Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”

Shortly before starting grade six, which Americans wrongly call “sixth grade,” I moved to my grandmother’s house in Toronto. My family shifted around a lot thanks to my dad’s work in TV news, but this year was different. My parents had recently separated, and my mother decided to return home. Having little say in the matter, my brother and I came with.

The relocation meant I needed to start a new school, which marked my third in as many years. It happened to be a Catholic institution because in Toronto there’s a wealth of public Catholic schools, though students have to be baptized in the faith to attend. Try going through that at age 11 when your parents are maybe divorcing and you’re living in your grandmother’s attic and you’re being asked to drink the lord’s blood but not really.

So, yeah, it wasn’t the best of times. And yet, a la Dickens, it was.

The school never held dances, so in some strange fit of rebellion, instead of doing more normal things like hang out and watch movies, my classmates and I—all 15 of us—spent our Saturdays gathering in each other’s basements. We’d play music, enjoy pizza and pop, and dance—sometimes to fast stuff but mostly to slow jams. There was Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose,” and Selena’s “Dreaming of You.” It was mid-90s power ballad heaven, and we slow danced our little non-chaperoned hearts out.

I came to enjoy these weird basement friend dances because they gave me a chance to get close to Mikey, the cute Jamaican-Canadian boy who was by far the most popular kid in grade six. We often chatted in class and played together during recess, but the dances were different. He’d ask me to slow dance, flaming the embers of my glowing crush as his arms encircled my waist. Even without school officials to supervise, boys chose between hands-on-hips (for friendlier partners) or arms-around-waist. It seemed to suggest something when Mikey went with the latter.

At school, certain classmates and especially my best friend Kalina—who’d moved from Poland a few years prior—used to tell me that Mikey liked me. At times, I thought so too. But in the looks department—and let’s not pretend that doesn’t matter at 11 or any age—it felt as though Julie, the bubbly, blue-eyed girl, would be more his speed. I’d recently gotten glasses and braces, and begun what would become a permanent lean into “bookish.”

At the last basement gathering of the school year, Mikey walked over and asked me to dance to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” a thunderous, seven-minute ballad about lost love. It’s like he knew I’d one day be a writer and would appreciate its auspiciousness.

That night, I thought Mikey’s ask signaled something more. Rumors had been swirling among our small class that he was going to ask me out before the end of the school year. And that night, I felt the crackle of possibility—of getting something you’ve wanted for a long time. In fact, I specifically remember making myself stare into the fire—I mean, it was a long song—so that I would form a memory of that dance with Mikey. “It’s all coming back to me now,” Celine sings and it’s like she knew what I was trying to do.

But just two days later, as I stood in the girl’s bathroom on the second floor at school, Julie walked in beaming. Mikey had asked her out. Kalina and I rushed downstairs and out to the back field to discuss this hideous turn of events. We didn’t get very far before Mikey found us and asked to talk, sheepishly explaining how he’d been torn between Julie and me for a while, but ultimately chose Julie because she was really fun.

It took an operatic song to match the soap opera of grade six that year, and Celine’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” did the trick, which is funny because it wasn’t even my favorite song of hers at the time. (Yes, all Canadians must swear to a favorite.) That’d be “Because You Loved Me.” Thank goodness we didn’t dance to that. It’s far less poetic. And terribly untrue.

In the end, it’s a good thing Mikey went with Julie. A few months later, my parents newly reunited, we left Toronto for my dad’s new job in south Florida.

What strikes me, even now, is the potency of this particular memory. I remember bits and pieces from my childhood; I often think that moving around so much—all of that change—affected what stuck. But this one, of our weird basement friend dances and especially of Mikey, has always lingered, and I credit that forced fire staring and Celine’s hyperbolic pining: “It was lost long ago/ But it’s all coming back to me now.”

Kacey Musgraves’ “It Is What It Is”

Sometimes I wonder if my subconscious senses endings before I do and uses lyrics to communicate as much.

Years ago, I wrote about mondegreens, or misheard lyrics, which got me thinking about the equally curious but much more poorly named phenomenon of earworms, or song fragments that churn endlessly—often unbidden—in the brain. On the surface they can be fantastically annoying, especially if you don’t enjoy the song your brain’s manic DJ choices—but underneath all that, could they be a message?

Earworms don’t seem to signify anything more than a recently heard song that’s become “stuck.” For me, these tend to be pop songs, which are repetitive by nature and constructed by masterminds, like Max Martin, who know how to create something not only catchy but catching. One listen to Taylor Swift’s latest single—just one!—and it’ll be with me for a week.

Beyond that, my brain adores language so much that I’ll often link a turn of phrase with a song. Here’s a not-very-interesting example of what I mean: During a scenic drive some years back, a friend said, “This sure is a winding road,” and immediately the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” started playing in my mind. In moments like that, it feels as though my brain is a musical and all the neurons simply waiting to fire and burst into song.

But sometimes the lyrical phrases that affix themselves to my internal monologue (or would it be soundtrack?) feel as though they’re hinting at a bigger picture.

Only a few months into my last long-term relationship, I found myself walking Clinton St. in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill—a path I preferred for its tree-lined escapism—and internally singing the last chorus line of Kacey Musgraves’ song “It Is What It Is.”

The track details a relationship of convenience, one in which neither party is particularly drawn to the other, but they’re both sort of there…so why not? “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored,” Musgraves sings with a kind of resigned indifference. “It is what it is/Till it ain’t/Anymore.”

The song serves as the culminating moment on Musgraves’ debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park. It’s a quiet track on an album full of reflective moments that don’t rest in more somber poses because Musgraves slips in winks and wisecracks to soften their respective blows. But “It Is What It Is” is vulnerable, raw.

For the longest time, the chorus would break the surface of my mind, and when it would I was tempted to draw parallels to my relationship at the time. We got along fabulously in ways that seemed to matter but don’t necessarily go the distance. Sometimes it felt like we were a convenience for one another, but that didn’t stop us from trying to force something more.

When that happened—when things started to get more serious—I’d feel something in my gut rear up like a wild stallion who’s caught sight of the bit, which is when the song’s lyrics would float up from the ether of my mind and stick in my head for a spell: “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored.”

Lately I got my record collection back and I added Musgrave’s debut to it, which prompted a more focused kind of listening than I’d previously given the song. Beyond the chorus and its one-two truth punch, the song paints a much larger picture. “We’re so much alike it ain’t a good thing. Too dumb to give up/Too stubborn to change,” Musgraves sings.

The chorus that would often crop up as I walked the sidewalks of New York and ponder the big ol’ “why” of it all was enough to signal a message. But hearing the song in its entirety, it felt as though my brain knew something I didn’t—that it had stored all those previous listens of “It Is What It Is” and kept sending smoke signals via the chorus, obliquely encouraging me to put the picture together.

I’m no neuroscientist or psychologist, but if anyone were to ever study the lyrics that ripple the waves of our minds, especially the why and when of it, I think they’d find that certain songs—at least the ones that tunnel into our being—sometimes act like a message in a bottle. If we’re willing enough to listen.

Maps & Atlases’ ‘Beware and Be Grateful’

Winter inevitably calls up a craving for the Chicago-based indie/math rock band Maps & Atlases and their 2015 album Beware and Be Grateful, despite the fact that I first heard them play in the fall.

I’d just moved to Champaign, where I was slowly acclimating to the midwestern sounds that came out of the steely cities surrounding it. That tour circuit sounded completely different from what I’d heard over the past five years in Louisiana—the warm fais do-dos or spirited brass bands in New Orleans and the folk-leaning singer-songwriter scene in Baton Rouge. It was the sound of cold—not just cool—crisp falls, and the burrowing instinct of winter.

Speaking of temperatures, the night Maps & Atlases came to town was frigid and found me questioning whether I wanted to venture over to their show. I tended to walk the 20 minutes it took to get downtown to the Highdive, avoiding a faster (and warmer) drive so I didn’t have to deal with Champaign’s expensive and convoluted public parking system. But some instinct forced me out into the biting October night, and I credit it with helping me find a band I’ve cherished ever since.

A blurry photo from Maps & Atlases’ October 2014 show at the Highdive in Champaign, IL.

Maps & Atlases’ math rock label comes, in part, from lead singer Dave Davison’s blistering fingering. He skips nimbly over the strings as though he were playing a piano or a MIDI pad controller. (Watch what I mean.) Backed by Shiraz Dada’s warm, husky bass, the combination creates a heady sound that’s always somehow spritely. Layering those juxtaposing textures, Davison’s distinctive, almost-metallic timbre matches his instrument and regularly augments the melody line. It was unlike anything I’d heard up until that night, and the discovery felt like synchronicity.

After I left the venue, I returned to Maps & Atlases time and again that winter, as the months grew colder, darker, and the snow made mobility more difficult. Beware and Be Grateful came to embody the season, even though it’s not a quiet, cozy album. It’s bright and quick tempo’d and signals far more motion than winter typically invites. It felt like an escape from my own weathered insularity, even while, oddly enough, embodying it.

The music you find in—and for—certain moments doesn’t always last. You can outgrow a band or an album for any number of reasons, so what is it that makes something stick? I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question. For some singular reason I’ve never been able to articulate, Maps & Atlases has remained a constant every winter. Beware and Be Grateful takes me back to that solitary winter in Champaign when life was frozen and I was waiting for the thaw.

Ramblin’ Women

What is it about staying that feels so intimidating? Put another way, what is it about leaving that feels so instinctive?

Compared to most people my age, I’ve shuffled around quite a bit. I grew up moving every year or two thanks to my dad’s job, but I’ve maintained that momentum as an adult. After college, grad school took me to specific locations, and then work became the reason behind relocating. But eventually I chafed at being committed to cities for no other reason than a job, and I set off to try different things: a couple of years in New Orleans, a few in Brooklyn, and now I find myself in Durham because it made sense. But who knows what comes next—if anything does.

I know my life doesn’t always make sense to my friends. To them, all of that shifting around feels manic on some level. Compared to the stability of their choices, I must look a little lost.

But what if some of us are made to wander?

When I first heard Cat Power cover Hank Williams Sr.’s “Ramblin’ Man,” turning it into “Ramblin’ (Wo)man,” I felt as though someone had taken a spotlight to my life. Power turns Williams’ quaint country ditty about shirking commitment for the visceral thrill of locomotion into a heady, jazzy affair. “I love to see the towns go crawling by/ Something I got to do before I die,” she sings against a warbling organ. Although she didn’t write the song, just hearing a woman sing those words resonates in crucial ways.

Women haven’t written about moving or leaving quite as much as men because their boundaries have historically been much different. Forget about the fact that most women have been relegated (cough cough confined) to the domestic sphere since its creation, and consider the dangers that rambling traditionally poses. There’s no up and leaving because that way danger lies.

Maybe that’s part of my exhilaration in hearing women sing about rambling or moving on or just movement for the thrill of it. Miranda Lambert captures the latter on “Highway Vagabond,” a song off her 2016 album The Weight of These Wings. Lambert has always pushed back against the way women should act, embodying a messier persona akin to what more people would see if women could drop their polite, pleasant, personable facades and put their desires on full display.

From the song’s opening bass line, which drops into a steady, pacing drive, it details the sheer pleasure of movement. “There’s something about the way I feel when the wheels go round and round and round,” she sings, drawing out the final two “rounds” to underscore her point. She’s not pulling over anytime soon.

Part of movement, for me at least, involves the unlived lives that run alongside us. Virginia Woolf kerneled that very thought in To the Lighthouse: “And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.”

Literature has long been taken with the thought of other lives—what happens when a choice takes you down one path and away from another. Most people can shirk those shadows, but moving around—wandering, as I’ve come to call it—feels like a chance to try on a different life, if only for a while. Having lived in some of this country’s greatest cities, I get a taste that most tourists can only grasp at. (Though arguably I’m still a short-term traveler of sorts because I spent a few years there rather than a lifetime.)

What does it take to stay? I have yet to find that answer, but I’m willing to trade understanding for acceptance, embracing—rather than fighting—my penchant for movement. As Power sings on the chorus, “I love you, baby, but you got to understand when the Lord made me, he made a ramblin’ woman.”

Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou’s “The Homeless Wanderer”

I never thought I’d discover one of my favorite albums during an acupuncture session. Most acupuncturists prefer white noise machines or soundscapes during treatment—music doesn’t work because it encourages a different kind of attention. But not so in New Orleans. As with so many aspects of life in that city, music infused Monica’s airy St. Claude shotgun. She preferred piano pieces or classic vocalists like Billie Holiday, whose brassy croon regularly emanated from the tinny speakers on her portable blue record player, and which fit the experience perfectly.

One rainy Saturday, while I reclined in the middle room and listened to the rain pattering playfully against the window, I heard the opening notes of the most enchanting piano piece. At first, it sounded like a tickle, as though the player’s fingers were joyfully tracing the instrument’s length. But as it went on, it developed a deeper meditative quality.

It turned out to be Ethiopian nun and pianist Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou‘s song “The Homeless Wanderer.” Music truly finds you in the oddest places.

I eventually tracked down a copy of the record Monica played that day (the German LP, pictured left), which was only released in 2006 as part of a series spotlighting Ethiopian artists.

Guebrou, it turns out, was born in 1923 and lived in Ethiopia until Mussolini’s army invaded some 13 years later. She fled to Europe and could’ve attended the Royal Academy of Music in London, but for reasons she never clarified the opportunity fell through. “It was His willing,” she told documentary filmmaker Kate Molleson in 2017. “We can choose how to respond.”

Her response involved continuing to play music. But she made it her own. You could categorize her sound as classical, but it’s more meandering. You could call it jazz, but it’s more structured and thoughtful. It is entirely itself, full of insight and grit and sharply traced beauty. For a song composed by an Ethiopian nun to make it all the way to New Orleans seemed a sort of gift.

I have this preposterously under-studied theory that emotional contexts heavily—and heartily—shape the way we feel about certain songs. If you feel so inclined to throw a “duh” my way, I get it. But if you’re familiar with cognitive science, it makes sense. Memories have a stronger chance of lasting when emotions fuel the mechanisms that “record” them. Neuroscientist Marc Lewis explains, “If it doesn’t mean much, if it doesn’t induce feelings, it’s not going to capture your attention, and it’s not going to get recorded in synaptic structure.” The same applies to music. Emotional experiences sharpen—and shape—your response.

I love rainy days and I especially love rainy days in New Orleans, where moody skies and hushed streets create a melody unto themselves. Something about that backdrop set the stage for Guebrou: slanted rain falling against the room’s tall windows, dim light filtering through the lacy curtains. It was the kind of magic that prompts notice, that encourages you to think, as Vonnegut once said, “If this isn’t nice, what is.”

And it’s a magic that has yet to wear off. When I play Guebrou now, time slows. I feel my shoulders drop with the first few notes. The following songs build an escape from the everyday. Guebrou’s phrasing—those winding reflections—makes everything soften, rainy day or not.

Welcome to Whatever

Everyone’s running to start a newsletter these days, which feels like a throwback to the Great Age of Zines. But I’m going back to the days of LiveJournal with this project. What it shall be, I’ve yet to land upon. In a year with so much uncertainty, it’s hard to know where exactly to focus your efforts, and I feel that ambiguity double time when it comes to The Sound Also Rises.

What I do know is that at a time when there’s one music journalist for every 100 music publicists, I crave a space of my own to think about and though the songs, albums, and artists that have resonated with me. If that sometimes means detours off into personal narratives, reflections, or what have you, well then so be it.

Welcome to The Sound Also Rises. Welcome to whatever.