Posted on December 31, 2020
What the fuck was this year? I don’t even know. To think I ended 2019 with the phrase: ‘2020, please be kind.‘ I really don’t know how to write about this year. Time has become a bit of a nebulous concept and after a lot of thought, the only way I could divide up this year was by separating it into three ‘chapters’: pre-pandemic, lockdown-into-summer, and semester three of my Masters. It’s a bit of a weird system but then, is there anything about this year that hasn’t been weird?
So, here we go. This is my review of 2020, a year I’m sure none of us will ever forget.
The beginning of the year, the two and a half-ish months before the pandemic became less about ‘wash your hands’ and more ‘we’re going into national lockdown’ (in the UK anyway), feel impossibly long ago and kind of frighteningly busy. Looking back through my photos, it’s so odd to think that that version of me – of all those people in the pictures – had no idea what was coming. And now we’re entirely different people. I mean, I know I’m a completely different person because of the last nine months. I’m only speaking for myself but I imagine that a lot of people can relate to that feeling. I look at photos of myself from January, February, March and I almost don’t recognise myself…
Anyway, on with the review.
I wrote up January at the time because it was such a busy, emotional month. I had a frantic Christmas break, preparing for my January assessments (due to a misunderstanding about the assessment, a lot of my research wasn’t helpful and so I had to redo it so I got almost no free time during that holiday). That was incredibly stressful, as was the presentation, and I was beyond exhausted afterwards. And between the second single of the Honest EP, ‘Clarity,’ coming out and the very distressing DSA assessment in the following week, I didn’t really get any rest between the first and second semesters. And to top it off, I was pretty upset about the grade I received and by the time I felt coherent enough to appeal it, the deadline had passed. But in hindsight, it was the first grade of the Masters with a very new approach to working and grading so it’s probably not that surprising, especially as an autistic student.
The new module I was studying, Musicology (“the scholarly analysis and research-based study of music”), was really interesting and for the most part, the lectures were really engaging, something that was definitely aided by how passionate my tutor was about the subject. I’ve known him since my BA and he’s so knowledgeable; he’s a really great teacher and he’s a big part of why I did so well in the module. Not that my tutor in the first module wasn’t great – she’s truly awesome and so inspiring and I learned so much from her – but I learned a lot about how the Masters worked in that first semester that I was able to put into practice for the second semester, making it easier on my mental health and helping me to work more effectively, which did result in a much better grade. I found the songwriting classes less inspiring but since I was challenging myself with FAWM (February Album Writing Month) for a big part of the module, that wasn’t too big an issue.
I got to spend some really good time with my friends, both in and out of uni. A couple of them came down from London to visit me, which was really nice. Others I spent time with at uni or around London. I also had lots of writing sessions with people, which was really, really fun. I love my uni friends so much – I love my non-uni friends as well, of course, but during the semester, I rarely get to see them because I’m so busy – and there are a solid handful of people I’ve met during my time at BA and MA that I know I’ll be friends with for a really long time. I feel like I learned a lot about friendship this year, as I mentioned in my grateful post, and I just feel so lucky to have met these people; they are so wonderful and I’ve found it really hard to be separated from them for so long. I’m so looking forward to seeing them again and being able to spend time with them in real life whenever that will be.
(I haven’t got photos with all of my friends from this year and I do like to use photos from the year I’m writing about but don’t worry, you’re most certainly not forgotten.)
As well as writing A LOT, I was releasing music and got to play several really, really fun shows but I want to keep the music stuff together so I’ll come back to those.
One sadness of that time was that my favourite place to eat in Brighton closed, first temporarily and then permanently. That was very sad and I know a lot of people were upset by it. They made amazing Belgian fries with loads of homemade sauces and drinks – that I LOVE – that I’ve only ever had when I’ve travelled to and around the Netherlands where I have family. And the staff were absolutely lovely and it was always such an enjoyable experience; I always took friends there when they visited Brighton. So that was a shock. With everything going on this year, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go (and I’m not sure it would’ve survived as an independent business) but I have missed it. It was a true Brighton gem for the time it existed.
I think it’s safe to say that the biggest part of January, the pre-pandemic part of the year, and possibly the whole year, was having to let go of our beloved Lucky, our nearly sixteen year old black Labrador who we’d first met at three days old. He was very old (most Labradors live to between ten and twelve) and had developed some very difficult health problems in the last year or so of his life. We got home one night and he didn’t get up. He didn’t lift his head. He didn’t wag his tail. He was just done. It was heartbreaking and one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever been a part of but the next morning we took him to the vet and they put him to sleep. It was awful and I still miss him everyday, even though I know it was the right thing to do. He couldn’t have been more loved, by us, by everyone he met. He was a bit of a legend. I still wish him back but, again, as I said in my Grateful post, I’m glad that he hasn’t had to live through the pandemic, the sensitive soul that he was; it would’ve been very stressful for him. And the idea that we might’ve had to have him put down during one of the lockdowns where we couldn’t be with him is unbearable, so I do take some comfort from that timing. Still, the house feels empty without him.
Life was fundamentally different after that but we kept going, day by day, and there were good moments. I got to see my course mates put on an awesome show at a local venue, Song Suffragettes announced that they were coming to the UK on tour (I’m pretty sure I dug into my savings to get a ticket for every show…), and my Mum and I celebrated Lucky’s sixteenth birthday, even though he was no longer with us. I’d been planning it and so we just decided to celebrate for ourselves. I think that, in the future, we will think of him or go on a specific walk or something to remember him, even if we don’t actually ‘celebrate’ his birthday. The date will just be an excuse to dedicate some time to thinking about him and all the years we had together.
As well as dedicating the month of February to FAWM, I also took on the #30dayfeb Challenge For Tommy’s, organised by my university tutor/friend/mentor/super inspiring person, Sophie Daniels, under her artist project name, Liberty’s Mother, to raise awareness about baby loss and money for baby loss focussed charities. The challenge involved doing something everyday for thirty days that was positive for your wellbeing; I saw a lot of people doing yoga, for example. I chose origami and made a different piece everyday. These were some of my favourites:
I was lucky enough to see several shows and concerts before everything closed down. That’s something I’ve really missed this year as they’re sort of THE thing that I spend my money on and go out to. I was going to see The Shires, Alanis Morissette, OneRepublic, The Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton, the Song Suffragettes UK Tour, Taylor Swift at Hyde Park, and Tin Pan South in Nashville – those last three cancellations in particular hit me the hardest. I’d been so looking forward to them so I was really, really upset when they were postponed and then eventually cancelled.
However, I did manage to see Halsey twice on The Manic World Tour, which was incredible. I love her, I love this album (it was one of my favourite albums of the year), and the show was just mind-blowing. It was awesome to see her get to play at The O2 Arena (her biggest headline show to date, I believe), especially on International Women’s Day. She’s an amazing performing but I also love how she speaks to the crowd; it feels like she’s speaking just to you. I wanted to run out of the arena ahead of all the crowds so that that illusion wouldn’t be broken. Both shows, but especially that show in London, felt very special.
I also got to see Sara Bareilles in Waitress The Musical several times. I’ve seen several actresses (all amazing) play Jenna but there was something really special about seeing Sara play her, as the person who’d written so many beautiful songs coming from her perspective as a character. It took a minute to stop seeing Sara as Sara and start seeing her as Jenna but once I’d gotten my head around that, I was just enthralled. She was fantastic and so special; I loved the show all the more for seeing her in the lead role. I was lucky enough to go a handful of times and of those, on several special occasions (sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident): I saw Sara’s first show, I saw the one year anniversary of Waitress in London show, and I saw Sara’s final show, which also turned out to be Waitress’ final London show. So while I knew that show was special, I didn’t realise quite how special it was until much later. I tried my best to meet Sara (one day, I hope…) but for most of the shows, Sara was either out of the building before we could line up or we were hustled away pretty quickly. I did see her on the last night – she walked up and down the queue of people waiting and waved to everyone – but she didn’t stop to talk or take pictures or accept gifts because of the growing concern about COVID-19. That show was actually the last thing I did before we went into lockdown, not that I knew it at the time.
Everything changed very quickly. One day I was talking to my friend about plans we had later in the week and the next, she was on the plane home before the borders closed. I made the decision to start self isolating but before I would’ve had to go back to uni (or, having come to this decision, contact them about it), the classes were moved online.
The UK officially went into national lockdown on the 24th March. I’d already been self isolating for eleven days, as had my Mum, apart from necessary trips out (food shopping and business related stuff that had to be done in person). I had two weeks of online classes plus my assessment essay, which I was already working on. It’s strange: at the time, I wasn’t really aware of the outside world because I was a hundred percent focussed on my essay (and it was probably the most difficult, research heavy essay I’ve ever had to write). Maybe I was channeling all of my anxiety into that so that I didn’t have to engage with my paralysing anxiety about the pandemic. But then the essay was done and submitted and it all came flooding in.
Between the inevitable post semester and assessment period crash and the pandemic anxiety hitting me full force, I just went to pieces. I was either having meltdowns or staring blankly at old tv shows, too overwhelmed by fear to function. That went on for weeks and to be honest, it’s kind of a blur. I think I was in some sort of checked out, survival mode haze. I just could not cope. In hindsight (and in the few moments of coherent thought I had at the time) I was and am so grateful that I had that summer semester off. Many of my friends on the Masters were having to work on their final projects during one of the toughest periods of our lives (and created incredible work in spite of it) and I just could not have done it. My mental health was in tatters. Even now that I’m in a better, more stable place, I still feel deeply traumatised by the events of the last nine months: by the constant fear and paralysing anxiety, by the sheer overwhelming grief that so many people have experienced and are experiencing, by the confusion and frustration and outright horror at how the government – the people we depend on to lead us and take charge during extreme situations – have behaved. I mean, how do you cope with completely losing faith in your country’s leaders? Who are you supposed to turn to? Anyway. That could easily turn into a rant and that’s not what this post is about.
I’m not really sure when I started to come out of that because it was such a gradual process. But slowly, with LOTS of ups and downs, I started to feel more able to engage – if only with the people directly around me and the things that I enjoyed doing. Thank god for the cats (and Mum – I’ve talked about how grateful I am for her in my Grateful post – but we both agree that the cats were a lifesaver during the lockdown). They’ve been so good for my mental health this year. It’s so mindful to watch them; you can’t help but feel calmer, watching them play or snuggle and so on. Especially without Lucky, their cuteness and cuddles have been vital and the ridiculous playful moments have made me laugh even when it felt impossible. I’m so, so glad to have had them around during this time and they certainly seem to enjoy our constant presence at home; a day rarely goes by without one cat or another draping themselves over me. As I said, they’ve been a lifesaver. I don’t know how I would’ve made it through without them.
I had online therapy sessions but I struggled with them and often ended up cancelling at the last minute because they just felt too overwhelming. All I could think about was the pandemic and my fears around it; I didn’t want to dig into that even more and it felt impossible to talk about anything else. So my sessions were fairly sporadic throughout the lockdown and most of the year really. I think, in hindsight, therapy just felt too big, too overwhelming to be helpful while all of my emotions felt so incredibly heightened and raw. I was just focussing on getting from one day to the next. The cats were a big help; I started escaping into the worlds of new films and TV shows, like Absentia and Away; and I lived for the livestreams that a handful of people were doing in place of live shows. My favourites were Kalie Shorr’s, both because I love her and because she did so many of them. She did interviews with both interesting and entertaining questions, played covers, and played her own songs, released and unreleased. I’m so grateful to Kalie for doing all of that; they really helped me keep going, helped me get through the darkest of my pandemic-induced depression.
As I said, towards the end of the first UK lockdown, I became a bit more functional, although it was like balancing on a tightrope: one little knock and I was plunging back into overwhelming anxiety and depression. And it happened a lot. But I also had better, more productive moments. I managed to write a couple of songs (which is pretty monumental what with my mental health being so bad); I had writing and production sessions with Richard; I started gentle music theory lessons in preparation for the upcoming semester with one of my parents (she’s a music teacher); I spent a lot of time playing piano (I started experiencing awful nerve pain in my left hand – as well as in my back and leg – during the first lockdown so playing guitar was basically impossible); and I stayed up until almost six am to watch Ingrid Andress’ first livestream show and chat with her in a meet and greet session afterwards. So I was doing just about okay. Probably the biggest help was that all of my family (and most of my friends) were being exceedingly careful around going out: fortunately able to work at home, they only went out for essential trips, like food shopping and picking up medication, etc. I’m so grateful to them for that. So beyond grateful.
The lockdown began to loosen and more and more people were out, which I found terrifying. The silence outside had been weird at first but suddenly every little sound turned me into an anxious mess. Hearing people converse outside the shop we live above, for example, caused so many panic attacks (for fear that those people were spreading the virus). It was awful. For most of the summer, I kept the windows and curtains closed, enclosing myself in my own protective little bubble. It was the only way I could find to protect my mental health. With the gyms opening, I was desperate to swim again (as I’ve previously mentioned, it’s the only exercise I can do) – both for my physical and mental health – but I just didn’t feel safe at my usual pool. Their precautions just didn’t feel tight enough. On the plus side, after various COVID tests, I finally got to see my brother for the first time in months – longer than I think we’ve ever gone without seeing each other. We were still careful but it was so, so wonderful to see him.
Meanwhile, music stuff (mostly to do with the Honest EP) was still happening. Again, I want to keep most of this together (I’ll probably put it all in one paragraph towards the end) but I think this particular day is important beyond the musical context. I’d spent a lot of time worrying about the music video for ‘Back To Life,’ the next single due to be released at the time because my original idea wasn’t going to be possible during the pandemic, even with the lockdown restrictions having been loosened. Richard and I spent a long time discussing it and eventually came up with a plan…
The filming of the video was a big deal for me. I found it very difficult and very stressful being out for so long (even though our planning meant that, of the videos we shot for the EP, this one took the least time) and just being near people caused me a lot of anxiety, even down on the beach at the water’s edge. We were incredibly careful and I did manage to enjoy it to a certain extent but I’m grateful not to have to do another music video under such conditions. It took everything out of me; I spent the next three days on the sofa, barely able to move from the exhaustion. I have no idea how I managed to look so relaxed and even happy in the video. But, as I said, I’ll talk more about it when I talk about the whole EP process this year.
The rest of the summer was pretty gentle. I was trying really hard to improve and manage my mental health. It still wasn’t great but I was coping better than I had been earlier in the pandemic. So I spent a lot of time doing things that have proven to be good for my mental health: I listened to the Taylor Swift’s new album, folklore, on repeat; I played a lot of piano; I wrote songs when I could; I had video calls and online movie nights with my friends; I kept writing for the blog. I took part in research projects involving Autism Spectrum Disorder, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Depression, and Anxiety; helping out with these always gives me a mental and emotional boost because it feels like some good is coming out of my difficulties, even if they don’t improve my experience directly. I also watched the final season of Agents of Shield, my favourite TV show ever. That was a very emotional experience because the show, and the character of Daisy Johnson, have been a really important part of my life over the last few years and the emotional processing of stuff from my childhood.
And I continued to work on my music theory as the module was based on these concepts and I wanted to be as prepared as possible but I found the idea of going back to university very stressful. I really didn’t want to defer so I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do in terms of the new semester, what I felt safe doing. I’d originally thought that I’d much rather defer than do online or blended classes but now that the semester was almost upon me, I felt a lot less sure. After a lot of thought and discussion with my family and course mates, I decided to go back as an online student. It wasn’t ideal because of the lack of social interaction and how much harder it made cowriting sessions but I didn’t feel safe commuting to London to be in a building full of people from all over for just two hours a week. It just felt like too much anxiety for not enough reward. Online seemed like the most productive way forward. But even with that choice made, the process of going back to university, getting clear information, the correct timetable, etc, was incredibly stressful, causing meltdown after meltdown after meltdown. I really wasn’t at all sure whether I was going to be able manage university classes during a pandemic.
SEMESTER THREE OF MY MASTERS
The beginning of the semester was a bit rocky as the university tried to make blended classes (the online and onsite groups combined as one using Microsoft Teams) but in the end, it was simply easier and a more productive use of the time to split the onsite and online groups. My groups were great and everyone was really supportive and encouraging, tutors and students alike. Plus it was fun to work regularly with Richard again. The work was hard and the songwriting briefs difficult since musical language isn’t my strong point but after really positive meetings with both of my tutors, I never felt like I couldn’t ask for help or miss a brief if I needed to. As long as we was experimenting with our music – with the use of melody, harmony, arrangement, etc – and turned in the assessment work, everyone was pretty relaxed about what we were working on.
Despite a pretty heavy workload, I managed to get up to quite a lot during the semester. I celebrated my 26th birthday with the family I could and had a couple of socially distanced meet ups with friends; it was simple and quiet but I’m not really into big celebrations anyway. It would’ve been nice to see more of my family though.
I saw a lot of really awesome live-streamed shows, including Ingrid Andress at The Bluebird Cafe, various shows throughout the virtual Country Music Week and Nashville’s Tin Pan South Festival (I’m so grateful that we didn’t lose out on them entirely because of the pandemic), Halsey’s poetry book release day livestream, Maren Morris’ livestream concert, and Kalie Shorr’s charity StageIt show. But my personal highlights were Sugarland’s livestream show, Kalie’s ‘Unabridged For The First Time’ show (even though technical difficulties meant I missed bits of it), several of the Tin Pan South shows, and Tim Minchin’s ‘Apart Together’ livestream show.
I also attended several webinars and conferences about ASD and mental health, as well as actually speaking at one. That was a really special experience, being invited to speak on a panel and share my experience about being autistic. I felt like I was really able to use my experience to help other people and several of the attendees confirmed how useful my contributions had been. So that felt like a really significant moment.
Even though I was still on the course, many of my friends did the Masters in one year rather than two. They had a virtual graduation ceremony, which I attended in support. They all created such incredible work and under such difficult circumstances; I’m so proud of them and can’t wait to see what they go on to do. Some of them have already released really cool and interesting work and I know that many more are working on really cool projects. We had a celebratory drink via video call afterwards, which was good fun. I hadn’t seen a lot of them since March so I really enjoyed that.
I finally found somewhere to swim that actually felt safe, or as safe as possible: they had really strict safety measures. So I finally got to swim again and it was awesome. Each session gave me such a mental boost and it felt so good to exercise and really stretch my muscles again. I couldn’t get there as often as I would’ve liked (they spread the bookings out to keep the numbers low) but it was absolutely wonderful to be going again. It was erratic, especially with the second lockdown and most of the country now in Tier 4, but I enjoyed every second of it while I had it and I will again when the pool reopens.
The swimming was also good for the nerve pain in my back and leg. A few months earlier, I’d been diagnosed with hypermobility (very common with autistic individuals) and referred for hydrotherapy, which I’m unlikely to get for a while, but the swimming and basic exercises I’d been given did help. Or they seemed to anyway. I’ve also been referred to Rheumatology, Occupational Therapy, Pain Management, and had an MRI just to rule out anything unrelated to being hypermobile. It’s been a very slow process but I feel like we are starting to make progress, which feels really good.
The US Election was obviously a massive deal and not just in the US. I’m really glad that it fell during my reading week because there’s no way I would’ve been able to concentrate on classes. I’m honestly surprised by how much work I got done that week, given how much time I spent checking the news outlets for updates. In the end, it was Richard who texted me that the result was in. I shrieked, I laughed, and then I cried. I was so relieved.
Apart from swimming, the second lockdown didn’t change much for me. I was spending most of my time at my laptop, working on uni stuff. I had to turn in a portfolio of songs and an essay on the 4th January and, determined to get an actual break this year (unlike last year), I worked super hard: I wanted to have all of the work done before Christmas. So the end of the semester was intense and suddenly it was the last week, the session with Richard, and then the Christmas holidays. I worked every day from the end of the semester to Christmas Eve but I did manage to get all of the work done, which I was very proud of.
Christmas was weird. We obviously couldn’t see our larger family but then we couldn’t even see my brother because London went into Tier 4 (and then we went into Tier 4 on Boxing Day). I’d been prepared for a very different Christmas but it didn’t really emotionally hit me until a few days before and then I found it pretty difficult. We tried to embrace the difference: we decorated our tree with origami creations rather than our usual decorations; we structured our day differently… we kept it as different as we could so that the forced differences (like the lack of my brother) didn’t stick out so much. But we still managed to have a good day, I think. My brother and his partner had made a really great quiz, which we all had so much fun doing. That was definitely the high point for me. We were all together, laughing our heads off, and that felt really good.
I also just want to throw in here that there were some really great albums released in the fourth quarter of the year, which definitely boosted my spirits and inspired me a lot. There was Taylor Swift’s folklore: long pond studio sessions, which was both incredible and a fascinating look into the stories and emotions explored throughout the album; Kalie Shorr released the deluxe version of Open Book, Open Book: Unabridged, which included four new tracks, all of them as stunning as the original album tracks, if not even better – ugh, can you tell I love this album? And then, as if folklore wasn’t a big enough surprise, Taylor Swift released a second surprise album, evermore, which was another amazing album. The three of these, plus Manic by Halsey, were the musical highlights of my year. I love them all and I learned so much from them as a songwriter.
We’ve had a quiet few days up to new year, which is good. It’s been nice to have a bit more space to breathe, if that makes sense; there’s a bit less pressure in my life at the moment. Having said that, being in Tier 4 with a spike in COVID cases, has caused my anxiety to rise again.
And that’s the year…
So it’s time to talk about the music. With more content coming, I don’t want to go into too much detail; I kind of want to save the real round up for when everything is done, but I do want to do a quick review of my musical year because I think this is the first year where I’ve really felt like a professional singersongwriter. Of the five tracks on the Honest EP, all but one were released this year (the first single, ‘Bad Night,’ came out late last year). The second single, ‘Clarity,’ came out in early January with an accompanying music video; it did even better than ‘Bad Night’ and was even selected as BBC Sussex & BBC Surrey’s BBC Introducing Track of the Day. That was very cool!
I got to play a handful of gigs, all of which were so much fun. I headlined one of Indigo Eve’s nights, where people both waved their phone lights to a song and sang along to another. It was one of best gigs I’ve done and one of the best nights of the year. I played as part of my university’s songwriters’ circles, which is probably my favourite uni event; it was particularly special because it was the LGBTQ+ History Month special. That meant a lot to me and it was a great round. All of the performers were fantastic and the atmosphere was so positive. Looking back at my Instagram post about the show, I said, “I’m just on a joy train!” That was very accurate; it was a wonderful night. I was also invited to perform in the foyer of The Brighton Dome for their Access Open Day event; it was so much fun and I was giddy about the fact that I was performing there again when it was the first place I publicly performed. And before the lockdown started, I even managed a day in the studio, recording a fun project with some friends.
Everything slowed down when lockdown began but with a lot of help from Richard, we did eventually get the EP cycle moving again, starting with the release of ‘Clarity (Academic Remix)‘. A month or so later, the third single of the EP, ‘Sounds Like Hope,’ came out, followed by a music video beautifully animated by the lovely Lois de Silva. This one didn’t do as well as the previous two but it was a much slower, less radio friendly song so that wasn’t surprising. Having said that, it got some of the highest praise of the EP so although it didn’t reach as many people as the others, it seemed to really resonate with the people who did hear it.
The summer was a very exciting time, in terms of the EP. I got to ‘perform’ in the virtual Disability Pride Brighton Festival: they played the ‘Invisible‘ music video and it was streamed online and on TV! That was very cool: seeing myself on the television for the first time! Then, as I described earlier, Richard and I planned and filmed the music video for ‘Back To Life.’ I was very anxious about putting this one out, given its upbeat sound and title during the pandemic. But in the end, I decided that to leave it out would be to release an incomplete body of work, as the song is an important part of the EP. So I announced it with this message: “Given the difficult and often distressing times we’re currently experiencing, I seriously considered delaying the release of new music, especially as we reach the more upbeat songs on the EP. But I didn’t want to leave the story half told. This song represents the upward turn after a painful chapter of my mental health and it feels important to include because while there are brutal lows, there are also wondrous highs. They’re all important and all part of the journey.” (x) I released the song in August, hoping that people would understand that the title was metaphorical, rather than literal. It didn’t do quite as well as the others had but given everything, I wasn’t surprised. It may have done better in a world without the pandemic but then we’ll never know, will we? Richard edited the video – with my feedback at various stages – and despite it not being what I’d originally imagined, I absolutely loved it. I’m really proud of it, especially given the circumstances and stress under which it was made.
And then, in October, I released the fifth and final single of the Honest EP, the title track, ‘Honest.’ It’s my favourite song on the EP and putting the last of our budget into promoting it, it did really, really well – the best of the EP. I’m so proud of it: the song means so much to me. It felt fitting to have the music video show some of the weird and wonderful ‘behind the scenes’ of this EP process…
As I said, the project isn’t over yet so I don’t want to write anything that sounds like too much of a conclusion but I’ve learned so much from it, from this year. I’ve learned a lot, dealt with enough stress that it’s probably taken years off my life, and never been so proud of anything I’ve done. I can’t wait to share the rest in 2021…
This blog post spiralled into something much bigger than I thought it would. But then, given that ‘normal life’ sort of evaporated around us and everything was constantly changing, maybe it’s not that surprising. I guess, there were a lot of things I felt I couldn’t leave to assumption so I included them just to be sure. Hopefully it’s made sense and got you thinking (or not thinking) about your experience of this year. It’s weird, isn’t it: we’ve all gone through this massive, world-encompassing event together and yet our years will look quite different. It reminds me of a quote I saw on social media (that I will have to paraphrase, unable as I am now to find it): “We’re all on the same sea but we’re all in different boats.” So, yes, we all experienced a global pandemic but our personal situations created a spectrum of experiences, with either end looking nothing alike. But I think we can all say that we’ll always remember this year. I know I will.
Although I spent a lot of the year feeling very negative, feeling depressed or anxious or frustrated or angry, I’m actually finishing the year feeling overwhelmed by gratitude. Yes, I’m anxious about being in Tier 4 and the rising COVID numbers – I think it would be ignorant not to be – but I’m just so grateful for all the positive moments and experiences that I’ve had this year. And, of course, the people in my life. I could not have gotten through this year without them.
“I don’t even know how to fully sum up this last year. If I thought 2019 was difficult, 2020 was on a whole new level of emotional chaos. I’ve been in survival mode for most of it, just trying to wade through waters that kept rising and rising, and every time I thought I’d found my balance, another strong wave appeared to knock me down. It’s easily been the hardest year of my life and one I know I won’t ever forget. But as painful and terrifying and exhausting as this year has been, there have been some amazing moments too: pre-pandemic gigs, releasing my EP, the contact with my friends and family, time with my cats, the awesome music, movies, and TV shows I’ve discovered this year, the chances to swim… So despite all the negative emotions I’ve experienced this year (and continue to experience), I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the good in my life. // There’s a blog post with all my ramblings via the link in my bio 💜” (x)
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Posted on December 19, 2020
Despite being such an upside down and difficult year, and the chaos in the music industry due to the pandemic, so much amazing music was released. It was a real struggle every single month to choose just one song (and as you can see, in some cases I couldn’t). Having said that, my mental health has been really bad for most of the year and I listen to music less when I’m depressed (I think it’s just too emotional when my emotions are already very fragile) but when I felt able to, it was and is such a comfort. So I’m really, really grateful to all the artists who continued to work on and put out music in a year when so many people really needed it.
1. 929 by Halsey
I was so excited about Halsey’s new album and it turned out to be one of my favourite albums of the year. I absolutely adore it, adore almost every single song. So this was a really hard choice (although I think ‘More’ was a pretty close second). But I love this one because it’s so simple and it tells so many stories and shares so many beautifully detailed painful and powerful moments, like “And I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee and hoped that my father would finally call me” and “I lost the love of my life to an ivory powder but then I realise that I’m no higher power.” It drew me in straight away; it’s so visual and yet so emotional that you could be experiencing it all for yourself. It’s honestly hard to describe how and why I love it so much. But it’s one of my favourite songs of hers and I’m so glad I got to hear it live.
Favourite Lyrics: “And I remember this girl with pink hair in Detroit / Well she told me / She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die / ‘Cause we need you,” and honestly, I think that she lied / And I remember the names of every single kid I’ve met / But I forget half the people who I’ve gotten in bed”
A very important note: I love that, on The Manic World Tour, she changed the lyrics from “She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die, ’cause we need you,” and honestly, I think that she lied” to “She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die, ’cause we need you,” and honestly, I think she was right.” It got the biggest cheer both nights I saw the show and I cried my eyes out even though I knew it was coming from all the videos posted of the shows.
2. Life of the Party by Ingrid Andress // Small Town Hypocrite by Caylee Hammack
I absolutely loved ‘Life of the Party’ when Ingrid performed it on tour so I was very happy when it was on the album (although ‘Blue’ may have beaten it if she’d released that one). I love the contradiction of the sad emotions painted as an upbeat, party song. It’s like the song is literally a manifestation of the denial that the relationship is over and everything is awful. Ingrid’s vocals are incredible anyway, but they seem particularly stunning in this song: you can hear how close to the edge all of these volatile emotions are, all the anger and misery and hurt, and how much she’s trying to ignore them. In just her voice. She’s an amazing vocalist. I don’t know how she’ll do at the upcoming Grammys with such heavy competition but just to be nominated for three really significant awards on her first album is incredible. I can’t help thinking back to when I first met her in 2018 and what her reaction would’ve been if I could’ve told her where she’d be today.
Favourite Lyrics: “I’m the life of the party / Round here, everybody loves me / But they don’t know that I’ve been hurtin’ / ‘Cause, baby, ever since you left me / I’ve been the life of the party”
I first heard Caylee sing this song in 2016, on my second trip to Nashville and Tin Pan South. It was so heartbreaking then and somehow, it seems even more heartbreaking now. It tells such a sad story in such rich and painful detail that I can’t help but get caught up in it every time I listen to it. The lyrics are all so stunning and her vocal performance is amazing; she conveys the regret in the song so powerfully that it often makes me cry. Caylee has since released her debut album, If It Wasn’t For You, and it’s full of songs that are just as powerful and emotional. I love most of them but I think my favourites – or at least two of them – are ‘Forged In The Fire’ and ‘Mean Something.’ They both hit me so hard each time that I usually end up in tears. If she ever tours in the UK, you’ll be able to recognise me as I will probably be sobbing obnoxiously through the entire show because her songs trigger such big emotions in me.
Favourite Lyrics: “And that scholarship was a ship that sailed / When I chose you and daddy gave me hell / I made myself into someone else just to love you, damn I loved you / Took all my plans and I put ’em in a box / Phantom pains for the wings I lost”
3. the other girl (with Halsey) by Kelsea Ballerini
I was so excited about Kelsea’s new album and I was not disappointed. There were so many songs I could’ve chosen, including ‘the way i used to’ and ‘half of my hometown.’ But I absolutely adore both Kelsea and Halsey and their friendship is so freaking adorable (their CMT Crossroads was a true gift) and I love that it’s a female/female duet, which you don’t get half as often as a female/male duet. And what makes it even better is that it isn’t about two girls fighting over a guy, but about each of them recognising why he likes the other so much – because they’re both awesome women in their own way: ‘who’s the diamond, who’s the pearl?’ – and realising that he’s treating them BOTH badly. It’s about whether either of them are willing to put up with it. It would be super cool if they collaborated again and continued the story (in my mind, they both dump him and go on to be best friends) but I can’t really see it happening. It’s super catchy and their voices really compliment each other; it’s such a good song. And this performance (I’m assuming it was during the rehearsal for the CMT Crossroads as they’re dressed and made up differently) of it really shows what great performers they both are.
Favourite Lyrics: “Are you mad? Me too / And I wonder in his world / Is it me? Is it you? / Who’s the other girl?”
4. Couch (Unreleased) by Kalie Shorr
During the first lockdown (in the UK), Kalie was doing a lot of different livestreams on various platforms and I swear, it was one of the things that kept me going when I was really struggling with everything. And during an Instagram live with Savannah Keyes (another awesome – and lovely – Nashville singersongwriter), she played two songs that they’d written together with Skip Black, the day after the big break up that inspired a lot of her album, Open Book. The first was ‘The One,’ which made it onto the album (and is definitely one of my favourites) and then this one, ‘Couch,’ which remains officially unreleased (although she has played it on her podcast, Too Much To Say). I fell in love with it straight away; it was just so raw and heartbreaking. I ended up working out the chords and play it on the piano quite a bit. I just absolutely adore it. It’s such a beautiful song.
Favourite Lyrics: “You left a picture on your old night stand / Like it’s some kind of message, like, ‘I don’t give a damn’ / If I need a reminder that I’m brokenhearted / Baby, there’s a million in this apartment / I don’t need a picture on your old nightstand”
5. Atom Bomb by Lauren Cimorelli // California by Kina Grannis
I loved Cimorelli (at the time, a band of six sisters but the youngest has now left) as a teenager and when I looked them up again a while back, I saw that a few of the girls were releasing their own music. I gravitated towards Lauren’s very quickly because of the lyrics, melody, and production. They just fit my taste in music better. I rediscovered her just after she’d released ‘Atom Bomb’ and I just loved it. I loved the detail and emotive language in the lyrics, the melodies were so catchy, and the production was epic; it really reminded me of ‘Wonderland’ by Taylor Swift. I love how she compares the end of a relationship with something of such catastrophic destruction because that’s often how my emotions feel: enormous and overwhelming and end-of-the-world. So I really relate to it emotionally as well as loving all the songwriting and sonic elements. She’s since released several more songs and ‘Rabbit Hole’ also ranks very highly on my list.
Favourite Lyrics: “What’s yours, what’s mine / Keep trying to pick up what’s left of me / Breathe slow / Let go but that smoke just keeps / Suffocating me”
During the first UK lockdown, I spent a lot of time playing the piano. I find it hard to think about anything but what I’m playing, something I desperately needed, and the lower octaves felt very soothing. One of my favourite songs to play is ‘California’ by Kina Grannis, which she wrote while trapped for a hundred days in Jakarta due to visa problems while touring in 2015; it’s a beautiful song and the sound of it is so gentle and comforting. I ended up thinking a lot about the parallels between the song and everything that was going on in the world at that moment: the pandemic, the lockdown, and how all of that was affecting us all (I hope Kina herself has been coping okay having had to go through these two similar, extremely difficult situations). It’s still one of my favourite songs to play (when the nerve pain I’ve been experiencing isn’t too bad); it feels like a desperately needed hug in these really hard times and I never take for granted how much comfort it brings me.
Favourite Lyrics: “Hey there, California / I can hear you when I wake up / In the distance, like the ocean / You calling me back to your side / Holding my breathe in the night / I listen again for your song”
6. Little Voice by Sara Bareilles
I distinctly remember listening to this song for the first time: I was lying in bed in the dark and it felt like Sara was singing directly to me, putting so many of my thoughts and feelings into words. I listened to it over and over again and just cried my eyes out. It was exactly what I needed to hear. It’s so simple but the lyrics are so powerful, effortlessly capturing so much emotion with so few words. Months later, I don’t have such an extreme emotional reaction but it still means a lot to me. It both lifts me up and calms my soul.
Favourite Lyrics: “It’s just a little voice and if you’re listening / Sometimes a little voice can say the biggest things / It’s just my little voice that I’ve been missing”
7. this is me trying by Taylor Swift
It’s very, very, VERY tempting to cheat and just say the whole of Taylor Swift’s surprise eighth album, folklore, or at least list my top five (‘the 1,’ ‘exile,’ ‘my tears ricochet,’ ‘mirrorball,’ and ‘this is me trying’) but I’m trying my very best to keep to the tradition of having a somewhat concise list. The top spot is a rock solid tie between ‘mirrorball’ and ‘this is me trying,’ because I love them both so much and relate to them both so strongly but, in the end, I decided to write about ‘this is me trying’ because, having had such an awful year mental health wise, it felt more fitting. It just sounds like how I feel so often and Taylor’s voice as she sings it… she sounds like she’s feeling all of it, all of these emotions I feel so strongly, and that only made me feel more connected to the song, to the album, to her. The lyrics are just stunning and I related to so many of them: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting / I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting / I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back,” makes me think about how everyone called me ‘gifted’ as a child and young teenager but ever since then, my life has been put on hold somewhat by having to deal with my mental health and the difficulties caused by my Autism and that third line is so similar to a recurring thought pattern of mine, of wondering whether anyone would even notice if I disappeared; I feel “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout / Could’ve followed my fears all the way down” so strongly it’s painful, both in the sense of getting sucked into spirals of fear and anxiety and in the sense of having periods of feeling suicidal; “They told me all of my cages were mental” reminds me of how hard I had to fight to get my diagnoses because nobody believed me and I was constantly dismissed, which has ultimately resulted in even more problems; “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere / Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here / Pourin’ out my heart to a stranger” could be the story of my life in how I was always ‘the best’ at things because I was so driven by perfectionism and the fear of getting things wrong or letting people down and while that initially put me ahead, it ended up backfiring and resulting in mental health problems that have now put me behind in so many ways, many of which I’m now dealing with (or trying to deal with) in therapy (although I’d hardly call her a stranger, having seen her for almost six years now); the line “And it’s hard to be at a party / When I feel like an open wound” really just describes any mental health bad day, when having to function feels excruciating because just existing is painful; and “I just wanted you to know / That this is me trying,” just sums me up. I’m always trying. always, always trying.
As I’ve kind of just described, I related to it so much because, with my Autism, my mental health issues, my physical health problems, and so on, I feeling like I’m trying my goddamn hardest everyday, just to get through the minute, the hour, the day. And most of the time, no one even knows that all of this is going on under the surface, sometimes because I don’t want them to and sometimes because I already feel so fragile that to let it all pour out would shatter me. Because it’s taking all of my energy to hold it together and if I let go, I might never be able to get a hold on it all again. And doing all of that work takes so much energy. When you’re working that hard to just survive, it’s so easy to feel like you’re failing because you’re not achieving in the same way as everyone around you – getting through the day doesn’t feel like an achievement when your best friend has just got a promotion or your sibling has gotten amazing grades. It’s easy to feel like it just isn’t worth trying but it is and this song is a testament to that, to staying still instead of moving backwards, to making baby steps of progress, to trying and trying and trying, even when it feels excruciating. I related to all of those feelings so strongly that it took my breath away. It’s an incredible song and maybe one of her most important ones.
Favourite Lyrics: “I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back / I have a lot of regrets about that / Pulled the car off the road to the lookout / Could’ve followed my fears all the way down”
8. Wait For It from Hamilton
I finally saw Hamilton when it was released on Disney+ and I absolutely loved it, every element, from start to finish. It was just incredible. I know that it’s not without its flaws but it’s really fascinating, especially from a creative perspective. It’s so clever and layered and I find it so inspiring as a writer. I’ve been watching it over and over again and I get more out of it every time. I could’ve chosen almost any song because I love so many of them but after much deliberation, I chose this one. I can’t explain it really; there’s just something about it.
Favourite Lyrics: “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints / It takes and it takes and it takes and we keep living anyway / We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes / And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died / I’m willing to wait for it”
(And just in case I needed more awesome, Chloe Bennet – who played Daisy Johnson in Agents of Shield, my all time favourite character – and her cast mate, Jeff Ward, did multiple lip syncs to Hamilton songs and they’re hilarious. As if I needed more reasons to love both Chloe and Hamilton…)
9. Coming Back To You by Sara Bareilles
I was in a pretty bad place mentally when this album, More Love, came out so I kept putting off listening to it; I didn’t want my depression to taint my feelings about the songs. But eventually I managed to listen to it and, as always with a Sara record, I fell in love with it. There are multiple songs that I really, really love but ‘Coming Back To You’ just really spoke to me from the first listen. I love the energy, I love the instrumentation, the melodies are super catchy, and the lyrics are just so beautiful. I connected to the verses especially straight away, especially the ones I’ve listed as my favourites. They just hit so close to home and yet singing along to them feels so freeing. I love it.
Favourite Lyrics: “I’m facing all of my fears / I’ve lined them up and wonder how I’ve been with them for years / They had me crippled before / They made a home in my heart but they’re not welcome anymore”
10. My Voice by Kalie Shorr
October was the month of Kalie Shorr. She announced her record deal, announced the upcoming re-release of her upcoming album – titled Open Book: Unabridged – released her new single, ‘My Voice,’ played an awesome livestream show (I mean, what I saw was awesome but I had major difficulties with the app) during which she also played another incredible new song, ‘Eighteen,’ and she released a worktape of her unreleased song, ‘Strawberry Blonde,’ (which she’d promised to do if Biden won the US election) which was awesome (if the lyric ‘you might find it surprising I stopped taking shit from anyone’ doesn’t describe my life the last few years of my life than I don’t know what does). So a Kalie song was necessary for this month. I could choose all three of the songs we got this month because they were all fantastic in their own way but I’m gonna go with ‘My Voice’ since it was the single she released that month. It’s an awesomely feisty and empowering song that’s a devastating ‘fuck you’ to the music industry but it’s also more than that. It’s also a song about celebrating who you are in all your uniqueness, regardless of what other people tell you. I love the defiance in it, the rebellion of choosing yourself: I find it really inspiring. It actually makes me feel more confident and not just in the dance around like an idiot in front of whoever’s around kind of way but in the deep in your gut way. The lyric, “Get used to the sound of my voice” gets me every time because it makes me feel like, somehow, being me is enough. Enough to do the things I want to do, achieve the things I want to achieve, and be the person I’m often scared is out of my reach. And if I ever needed a song like that, it’s this year.
Favourite Lyrics: “Too rock for country, too country for punk / But who said I had to pick either one / Tattoos at the Opry / I could cover ’em up but it’s not me”
11. Carry You by Tim Minchin
In November, I watched ‘Tim Minchin: Apart Together, The Album Live!‘ which was absolutely incredible. I loved it and I loved pretty much every song he played. He had some awesome, super high energy songs and then some quiet, profound ones that just created this beautiful balance for a show, especially one during these times. My absolute favourites were ‘Absence of You,’ ‘Leaving LA,’ ‘I Can’t Save You,’ and ‘Carry You.’ I could’ve chosen so many songs from his new album but ‘Carry You,’ even though I’d heard it before, pre-pandemic, it just really got me when I watched this show. I guess, in the context of the pandemic, it just hits differently. It was very emotional and I was crying by the end of the first chorus.
Favourite Lyrics: “And though we cannot be together / I know that I will carry you, wherever I go / I will carry you / Lord knows / I will carry you / I will carry you”
(Also, shout out to Kalie Shorr’s ‘Lying To Myself.’ It’s an amazing song, with utterly stunning lyrics, including, “I put you up on that pedestal, and damn, you looked incredible, I guess coming down’s inevitable…” and “Picked out all of my favourite things you said, and like a delusional architect, I built you up like a house of cards…”)
12. Show Me Around – Carly Pearce // marjorie by Taylor Swift
I first heard Carly Pearce play this song during the virtual Tin Pan South festival a few months ago and she called it a tribute to busbee (an incredible songwriter, producer, and member of the Nashville community) who died last year. She described how she’d been inspired by something said at his funeral about how of course he had to get to heaven first so that he would be able to show his loved ones around when they eventually arrived and thus a song was born. I’m not religious but it’s such a beautiful song, incredibly sad but also incredibly warm and comforting. I was in tears before the second verse started. As I said, I’m not religious but the loss of loved ones is such a painful thing that sometimes, I wish I was; it’s nice to listen to the song and just pretend for a little bit that I am. It helps.
Favourite Lyrics: “Bet you’re up there right now making plans and writing out / All your favourite places that you just can’t wait to take us / And we’ll get to spend forever talking about whatever / When I get there, promise you’ll track me down / And show me around”
I thought I was done but then, Taylor Swift gave us all the shock of our lives and released her second surprise album in six months, evermore. I’m still absorbing all of the songs but a handful of them stuck out to me straight away, including ‘no body, no crime (feat. HAIM),’ ‘happiness,’ ‘ivy,’ ‘long story short,’ and ‘marjorie.’ I could’ve written about any of these but ‘marjorie’ feels so incredibly special that I think it was probably always going to be that one. It’s so heartbreakingly sad but such a beautiful tribute to her grandmother, especially given that it includes recordings of her grandmother’s opera performances as background vocals. That just gets me every time. Justin Vernon’s backing vocals in the choruses also add a gorgeous depth to the song that only makes it more powerful and emotional. The whole sound world of the song is full and warm and rich without being too busy and it just feels like it fills my entire body.
I love the simplicity of the verses and they feel very much like advice her grandmother might’ve (or would’ve) given her but it’s the bridge that has me in tears every time (these are the ones listed as my favourite lyrics because they’re just so powerful). I relate to that section and the last section (“And if I didn’t know better / I’d think you were singing to me now / If I didn’t know better / I’d think you were still around / I know better / But I still feel you all around / I know better / But you’re still around”) so strongly that it makes me cry every time I listen to it. But even though it’s an incredibly sad song to relate to, there’s something really special and important to have a song like this to relate to, to feel understood in these emotions. I absolutely adore it already and I’m pretty sure it will always have a special significance for me, even though it’s only been out a short time. I wish I could hug Taylor and tell her just how grateful I am to have this song in my life. And I can only hope that one day I can write as good a tribute to my Dad as Taylor has done for her grandmother.
Favourite Lyrics: “I should’ve asked you questions / I should’ve asked you how to be / Asked you to write it down for me / Should’ve kept every grocery store receipt / ‘Cause every scrap of you would be taken from me / Watched as you signed your name Marjorie / All your closets of backlogged dreams / And how you left them all to me”
There are so many songs I could’ve put on this list (and I’m already over my self imposed twelve song limit…) but if I wrote about them all, we’d still be here at the end of 2021. So I’ll stop here. But this has been really good fun. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Here’s a Spotify playlist so that you can check out the songs!
What were your songs of 2020?
Category: covid-19 pandemic, depression, emotions, favourites, mental health, music, video Tagged: 2020, 2020 in songs, 929, atom bomb, california, carly pearce, carry you, caylee hammack, chloe bennet, cmt crossroads, coming back to you, coronavirus, couch, covid-19, depression, eighteen, evermore, favourite lyrics, favourite music, favourite songs, folklore, halsey, hamilton, hamilton the musical, ingrid andress, it's time to go, jeff ward, kalie shorr, kelsea ballerini, kina grannis, lady like, lauren cimorelli, life of the party, little voice, lockdown, lockdown 2.0, lockdown 2020, long story short, lying to myself, lyrics, manic, marjorie, mental health, mental illness, mirrorball, music, my voice, open book: unabridged, pandemic, pandemic 2020, playlist, sara bareilles, show me around, small town hypocrite, songs, songs of 2020, strawberry blonde, taylor swift, the other girl, this is me trying, tim minchin, unreleased, unreleased song, video, wait for it
Posted on October 10, 2020
Back in the early weeks of lockdown, I wrote a (very long) post about my favourite albums from the 2010s. I love albums; I love the putting together of a collection of songs to create a bigger, more expressive and more meaningful piece of work, both as a listener and as a songwriter. I think it adds so much more to the listening experience than the release-one-single-at-a-time approach. I love diving into them and getting lost in these little pocket universes they create and generally, once I love an album, they remain high on my musical lists.
And since today is National Album Day (as well as World Mental Health Day), I thought I’d do a little write up of my favourite albums of 2020 so far…
Manic by Halsey (January 2020) – Despite coming out so early in the year and with all the competition since, it’s easy for me to say that this is at the top of my list of 2020 albums, or of albums in general. I absolutely adore it. I love her previous work and the way each body of work existed in a larger metaphor (Badlands is another of my very favourite albums) but there was something truly special about this album and how personal it was, how it felt like we were truly seeing Ashley for the first time; there was something so sacred about that, especially on the first listen. I love how eclectic this album is – in genre, production style, featured artists, subject matter – because that’s something that’s always been indicative of her as a person: she experiments with her hair, her style, her musical projects, her artistic projects, and so on. That the album reflects that feels very authentic and real. And yet somehow it fits. It works. I could write in depth about every song but I’ll just stick to a couple of points: I loved how you feel the transition from Halsey to Ashley in ‘Ashley’; I love the journey, both lyrically and production wise, that we experience through ‘Forever … (is a long time)’; I love the vivid imagery and storytelling that we get in songs like ‘Finally // Beautiful Stranger’; I love and feel honoured by her willingness to be so open and vulnerable about some of the most difficult parts of her life, such as we hear in ‘More’ and ‘929.’ I’m so inspired by her as a songwriter and as an artist and as a person that I think this album will be very special to me for a very long time, if not forever.
Favourite Tracks: Ashley, You should be sad, Forever … (is a long time), 3am, killing boys, More, Still Learning, and 929.
Good Years by The Shires (March 2020) – I’ve loved The Shires’ music since they released ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ in early 2015 and Ben and Crissie are just such lovely people. Their voices sound gorgeous together, complimenting each other perfectly, and their melodies are always incredibly catchy; I’m usually singing the melodies before I even know the lyrics. The production is also stunning; I would describe it as having the glossiness of pop music while staying very true to the country instrumentation and arrangement. There’s a warmth to it; I always feel enveloped by the very sound of the songs. My only wish would be for some development album to album, for example in the song content; after their first album, love songs feature heavily on every album and I just think it would be really interesting to hear them sing about different subjects. They proved on the first album, Brave, that they could do it and do it well with great songs like ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ and ‘Made in England’ and they’ve come so far since then.
Favourite Tracks: Lightning Strikes and About Last Night.
kelsea by Kelsea Ballerini (March 2020) – I’m consistently awed by Kelsea’s ability to perfectly balance country and pop, blending the intimate storytelling and warm instrumentation of country and the glittery production and melodies of pop. And I love how you can feel her growth in each album, as an artist, as a songwriter, and as a person. To me, this album sounds like the universal inbetween of becoming a real adult: getting comfortable in your skin but still nursing some of your deeper insecurities, walking that line of the steadiness of adulthood and the flightiness of youth, and establishing the anchors of your identity while continuing to grow.
Favourite Tracks: club, the other girl (with Halsey), bragger, half of my hometown (feat. Kenny Chesney), the way i used to, and needy.
Lady Like by Ingrid Andress (March 2020) – I’d been excited for Ingrid to release music ever since I first heard her play ‘Lady Like’ at a Tin Pan South round in 2018. She was just fantastic and I couldn’t wait for her to release more than the two singles that were on iTunes at the time. It only took one song to tell what an amazing talent she was. I love the album – I particularly love her lyrics, her ability to weave humour into one song and then vulnerable, heart-wrenching imagery into another, and it’s really cool to have so much piano in country songs – but I was a bit disappointed that there were only eight tracks and that I’d heard all of them by the time the album came out. It’s great, of course, to finally have them to blast in the car and so on, but I would’ve loved to hear a song she’d been holding back for the release or something like that. And I was really sad that ‘Blue,’ which she’d played on tour, didn’t make the album because it was absolutely stunning.
Favourite Tracks: Bad Advice, We’re Not Friends, More Hearts Than Mine, Life of the Party, and Lady Like.
folklore by Taylor Swift (July 2020) – I’ve already written a bit about this album (and because I am such a songwriting nerd, I’m writing another post about it in more detail because there’s just so much to say about it) but I couldn’t not include this album in this post. I’ll just try my best not to go overboard. This feels like the album of a pure singersongwriter, an album where the songs themselves are given centre stage to shine. Somehow the album is her most experimental yet while still being so true to the songwriter that she has always been. I love the production style, which often centers around the piano, the minimal arrangements, and the lower vocal range that Taylor takes the time to explore. I love the different narratives and perspectives that she writes from while still sharing her emotions and experiences. And I love how vulnerable she allows herself to be, over and over again. Whether these lyrics are autobiographical or drawn from elsewhere – “You know the greatest loves of all time are over now,” “I can see you starin’, honey, like he’s just your understudy, like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me,” “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace,” “I’m still a believer but I don’t know why, I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try,” “Before I learned civility, I used to scream ferociously any time I wanted,” “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout, could’ve followed my fears all the way down,” “And you know damn well, for you I would ruin myself, a million little times,” “But the rain is always gonna come, if you’re standing with me,” and “Stood on the cliffside, screaming, ‘Give me a reason'” – they prove what an incredible songwriter she is, what a deeper thinker she is, and how deeply she feels emotions (something that has always made me feel really connected to her and her writing). These are emotions she’s related to, whether the events happened to her or not, and to turn those feelings into something so beautiful and to then share it with the world is so, so special. There’s so much more I could say but it’s a stunning album and I love it more than I can express. It’s one of those albums that arrived in my life just when I needed it and my god, I am so grateful.
Favourite Tracks: the 1, exile (feat. Bon Iver), my tears ricochet, mirrorball, this is me trying, illicit affairs, and mad woman.
If It Wasn’t For You by Caylee Hammack (August 2020) – I first heard Caylee sing at Tin Pan South in 2017 and I just fell in love with her songwriting. I’ve been waiting for her to release music ever since and so when she announced this album I was ecstatic. ‘Family Tree’ was the perfect first single: it feels like such a central theme in the album and one of the strongest songs in every aspect. Just because of what was going on in my life when it came out, I haven’t had the opportunity to really delve into it – into the lyrics and stories and so on – but I’m really loving listening to it and just taking it all in (full disclosure, I cried when I first heard ‘Forged In The Fire’ and ‘Mean Something’). She has an amazing voice and I love her ballsy, unapologetic attitude but that she can also let that fall away and open up to write and sing these incredibly vulnerable songs. Her lyric writing is also something really special: her songs are full of little details that make them so unique. I can’t imagine anyone else singing them and really making them work. There are also various production choices that really stick out to me, things that you – or at least I – don’t hear all that often, like her use of backing vocals and ‘non-musical sounds’ like the cheering of a football game on TV in ‘Family Tree.’ My only sadness concerning this album is that she didn’t include a song she sang when I heard her at Tin Pan South, probably one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard: “Laid an old friend in the ground before saying ‘I’m sorry’, and that’s something that I don’t expect forgiveness for, I should’ve called more.” I would’ve loved that song to be included on the album because it was absolutely beautiful.
Favourite Tracks: Preciatcha, Sister, Forged In The Fire, Family Tree, Mean Something (feat. Ashley McBryde & Tenille Townes), and Small Town Hypocrite.
Badlands (Live from Webster Hall) by Halsey (August 2020) – Before I talk about the live album, I have to mention the original first because it’s one of my favourite albums of all time. I love how different it is; I love the production and all the extra details that give it it’s unique sound; I love her vocals and the the myriad of little ways she uses her voice to convey emotion; I love the stories she tells and the lyrics she writes, all of the detail she includes and within them, which ones she chooses to develop, the themes she brings into the songs time and again. She’s truly one of my favourite artists.
But back to the live album. I love how much energy and passion she puts into her performances and I love how you can hear her smiling and responding to the crowd as she sings (and oh my god, how gloriously loud the crowd are). Her vocals are incredible (they’ve grown so much since she toured this album) and I love how she’s made little changes: changing the rhythm, speaking a line instead of singing it, and so on. The music behind her, whether it’s live or programmed or a combination of both sounds great and I can absolutely imagine her up on that stage, leaping around just as she did when I saw her on the Badlands Tour in 2016. I also loved the spoken parts (and especially relevant to this post, how she talks about how much she loves albums and how much everyone in the crowd loves albums if they love Badlands as much as they clearly do) because she speaks so beautifully and has such an interesting way of seeing the world. I guess my only sadness about those tracks is how clearly she’s talking to the audience right there (as it should be in a live show, in my opinion) and it just reminds me how I’ve never felt part of the fanbase – or any artist’s fanbase – regardless of how much I love her. I always feel on the edge, feel like if I took one step back and disappeared, no one would notice. And given just how close Halsey is with her fanbase – always taking photos, signing things, replying to tweets, getting tattoos with them, making them feel truly valued as individuals – it’s not difficult to feel even more invisible than usual. I guess that’s one of the downsides of artists being able to connect to fans one-on-one: it’s great for the fans it happens to, but really hard for those it doesn’t.
It’s worth noting that it’s hard to separate my favourite songs from the Badlands album and my favourite performances from the Badlands (Live at Webster Hall) album but I’ll try my best because they’re not necessarily the same…
Favourite Tracks: Castle, Hold Me Down, Hurricane, Roman Holiday, Colors, Tiny Little Babies – Talking Break, Strange Love, Forget Her and Find Her – Talking Break, Coming Down, Control (this one is so powerful), Young God, Gasoline, Some Kind of Stardust – Talking Break, and Is There Somewhere.
More Love: Songs from Little Voice Season One by Sara Bareilles (September 2020) – I’m aware that having not seen the show, Little Voice, yet, listening to this album may be a different experience than that of someone who has seen the show. I do really want to watch it but with my mental health in mind, I’m conflicted: I want to see anything Sara Bareilles is involved in creating because I love her and I love her work but I’m also wary that media about my chosen career path, about becoming a singersongwriter, has the capacity to seriously trigger my anxiety, something that I’m extra cautious of in these present times when my anxiety is already so high. But regardless of that, I couldn’t let a Sara Bareilles album come out and not listen to it. I have found it a little harder to get into than some of her others (but again that maybe be that I haven’t seen the show that gives the songs context). But there’s something so distinctly Sara Bareilles about it that I love. The songs feel hopeful and have a certain warmth, creating an instant emotional connection. It’s just stronger with some than others. The production feels like the big sister of the Little Voice album and her vocals her just incredible. Her lyrics are just stunning as always – “I’m barely brave enough to be breathing,” “So I will write it down, all the jagged edges,” “I’m facing all of my fears, I’ve lined them up and wonder how I’ve been with them for years,” “I hit my head against the wall, a portrait of my grief,” and “Looking over the precious moments, it hurts don’t it, they can cut both ways” – and I feel like they’re coming to me just at the right time. There’s something about Sara’s music that has always felt just so healing and I’ve never needed that more than I do right now. I think it’s also worth noting that I’ve never had to pause an album so many times to write down song ideas.
Favourite Tracks: More Love, Simple And True, Coming Back To You, and Little Voice.
ballerini by Kelsea Ballerini (September 2020) – While I’m pretty sure I prefer kelsea to ballerini, I think this is a really fascinating project and it’s really cool to see how different the songs could’ve been, what a different life they could’ve had. I found the instrumentation a little repetitive but I loved some of the changes she made, particularly the little lyric tweaks that gave you a brand new, and often a more vulnerable, insight into the songs. Some songs had a completely different emotional vibe that was really unexpected but so cool to experience. As fans, the songs obviously speak differently to us with these changes but I admit that I’m super curious how they’ve taken on new meaning for Kelsea. It will be really interesting to see, when she is able to tour again, how she chooses to perform these songs, which version she chooses or leans into more.
Favourite Tracks: club, homecoming queen?, bragger, half of my hometown, the way i used to, needy, a country song, and la.
Lady Like (Deluxe) by Ingrid Andress (October 2020) – This album was announced less than an hour after I wrote the paragraph of Lady Like, where I talked about wanting some songs I hadn’t already heard. That made me laugh; it was like I had willed it into existence. The livestream before the release was great and it made my little songwriter heart happy to hear all the stories from the behind-the-scenes of writing those songs. And when it was over, the album was available on iTunes. I love that she changed the tracklist to tell the chronological story (using the tracklist to actively tell a story is something I’ve always been a fan of, rather than just putting the songs in an order that sounds good – not that there’s anything wrong with that) so it was a bit like listening to the album all over again and I just feel like it gave the album a slightly different vibe, a different emotional context. I’m not gonna talk about the songs from the original album because I’d just be repeating myself but the five new tracks were definitely a cool addition to the album as a piece of art (I’m still sad about ‘Blue’ though – hopefully she’s just saving it for a future project). I liked the simplicity and honesty of ‘Feeling Things,’ ‘Boys’ is youthfully lighthearted and flippant, and ‘Waste of Lime’ is full of the acerbic wit and attitude that Ingrid does so well, just as well as she does vulnerable and heartfelt. And the added voices of Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman from Little Big Town bring a beautiful, almost choral effect to ‘More Hearts Than Mine.’ As I said, I think these extra tracks really add to an already great album and I’m so glad that Ingrid decided to expand on the Lady Like era before moving onto the next project.
Favourite Tracks (not including those from the original edition of the album): Feeling Things and Waste of Lime.
I’ve struggled to sit and just listen to new music over lockdown – my brain seems insistent that I always be doing something to keep my anxiety at bay – so there are still multiple albums that I really want to listen to but haven’t been able to focus enough yet to do so. Some of these are:
I’m really looking forward to them though and having something to look forward to in times like these is definitely not a bad thing.
Category: emotions, event, favourites, music, response Tagged: album, badlands, badlands (live from webster hall), badlands live, ballerini, caylee hammack, favourite albums, favourite music, folklore, good years, halsey, if it wasn't for you, ingrid andress, kelsea, kelsea ballerini, lady like, lady like deluxe, little voice, manic, more love, music, nashville, national album day, national album day 2020, production, sara bareilles, singer, singers, singing, songwriter, songwriters, songwriting, taylor swift, the shires, tin pan south
Hi! I’m Lauren Alex Hooper. Welcome to my little blog! I write about living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD (Inattentive Type), and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), as well as several mental health issues.
I’m a singer-songwriter (it’s my biggest special interest and I have both a BA and MA in songwriting) so I’ll probably write a bit about that too.
My first single, ‘Invisible,’ is on all platforms, with all proceeds going to Young Minds.
My debut EP, Honest, is available on all platforms, with a limited physical run at Resident Music in Brighton.
I’m currently working on an album about my experiences as an autistic woman.