Music After Quarantine
The writers of Tone Glow on what music means to them right now
Nobody really remembers them now, after everything, but around this time last year, during the early days of the pandemic, there were those videos of Italians in quarantine singing to each other from the balconies of their apartments. I recall watching them obsessively, touched by how meaningful it felt to see people using music to connect with each other when they couldn’t physically be together. It really spoke to the humanity of music by demonstrating the way we instinctually turn to it in moments of isolation and fear.
Also around this time last year, in the second ever issue of Weird Girls Post, I asked the writers of experimental music letter Tone Glow to write about how their relationship to music was changing as the world went into quarantine. It felt imperative in that moment to capture how music people were reacting to the historical circumstances. The responses reflected a variety of feelings and outlooks, from those looking for comfort and stillness to those craving chaos and distraction. I encourage you to read the issue, if you haven’t. It really is a bit of a time capsule and, if I may flatter myself to say so, a solid piece of music journalism.
A year later, I've again asked the writers of Tone Glow to reflect on their relationship to music as some of the world begins to come out of quarantine. What does music mean to them now versus before the pandemic? What have they learned about themselves as music people in a changed world? Again they’ve delivered a set of thoughtful observations that represent how a collective experience has had individual repercussions in the way they relate to music. Some have found that their listening habits have been altered by the pandemic, some are still looking for familiarity. Others have lost patience with music that doesn’t reflect the changed nature of reality, while others want music to help them look forward to better times ahead. As before, it’s an honor to publish words by people who spend so much of their time listening, thinking, and caring deeply about music.
Like in the last issue, I’ve not contributed a blurb myself, but I will say that my relationship to music has deepened immeasurably over the past year. Writing this newsletter, which I would not have started had COVID not driven me to Appalachia, has led me to think deeply about the role music has played my life—socially, emotionally, and otherwise. Music has never just been entertainment for me, but in the past year I’ve truly begun to understand how dependent I am upon music (and music people) to help me define who I am and what I need to be doing in this big, weird world. I often find myself returning to what Shy Thompson so movingly wrote in her reflection last year: “I’ve come to realize in this time of uncertainty and loneliness, my feelings are not only important to my appreciation of music, they are everything.”
Time stopped for me when I first read those words. When I read them now, a year later—and probably for the rest of my life—it still does.
With that, I give you the writers of Tone Glow on what music means after quarantine.
Los Angeles, California
Spots y Escupitajo, Elysia Crampton (2017)
Spots y Escupitajo is a blazing tornado of sound, a chaotic clatter of MIDI trumpets, disembodied producer tags and pinging gunshots that derives its momentum from overload, overwhelm, the orbital movement between density and clarity. This explosive sound is a perfect encapsulation of my shifting listening habits under the pandemic. For… every reason, I am more drawn than ever to music with focus and anger, computerized rage, music that is not afraid to be ‘too much,’ utterly ridiculous or hilarious, music that reflects life as it really is; I have little room for music that hedges, hesitates, is unsure of why it exists or who it’s for, is content to linger in clouds of nostalgia or retread well-worn paths. The 5-15 second “Spots” that open the album—macabre sound-objects swarming with shattering glass, gurgling streams and truly villainous cackling—perfectly capture this energy: they are simultaneously funny and terrifying, phantasmagoric signposts in a sea of fracture and instability. On the rip-roaring “Gold Country Vapor,” the album suddenly snaps into focus, and the final key, life-sustaining stream emerges—rhythm. This is the latter at its barest and most propulsive: Crampton spits out a relentless torrent of stripped-down MIDI presets, blocks of Brass.sf2 that are simultaneously rubbery and diamond-sharp. This endless rhythm is not a nihilistic reflection of pandemic repetition (months in lockdown, wave after new wave), but rather the formation of a stable core, a vigorous “Yes” with the power to sweep away the old and birth the new. As the sprawling “Spittle” sputters into the glinting “Sombra Blanca Misteriosa (y Rara),” I am filled with a grim, thrumming determination, a steely hope, a better understanding of why we are here in the first place: this is my new sustenance.
Sunik Kim spent their quarantine in New York City.
“Slide Away”, Oasis, Definitely Maybe (1994)
I remember first listening to Oasis’s Definitely Maybe as a 14-year old who was finally discovering that rock wasn’t just for my dad to listen to in his office after dinner. “Slide Away'' instantly became my favorite track. That first powerful strum of the electric guitar was like my call to action. But at some point in my teen years, Oasis’s “Wonderwall” became the definitive meme for dudes who think they’re great at guitar but aren’t, the cliché that somehow encapsulated every Tinder guy trying to impress you with his “music.” And so I started listening to “Slide Away” in shame.
I’ve always been an uncool person who lives and works in a field where cool is a currency stronger than the American dollar under capitalism. When you’re young and uncool—in my case, a nerd and a goody-two-shoes—the idea of “cool” sparkles before you like an unopened Christmas gift sitting under the tree: Unattainable at the moment, yet oh-so desirable. For years I tried to pretend I loved “Slide Away” as a corny guilty pleasure, and not because I genuinely think it’s a spectacular rock song.
But with age comes the beneficial side effect of cool shedding its meaning. I hit my mid-twenties this year. I went to therapy, started graduate school, and found the strength to leave things behind that were no longer part of my journey. The COVID-19 pandemic seemingly sped up this process. When you’re sitting in your box-sized Brooklyn apartment trying to decide what makes your life worth living when thousands of people are dying every day, who you really want to be necessarily, urgently comes to light. I live down the street from a hospital, and sirens raged down my street every 10 minutes for months, so I was forced to stare down the barrel of mortality more acutely than I ever had before. I eventually gave up willing myself to the forces of cool and succumbed to the democratizing power of mortality.
I want to walk around the park with “Slide Away” by Oasis on a never-ending loop, sizzling electric guitar riffs seeping into my veins as the summer sun shines on my back. I want to gaze into the future surrounded by the hazy smoke of Oasis’s howling Britpop and forget all my responsibilities for a little while. In short, I want to enjoy the life I’ve been given, and embracing my unabashed love for “Slide Away” is one step on the path towards fulfillment.
Vanessa Ague spent her quarantine in Brooklyn, New York.
“Both Sides Now par Droni Mitchell”, Echo Beach (2015)
I’ve always loved long songs. The 12” DJ mix. The epic album closer. The sidelong psychedelic suite. Some of my desert island favourite pieces of music by Roy Montgomery, Alice Coltrane, and Polmo Polpo all stretch far beyond the traditional notions of what a song can be. This beautiful 2015 release by Montréal electronic artist Echo Beach can be added to that list. Re-assembling elements from one of Joni Mitchell’s most beloved songs, it slows down, backmasks, and smooths out “Both Sides Now” into eight minutes of shivering ambient bliss. I’ve been enjoying it for six years now and probably won’t stop any time soon.
Long songs took on a new meaning in 2020 as we were all forced to reckon with the extended time frame of quarantine keeping us from returning to social life as we know it. With endless days to spend inside my house, I’ve become drawn to even longer pieces of art. Every Saturday afternoon, I get comfortable on the couch and ritualistically throw on a movie stretching beyond three hours that might have seemed daunting in a world before the pandemic. Suddenly, I have all the time in the world to listen to monumental albums like Matmos’s The Consuming Flame or finally crack into the 16 CDs of the Best Show box set.
Another major difference for me in our year of pandemic purgatory was quitting alcohol and becoming a pothead. This has had numerous benefits to my wallet, health, and general mental wellbeing, but I can also credit it with slowing the roll of day-to-day life. For my past 15 years as a freelance writer, touring musician, and occasional office job haver, I’ve heard a constant nagging voice in my head that I’m never doing as much as I can to rise to the hustling level of my peers. Anyone watching would describe me as a workaholic, and I’ve rarely been completely comfortable winding down to a state of full chill.
That’s changed over the past 12 months, as I can now claim that I know how to relax. My weekdays are currently segmented into blocks of pitching, writing, and other necessary tasks before I call it quits at 6 p.m. and try not to think about work again until the next morning. Though I’ve spent a lot of time alone throughout the start of a long-distance relationship (that will soon become no-distance), I’ve cherished the opportunity to go for long walks, spark up a joint, and listen to a piece of music like this one by Echo Beach. It’s the perfect chance to meditate on whatever stresses have been lingering, and sometimes even find a way to get past them. Whatever comes next as the world begins to “open up” again, I’m now prepared with tools to instill patience that will hopefully carry me into our strange new world.
Jesse Locke spent his quarantine in Toronto, Canada.
“Cold Sleep,” C.T. Scan, From the Bedroom to the Whole Universe (1995)
Sometime last year, in the midst of all my writing and interviewing, my mom remarked that I had been doing too much. "It's time for you to take a break," she said. "At least for a moment." Hearing those words didn't mean much at the time. My mom's a constant worrier and she's never been one to support my endeavors in the arts. If anything, those words felt like more dismissiveness—since I was a child, she's viewed my interest in music as something bordering the obsessive and unhealthy. While I still feel a disconnect with my mom in that way, I understand now that it was a more a statement of genuine concern. And here in April of 2021, I feel the tiredness in my bones and the impossibility of getting anything done. I look back on how much I did last year and I'm not quite sure how it all happened.
Now, I'm more content to rest and do nothing at all, and one song that's helped with that is C.T. Scan's "Cold Sleep," a celestial nine minutes of techno. For a song that I've loved for years, it never quite dawned on me how powerful it could be in helping me relax. The key is the reverberating synth melody: a series of melodic flickers that repeat in the midst of ambience and a steady kick. As sci-fi squelches playfully disrupt the space, I stay fixated on that glistening melody until it feels like I'm drifting into space, carried across a pitch-black sky amidst the stars. When the song ends, I usually put it on a couple more times. That's 30 minutes of free-floating bliss—a half-hour where, for once, I can take my mother's advice.
Joshua Minsoo Kim spent his quarantine in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.
“JIBUNGOTO”, JIBUNGOTO, Team Shachi (2020)
Commercial culture’s embrace of the post-pandemic lifestyle has spawned catchy buzzwords, and they’ve inevitably begun to trickle into pop songs, like “Jibungoto” by idol group Team Shachi. “Six feet of distance / the guidance of a new normal,” sings Nao Sakura opens the song before Haruna Sakamoto follows up with “Teleworking on mute.” It’s been a looming question whether or not songwriters should incorporate terms that would become definite cliches. I also understand that they can trivialize, if not exploit what has been a traumatic experience for many. All that said, I find it disingenuous for any artist to ignore their own reality and not let it reflect in their work just from the petty fear that the result won’t age particularly well. A record like Team Shachi’s is more honest to me in the way it confidently takes on the present regardless of how un-flattering it may be. No matter how they choose to express themselves, listeners would likely consume the track according to how it speaks to their post-pandemic life anyway. And underneath the period-specific catchphrases, Team Shachi offers a song about the need for connection and making the best of today—universal themes relevant to any moment in time.
Ryo Miyauchi spent their quarantine at home, but also out at work in San Diego, California.
“womb”, Adrianne Lenker, abysskiss (2020)
The pandemic and lockdown brought mountains of grief, but the company I work for quickly implemented a work from home policy, removing the need for me to commute upwards of two hours every day. So that was a thin silver lining: two hours a day that I could spend listening more, discovering more, loving more. In that way, my ‘“work/life balance” was tipping more to the “life” side of the equation, but the pandemic threw out the scale anyway.
Burnout happened quickly. My partner lost her job as soon as the lockdown was announced. Every other day, I’d scan new job postings related to her interests and my heart would sink. Every night, I’d go to sleep feeling exhausted but stone-awake at the same time. Showers turned from a nightly ritual to something I looked forward to: doing something different than sitting in front of a screen.
That burnout flicked a switch in my head, and I slowed down listening to new music, returning to the songs that I cherished. Maybe being more conscious of mortality had something to do with it, too. I’ve loved Adrianne Lenker’s music from the moment I first heard Big Thief, and I found myself returning more and more to solo debut abysskiss. Lenker’s vocals and lyrics have always played like a big hug—“My heart will always find you when your heart freely sings”—and, for the most part, her solo albums remove the “rock” component of Big Thief (who rarely rocked anyway.) Yes, there’s the demon- and dragon-evoking “out of your mind,” which drips fuzz, but “terminal paradise” and “from” are much quieter than the same versions of the song that would appear on Big Thief’s U.F.O.F. And the better for it! Lenker’s voice sounds far more intimate and warmer with less accompaniment. If Big Thief’s albums made it feel like you were hanging out with friends in a park, abysskiss is even cozier than that. And that’s how I would like to feel in these seemingly never-ending days: cozy. I type this out just as the Ontario government announces another stay at home order and just as my region is excluded from the next call for vaccinations, a sort of “better luck next time!” The end is in sight, but every inch feels like a mile. Might as well feel good as I can until then.
In 2020, I debated heavily about whether or not to see Big Thief, and then the pandemic made my decision for me by canceling all concerts. Now, if Big Thief were to return to Toronto, the decision feels easy. I have all this music available, but I miss the communal feeling of concerts. I miss the things I took for granted. I miss being inside, being outside. I miss being free.
Marshall Gu spent his quarantine in Toronto, Canada.
“B.O.S. Real Ting”, Tom & Jerry, Papillon Love Song (1993)
I don’t think I’ve ever developed a framework to talk about myself in writing. It might stem from a middle-class upbringing where egotism is discouraged, but taking acid in high school seemingly amended that feeling. Once I lost a sense of self-consciousness, it became easier to discover myself, who I am, what I can potentially do as a human being. It was “Visiting Friends” by Animal Collective that opened up this new universe, an unrestrained humanity within the realm of music. How could such a simplistic structure be so revelatory? Music has a way of bringing you these answers. Why would anything so complex be so easy to figure out, right?
Despite this, I find it tough to contextualize myself within the pandemic, specifically as some kind of music critic or what have you. I’ve been cooped up inside—thankfully being able to avoid crowds and masses workwise, hermetic compared to the millions of workers that have been forced to drudge through ungrateful hours of labor. If music has changed significantly, it’s most been most heavily in the in-person stratosphere, something that I didn’t necessarily invest in personally, yet impacted me quietly, as a year of no shows came and went like a bitter chill.
I keep coming back to Todd Edwards, Playboi Carti, Tom & Jerry, and DJ Rashad, among others, to remind myself that their successes and triumphs artistically can power my endeavors as well. Those moments where you feel a surge of electricity, forces unknown acting upon you as everything just clicks, are what’s kept us sane during a mind-bending period of world history. To relate to others through these savants is to be human. And while that’s very obvious to any fan of music, losing that live experience dulls the cultural threads we so take for granted.
If everything goes well socially, I will, like the rest of us, gladly dive back into the deep end. I want to get drunk and mosh at seedy bars. I want to be mesmerized by aquatic beats and loops from DJs and feel an infectious groove in the air. I want to start a band, or at least posture to start one and find like-minded weirdos in the local Cleveland area. After the pandemic, we still have to deal with an abhorrent climate crisis, fascist cops, uncaring politicians and elites, and the desperate last vestiges of a crumbling empire. But by god, we can still party!
Eli Schoop spent his quarantine in Cleveland, Ohio.
“The Red Line”, Shinichi Atobe (2001)
I’m fatter than I was last year. I notice it when I pass by the mirror: my jaw is slack, my headphone cords hang limply from my ears. I look for something, something that might be in my eyes, to assert itself when I run my hands across my chest—flatness, ridges, folds, bumps. I wonder if I lost time, or if that time was taken from me. Before the pandemic, my music listening was an extension of mood. I would listen to happy music when I felt happy, sad music when I felt sad, so on and so forth. Now, I find myself using music to try and reverse-engineer those same feelings back into me: maybe the happy music will make me happy, too, maybe the sad music will squeeze out the tears that feel like they’ve been sloshing around in the back of my head for months. Dance music, and the music of Shinichi Atobe in particular, calls forth an intoxicating sense of longing into my hollowed-out body: the bright pulse eclipses past and future, forcing me into the present moment. When I listen to “The Red Line,” my favorite track of Atobe’s, I feel it embodies my internal monologue, the grizzled thing that limps behind me as I roll out of bed, peering through blinds to the cool pallor of the morning sky. The song is wistful, slow, contemplative, but it moves forward nonetheless—and moving forward is all I need to do.
Maxie Younger spent their quarantine in Houston, Texas.
“By Your Side,” Sade, Lovers Rock (2000)
When I wrote about my relationship with music at the start of the pandemic, I lamented how my appreciation of music hinged strongly upon my feelings—and I didn’t feel much of anything. For the most part, that’s still true. The record I talked about loving but being incapable of enjoying, Ambient Hawai’i, still hasn’t been queued up once since then. The themes of a love letter to native land and cultural tradition doesn’t really ring with me when I still haven’t gone out much and don’t feel connected with anything. I can’t let in any light from outside when the blinds are drawn firmly shut.
I’ve sent a lot more time thinking about myself lately—something I normally don’t like to do because, frankly, I don’t like myself. Walking down the corridors of my own mind is normally an exercise fraught with peril, but when everything hurts, the risk feels substantially lower. A persistent thought that I keep returning to is how much I’ve grown to be like my mother. I see her face in the mirror every day, but it goes a lot deeper than that; we have the same laugh, the same mannerisms, and the same inclination to isolate ourselves. When one of us calls the other, it’s an event—neither of us want to be a bother, despite constant assurance that could never be the case. When I was young, she would spend a lot of time in her bedroom listening to music. I would sit outside the door and listen. It felt like she was keeping me company, even as I was respecting her alone time.
Sade’s “By Your Side” was one of her favorite songs, and lately, it’s become one of mine. As time goes on, I become more appreciative of how her love of music has shaped mine—I remember things she liked every now and then, and I usually like them too. It reminds me of the way I could feel connected to her even when we weren’t in the same room. Realizing how similar I’ve become to someone I have a deep admiration for has helped me to like myself a little bit. “You think I’d leave your side, baby?” Sade sings, sounding at once like she’s giving reassurance, but also like she’s chiding you for thinking the answer could ever be yes. It’s exactly the kind of thing my mother would say. My problem of feeling numb to music that makes me feel warm from the outside is one that I think will solve itself as the pandemic continues to taper off—in the meantime, there’s enough warmth on the inside to keep my heart from turning to ice.
Shy Thompson spent her quarantine in her tiny apartment in Spokane, Washington.
Church, Kelsey Lu (2016)
I know this much about my trauma state: Musical curiosity is always the first to go.
My first serious case of musical estrangement happened in 2015, with the loss of a friend, then again more totally with a parent's suicide in 2016. The waves of numbness have varied in size, but with experience, I’ve learned a little more about them—when to unbuckle my knees, when to hold on tight, when to dive below the surface.
The pandemic’s effect on me, however, was greater than anything I’d experienced before, except in nightmares. Since I was little, I’ve had recurring terrors of getting swallowed up by an enormous, impossible wave, so high it crests over the mountain that loomed over my childhood. Such was the might of my COVID tide. I watched in horror as everything once familiar became crushed, waterlogged, unrecognizable.
My quarantine story, too, was one of environmental unmooring. Due to various health concerns, my girlfriend and I sheltered in place all spring at her childhood home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, rather than in our Chicago apartments. Prior to our 13-hour trek, I had not spent longer than a week in the South.
Don’t get me wrong: We were lucky. Very, very lucky. Through it all, my girlfriend and I kept our jobs, retained our apartments in Chicago, and avoided contracting the virus. The psychological toll, of course, was a different matter entirely. The short length of our relationship (less than one year at that point) and a persistent feeling of dependence on her family’s kindness amplified insecurities I’d previously kept at bay—to say nothing of survivor’s guilt, literal and figurative. All my colleagues got furloughed; eventually, so did my girlfriend’s mother, a pediatric palliative care nurse. I anguished over being unable to offer much-deserved, much-needed compensation to the freelance writers I worked with, instead filling my workdays with enragingly frivolous social media busywork. I was stuck staring in a mirror, and I loathed what I saw.
So. Like I said, musical curiosity is the first to go. The next to go is my memory, which explains why I draw a blank recalling most music I heard between mid-March and late May 2020. In an attempt to feel some sort of connection to Winston-Salem—my home-that-wasn’t—I went on hours-long daily walks throughout the neighborhood. I remember listening to a couple albums over and over again, as though in an aural holding pattern: Nnamdï’s BRAT (I stand by this one), Fetch the Bolt Cutters (like everyone else, it seemed),then the new Strokes album (reviewed witheringly in Pitchfork, because of course it was).
Then, nothing. It’s not that I stopped listening to music—not at all. But looking back, I no longer remember what came next. Nor do I remember how I filled those fraught days, except watching the global death toll rise, and rise, and rise.
I think it was on one of those aimless walks that I first heard Kelsey Lu’s Church. I wasn’t familiar with them at all beforehand; as someone who marinated in the classical world almost exclusively until college, I’m always playing catch-up, then huffing indignantly when I “discover” work that’s been in the zeitgeist for a while. (In Church’s case, that’s about, oh, four years.)
I don’t remember the exact context in which I first heard Church, but I do remember the moment which glued it to my recalcitrant memory. The opening track, “Dreams,” winds together looped cello harmonics, delicate and detailed as a spiderweb. Listening to it now, I imagine myself suspended, embryonically, in the womb of Lu’s cello. Bowed, then plucked utterances thicken the texture, and, just as you’re expecting all seven-and-a-half minutes to unfold fully instrumentally, it enters: Lu’s smoky, pliant, soaring voice.
I’d like to imagine my ambling legs stopped cold at that moment. Again, my first hearing is a blur. But they’ve certainly frozen in place every listening since.
An untold amount of days later, on an errand run to Food Lion and the ABC Store, I expanded my listening to the rest of Lu’s discography. “Morning Dew” had just dropped; I floated through Blood again and again, taking a long detour in my girlfriend’s mom’s car to buy myself more time. It felt fortuitous, even fated when I learned that Lu—then known as Kelsey McJunkins—was from North Carolina and, as a UNCSA grad, once called Winston-Salem home. Like the foothill roads I drove that day, Lu’s music weaves and bobs and sometimes doesn’t go anywhere in particular, at all. But each turn reveals new horizons. I wish I could have seen clearly then, as I do now, that the vantage point, not the destination, is everything.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the back porch of my girlfriend’s house in Winston-Salem again. We’re here to help move my grandma to the eastern part of the state, an occasion that is also tinged with tragedy. In October, the virus came for me indirectly but inevitably, as it did most everyone, when I lost my aunt: music lover, inveterate concertgoer, and, after my dad bounced, my second mother. Her death accelerated a family exodus out of California, away from the mountain–cum–high tide line of my nightmares.
Re-listening to Church almost exactly a year later, in the same place I came dangerously close to self-destruction, is no easy task. As they admitted in an interview this fall, Lu feels the same. “I have a hard time listening to Church now because I can hear the pain I was going through then,” they said.
My aunt’s loss could have been another insurmountably numbing moment. In some ways, it was. But the past year strengthened muscles I didn’t know I had. Against all odds, I have become more present as a listener and musical thinker than I have my entire adult life. Instead of lamenting something irretrievable, I embrace the ears I have been given, and the care I can show in using them. They are blessings I will never take for granted again.
I don’t want to overly rhapsodize: Discovering Lu was no panacea. In fact, far from it. To this day, I’m not certain I can honestly claim Church as one of my favorite albums, much less Lu as one of my favorite artists. But the fact that I found Lu’s music while sheltering in their onetime stomping grounds—even if I did have Spotify’s insidious algorithms to thank for it—felt fortuitous, even fated.
“I'm losing all my control,” Lu sings in “Dreams.” The past year has only piled more and more meaning on that line, until the associations jut out like impasto. I am a sense-making creature by nature, which has made this unceasingly senseless year all the more debilitating.
So, to feebly cling to what control I’ve got, I’ll hold Lu’s album close. It was a gift—one I’m glad to have, however belated. More than that, I’ll lean on it while I continue to live in a way that honors our losses, including that of my aunt.
Her name, by the way, was Lu.
Hannah Edgar spent their quarantine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.