I Made You a Mix Tape
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty obsessed with music.
Years spent planning events means I have crafted many a playlist and I now have somewhat of a penchant for the task. Collating just the right songs to produce the perfect soundtrack to a particular moment in time, I love it. If we’re going on a trip or a long car journey – I’ve got your aural pleasure covered. I am rarely in silence. I have to have music on in the background and prefer it to the TV - any day of the week, in any given lifetime. If I love ya, I’m probs making you a mix tape at some point. I don’t care if that went out of fashion in 1992 and is usually reserved for teenage girls with high school crushes, you’re having it.
For me, it holds the power to completely transform a mood; the right song can lift me when I need a boost, spur me on when I’m working out, keep me dancing on tables till 3am, rev me up for an important meeting or calm me down at the end of a stressful day. I’ve seen it completely transform the tone of an event or restaurant space, confidently articulating the soul of a place with every note – “this is us, this is who we are”. It’s the strongest evoker of memory for me, and a song can take me right back to a moment in time with such intensity I relive the feelings in the very pit of my stomach.
If you haven’t already picked up on the fact that I am one cool (not cool) AF individual, then feast on this. I have a bit of a fantasy about being on Desert Island discs…oh yes. I love the concept of embarking on an expedition down memory lane, using the soundtrack of your life as the compass and guide. I have such clear and definite songs that define an experience, I think I’d make a pretty damn good “castaway” if I do say so myself.
So in accepting the fact that I’m unlikely to ever be invited on Desert Island discs, I thought I’d have a wee go on my own…told you I was cool. Aside from the lullabies sang to me as a baby, which I still know the words to by the way, the earliest song in my memory is “You Can Call me Al” by Paul Simon. As the story goes, my Dad used to crank this at full volume in a sort of Michael McIntyre “Pants Down” challenge (look it up), that meant wherever you were or whatever you were doing everyone had to down tools and congregate in the dining room. We would then dance around the table in height order, me at the very back being the baby of the family, until the song ended. Whenever I hear those high energy opening notes, even now, I get an urge for the Elsby squad to assemble and assume positions to begin the familiar routine. After the first dance at my wedding, the second song was this one and Dad and I rocked the joint like it was 1988. Not even sorry.
Fast forward to the year 2000 and the album that defined it – Coldplay’s debut “Parachute”. Needless to say it was on repeat in my teenage bedroom for a full 12 months. I was 15 and studying for my GCSE’s. As an English Literature enthusiast, immersed in Shakespeare and Harper Lee, I considered myself so “indie” and artistic as I swayed along to “Shiver” and “Don’t Panic” (a love for which was rekindled with the release of the movie “Garden State” some four years later). Coldplay became a gateway drug to a new genre of music, they led me to bands like the Strokes and Kings of Leon. It was a coming of age transition from the UK garage, All Saints & Spice Girls of my pre-teen years and for that, I am forever grateful. It was that same year I fell in love. My first love, and a relationship that lasted some three years, was played out to every track on that album. How I adored him - and the feeling, despite his piercing bright blue eyes, was undoubtedly all yellow.
Moving out of home and into halls of residence at university was done to the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”. There is something so poignant and epic about the song; a journey, leaving something behind in search of something new, a longing and an aching. It’s sentiment was not lost on my 18 year old psyche. It moved me then just as it moves me now. Instead of “counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike” I was counting new friends, new loves, new books, new bars that would be the backdrop of my next few years of adventure. We may not have been looking for America, but collectively we were in search of a new freedom, a stepping stone into adulthood and I was itching to get amongst it.
Fast forward many years and skipping over many songs and key moments so as not to bore you (graduating, a round the world trip after uni, a few more loves and a few more heartbreaks, getting into grad school, moving to London). It’s now 2007 and I’m living in a ground floor flat off the Abbeville Road in Clapham, with a feisty Aussie chick called Holly and a shitty entry level job in a local PR agency. It’s a Saturday in mid-December and we’ve spent the day drinking over-priced mulled wine out of plastic cups at the Hyde Park Christmas Fair. Suitably tanked, with red noses and red teeth to match, we decide it’s the perfect visual combination to take to a swanky little wine bar in Clapham Old Town. Sat at the bar, nursing my cocktail of the moment (Caipirinha) I see him the moment he walks in. My Kings of Leon, “King of the Rodeo” – who seemed a good foot taller than the rest of the room, dressed in a cowboy style red and white checked shirt amongst a sea of black and grey Londoners. He had a John Wayne swagger and a playful look about him that made it glaringly obvious he was from somewhere else. I liked him immediately. Holly lassoed that cowboy over to me and seeing as it was Clapham, he was of course Aussie. We got to talking, and that was it. As the song goes, I became that “cowgirl king of the rodeo” and the good times did indeed roll. They rolled for almost ten years; with two international moves, a wedding, a child and a good dose of laughter, tears and heartache to boot…until we hung up our hats, dismounted that horse and went our separate ways. When I encounter something challenging now, it’s with bittersweet pleasure I utter the phrase, “hey, it ain’t my first rodeo you know” and little do they know how true that is.
Before the closing of that particular rodeo however, there was a pretty significant move to a far off land down under that I cannot merely sweep over. It was arguably my most life altering experience to date, which has changed me irreversibly. The home girl; who was so close to her family, who spoke to her mum on the phone five times a day and made the trip from London back to rural Wales as often as humanly possible. I broke everyone’s hearts when I declared one day that “I love him and I’m going with him”, casually on a Sunday evening over the phone. That was October and by December I was on that plane, sat next to the Aussie boy I’d met only a year ago, with a one way ticket and no turning back. The first few weeks living in Australia were like a dream, it just didn’t feel real. It was Christmas, but 40 degrees, and it was all a blur of endless beach days, meeting guys with names like “Nelo” and “Skip” (I’m not even joking) parties and barbecues. For me Australia was and is “Empire of the Sun”. It’s bouncy, electro dance with a rocky edge, pseudo-machismo in flamboyant costumes. It’s “Walking on a Dream”, it’s boat parties and singlets, it’s schooners and salt & pepper squid.
“We are always running for the thrill of it thrill of it, Always pushing up the hill searching for the thrill of it”.
That says it all really. I fell in love with this nation of sun worshiping, party going, hedonists and I joined them on the pursuit of the thrill - gladly and without resistance. It was such a welcome relief from the doom and gloom of London I had encountered, with its credit crunch and its pay cuts. This was a vibe I was much more down with. I enjoyed many a year working for the most prominent hospitality group in Sydney; cutting my teeth planning, delivering and indulging in the most epic events you can dream of. Roof top pool parties with floating DJ’s and inflatable flamingos, drunken semi-naked revelers dripping in feathers and sequins. I worked at events with world renowned chefs; David Thompson, Peter Doyle, and the late great Jeremy Strode. I had my first experiences dining at three Michelin star restaurants and learnt about flavours, wine pairings and food presentation. Experiences that burst open my palate and my perspective - changing everything I thought I knew about food one taste bud at a time. I watched and learnt from leading visual story-tellers (Sandy Grice, Sibilla Court, Bettina Hemmes) as they transformed venues and spaces into living breathing scenes from your deepest and most indulgent fantasies. Australia made me feel like a rock star. Unrestricted by the class, pomp and ceremony of the UK – I felt like I could thrive and experiment without judgement. I learnt to exist without the constant cushion of support from my family and I both blossomed and hardened with the freedom that came with that.
The problem was, when the party eventually ended, as parties always do – I felt there was nothing left for me. Life got serious, very quickly, almost overnight. In the space of one crazy year we got married, got pregnant and we laid two beautiful young friends to rest (one to suicide, one to breast cancer). The music had stopped and the last light had been switched back on in the nightclub. All I could see was an empty room scattered with the detritus of a good time, and all I wanted was to leave the party and go home. It took me a full year to fall in love with Australia and the same time to fall out of it. I went from having a bustling social life, a stable career, a great tribe of mates, eating out three nights a week and enjoying wine-soaked weekends spent at guest houses on Palm Beach – to an inescapable emptiness and loneliness that was all consuming. I was a young stay at home mum, isolated and homesick. Navigating these huge changes and coming to terms with the losses of my friends, all whilst feeling so very alone. Our relationship had wasted away, slowly crumbling over years. An erosion that had gone reasonably unnoticed, masked by so many other distractions, until one night I realized he was sat on one couch and I was on the other. That was it. Simple and without drama or wrong doing. Like my old friends Simon & Garfunkel once put it “silence like a cancer grows”. There we were, with what felt like an ocean between those two islands of leather and cushions, nursing an incurable disease that I knew would be the end of us eventually.
The only relief I got from this feeling was when Charlie entered my world. He was and always will be my “Little Lion Man”. With his big brown eyes and golden mane of bubble curls, he was my anchor in a sea of doubt. He was my family and my best little mate from the moment he was placed in my trembling arms. As my husband and I drifted farther apart, completely ill-suited and ill-equipped to face a life that didn’t centre upon dinners out and a good time, my little lion man and I became more entwined in each other’s hearts.
We moved back to the UK a week after Charlie’s second birthday. We spent a year renovating a home in leafy Surrey, pretending that it was geography that was the problem. Now I was back on British soil perhaps we’d be happier. We kept up that pretense for a year and the day after Charlie turned three, after I had cleaned up the last remnants of deflated balloons and streamers from the floor of our suburban home, I called time. I was already home, but I finally left the party.
Months later, when that Aussie cowboy moved out of the flat he had been renting in Putney and decided to return down under, Charlie and I were indulging in our daily morning ritual of “party time”. Something I had created in the face of adversity: a morning PJ-clad dance around the kitchen to his favourite tunes in an attempt to lift our spirits and set the tone for the day. As “Little Lion Man” blasted out its familiar tune I fell to my knees and sobbed…
“But it was not your fault but mine, And it was your heart on the line, I really fucked it up this time, Didn’t I my dear.. Didn’t I my dear?”
Charlie, for what it’s worth I’m sorry my darling. For any loss you may feel and any heartache you endure – I am sorry. Grown-ups mess it all up sometimes you know. I hope that one day you understand that when something is wrong you can’t force it and you shouldn’t waste a life trying to. I hope you understand that I don’t regret a thing and that if I had my time again I’d still follow that king of the rodeo to Australia and back, because without those experiences I wouldn’t have you. We love you, and I will spend my life filling yours with as many party time dances, cherry kisses, fire side snuggles and story times as you could ever wish for. There will be no separate sofas for us little lion man, and no oceans between us.
The year that followed was rocky, with highs and lows as regular and extreme as a dodgy village fair-ground ride. I was so bone achingly relieved that the struggle was over. The crescendo that had been building had happened and could be put behind us, but the adjustment to doing it all solo was a harsh learning curve. I exhausted myself with over activity. I started working freelance again, taking on catering jobs, styling gigs, unpaid writing jobs to get exposure and experience back in the UK market. I networked the bejesus out of life and said yes to everything. I thought that the more places I went and the more people I met the more chance I had of making a success of my business and being able to provide for Charlie. I would parent by day and when Charlie went to sleep I would hand over to a babysitter and go to work, consulting for bars and restaurants whilst concealing yawns from clients. I was burnt out and exhausted. The life I had yearned for, being back home in the country I had missed so very much and free from the suffocating still of a lonely marriage…was a tougher gig than I had expected. I had no regrets, I was exactly where I wanted to be, but I was broken. The toll of the past few years caught up with me and I remember entertaining the darkest thoughts I have had in my life. I don’t know how to put this, as it sounds so shocking and a cry for help, but I assure you it is not. I never wanted to “end it all” per se, nothing as dramatic as that, but I vividly remember wanting to go to sleep one night and simply not wake the following morning. I didn’t have the strength to fight anymore, I had already fought so much. I just wanted peace and escape.
One Friday evening, I wasn’t working and Charlie was in bed. I poured myself a glass of red and slumped in front of the TV, idly flicking through the channels for something to watch. I stumbled across Alan Carr’s “Chatty Man” I think it was, and Lady Gaga was on. I’ve never been a fan of hers, or what I deemed to be over stylized manufactured pop, it just wasn’t my thing. I watched as she took to the stage to do a live performance of the title track from her new album. There she was; simple make-up, jeans and a cowboy hat, with her blonde hair naturally falling around her face. She looked completely different from the caricature version of herself I was used to seeing. As she started to strum on her guitar and sing “Joanne” I was transfixed. It was like watching Joni Mitchell or Eva Cassidy grace the stage again, I was transported to a completely different era. To me, at that moment, she was a brand new artist and I was just discovering her for the first time. The words and sentiment of the song reduced me to tears. “Take my hand, stay Joanne, Heaven’s not ready for you”.
As she pleaded, “girl, where do you think you’re going?” I sobbed. I sobbed for the loss; the disappointment and the pain, for the battle I had won and the battle I knew I still had before me. I sobbed for how robbed I felt from too many unhappy years and how grateful I felt for the promise of happier ones to come. I sobbed for Charlie, I sobbed for my husband and I sobbed for me. I sobbed until I slept, but when I woke the next morning I knew I wanted to be here. I played that song every day for six solid months, as a reminder of my commitment to stay present and not to slip away into the night. So to answer your question, Ms. Gaga, this girl ain’t going anywhere. She may be changed, she may be a little bruised, but she’s here and she’s got some fight left in her yet.
Life is certainly not one song. It may be more of a compilation album, or a mix tape if you will. But if not, instead let it be some great novel. With a beginning and an end, chapters that move the narrative along with intrigue, wit and grace. Characters that you love, some that you loathe and others that you love to loathe. It may end abruptly and leave readers desperately wanting more, or (like the Fifty Shades trilogy) ramble on and make you wonder “what was the point of it all?” As I sit here and write this today, the sun is shining, and I am about to embark on a new chapter in my story. A chapter I feel I have been working towards for five years, that I have had to struggle and soul search to get to, but here I am. Thinking about what I’ve overcome and what lies ahead I have a smile, not only on my face, but on my soul. I know that smile will fade at some point and I’ll have to work to get it back again, but I also know that’s a battle I will always win. Besides, on mornings when it’s harder to find, I have my music and my little lion man dance partner to help me get there.
If I can leave you with something let it be this little toe-tapper from our “party time” playlist… promise me you’ll dance around the kitchen in your pj’s to it and think of us.