London is a cosmopolitan city—diverse and modern, vibrant and eclectic, and perpetually hip yet carefully shrouded in ritual and ceremony. With the back of the great lion Churchill looming against monuments of centuries past and future, and the ghost of Virginia Woolf around each neighborhood corner, London’s great mystery is not one of secrecy, but of bounty. In a city charted by such grave and great history, where will you go?Read More
Put simply, content marketing is having a meaningful conversation with your audience. It’s a friendly armchair chat—the art of communicating without selling. These days, having a content-driven marketing plan is not just essential—it’s crucial.Read More
You've built a rock solid brand and defined your core purpose, now what? It's time to build an audience that believes in your brand, and communicate your value to that audience. This is the second in a series about brand strategy.Read More
This is a three part series and a refined excerpt of a presentation I gave last month for fashion entrepreneurs in conjunction with People Wear SF and the San Francisco Fashion Incubator. While it’s a generalized overview of branding basics, there are reminders for brands of all sizes about the art of crafting and telling your story. If you have questions, or want to unearth some deeper ideas together, do something crazy: drop me an old-fashioned note using the helpful form located here. Let’s dig.
The Power of a Brand
Let’s start from the beginning. Even every word has a good origin story, and brand is no exception. The word brand comes from the Old English and is of Germanic origin. The Old Norse word brandr means “to burn”—alluding to the practice of physically burning a mark or a brand onto a product. It turns out creating permanence is painful.
It's often cited that the British brewery, Bass & Co, claims to be the first brand as they registered their iconic red triangle as the very first trademark under the UK's Trade Mark Registration act of 1875. After registration, the Bass red triangle logo went on to score some really prime product placement in things like Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, various Picasso paintings and even James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Today we live in world where there are over 3,000 breweries in the US alone and hundreds of brands for things as necessary as water, soap, and even toothpaste. With markets this saturated, and the continued power and prevalence of technology and social channels, the noise in the consumer space is louder than ever. So, how do you set yourself apart and create a brand that people will tune into?
My suggestion is both simple and inherently challenging: tell a good story. Your brand is nothing more or nothing less than a story that you never stop telling. Understand the story before you begin, know who’s listening and who you wish to listen, and be relentless as you craft your tale. You don’t have to be the only person telling that story—today more than ever it’s hard to be a first mover—but you do have to leverage the authenticity of your story in a way that connects to a particular person, group or place. The process of branding is simply attaching an idea of value to a product or service.
Telling an Authentic Story: Define Your Purpose
Biologists use storytelling as one of the key differentiators that defines humans from other primates. Stories tap into our base human need for mythology—to be heard, to feel understood and to relate to others. At their core, stories help us begin to understand the ineffable nature of life and connect to those around us who are going through similar—and often isolating—experiences. This is why we see a staying power for social media because it fulfills the very basic human need to share stories and check in with your social circle. Even though it’s not palpable, it offers that sense of shared experience that we’re often so hungry for.
No matter where you are with your brand—whether you’re a startup or years into the process—it’s always important to define your core values and continually align those with your overall brand strategy. Do you know what your vision is for the future? If you're a team, do you all use the same words when talking about your mission? If you don’t know what your core values are, or if you've lost sight of them, here are the key tenets of your brand’s identity that you should know with intimate familiarity:
- Brand Promise
- Key Values
These beliefs and values define your brand’s core purpose. The core purpose is your brand’s center, its narrow lens of focus that helps to align all brand messages and define your:
- Brand Position
- Value Proposition
- Target Audience
- Company Culture
Simply put: take time to get to know yourself. It's as true for a brand as it is for a human. The confident, cohesive vibe that comes across when someone truly knows who they are is one that people are pulled toward with a gravitational force —it's what I like to call brand swagger. Much like the origin of the word brand itself, if you want to create something permanent and meaningful you have to be willing to dig deep, get to know your core purpose, and then use it to set yourself on fire.
In the second series I'll dive a little deeper into communicating that swagger, creating disciples, and putting together a content marketing plan that catches fire.
I first heard the music of Tom Rosenthal in Sam Esmail’s 2014 movie Comet [i]. The song was Rosenthal’s “It’s OK” from his 2013 album B-Sides. I paused the movie to find out who the artist was and how I didn’t already know him—the memory of that melody stayed with me for days. How deftly his music oscillates between hope and alienation, performing like a music box dancer who moves like it might break free of a destiny confined to those same twists and turns for all of eternity—but, alas. I quickly listened to 2011’s Keep a Quiet Room Behind the Shop and 2013’s B-Sides and found that this brazen sentiment wasn’t unique to just this one song but Rosenthal’s whole anthology of work.
The sounds of Rosenthal could certainly draw comparisons to other singer-songwriters—the classic sensibility of Paul Simon, or perhaps the more modern and also London-based Keaton Henson—but the whole of his work stands out as his own. It's startling elegiac, inventive, modern and even bucolic. Rosenthal’s low and gruff voice sings against the sounds of soft guitar, but it’s the dampened piano notes that carry the rawness of his vocals along; and the whimsy he introduces with whistling melodies, violin, voice recordings and the ukulele even further engage the listener’s imagination. The body is an instrument more than anything else, and Rosenthal uses every playful opportunity to create sounds that match the ineffable, mysterious nature of humanity that he sings about.
Lyrically, the songs have the power to knot you up a bit. As vulnerable as the lyrics are—themes of loss, confusion, nostalgia, and mortality —the sounds take you on a journey that is often diametrically opposed to the lyrical impetus of the song. In “Non-Verbal Communication,” the ukulele strums along to a bright and upbeat drum tempo, people clap in the background and Rosenthal sings, “where do we all go my love?” It doesn’t get more existentially confounding than that. And the themes only get more relevant and inky in songs like “YOLO,”[ii] “Watching You Watch YouTube in the Dark” and “Don’t You Know How Busy and Important I Am?”
It's songwriting that’s honest, unfiltered and essentially strange. At times it reminds me of the storytelling voyages that Mark Kozelek (Sun Kill Moon) takes us on—where the banal meets the sensational with the clever pen of a candid storyteller. See songs like: “Toby Carr’s Difficult Relationship with Tuna,” the epic storytelling in“The Boy,” the peculiar zeal and animation of “Lonely Pigeon,” the frolicsome “Watermelon,” and all the intensity bundled inside “There is a Dark Place.”
Rosenthal’s latest release, The Pleasant Trees (Volume 2)[iii], was released at the end of 2015. With just six songs, the album is softly melancholy, affectionately hopeful and could easily compose the whole soundtrack of a well-made romantic comedy. Seemingly an ode to a life yet lived—both for his young daughter and for those who could learn to begin again. But don't skip over Rosenthal’s more experimental songwriting. He’s one I’ve got my eye on as he makes his way, asks questions, and takes soaring risks that won't be popular with the mainstream. To borrow from the artist himself, “we’re all babies making stories, stories.” Spending a few hours with his music is a bit more like taking in an expressionist painting, meant to inspire the tumultuous evocation of moods, emotions and ideas. Perhaps there is not a sound for all the things we will find along our way, but this comes really close.
[i] A wonderfully messy movie with the talky, manic rhythm of MR. ROBOT and the heart of something like (500) Days of Summer. Not perfect, but certainly worth a viewing and currently streaming on Netflix.
[ii] Seriously, how is this song not in a commercial yet? Be sure to listen all the way until the end. YOLO was too much for me too, Tom.
[iii] He also released the excellent Bolu in 2015.
I’ve compiled a playlist of some of my favorite songs on Spotify, but be sure to cut into some deeper tracks for a full experience. You can also find Bolu, Who’s That in the Fog?, B-Sides and Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop on Bandcamp. There's also further material and really great covers on Soundcloud, including the saddest version of Bootylicious that you ever did hear.
I am not as bleak about the future as Bolano, or so I set out to be. I am writing from a computer in a car as makes its way northward through what feels like the bowels of LA. South of here, in the heat of some forgotten desert, I can imagine the frantic mind of a tired novelist as he strikes at keys like a demigod to finish one final, apocalyptic sigh. It took me a year to finally finish Bolano’s 2666. The pages spanned the year’s breadth and I finished it just days before Christmas; without realizing it, it became the lens that colored the rest of the culture I experienced this year.
2666 is a book mostly concerned with violence and death; it seemed a fitting read for this violent year. Against its savage backdrop, I became mostly interested in cultural works that really struggled against something, whether themselves or some greater force. To borrow from Bolano, I wanted to observe “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” It was a year to get to know fear. How peripheral that task can feel at times; and yet, how essential it can become. Three interludes—a book, a television show and a documentary—stood out in their attempt to wage the struggle.
2666, Roberto Bolano
It turns out the future is bleak. The dessert is full of nightmares and each one appears like an apparition—hazy, determined and dressed in macabre robes. Composed of five parts, and originally intended to be released individually, the novel was instead released after Bolano’s death as one giant juggernaut of tensions that nearly crawl off the page as they beat towards a future that looks like a gathering baroque graveyard.
The novel focuses on a series of events and people that all converge around a growing sense of doom in Santa Teresa, Mexico (based on Cuidad Juarez): a group of literary critics looking for a reclusive German author, Benno von Archimboldi; a Chilean professor who arrives in Santa Teresa with his daughter and fears she will become another victim of the femicides that haunt the area; an journalist from Harlem named Fate who comes to Santa Teresa to report a story; a chronicle of all of the murders of hundreds of women and the police efforts to stop them; and a young German soldier and writer named Hans Reiter. Bolano brings all of these stories together will a mastery that is chilling. To read this book is to understand how a great master quarrels and bucks against wreckage and chaos. The pages are alive with mess and obsession and the story is a testament to the unfathomable nature of an evil that lurks outside every door.
The Auteur Spars: The Leftovers
We are in position to be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of great television. There is much too see and not enough time to keep up, or binge-watch everything that Netflix, Hulu and Amazon can produce. Earlier this year as Don Draper sat on that Big Sur cliff and reinvented himself yet again and Jon Hamm crawled onstage to finally accept his Emmy, a curtain fell upon the so-called Golden Age of Television and it was clear that another trend was forming: the uncompromising vision of the auteur.
The best shows of 2015 demonstrated an unyielding, dazzling and often jarring vision: Jill Solloway’s Transparent, Noah Hawley’s Fargo, Sam Esmail’s MR. ROBOT, Ray McKinnon’s Rectify, and finally Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers. I’ve had my challenges with The Leftovers since the first season, which left me battered but still committed to watching. The second season—with a change of location and a corrected course for the problems that plagued season one—was a chance to see Lindelof take novel, brave and desperate chances with storytelling, and it became (with some admitted reluctance) my favorite show of the year.
Lindelof's work in season two proves that he is a storyteller who is unafraid to take risks, and right mistakes of the past by doing so. International Assassin—arguably one of the best episodes of television this year—read as bold and strange and human, when it could have easily been penned as Lost-runoff, or showy storytelling with no substantive backbone. Though it may be tormenting to some, it is a show that never has been about answers. The great auteurs will go to battle with their most oppressing themes, and in many ways The Leftovers is just that—a return to a theme that seems to haunt Lindelof: understanding how humans behave when exposed to the most tragic and unfathomable situations, and the great mystery of existence that we’ll just have to let be.
For a very informative, funny and intelligent conversation about Lost, The Leftovers, storytelling and the perils of criticism listen to the Channel 33 Podcast with Andy Greenwald and Damon Lindelof.
Romeo is BleedinG
I stood in the back of the theatre pressed inbetween a wall and a man who surely thought I was a coat rack to see this documentary. It was the one feature I didn’t want to miss at the Napa Valley Film Festival and it was the best documentary I saw this year. In fair Richmond, where we lay our scene, the documentary follows Donté Clark’s journey to transcend violence through spoken word poetry in a city torn apart by a turf war between neighborhoods. Donté sets out to write an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in Richmond—a devastating plea to a city and a population of youth splintered by a senseless war that plays out much like the fates of the Montagues and Capulets. In this case violence is deeply rooted—inherited like a family heirloom—and grown into something much stronger than an epidemic, it’s an ideology.
Donte’s efforts—along with a very dedicated teacher and a local community organization—provides a platform for the community to speak out, and a reminder that a voice can fly as sharp as those rogue, cylindrical projectiles that ended so many lives this year. It’s a love letter to a city torn asunder, to youth, to the power of a voice, and certainly a plea for a peace—even if that plea may go unheard in the dark.
Directed by Jason Zeldes, best known for editing Twenty Feet from Stardom, the film traveled the festival circuit this year and is out for very limited release. I can only hope this film spreads into the places where it belongs—living rooms, schools, juvenile prisons, and places like Richmond where the only chance for peace might be something as unexpected as poetry. And if that may be the weapon, wage on.
Last Friday, Grantland—the sports and pop culture website founded by Bill Simmons in 2011—was shut down by ESPN. In a statement that reads like a “Most Sportsmanlike” award being handed out to the least athletic player on the team, ESPN gave applause to Grantland for its “quality writing, smart ideas, original thinking and fun.”
In an era of internet journalism where content generation trumps storytelling, revenue has little to do with readership, and information is crafted with "likes" and waning attention spans in mind, Grantland felt like a golden era. It was journalism that valued the craft of writing, long-form storytelling and the art of finding the story that would make readers feel something.
I first heard about Grantland from Simmons—and all of my male friends’ unchecked enthusiasm for all things related to this Sports Guy—but my interest was further peaked by early the involvement of Bay Area writer Dave Eggers. In the winter of 2009, Eggers and McSweeney’s published a one-time 300-page Sunday-style newspaper called the San Francisco Panorama. I rushed out that morning to get a copy of my own, and it was all mine for just $16. It was an experiment in an age of print media eulogies, but it did what it was intended—it gave life, once again, to a tired and uncelebrated form. How exciting it was to see long-form articles with no word restriction spread out against color photography, and feel the pages slip in my hands as I turned them. Certainly, this was a much different project than Grantland; since 2009, the internet has taken even more measure to replace print, and has been largely successful doing so. But my early hope for Grantland was similar—that it too was going to uphold a fading form and have the balls to take risks and celebrate creativity in the face of a changing landscape and audience. And it did.
Grantland boasted some of the most talented journalists of our generation during its era, and boy did they write. It was smart, informed writing that wasn’t afraid of the spirit of the zeitgeist. They celebrated prose, but understood how to make it dance online and how to grasp ahold of their digital audience in the process. Some pieces were much too long for print; other pieces decorated themselves with videos, images and gifs like a powder room made more inviting for visitors. Often, it was unconventional. It was a site that published Mark Lisanti’s Mad Men Power Rankings, Rom-Com Week, Paul Thomas Anderson Week, a bracket on anything really, and Rembert Browne’s exceptional, hilarious and often heartbreaking Who Won series. On the same site you could read about PEDs, Taylor Swift’s squad, Game of Thrones and Michael Brown. Sisqó's Unleash the Dragon and a first-person account of Ferguson are both wrought with the kind of extra personal sentiment that this generation has penned, and often demands. It’s passion really, and it will claw your heart out if you’ve only been fed a healthy diet of inverted pyramid reporting.
Perhaps that’s the thing about journalism today. The who, what, where, when and why aren’t all that relevant when everyone has four of the W's in 140 characters before the story makes it to the editing room. It’s the "why" that we wrestle with. It’s the “why” that so many Grantland articles stridently tackle, and in a way that speaks to an audience influenced by social media, bloggers and real-time footage (see Who Won 2014). I made the mistake of reading some opinions about Grantland’s demise, and the seediest things thrown around were naughty words like “blog” and “first person narratives” and “ideas from within." How naïve—how remiss—to write something off that has the fingerprints of its author on the page, especially in this age. Blog on.
Until both of their telling podcasts deaths, I could listen to Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan (Hollywood Prospectus) and Wesley Morris and Alex Pappademas (Do You Like Price Movies?) talk about anything. I was on a run the other afternoon listening to Andy interview Seth Meyers. At the end of the podcast I heard that all too familiar phrase, “For more Grantland in your ear balls…” It felt like such a loss for my ear balls, eyeballs and sports balls everywhere. Grantland was above all a collective personality of really smart, diverse and intelligent people. And we were friends—albeit in a strange, digital, esoteric way. It was a place to gather insight, to be around smart opinions, to laugh and to consider changing your mind.
In our digital, always connected but still detached approach to news media, Grantland provided the kind of journalism that this age merits: writers—first and foremost—informed like journalists, but passionate and wide open like you and I. Let’s take a leap and call them what they are: fans. This kind of enthusiasm can’t be shutdown, put to bed, or suspended like school children, or Tom Brady for that matter . That it was, that people will talk about, and that it will remain archived on ESPN (or we will revolt) is Who Won 2015 .
 That was for you, Sports Guy.
 See Rembert’s future article that will not appear on Grantland.
Here’s a suggestion. Head to Grantland.com and read it all. Read all of Andy Greenwald’s Game of Thrones recaps, all of Molly Lambert’s Man Med recaps, read the way Zach Lowe writes about basketball like it’s the most beautiful and precise thing on the planet. Read or listen to Chris Ryan on, well, anything. Go the movies with Wesley Morris, or let Katie Baker tell you about marriage. It’s all worth your time.
Just in case, I've pulled some links together. I’ve missed many and couldn’t possibility include all my favorites. These are a few that came quickly to mind, and that speak to what was so unique about Grantland.
The Front Lines of Ferguson by Rembert Brown
Porntopia by Molly Lambert
Who Won 2014? by Rembert Brown
At Least One Real, Authentic Moment of Humanity with Cameron Diaz by Alex Pappademas
Wu-Tang, Atomically by Amos Barshad
The Third Revelation of Father John Misty by Sean Fennessey
‘Mad Men’ Power Rankings: Episode 714, ‘Person to Person’ by Mark Lisanti
Slow Burn: The Excellent ‘Rectify’ Returns for a Second Season by Andy Greenwald
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Couldn’t Lose an by Oral History by Robert Mays
‘True Detective,’ Season 2, Episode 8: ‘Omega Station’ by Chris Ryan
The Consequences of Caring by Bill Simmons
A Fighter Abroad by Brian Phillips
Home Is Where the Hockey Is by Katie Baker
The Trade Deadline Diary by Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons
The Sea of Crises by Brian Phillips
The Dr. V Story: A Letter From the Editor, by Bill Simmons
I've missed a ton, especially in sports, and I feel more disappointed than people who watched all of True Detective's second season. Please add your favorites to the comments.
If you can walk, bike, hitchhike, fly, burn bridges down on the way to, take a rusty Greyhound with strangers, or otherwise traverse some bone-treaded road to get to San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, you must do so.
A legacy gift of Warren Hellman, private equity pioneer and banjo-believer, the festival takes place every year in Golden Gate Park for three days, is entirely free, and is built on the belief that good music should be experienced by the people. I’ve set the scene in a previous piece about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, but it’s worth noting again that the crowd is heterogeneous, convivial, and spirited in a way that people who paid for festival passes could never be. Go to melt in the sun or disappear under the ubiquitous umbrella of fog, while some legend of bluegrass or lesser-known singer-songwriter warbles stories that could only be built from this country’s rootstock.
You can view the full the full schedule here, but I’ve compiled a list of a few acts who I think are not to miss this year. It goes without saying that this list doesn’t include the more obvious choices such as T Bone Burnett, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle and The Dustbowl Revival (and so on).
A singer-songwriter of Scottish origin, Johnathan Rice is probably most well known for having a few of his songs from Trouble is Real featured on The O.C. and his ongoing collaboration with Jenny Lewis as Jenny and Johnny. His latest solo release, Good Graces, plays like a love letter with a few ominous notes, and has a 70s funk infusion that feels fresh and vintage in just the right way. Just so long as he plays The Acrobat on Friday.
The Oh Hellos
This sibling duo—Tyler and Maggie Heath and one rockin’ band—hails from Texas and are going to set fire to the Swan Stage on Friday. Don’t believe me? Just listen to Eat Me Alive or Wishing Well from their 2012 release, Through the Deep, Dark Valley. They sing about grief and lamentation with a sanguine exuberance that beats like a drum in the back of the throat and makes it way down into toes that somehow have maintained the desire to dance. Their newest album, Dear Wormwood, will be released on October 16th.
Conor Oberst Brings Friends for Friday
Based on the crowd at Conor Oberst’s shows at HSB over the last few years, I’m not sure people need convincing. But this year he’ll hit the stage following the likes of his fellow Monster’s of Folk band mate, M. Ward, along with The Felice Brothers, and Laura Marling. Need I say more?
The Milk Carton Kids
Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, a duo that certainly must be influenced by the quiet and wistful harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel, write the kind of songs you should listen to while driving away from somewhere, or someone. An apparition that will soon fade into a memory plays back like a blurry image from a travel reel (see: Michigan). The Milk Carton Kids released their beautiful new album, Monterey, in May of this year. It’s a contemplative album that follows the whims of the road—loneliness, longing for home, and the slipperiness of time; and much like the scenes from your rearview, they are sounds you won’t soon forget.
I accidentally discovered Joe Pug a few years back in Austin when I decided that the venue he was playing that night would be the best place to see a show (bless you, Stubb's). It was his tour for Nation of Heat, and I’ll never forget hearing Nation of Heat, Hymn #101 and Hymn #35 for the first time in that place. If you’ve seen him live and experienced the fervor with which he tells his stories and the relentless honestly he uses to craft them—you’d never question that these songs certainly are hymns. Let’s worship.
Gregory Alan Isakov
Please listen to If I Go, I’m Going and come back and tell me you that don’t want to hear this man’s voice settling like mist above the Blue Gum Eucalyptus, pines, and redwoods of the park. Isakov has a lo-fi voice that could crank forth from some ancient radio and deliver good news from an era we forgot long ago.
Did someone say rhythm and blues? At approximately at 4:55pm on Sunday, some things are gonna heat up at the Porch Stage. This southern crooner hailing from Athens, Alabama released his debut album, Delilah, in July of this year. Like the legends before him, East spent time recording songs at the iconic FAME studios and it’s not hard hear that influence lingering in the cadence of this album. If the house of those old ghosts is where he’s getting started, it's only up from here.
Here’s a long form Hardly Strictly Bluegrass playlist featuring these artists and others that you can enjoy until Friday:
When Ryan Adams announced that he would cover Taylor Swift’s 1989 in its entirety, I have to admit that I was a little perplexed. 1989 is arguably the shiniest pop token from 2014 with anthems that female teenagers (and models, males of every age, moms and roughly 5 million other people) sing along to as they play every 30 minutes on the radio. Hearing that Adams would cover Bad Blood felt a lot like watching that guy in the garage band with long hair, worn vans and blistered fingers embrace the prom queen with unfeigned sincerity[i]. As a longtime fan of Adams and an occasionally unapologetic singer of Taylor Swift ballads, I was largely intrigued to see how these pop songs would sound in Adam’s capable hands[ii]. Admittedly, I am that jerk who’s never listened to all of Swift's 1989. I thought about giving a full listen before delving into Adams' unironic tribute, but I abstained to see how these pop songs would metamorphose into his alternative, heartland style.
Bad Blood was the first song released and it was refreshing to hear this silvery-produced anthem stripped down to sound more like Tom Petty than anything that would make the Top 40 these days. Wildest Dreams left behind the synth-pop orchestra for a guitar lead that sounds like it could have come straight from last year’s self-titled album, Ryan Adams. Blank Space is sparse and supplicating and could rest against the other songs of Love Is Hell. But mostly, it seems that Adams went right back to 80’s rock to find his own take on 1989—a record that could have come from exactly when it says it did. For her influence, Swift sites Adams as an inspiration for her own writing. Under close scrutiny, I’m not sure all the lyrics hold up against the melancholy that Adams adds to the album, but the earnest lack of restraint in the storytelling feels related to Adams’ writing in a way that works[iii].
No one could ever say Taylor’s songs are impersonal. It’s clear that she leaves everything on the page, and many of her ex-lovers (is it really not Starbucks lovers?) might recognize themselves as characters in her next music video. But it often feels like she romanticizes some distant past that she didn’t experience. In the hands of Adams the nostalgia is laid bare; the sounds are wearied and mature and the lyrics provide a gut-kick that doesn’t translate in Swift’s production. Perhaps that’s just the way that time has its way with memorializing heartbreak: Swift was just 11 when Adam’s Heartbreak was released; Adams was 15 when Swift was born in 1989. “When you’re young, you run. But you come back to what you need.” When you’re older, you have no where else to go but back to the sinking ship. It’s the songs that have him wrestling with the same loss we’ve heard him tackle in the past that I continue to come back to: Out of the Woods, How You Get the Girl, and the previously quoted This Love.
Today Ryan Adams is trending on Twitter alongside the Emmy winners and all the other Monday morning “trends” that surprise and ruin us all. The softness of an unlikely singer-songwriter paired against the brutish glare of pop culture’s blindness; but somehow he doesn’t seem out of place here. Perhaps it’s the comfort and ease with which he reaches across genre and fanbases to rework the album of one of most iconic pop stars of this era. It’s a space where he seems rather secure, surprisingly or not[iv]. Either way, Swift fans get a fresh perspective on her album and hopefully a chance to dig into Adams' great catalogue, and longtime Adams’ fans can perhaps understand what was there all along in 1989 that we didn’t hear until it was reimagined for us. It’s am embrace we least expected, but the fact that it might defy a single expectation about "popular" (and alternative) music is a triumph for today. Are we out of the woods? Certainly not yet; but I can see the light from here.
[i] We broke this cultural stereotype long ago (or at least I hoped we did), but watch any music awards show these days and you’ll remember just what sort of strange sadness built the hierarchy of high school popularity and how that overflows into music today.
[ii] He’s been preparing us for a cover record since Wonderwall.
[iii] Think of the pleading uncertainty of Come Pick Me Up on Heartbreaker, minus the harmonica. Because thinking of Taylor Swift with a harmonica is too much for me to process today.
[iv] After all, up until recently he was married to a former pop star. I suppose if you don’t want to write your own break-up album, cover someone else’s. And do it just like this, please.
As the story goes Låpsley is Holly Lapsley Fletcher, a classically trained multi-instrumentalist from Liverpool. By the age of 12 she was writing her owns songs; eventually she started producing her own music by way of her bedroom, and caught the attention of listeners on Soundcloud with her sparsely layered electronic sound and emotional songwriting. In 2014 her first EP, Understudy, was recorded at XL Recording’s London studio where she joined the label’s good company of Adele, FKA Twigs, The xx and Radiohead (just to name a few). Not too shabby for a young lady just shy of 18 years at the time. To follow in the wake of Understudy she released two sophomore EP's with XL this year: Station and Hurt Me.
Låpsley has a voice that lasts longer than memory—sometimes soft and pleading, other times determinedly full of something well beyond her years. It’s music that urges to be listened to alone—a closed-bedroom intimacy where the heat of the sun waits just outside the door to go up in smoke. Shortly after discovering Understudy, I dug into the rest of her music and couldn’t help but conjure the image of Icarus who so loved the beauty of the sun that he flew too close for his waxen wings to bear. It’s the painted wings promised in Painter (Valentine), the cautionary tale of backwards glances in Burn, and the hope carried on tired backs in Falling Short: “You could say this is not too far to carry this.”
But unlike Icarus, it’s a not hubris that threatens to burn here, but a defiance against youthful sentiments and a coming of age that is transparent, brazen and buoyant. The sounds she conjures are creamy-smooth and modern (influencers in emotive electronic like James Blake and Jamie XX can certainly be heard), but the stories told are ones that humans have been telling for years: love, heartbreak, failure, learning to wear our own skin and the fate of the future. The maturity to face it now—and head on, no less—is some kind of fresh heartbreak; but if this is the kind of music she is making in her teens, I can’t wait to hear what the future will sound like.
Of all of the EP's released of this year, I’ve listened to Station the most. It begins with the imploring, haunting quality of Station, and the the state of desire required to just walk on no matter what awaits at the station, which can only imply leave-taking. Though it sounds like a duet, Holly produced the vocals and track alone, perhaps making the sentiment and duality here even more elegiac. The video for the second song on the EP, Painter (Valentine), directed by Harvey Pearson is not to be missed. It’s a love story told in fragments and beautifully drawn around a couple, a painting, and a book that’s missing some of its pages. Like any valentine, it’s a reminder that nothing is truly linear—certainly not time—and especially not love.
I watched David Ramirez in the movie Between Notes, listened to American Soil (2009) and Apologies (2012) and wasn’t surprised to see him touring with talented storytellers like Gregory Alan Isakov and Joe Pug, but when I listened to this year’s Fables I felt like I was hearing this voice for the first time. Rebellious, reflective and wounded; it feels like a story that has no intention other that being truly told. Without asking for answers, it tries to reconcile with what it means to make music for a living. It seeks to find the place where fiction begins and truth wounds, and wonders what happens if no one is listening at all.
There’s been little living inside my speakers for the past few weeks other than Fables and Noah Gundersen’s Carry the Ghost, so it didn’t come as a surprise to learn that Gundersen helped Ramirez produce this album. Though certainly unique artists with different stories to tell, there is a riotous spirit and rawness to these albums that ties them together. It’s an art for art’s sake sensibility, unaccustomed to music made to rest easy on ears and top charts for acolytes.
The album begins with Communion, signaling a sharing of something much more intimate than what we partook of in those grape-hued cups. New Way of Living demonstrates how quickly belief can dissipate when words don’t come readily, and battles that age-old conflict between art of sincerity and commerce. Moving further into a vulnerable place, Harder to Lie explores what it means to love without invention: “When it comes to loving me you best be ready 'cause this will get heavy when you learn just what I am. I fed you fables with words from my tongue trying to make you think that I was a better man than I was.” Lovers are often liars and it’s not something that we often talk about; how meek are the vulnerable to uncloak our tongues from the stories we’ve built around ourselves?
The album slowly works up to what feels like the great finale of Ball and Chain—a ballad to the man behind the microphone. With an ending like this I’m left wondering about the burden of the artist and the desire to continue to tell stories no matter what the cost. I can’t imagine people won’t listen to this album, but even if not one person did, it would still be worth it.
You can purchase Fables here. In the spirit of both Fables and Carry the Ghost, I found a wonderful cover of the classic Girl from the North Country by Dylan and Cash. While you’re at it, you should check out more from SerialBoxTV.
The following are ten, wonderful short stories that are available to read online. I have chosen them because they represent different literary periods and are told with different voices and new types of language. I could have selected 50, but I'll leave you with this for today. Consume them all together, or sift through them with a slow hand. But certainly don’t underestimate them for their brevity—it’s always the fleeting things that leave us winded. Learn the language of shortness of breath, and lap it up with page-stained tongues.
Hint: Click on the title to be directed to the story.
James Joyce, The dead
If you haven’t read any of Joyce’s great beasts yet, consider this your toy-box introduction. The Dead carries all the weight of his other works but will not give you carpal tunnel from leafing through the pages. It's also a great dive into Modernist literature's themes and nightmares: centered around a party it conveys a sense of impending tragedy, demonstrates the fragmentation of reality and internal perception, and culminates in an epiphanic moment that brings forward ideas of mortality, rebirth and resurrection. It was one of my first forays into the Modernist sensibility and I’m still in love with it. Read this story with today's zeitgeist in mind and see what it tells you about this "less spacious age"—perhaps we’ve always been trying to crawl out of that creaky modernist vessel.
John Cheever, The Country Husband
I could have directed you to The Swimmer, but I’m partial to The Country Husband in this case. The story follows Francis Weed, a suburban businessman who survives a plane crash at the beginning of the story, only to return home and find that his family is too busy with their evening rituals to care. What follows for Francis after his incident is a blend of fantasy and reality, where reveries prevail over the physical world and at nightfall men can climb snow-capped mountains and ride elephants like kings. This is what Cheever does best, cloaking the mundane in the absurd and extraordinary—often leaving us unsettled along the way.
Amy Hempel, In the cemetery where al jolson is buried
If you haven’t yet read Tumble Home, pick it up this weekend and devour it like dry earth that breaks open for wetness—because it will require an opening and in the end it will devour you instead. I read Hempel for the prose and her brilliant, infuriating skill with metaphor: “She laughs, and I cling to the sound the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to the thrown rope.” Within this short story and inside her terse, but witty and tender language there is more understanding of grief than anywhere we could go looking for it, should we least expect its advances upon us in the meantime.
George Saunders, The Semplica-Girl Diaries
From the structure, to the language and the story itself I don’t think I’ll ever forget the imagery that this narrator and his Semplica girls left behind. No one quite paints a world like Saunders, and adopts the language so masterfully to match that vision. The diary entries that inform this story chronicle both the banality of days and major themes of oppression, aspiration, covetousness, and the sadness that often comes with being responsible for another’s success or happiness.
Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
At times reading a Carver story feels like discovering the bones of something meaningful and hoping there is more. His spare prose and brisk way with developing story off the page can feel a bit jarring. But I deplore you to let Carver punch you around a bit with his craft; a few days later you’ll find that his stories are still clattering around in your ribcage. From the collection of short stories of the same name, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of his most famous stories and has an ending I could never forget, even if I tried.
Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Mortality. Drink. Women. Sex. Discontentment. Love. The consequences of money. And masculinity while we're at it. The artist’s burden to create, and the desire to somehow endure. That corporeal grappling with time and belief (in anything) and the willingness to write about it in a world that has numbered our days. It’s classic Ernest, and it’s always worth a revisit to the mountains that have slain us.
Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard To Find
The queen of the Southern Gothic will twist you into knots with this story that begins like comedic satire and quickly moves into tragedy. If goodness is only momentary, is it goodness at all? And what place does grace have in the same sentence as evil? Find out for yourself, for the beauty of this story is reading it for the first time and letting the story's moral terror sink into you like a field's first plow.
Dave Eggers, About the Man Who Began Flying After Meeting Her
How apt a hand that crafts whimsy, hope, love, adventure, weightlessness, obsession and a sense of impending sadness in just 377 words. It's worth the few minutes it will take you to read.
Virginia Woolf, Monday or Tuesday
Everyone should have a lurid affair with Virginia’s prose at some point and this artful stream of consciousness bares her signature—the weight of time, an unmet desire for truth, and the use of color, nature and everyday surroundings to demonstrate a yearning for something more than this moment in time, perfectly kept. If the prose isn’t for you, at least consider the punctuation; it's an art form.
Vladimir Nabokov, Symbols and Signs
Call it a weakness, but I’ll never be able to compile a list on writing without including Nabokov. Very little happens in this story, but every moment and object inches us further toward calamity—the hospital, the missing keys, jam, soiled playing cards and phone calls. And yet, there isn’t anything that Nabokov doesn’t make sing on the page, including jam apparently. But it’s the symbols and signs themselves that one should look out for—are they the story itself, or are they empty talismans that distract us from a much more pressing narrative at hand?
These are not the ten best (how could we ask that of them?), nor are they the only (there is a menagerie of worlds like this we could fill our heady days with). A special note of “I really wish I had more than ten stories” goes out to Franza Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sherman Alexie, Lydia Davis and so many countless others.
Noah Gundersen’s second full-length album, Carry the Ghost, does exactly what it says it will do. It carries—with blunder and doubt and some nerve—those phantoms that haunt us all. Compared to last year’s Ledges it feels raw and uncut, like listening to something as unrehearsed as nightmares. I’ll admit that it took a few listens for this record to take hold, but when it stuck it stayed with me. I thought Ledges was one of the better albums of 2014, but the folky fiddle and layered sounds on songs like Ledges and Boathouse made that album easy to spin with a group of nonbelievers. Whether it was his intention or not, Carry the Ghost is an album that makes you feel like it wasn’t written for any purpose other than the undertaking of ghosts themselves—carrying the messages of those things that we haven’t yet learned to rest with.
Gundersen has always showcased himself as a confessional songwriter, but this album features a kind of introspection that reaches out willingly for those dark mysteries and wants to know them. He tackles his own artistic methods in Selfish Art, is haunted by a love lost in songs like Show Me the Light and Planted Seeds, and releases the idea of a God he grew up with in Empty from the Start: “I think I heard good man say, ‘God is love and love has made us.’ But have you seen the news today? I have, and I think God has gone away if he was ever there anyway. 'Cause anyone that tells you they were born good is lying. We’re just born and we are dying.” As if in defiance to pop music itself, the language of this record promotes nothing more than a slow sloughing of unseasoned skin—a letting of belief, god and love.
I was not surprised to read that Gundersen wrote these songs while on tour for Ledges. There’s a solitude that’s often required for this kind of writing, and there was something in these songs that prompted me to recall that "life of a ghost" in Kerouac’s On The Road. If the literature of the beat generation, or the albums that follow long tours are any indication, the apparitions will find us when we are least ourselves and away from home. The ghosts that we encounter in postmodern music and text are built around a psychological haunting; they reveal an unexpected presence—a dissonance between space and time, a memory untethered, a visitation from the past, and a longing for something that we can't ever touch. Ghosts are real, so long as we let them live and slog them around with our faulty and sentimental memory. But the good news for Gundersen is that even though we are just “blood and bones”, the ghosts will outlast us and so will this revelatory album. In the spirit of the great troubadours that precede him, this is his best work yet.
Feeling haunted? Me too. I’m a bit consumed with the presence of ghosts in music, literature and postmodern storytelling. I’ve had a running playlist for some time that I always add to. Give into the ghost.
Earlier this year, after five years in San Francisco, my husband and I packed up our tiny apartment that was perched on a foggy slope overlooking the mouth of the Bay. Its contents were damp with salty air. It was not a lavish space by any means—in fact it was growing mold and dust and decay in every corner by the time we left—but it was ours, and we managed to fit the yields of our years within those very thin walls (hi, neighbors who lived above us). On one occasion we even hosted a Thanksgiving celebration and had so many people carefully spooned into that apartment that I can still feel the heat of all those bodies in one small space.
All of us eventually learn the same lesson about space. The urge comes for room—indistinct from the bruises earned by curious extremities—and we listen before we outgrow our desires and abandon them. In February we found a house in Sonoma just outside of Glen Ellen, packed a UHaul with everything that would fit, and headed north to make claim to our land. [i]
I always imagined I would settle along the sea, or at least close to the edge. I think it’s the sense of water actually commingling with land, and the eternal return of the waves that signals both newness and an incomprehensible vastness: there is more possibility than you conceive, but you must act fast.
The Valley of the Moon
We settled in wine country—another kind of holy water. Where the fog pats quietly along the valley floor in the morning, and moss grows on the trees like it did in the dark, vampy Northwest of my youth. As an added bonus: grapes grow everywhere and every season they squeeze their harvest directly into your mouth and you’re under the influence of their juices in a matter of minutes. Seriously.[ii]
The best part of moving somewhere new is the drunken exploration; uncovering the stories that make it unlike anywhere else you’ve been. Jack London lived here in the Valley of the Moon, and wrote a novel (of the same name) about a couple of labor workers who leave city life behind in search of land to farm. Life gets busy and I haven’t yet had the time to write the next great American novel about Sonoma; just give me one more lifetime. But I do hope to share some of the stories that make up the façade of this land of grapes and honey.
Stories from Sonoma
I hope you’ll stick around as I share some spaces, places the faces from Sonoma that are doing rad stuff, keeping tune with life’s riotous narrative, and having a grand time doing it. Check back for weekly updates and do let me know in the comments if you have suggestions or a penchant to explore something specific in these parts.
It takes some time to settle in and I'm still getting my bearings on newness, but I can elaborate on whether or not wine is food group, who Chuck Williams is and why he’s so obsessed with my kitchen appliances, and what they meant when they named this valley after our night's most perfectly illusive satellite.
[i] Yes. Just like Tom Cruise in Far and Away. However, instead of that, home ownership looks a lot like those money emojis with wings. Farewell, my lovers.
[ii] Comments in this article are not endorsed by Sonoma County, its winemakers, Bacchus, or the people who purportedly squeeze the juices into all of our thirsty mouths.
The night sweats. I’ve had them a time or two. Waking while dreaming, wet like a preowned dance floor, short of breath and looking for some acquaintance in the dark. The Night Sweats. What a name for a band. From the first notes I heard of their self-titled album I knew why this name felt so apt. These are songs that will make you lose water—if not from dancing, brown water, or heavy turquoise accessories and denim—simply from time, loss and everything else that moves unaccompanied through the night. I played their first two releases, Howling at Nothing and S.O.B., on repeat for days. And then, with the rest of America, I witnessed this perfect raucousness.
If you haven’t yet spent time with Nathaniel Rateliff’s solo albums, please don’t hurt my feelings and give them all a spin immediately. I have an ever-growing list of “songs I wish I wrote” over which Rateliff holds a strong monopoly. In Memory of Loss was released in 2010, Falling Faster Than You Can Run in 2013 and Closer earlier this year in 2015. These songs are a far cry (and a big band) from the fast-tapping, knee-slapping rootsy tunes he’s produced with The Night Sweats but no one can deny them their soul. It feels as though Rateliff’s sorrow-filled writing and gruff voice was just waiting for a little more drum and a horn section.
This is not your father’s record [i], but it sounds like it could be and against the other sounds slipping fussily out of radios these days. So it’s no surprise that Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweat’s debut album was released on Stax records, the house that brought us Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Eddie Floyd and Booker T. & the M.G.’s [ii]. There’s a sound here that will easily draw comparisons back to Stax alumni of the 60s, and certainly one can hear that Van Morrison sway as well (it really comes through in Wasting Time), but against the current popular music landscape it feels entirely fresh in a way that demands fervency, fullness and total abandonment.
At a time when soul is making a fashionable comeback with artists like Leon Bridges and Curtis Harding (and certainly Rateliff) at the helm, I can’t help but hope that this means a space in popular music for the kind of secular testifying that took place in the 60s that spoke to the gospel of human experience so much louder than the music itself. Something tells me we're hungry again.
[i] Even though it looks like it from all appearances. All hail turquoise swag, hand tats and chest hair.
[ii] For further information about Stax Records and a great read check out: The Power of Ordinary People: How Stax Records Set an Example for America.
Deep cuts from Nathaniel Rateliff’s earlier records not miss: We Never Win, Brakeman, Oil & Lavender, Three Fingers In, Falling Faster Than You Can Run, Winded.
If you’re feeling it, I put together a Quick and Dirty Soul Playlist for you to vibe to. It has classics and new voices and is sure to get you movin’ and feelin’.
There’s a sound that summer makes—hot off the tongue and quick to burn in untamed light. Sometimes it’s sinful like flesh singing on a hot grill, the slow sigh of a beer can’s remorse, or the cries from nighttime’s children as they chase the day’s foregone conclusion. Other times it’s languid—the quiet lap of water—a sensation that gives way to melting, more than anything. Time drools and promises that days may never end.
I’ve been thinking about summer reading lately, as my reading habits have differed significantly since last year. Perhaps all of ours have. Digital media and television have refashioned the way that we consume fiction. Since the onset of Tony Soprano’s panic attack in 1999, the "golden age of television" has been vying for the same time and attention we used to parcel out for reading novels. How could you be convinced to spend a few hours annotating Infinite Jest when you could indulge in some absorbing diversion on Netflix without ever turning a page?[a]
Do not mistake me, if it were released tomorrow I would watch five more seasons of Mad Men in five days in the kind of hazy stupor that only Don Draper knows how to wake from. I am a unrepentant fan of television and the masterful shows of recent years that unfold like novels and tell stories with the character development, nuance and restraint of great literary voices. What David Simon, Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan have done for television is entertaining and critically lauded—reminiscent of the serialized Charles Dickens novels of the Victorian era.[b] It’s not a stretch to imagine people being as equally invested in the weekly adventure and overall fate of Oliver Twist as they were in Jesse Pinkman.
It’s easy to get enraptured, to follow the ineffable joy of becoming engulfed in the pace of plots dosed out like morphine. But here’s what’s strange about watching fiction on television: when I consume a show I am a visitor in someone else’s fully realized vision—asked to make assumptions, connect with fully drawn characters and often suspend belief—but I am not asked to imagine, create or decide; that work has already been done for me. Language has taken shape as either action or dialogue, characters are cast as discernible faces, and visual perceptions are arranged inside frames and parceled out for consumption by episode.
Do not mistake me, I’d love to tell you what makes Rectify and Mr. Robot so great this season. But for now, I’ll read a few chapters of a novel and hope that we don’t lose the seduction of reading language on the page. Perhaps reading a novel is like summer itself—tangible and carnal, demanding all of your capacity for attention at once, promising newness. It will take time. It will take imagination. It will eat at you if you’ve done it right. It will leave you hungry.
In the spirit of summer’s heady dance with the indefinite, I’ve suggested some reads that pair well with lakes, cabins, pools, beverages, beaches, airplanes, fields and whatever other weapon or vessel you have in mind. But don't call these beach reads; though they are as entertaining as television (gasp) and do not require spark notes (mostly), they are intelligent, imaginative, and persistent in their quest to uphold language and storytelling.[c]
Featured Summer Read: The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
There’s a sound I think of when I think of The Art of Fielding; a wooden snap that bobs in my memory like I’m eighteen and covered in grass stains that only youth could ever make last. I read this novel like a coed at play, never thinking about the consequences of time. There were moments so familiar, or seemingly so, that I wanted to live inside them. Part nostalgic, sometimes precious, but always firmly rooted in psychological realism—it speaks about sports, race, sexuality and identity in a way that is both old-world and fashionable.
Current Summer Read: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
I’m reading this with a friend—together, but apart. Perhaps we’ll talk about it occasionally. Perhaps we won’t; but we’ll know that we’re reading the same thing at the same time. And, together, we’ll have two very different experiences because we are two minds apart, and that is a most intoxicating thing. Join us, if you'd like.
Suggested Summertime Reads:
[a] Those masterful fools don’t even let you press the “next episode” button yourself.
[b] Many comparisons have already been made between Dickens and television shows like The Wire (David Simon)—both imagined in the serial form, but enduring as the popular "fiction" of their time.
[c] The ironic thing to be noted here is that many of these would make a perfect miniseries, or have already been considered for one by writers and networks alike. See: HBO Passes on The Corrections Pilot, Really Terrible Internet Casting Ideas for The Art of Fielding.
Books. How delicious. If I could I would literally eat them, but the paper eaters in kindergarten never fared well so I learned to refrain. It’s possible I’ve always loved reading; my mother tells stories of finding me folded into corners behind coat racks and lamps with a book in hand—legs stretched together and woven through the base of the stand like a feeble anchor. I might still be there if conventions allowed such behavior, and if food delivery services were invented much earlier. I learned more about human existence from books than I ever did from schooling; so I became an English major where you are allowed to feel feelings when you read textbooks and grasp at that bedraggled human condition, if nothing else can be held in your hands.
Books. They have been the truest companion, the most accurate critic and the harshest lover—never allowing one to walk away from ugly bedfellows like truth and loss. I cursed Austen for making marriage the point of it all, learned more about men from Hemingway, Kundera, Diaz and Chabon than from anyone who might love me in return. I shaped visions of the terrible future from the pen of Orwell, Bradbury and Huxley. I cried—finally understanding the power of brevity—into the creases of Hempl, Carver and Jane Anne Phillips. I wrestled (and still do) with Nietzsche, Kant and Kierkegaard. And here I haven’t even touched on human rights, reason, feminism, power and love.
We are what we consume, they say. But we are also what we choose to actively share. Inspired by a recent blog post of Seth Godin entitled You Are What You Share, I got to thinking about my commitment to sharing the written word. After all, we shape our definition of culture with the opinions and perspectives of those who advocate what they love. The role of the critic in society has vastly changed given the power of media and other instruments of opinion, everyone has a voice that lends itself to the collective scholarship of perspective. With this in mind, I set out to share literature with anyone paying attention, or seeking to do so. From my library to yours.
Hand-Curated Reading Lists & Libraries
If you are looking to read more, seeking intellectual growth, have a reading goal for the year, or simply want to start again but don’t know where to begin—this is for you. Based on a simple but outrageous questionnaire and your aspirations for reading, I will create an approachable reading list for your literary palette. It takes away the guesswork and ensures that your emotional and analytical horizons will be expanded. Think of it as similar to those "required reading" lists you received from professors in college, only sexier and built specifically for you. And then—list in hand—I will force you to purchase the books from your local independent bookstore. You’ll love it.
Likewise, if you’ve come into an unexpected or mysterious fortune and are looking to expand your library to an impressive stature, or even to match a set of books to that tangerine-hued couch you inherited from Aunt Irene—I can do that too.
Book Club Events & Literary Salons
A book club event does not have to be a bunch of ladies (seriously gentlemen, where are you?) sitting around a ghastly large hunk of cheddar discussing Gone Girl between bites of gossip and sighs of palpable discontentment. Reading is alluring and built around narrative, so the same should apply to your lettered event. If you have always wanted to start a book club, join a serious one, or host a literary salon but don’t know here to get started—this is for you. Proust should be discussed over hot-from-the-pan madeleines and tea, Joyce over pints of Irish beer and unleavened crackers with a bowl of shaving cream as a centerpiece. Faulkner requires heavy doses of patience, whiskey cocktails, boiled peanuts and perhaps a playlist featuring anthemic, gothic tunes that lend themselves to the book's themes. I’m dreaming of something outrageous and already got you started on the tunes.
The Sound and the Fury Playlist
- For those of you who have already been receiving these services for years free of charge, please remit payment immediately.
- For a limited time only and while supplies last, I’m lending my bookish musings gratis. If more people still read than I anticipate (let it be so), tell your friends, spread the word and we’ll see if we can’t make something out of this (read: dividends for me; literary delight for you).
At night we could hear the echo of clattering hooves on the cobbled street below our hotel window. When we rose in the morning the sun-chased light buried into the window, burned through leather-bound curtains and warmed the room like oil’s kiss on cast iron. Warm and lured into a state of leisure, I quickly discovered that Seville is not a city that inspires you to jump from bed each morning and join the maddening crowds at the next tourist spot. It is a place to be drunk in, slowly—a chewy sip of something meant to age and breathe and intoxicate.
After seven bustling days spent in Paris, I leaned into Seville like an old lover. I arrived late and weary and laid upon down at the Alfonso XIII, where I awoke to a buffet breakfast that perhaps Shakespeare wrote his sonnets for. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? In equal measure it is a city that allows for the languid measure of time, but its sultry mood also inspires the kind of hunger you can’t satisfy with another chunk of Manchego.
Resting on the edges of the Guadalquivir River, Seville boasts a 2,200-year-old history. Originally founded as the Roman city of Hispalis, the city was conquered in 712 by the Moors and was ruled by various Muslim dynasties from the 8th to the 13th century. Eventually, Ferdinand III brought his Christian conquest to Andalusia and took Seville in 1248. Seville became the economic center of the Spanish Empire after the Americas were discovered, prompting a golden age of arts and development—the city sitting as the gatekeeper between the New World and the rest of Europe. It is the city from which Ferdinand Magellan set out to circumnavigate the Earth; it is where Christopher Columbus is entombed. And with the other giants of its kind, Seville eventually saw it’s fall when the river that birthed it’s economic position gave way to the silt of time and age.
Today it is an amalgamation of this history—filtered through palettes of colorful change, resolute culture and the unidentifiable smell of desire. I didn’t visit Seville in summer, but it was hot in the sun and I navigated the city on foot under the brim of my hat, shaded by a café umbrella, or walking the narrow, winding streets from one tapas bar to another—perfumes of food and echoes of flamenco music following down the corridors. Time drifts idle on leftover saucers, and the hunger of summer is marinated with things leftover from history’s past, much like the fruit floating in your sangria. Take your hunger on the road and consider these sights and experiences during your next visit to Seville:
Seville Cathedral and The Giralda
The cathedral is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the largest gothic cathedral in the world and is where you can visit the tomb of Columbus. Take your time and wind through all the outer chapels to explore the unique art, artifacts and various styles of architecture. The Giralda was the former minaret of the Muslim mosque and was later converted into the bell tower for the cathedral. At night, the light of the Giralda will lead you down the bar-speckled Calle Mateos Gago, and eventually guide you home.
The oldest palace still functioning in Europe, the quarters are still used by the royal family as their residence within the city. Here you will see architectural influences ranging from Arabic to the Middle Ages and Mudéjar, not to forget the Renaissance, Baroque and even the 19th century. Visually and spatially, it is something to behold. If we still worshiped actual film, I would have dedicated a whole roll just to tiles and landscaping. I recommend the audio tour and at least a half-day to make it through all the rooms and gardens. Let them shock you with their changeable shapes, like history always does.
Maria Luisa Park & Plaza Espana
I am not one for touristy gimmicks, but I am one for horses and they are prominent within the Santa Cruz area—all the ladies in beautiful hats run to pet their fly-ridden faces. Reluctantly, we overpaid for a carriage ride that took us around the Jewish quarter and into Maria Luisa Park and to Plaza Espana. It was worth it. Whether you walk, take a carriage, or rent a bike, every great city’s park should be explored; this one is no exception.
Commonly known as the Las Setas de la Encarnación (The Mushrooms of the Incarnation) this large wooden structure designed by Jürgen Mayer-Hermann sits in the middle of the old quarter like a strange, imported saprophyte. On the underground level there is Antiquarium that houses Roman and Moorish ruins that were uncovered when they were breaking ground for a parking area. The elevator takes you to the tops of the wooden mushroom caps where you hoover like Helios and see the city for miles in every direction.
Museum of Fine Arts of Seville (Museo de Bellas Arte)
Housing one of the finer Spanish art collections within Spain, this museum feels like a quiet secret tucked off of the Plaza de Museo. Everyone should see a Murillo in person once in his or her lifetime; here is the place to do it.
Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla
It’s easy to imagine the heat of the bullring, the cheers of the spectators and the sounds toreros make as they face the blood-red shudder of their opponent. I didn’t visit during bullfighting season, and also learned enough from reading Death in the Afternoon to understand that I might not have the stomach for it. You can walk around the Arenal district—nestled against the left bank of the river—visit the arena itself, tour the museum and even see a fight during the season if you're up for it. But on the quiet days, I swear you can hear sanguine cries of blood-thirsty heroism off in the distance.
So Much Tapas, So Much Sangria
Take to the Barrio Santa Cruz on foot and you will find unlimited options for enticing tapas. It’s overwhelming, really. But the true magic of tapas lies in the fact that you can experience a few plates at one location and move on to the next. Don’t limit yourself to just one spot, or to just one plate. Try everything, and then try it again. The afternoons are sticky and quiet in Seville as businesses doors close and owners stroll casually back to their homes for an hour or two. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned in this sultry city is about time: there will be more of it coming along shortly—seemingly dripping much slower here; slow down, sit down and have another sangria.
Blame the Babylonians, I say. We can trace New Year’s rituals and celebrations all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia and the Akitu festival, marked by the first new moon after the vernal equinox of each year. The Ancient Egyptians celebrated Wepet Renpet, a festival memorialized by feasting and religious rites that occurred after the heliacal rising of Sirius in the night’s sky. The Romans celebrated the new year by giving offerings and wishes to Janus, the god of beginnings, subsequently of endings and also of doors—as the doors to his east and west facing temple were closed only when Rome was at peace.[i]
I didn’t make a New Year’s Resolution this year. I threw around some slippery ideas like getting back into photography and attempting to master the formidable lady pull-up[ii], but I never set anything to intention. In the past, I actually have been successful with a few resolutions. Last year was the year of the literary tome; I’ve also vowed to accomplish very specific things and succeeded, like attend a music festival before I grow too old, make it through a month cleanse and complete a half marathon. But I’ve also made ridiculous resolutions like drink more water—how does one even measure that, in boats? And certainly I too have fallen prey to the exercise trap; the one that gets abandoned a few weeks in, or after you can never again manage to step foot on another treadmill again—crowded out by the sweat of all the January newcomers and their sheer, lusty desire. You’ll come back in February. Measurability seems to make the most sense in terms of goals, but what about those common, beautiful human things that don’t always come so naturally.[iii]
Via Brain Pickings I read a beautiful list of Woody Guthrie’s 1942 resolutions and was struck by the simple humanity of them. Things that one should always do, but not otherwise resolve to, unless we continue to remind ourselves. I plan to get up at 6:30 everyday but there’s no possible way I can do it without an alarm, a parade and some light substance abuse. Guthrie’s list contains things as banal as “shave,” “take a bath” and “change socks”. But it also contains things as enigmatic and heartbreaking as “learn people better,” “don’t get lonesome,” “dream good” and “love everybody.” How simple these things sound—like the morning alarm bell that hastens us—but how great they are in actuality, and how often they oppose us.
In my failure to make a solid resolution this year I thought about the Roman god Janus and how he is often personified: two-faced—each head aligned to face the opposite direction, outwardly one body, but one face gazes back and the other looks forward. Often the faces are depicted differently, one is bearded and the other freshly faced; perhaps one is wise and old and the other is young and looking with angst toward the future. Or could it be the wise, elder man who is brave enough to stare right into the future’s east and the cowardly youth who beats back into the glow of the eternal west. Unlike the god of beginnings, we cannot look both forward and backward, that is the job of those to whom we entrust our faith, or our mythology.
I can’t shake the vision of this god of the neophyte, with his two watchful faces looking upon closed temple doors at the east and the west end of his temple—conveying a calm, undisturbed city. For a peace-loving Libra like myself, it’s a pleasant thought. But really, it’s stifling warm in here and we need some fresh air. Closed doors don’t lead anywhere new; just like opportunities not taken and questions never composed. The truth is that art, change, vision, leadership and revolution are only accomplished by those willing to open doors—and especially those doors that have been boarded over for years, vacant and stagnant, or already attempted many times before. But then, it’s fear again; that paralyzing vapor that sneaks up ghostlike behind the mislaid plan, or the wayfaring artist—consuming your vision and the aptness to see beyond yourself. There is doubt; there is the weighty fog of the unknown; there is the infinite ache of fear; but there are always doors.
So, I’ll wake up and fight. I wont fear a closed door, or what lies behind it. I’ll open the doors I come across—forcibly, and I’ll rest quietly with defeat, because trouble waits behind some doors, always; but to leave them closed in fear would be to miss the beautiful burden entirely.
[i] Information about Janus comes from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (New York: Warner Books, Inc. 1942. Print). Read it like a novel, it’s a classic.
[ii] My husband resolved to do martinis and apocalyptic survival skills this year; we’ll be a great pair.
[iii] Cast my votes for common sense, boundless decency and proper freeway merging in 2015. Please do what you can and use the zipper effect.
Taking a page from The Million’s Year in Reading, I compiled a list of the books that I read this year. It was the year that I set out to tackle a few of the weighty tomes that were taunting me from bookshelves, or tired of being made doorstops. I set out to see “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”Read More