illuminate what surrounds me, but they don’t force me to stay in a prescribed lane. I am forever grateful for their presence, and I will continue holding my body under their light whenever I feel the need to.