For the past week, I’ve taken breaks from staring blankly into the middle distance to dip deeper into my record collection than I have in years. There are a few albums and artists that always work for me. I’ve found that the country-blues singer Mississippi John Hurt is a reliable and instantaneous balm, no matter what’s happening to me or to the world; his voice is exuberant and playful, like two fuzzy puppies rolling around together. A performance he did of the folk standard “John Henry,” filmed in 1965, is plainly, inarguably delightful. I’ve been watching it almost every morning. I feel similarly about the Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence; his gurgling, grumbling version of “Jump in the Line” is so weird and sublime that, no matter how despondent I’m feeling, it becomes hard to suppress a goofy smile. The resilience of the Dixie Chicks is a source of perennial inspiration; Phoebe Bridgers recently made a skinhead disappear. Bad Brains, Bert Jansch, Bessie Jones—the best thing about records is that, even when you don’t have anything left to give, they keep showing up for you.
I checked in with a dozen musicians to see how they’re navigating self-isolation and which songs, albums, or artists they’ve been turning to for comfort, peace, joy, whatever. I loved listening to their picks, and I hope that you will, too.
I’ve just been in the crib, enjoying my house, since I’m always travelling. I’ve been listening to Baby Keem, Kendrick Lamar, and new music. I’ve been creating. Working out is a must, and I decided to pick my paintbrush back up. This is a time for self-reflection and relaxation—giving time to those things and people that matter most to you.
I’m about to release a record that I’ve been working on for two years, dead center in the middle of a pandemic. I’m sitting in my house with my family, disconnected from the world, as if we live in a lone house in the Great Plains—but we live in the city of Nashville. Life is about to slow down to a foreign pace. I’ve found myself sitting at the piano a lot. I have no shows to play. I may do some online stuff. Bottom line is, music will be the thing that gets me through. It’s always been that way. This upcoming album, “Love Is an Art,” is a meditation on how we are shaped by relationships and how that affects the way we love. I’m not going to delay the release of an album like this; it’s meant for times like these. I just got about six hundred copies of it on vinyl, which I was supposed to bring out on tour to sell—so I opened one of those and have been spinning it. I’ve also been streaming WQXR, the public classical station in N.Y.C., “The Idiot” by Iggy Pop, “Man Alive!” by King Krule, and “Japanese Melodies” by the Jean-François Paillard Chamber Orchestra.
During this period of self-isolation, I’ve mostly been playing Stardew Valley and a DS Pokémon game and watching TV. I’ve got a big pot of my mom’s soup to get through, so I’ve been trying to stay at home and not get too stressed about being out of work. I’ve been listening to the new Grimes and Caribou a good amount, and I’ve also really been enjoying Sasami’s new song “Mess.”
Last night, while cooking up a big batch of food to get me through a few days—one day was whole fish cooked in fermented black bean, and, though I rarely eat meat, yesterday was Instapot Irish goat stew!—I listened to the latest from Christine and the Queens and from Moses Sumney. Rather than going to the old and familiar for comfort, I head for the new and innovative—that is what gives me hope and succor.
Like everyone else, I’m a little bit in shock. Crying in the grocery-store parking lot. Keep thinking about the old man in pajama pants buying Pringles in bulk at the CVS. Keep thinking about a way to connect or make some gesture of community—some grand statement that could heal in some way. The reality is, I’ve got some processing to do before I can get beneath something [too much on the] surface. In the meantime, I’ve been turning to records I loved in high school. Records that fit like worn-in jeans. Familiar friends. Records I can sing along to. Sufjan Stevens. Wilco. Nick Drake. S. Carey. Bon Iver. Feist. Iron and Wine. Arcade Fire. You know the type. I’ve been dancing in my kitchen to records I loved in college. Tinashe’s “Aquarius,” Rihanna’s “Anti,” dvsn’s “SEPT 5th.” I’ve been listening to a lot of live records and taking comfort in the sound of many people in a room. Pretending it’s my room—half-full bowls of popcorn, single socks, and all. Patsy Cline and Leonard Cohen. Talking Heads. The Grateful Dead. I haven’t had the desire quite yet to tune in to new music, but I’ve got a couple records on deck for when I end up there. Tame Impala. Soccer Mommy. Caribou. King Krule.
I am helping my mum and dad isolate, trying to get my head round that, and falling in love with the silence. Otherwise I’m listening to “Ecstatic Music of the Jemaa El Fna,” the “Wicker Man” soundtrack, and new stuff, like “Metal Preyers” by Jesse Hackett and Otim Alpha.
I’ve been writing a lot. I have a one-car garage out back that I’ve stocked with favorite books, snacks, and records. Writing and making art out of whatever is stressing me out has always helped make sense of it, even when nothing makes any sense. A lot of artists I’ve talked to are feeling this way and diving deeper into what they do. They’re taking more risks and finding new ideas more than ever right now. I think on the other side of this there will be so many incredible new novels, poems, paintings, records . . . everything. I’ve also been appreciating board games again. I strongly recommend Ghost Blitz, ages eight and up. The three artists I’m playing the most these days are Cowboy Junkies, Rancid, and Willie Nelson.
As a songwriter, I spend a good deal of my free time alone in my studio working on music. That being said, I’m having a hard time utilizing this quarantine for fruitful, creative isolation. I work best when I have a healthy balance of alone and social time, and this crisis has thrown that completely out of whack. What has really given me a sense of purpose, as well as a connection to the outside world, has been doing my daily live shows. I’ve committed to doing one on YouTube/Facebook every day at 4 p.m. Pacific Time. I’m taking requests, playing covers, and directing people to organizations in need of non-monetary assistance. Selfishly, it also gives me something to look forward to every day. As far as what I’ve been listening to, I’ve really fallen head over heels in love with the new Eluvium record, “Virga I.” I’ve also been listening to a lot of Stars of the Lid. Both acts have a wonderful way of filling the space around me with subtle, droning beauty, making me feel less alone.
In navigating my self-isolation, I’ve been reaching out to a lot of friends, cooking, reading, working on music, and watching lots of movies. I’ve also rearranged my house and gone on Instagram Live to connect and sing duets with some of my fans. I’m trying to really settle into being at home for the next few months, whereas I usually am never here for more than two weeks at a time, given my busy touring schedule. I’m going to get some new plants and try to really breathe life into this place and take advantage of the sudden downtime. I think the biggest thing will be taking care of my mental and physical health. Making sure I get some physical exercise while also giving myself plenty of rest and room to pig out. For example, I plan on knocking out a lot of the movies from the Criterion Collection, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also knock out a few horrible Adam Sandler junk-food movies for good measure. For music, I’ve been obsessed with Alabaster dePlume’s album called “To Cy and Lee”—it’s incredibly meditative and calming. I’ve also been listening to Yoko Ono’s “Season of Glass,” namely the song “Goodbye Sadness.” I’d also recommend Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie Prince Billy’s album “Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties.” All the lyrics are taken from fortune cookies, so it’s very uplifting. Trying to keep the tunes as positive as possible.
Since I work both as a performer and a solitary writer, I can shift gears, turn my attention inward to my record collection, and explore. I’m writing about Seattle at the moment, so I’m listening to Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone and the Melvins for the roar, and then Sister Rosetta Tharpe for her positive clarity of hope. The Jamaicans hold sway over these apocalyptic times, Gregory Isaacs and Count Ossie, and, yes, gotta dance, so get out the disco twelve-inches. I always finish up with Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”
The coronavirus pandemic has been like no other phenomenon I’ve ever witnessed. The breadth of its reach, the seeming geometric progression of events, along with the chaotic manner in which information is unfolding, makes it a little difficult to maintain a grasp on what’s going on. Things seem to change by the day. I have a new album coming out at some point, and though the main body of my tour in support of that album is planned to begin in August, we’d also booked some earlier dates, in May, and thus were supposed to begin rehearsals this week. On Friday, I conferenced with my agent and managers and decided it would be best to cancel those May dates and not convene for rehearsals. So, for now, everything’s on hold. A couple of tracks I’ve been listening to lately are the new single from the Killers, “Caution,” which I played on, and the new one from Haim, “The Steps,” which is also great. And my son turned me on to the new King Krule album. He’s someone I find very interesting—a touch of Joe Strummer! But, mainly, I’ve been listening a lot to my own album, as I’m right in the middle of mastering. That’s something I’ve continued doing, as it’s important to finish as many things as possible and have the album ready when things eventually get back to normal.
I was already in self-isolation before this crisis. I don’t mean that as a joke. I was taking some time to recover my creative energy and spirit, which, for me, means a great need for solitude. I had planned to come out of my self-imposed hibernation for spring. Those plans are, of course, greatly altered now. I have several underlying conditions, as well as two parents in their mid-to-late seventies with chronic health problems, including diabetes and hypertension. My concern is greatest for them. As far as my routine, the advice I have, as an expert in isolation, is to remain aesthetically stimulated. Read everything you can. Talk to yourself. Make up monologues. Look at color charts. Read about the history of ink. Listen to every sound around you in focussed detail. Alter your environment in small ways. Move things around. You have the time now. Unless you are my sister and you have to work from home with two children out of school. She has less time than before. Listen to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps.” My favorite piece of music ever. Especially part five, “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus.” My favorite recording is by the Tashi Quartet, from 1976. It was written in great duress, at a prison camp in the Second World War, and its composition is worth reading about.