|Photo Jake Sherman via Noah Reid’s Instagram|
I sat on a draft of this one for a while, but on the anniversary of the theatres closing in the UK, instead of thinking about what that meant, I’ve decided to share something about what helped me through.
Everyone will be relieved to know this particular ‘music that saved me in 2020’ blog is not about Taylor Swift. I also appreciate it’s a bit late for a ‘music that saved me in 2020’ post but what can I say time has lost all meaning…
Instead, it’s about how Noah Reid’s albums got me through writing a book (in slightly comedy fashion), helped me to figure out a story I needed to tell (in weirdly serendipitous fashion) but mostly got me through this last year.
It’s about how in times of trouble music can be a life raft. We all know, that, right? We’ve all got songs, albums that got us out of the dark times. Or the ones we go to in the dark times. The music we lean on to feel our feelings or not feel our feelings accordingly. The songs that lift a mood or let us wallow in it.
My trouble was that for the last decade or more most of my music for those purposes has been musical theatre. And in 2020, I found myself unable to listen to what was my usual musical lifeline. Maybe it sounds silly to ‘normal’ people but musical theatre- as an academic, and a writer of musicals- was a huge part of my life. Once the theatres shut in March though, listening to musical theatre became like listening to the music that reminds you of the person who broke your heart. Because you know what? My heart was broken…I had lost a huge part of my life overnight and right at that moment had no idea if and how it would be back. And because of that, I’ve spent a year barely able to listen to the music that was once the soundtrack to my life and work.
And so, I needed something else and in May I stumbled across Noah Reid’s new album.
Have you ever heard an album that just feels like coming home? That’s what Gemini felt like. It felt like the kind of music I listened to in my teens and twenties all grown up. And I mean that as the highest compliment. Like if all those folk-indie bands I saw in club backrooms and supporting other folk-indie bands, grew up and sang songs about what life had been life in the meantime. The same sound and feel, but with lyrical storytelling for grown-ups. (Obviously, as a musical theatre nerd lyrical-musical storytelling is a big nerdy thing for me).
The way Gemini is put together is also beautifully produced- firstly the mixing and production on it are exquisitely done, forgive a bit of nerdy commentary but seemingly simple moments like the mix from the end of Jacobs Ladder into Neverending December are perfectly engineered. It’s also a really wonderful balance of instruments and voices to create the mood of each song- when to bring in an accordion, when there’s a choral arrangement backing, which tracks have drums…all music producing 101 sure, but it’s done so well and with such attention to detail. I guess in a world of mass-produced pop that feels a bit conveyor belt it’s also nice to feel like something was made with this kind of attention to detail for the whole album experience. It’s also put together in what has become a slightly ‘old school’ A and B side format, with the more upbeat side A and a contemplative B side…again this isn’t revolutionary, but the thought into it is apparent too. I needed to be dorky about music in another way it seemed, in the absence of my usual way.
Gemini and the 2016 predecessor Songs from a Broken Chair inadvertently became woven into my work, but also became one of the things that got me through.
What did that look like? I should thank Reid in my book acknowledgements. I’m not sure being thanked in a book about Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America was exactly what he had in mind when writing these albums, but here we are.
Partly, because I listened to those albums on a loop almost every day (ok yes, every day I’m that writer) while in the worst of writing that book. Secondly because of two sets of lyrics that amused me greatly. It shouldn’t really be a surprise the play talks about Angels (political, erstwhile Angels with multiple genitals, but that’s splitting hairs) but also specifically the story of Jacob (albeit in a homoerotic allegory) what the play also talks about is Mormons. Hopefully anyone who knows the albums is one step ahead here.
So, I’m typing away, listening to Noah Reid’s Gemini for one of the first times while wrestling away with my own Angel-based-writing. When I realise I’m hearing the lyrics ‘I’m wrestling with Angels’ I did a full cartoon stare at the speakers. On realising it was a song called ‘Jacob’s Dream’ I might have whispered the words ‘the fucking audacity. Later, while I’m continuing to write about ‘my’ Mormons, I’m listening to Reid’s earlier album Songs from a Broken Chair and hearing the lyric ‘Dancing on the Graves of Mormons’…Sometimes a song speaks to you, and sometimes it just makes you smile when you’re wrestling with a book that just might be trying to take what’s left of your 2020 sanity. But every time I heard either of those lyrics while I was writing this play about…wrestling with Angels and Mormons…it made me smile. Made me feel like I was being cheered on by the universe a bit. And I’ll forever think of those songs whenever I think of the play, and vice versa.
The video for this one at least feels like a hopeful summer\’s day too…maybe we’ll get that this year…
I think actually…that does mean they’re owed a thank you in the acknowledgements. So, Noah Reid, bet you never thought you’d end up thanked in a book about a play about Angels, AIDS and American politics eh?
I’m a big old nerd for the stories songs can help us tell (did I mention musical theatre academic?!) And help us understand. And that’s really what I fell in love within Reid’s albums. One song in particular I had a Dream Last Night is a song that genuinely gives me chills in terms of visceral perfect storytelling. I can see every moment of it, which is beautiful. The kind of song you want to stop and just properly listen to and hear the story.
Songs also help us understand and tell our own stories. And that’s what happened with my second weird work-related link. And one of the reasons these albums have come to mean a lot. Actually, it already had with this set of lyrics from ‘Tiff Song’
‘I bought this jacket, because the front said Montreal,
That’s a town I had to leave I didn’t want to leave at all
And when I wear it
It makes me feel alone
It\’s a reminder that I needed a reminder
Of a place I once called home’
I too used to call Montreal home, it was a place I lived a strange best and worst year of my life. And one I didn’t want to leave. Being locked away all year also makes you think of the places you miss, and the people. I lived in Montreal for a year when I was 19/20, it was one of the happiest times of my life. It was also in that sort of contradictory way life is, the year my Dad died on Thanksgiving weekend that year. Those lyrics made me think about that ‘city I had to leave but didn’t want to leave at all’ and I wrote about that year for the first time in a blog. It was the first time I’d told that story out loud, or looked at what that time meant to me.
Later, I was making a documentary about the LGTBQ+ community, and my director asked me to write in that story I told in that blog- the messy love for a city where I first became myself, where I first ‘came out\’, a place I didn’t want to leave while my world changed at home. All from a song I hadn’t heard a year earlier.
That’s nothing to do with the song itself. But isn’t that the beauty of songs that strike us? That they can spiral into whole worlds of meaning for us personally as well. I’ll forever be thankful to that song for giving me the way into a story I didn’t know I needed to tell. And that for me will always be the power of music that we find at the right time for us- the stories they help us tell and to find.
And these dorky stories aside, this music will forever also be part of the story I tell about this strange and terrible last year. And the fact they made it better. Not just better, really honestly, got me through at times.
And continue to, because let’s face it, that’s not over yet.
For me, when my anxiety rears its full force, music and repetition are good if not cures, then balms. I spent many hours in August and September wandering the roads and nearby parks of suburban Cardiff with ‘Gemini’ in my ears. And it became a moment of quiet, away from the online noise, away from the confines of being home all the time. It gave me a little pocket of escape. I did the same walk so often to this album I could almost time which bush I’d walk past to a lyric. And it helped so much.
The lyrics to Hate this Town felt very apt for being stuck in my hometown all year, but also my feelings about the theatre industry there a little too…now that I was on an enforced break from it. Although the lyric ‘what kind of people are afraid of the rain’ couldn’t really apply to the Welsh…but in my endless daily walks in my own neighbourhood the daydream that was American Roads that idea that one day the idea of seeing ‘sunlight on a canyon, thin layer of snow’ from a car would be possible again, and indeed the idea of ‘can’t take it for granted when you feel this alive’ certainly rung true.
We all had our real low points, and for me every time I hit one these two albums provided solace in a way, actually I hadn’t needed since that year in Montreal I talked of earlier. (That year it was Sarah McLachlan and Rent, which you know, is on-brand at least as well as dates me). And sometimes you just need the music you feel you can hide inside.
|Photo Jake Sherman via Noah Reid\’s Instagram|
But I think for lots of people who loved this album, two songs too I think took on particular added meaning in 2020 ‘I Guess I’ll Just Lie Here’ and ‘Hold On’ one feels like accepting where you are and Hold On felt like trying to hope for the future. And they both felt like a soundtrack to different sides of the pandemic mood. And indeed, a bigger life mood. Some days you just have to lean into that feeling of being stuck. For me, losing the bigger picture of all my work, my industry ‘And the poisonous thread, they leave behind to work on my mind while I got nothing but time’ felt apt for the time and those endless nights of insomnia. But on the flip side, Hold On with its reminder to, well yes hold on. It’s a sad song really, about not being where you want to be, about missing someone you love, and we could all relate to that this year the ‘being on the wrong end of too many telephone calls.’ As a writer, the line that felt like a stab to the heart was ‘it’s hard to write songs when you can’t even speak.’ But ultimately that song still became one of hope to me- I’m not ashamed to admit I cried to it more than once, but it’s come to mean a sort of grim determination to get through this year, and the next and whatever else.
By the way the video for Hold On is also completely beautiful…
I could write a ‘proper’ review of all the songs. I certainly in my dorky way have lots of thoughts. From the way, Underwater has some soaring melodies that remind me actually, of the kind of musical theatre nobody thinks is musical theatre and tells a perfect story. Or how False Alarms feels like the perfect scared-of-your-feelings song. Or how Heroes and Ghosts now feels like my song of the moment in a way that’s just sort of intangible to explain. Or how Mostly to Yourself has become my post-pandemic, take charge of your life mantra.
And really that’s where the beauty lies, despite taking a lot of words to say this, that intangible meaning something that matters gives you.
|Photo Jake Sherman via Noah Reid\’s Instagram|
I used to work in a record shop. The kind of place you get a sort of High Fidelity meets Black Books snobbery. The kind that would have dudes (always dudes) turning up their noses at ‘yeah but you found this guy’s music because he was on a TV show.’ Yes, imagine that, because this guy was on a TV show, I was able to find a whole world of something that has come to mean something. Something that picked me up off the floor when I needed it more than ever. And also, if you haven\’t heard Noah Reid singing \’Simply the Best\’ from that TV show, what really are you doing with yourself? I\’ll just leave it here…
To bring this back (sort of) to how this started…Noah Reid was in the middle of his first tour when all this happened. But luckily, some wonderful industrious fans uploaded a lot of videos of those concerts that did happen to YouTube. And they too have been both solace and hope in dark times. Much like listening to musicals, I haven’t been able to get on board with online theatre. But I frequently lost myself in those concert videos, for a little break, a little reminder of the world how it was- I wouldn’t have made it to that tour, so it felt like the usual peek into something I didn’t get to be part of. They made me, even more, a fan, seeing Reid perform live, and wishing- but also wishing turning slowly to hope- that I would be able to do that one day too. So, by association that thing I’d turned to when theatres closed, and my livelihood and love disappeared, and I couldn’t face that world, became my hope of live performance returning. Because hope, as well as solace, is so important right now, a year from live performances ending.
So I think I’ll just make a promise to myself, next time Noah Reid tours, even though I’ll have to cross an ocean to do it, I’ll be there. To celebrate the music that got me through the darkest of times (and writing that damn book), and as a thank, you, to Noah Reid for writing those songs that picked me up, kept me company and kept me going, when things were truly dark. They\’ll forever be part of my life for that, and I\’m really grateful.
You can buy both Noah Reid\’s albums from his website here. And please do, support artists in this time!