Outside it’s a dank London day. Inside, my desk is strewn with paper lists and books with sticky notes protruding – research of some kind or another that needs to be turned into something else. So I do what I very often do in these circumstances, which is start a hugely enjoyable search online for new music to love.
Actually, that’s not strictly accurate. It’s true that I am searching, but it is the hunt that holds the appeal, rather than whatever treasure I might discover at the end of the line. It is the hours that can be spent – surely not wasted – following a trail of leads from one piece of music to another, discovering new bands, new singer-songwriters and new covers of old favourites.
I became a music collector during the age of vinyl. And by music I mean rock, pop, indie, folk, reggae. The first album I bought for myself was Carole King’s Tapestry, which I liked as much for the cover of the singer with her curly hair and jeans and cosy sweater as I did for the music. Tapestry was not an original choice. I was one of millions (and we were generally young women) who bought that album. Carole spoke to us. We shared her. It was a very different experience to the way I relate to my music discoveries now, which is to do with truffling out something that nobody else (or so I choose to imagine) has discovered. It’s a solitary pursuit. Occasionally I may tell someone else about what I’ve found but, frankly, most people aren’t that interested. It’s not like it was when we exchanged lovingly compiled cassettes of appropriately chosen songs, handwriting the playlist out on the cover. Incidentally, my recent discovery, the 2010 Tift Merritt track Mixtape, is a gem.
In my new book, Clothes… and other things that matter – which is, among other things, about how clothes make us feel – there is a chapter about Sloppy Joes, a term which, like vinyl, has a period appeal. These oversized sweaters aren’t the same as the one Carole wears on the cover of Tapestry but they have about them a similar soothing, cup-of-tea-drinking quality. There is nothing very action-driven about Sloppy Joes, and they are exactly the kind of clothes suitable for making the journey deep into the Spotify or iTunes labyrinths, those lands of plenty where so many pleasurable hours can be spent avoiding getting on with what I actually need to be doing.
There was a time when I spent a fortune on iTunes buying my discoveries, which are usually random tracks rather than entire albums. But in the way that digital life is often so much less satisfactory than analog – or what I think of as reality – many of these are attached to some email account that no longer exists, which has made them no longer available to me. Now, instead, a subscription to Spotify means I spend the bulk of my time there. All the music I could wish for at £9.99 a month. Yet there is something that nags the original record-buyer in me about the fact that I don’t actually own these songs. They are on long-term digital loan. Which is why the search is the real deal. No matter how many email accounts or platforms change, nothing can take away the joy of the hunt.
And what excitement there is in following the trail that never ends, linking one album track to another and being led to places far distant from where you might have ever thought to go. Certainly wouldn’t have planned to. Such as, for example, becoming the proud owner of a download of Johnny Hallyday’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe, the French chanteur’s masterpiece of kitsch, where the first line translates as “Don’t run like that/Say there is no fire at your place”, which bears absolutely no resemblance to the Hendrix. Or anything much else.
Cover versions are my particular joy. Apart from them often being better than the original, there is something wonderful about the unlikely pairings you can discover, such as Sonic Youth’s brilliantly melancholic take on The Carpenters’ Superstar. I wouldn’t, for instance, have discovered the Nashville band Lambchop if I hadn’t fallen for their cover of Prince’s When You Were Mine. One of the all-time great break-up songs: “You didn’t have the decency to change the sheets…” And if I hadn’t found Lambchop, then the Spotify stepping stones wouldn’t have led me to LCD Soundsystem and their New York, I Love You But You’re Getting Me Down – worthy of existence for its name alone. As is the eponymous Cigarettes After Sex, an album whose trancy, slurring sound is a pretty impressive aural rendition of the title.
Diversion tactics come in many forms, but for my money – or, in this case, remarkably little of it – few are as rewarding or successful as entering the Spotify labyrinth.
Clothes... and other things that matter, by Alexandra Shulman, is published by Cassell at £16.99.