In the two years of restaurant work following senior year, and extending in my life far before that, music has been such an important source of strength for me. It has sustained me and awakened me, and it has piqued my intellectual curiosity and comforted my pain. It has been my guardian angel.
Throughout four years of college, I never my quit my shift as a rotation DJ at the local radio station. This entailed extremely late hours, little recognition, and long walks in the snowy Kansas winter to reach the Shack, a ramshackle building at an obscure corner of campus. I would delve myself deeply into a nearly endless library of music, playing them over the studio speakers at as high volume as I could muster without shattering my eardrums.
As a rotation DJ, I had access to the entirety of KJHK’s stacks and stacks of music, both CDs and vinyl, not to mention our own music or the nearly-unlimited selection we could stream through the station’s computer. I would watch my view of the sunrise from the tiny window of the DJ booth overlooking downtown Lawrence, down the western side of Mt. Oread. I would toil through late nights between the hours of 2 and 6 am, spending hours weaving songs into and out of each other, one after the other, and keeping my eye out for the flashing white light that meant I was receiving a listener’s call. It was overwhelming at times, and I am sure that my tracks sometimes did not flow as well as I would have liked. But it was a necessary and enriching escape for me from the intensity of college life, and I occasionally would receive a call from listeners who appreciated my music selection. It felt good to accompany the occasional early-morning runner, or late-night lonely soul, with good beats and a voice on the other line.
I delved into endless catalogues of various and indescribable music, plunging into the depths of the shelf devoted to electronica, and even occasionally flirted with the stacks of metal. Always, I was aided by the words of DJs who had come before me. They used to write reviews of every album the station would receive, and tape them to the front of the CD’s jewel case, accompanied by star ratings and personal opinions. Someone, at some point in the station’s history, had listened to and reviewed every album there, and they could provide hints and clues as to which songs would rock the hardest or jam out the most.
And when things in my life became challenging, as they often did, I found it was the music that inevitably pulled me through.
But after the Shack was replaced by a modern, state-of-the-art studio towards the end of my senior year, and I DJ’ed my final rotation show, I said farewell to my beloved KJHK and returned to the real world. As a dishwasher in a restaurant, music kept me company while working 8-hour shifts, and my fellow restaurant workers had a great collection. You can always expect to hear the best music from the speakers of a bustling restaurant kitchen, where the energy and tempo of the music is the best company you keep while chopping vegetables, picking basil, or manning the industrial dishwasher. It was songs like these, and songs like Lights, by Ellie Goulding, that spoke to me most deeply, and kept me sane during that time.
Lights is shimmering, pulsing, and sensual. It is about the call of city lights, the itch to be alive, and the urge to dance, laugh and cry. Ellie expresses the sensitivity and fear that it takes to move to a new place, and to build for yourself something brand new, with people you have just met, and to seek love and joy, while embracing your flaws. Her lyrics of “turning to stone” speak of a vibrant soul calming her firing nerves, picking up the pieces of her shattered self, and mustering the courage to fight on.
In my two years at the restaurant, it became clear to me that I couldn’t stay there forever. I knew that this wasn’t the work for me. I knew that this wasn’t my dream. I knew that there was so much more to see and to do in the world. I felt, in the depth of my soul, the passion and call to follow my dream and reach out for what the world has to offer. And it was Ellie Goulding that became the soundtrack of the months leading up to my eventual move to Atlanta. Just as the lights were calling her, in the song, the lights of Atlanta were calling to me.
If it is music is that kept me going through my darkest moments, both before and after college, it is music that will carry me into the future.
Now here I am, working in Midtown, across the street from the historic Fox theater. I am going to see Ellie Goulding perform there in exactly one month. Her light show, her reverberating sound, the texture and depth of her voice, and the cheering crowds await me.
Artists like Ms. Goulding, who inspire and guide us young people, deserve to be celebrated. We owe them our lives. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep tinkering in the lab at night, keep writing your raps and sonnets, and keep weaving melody and harmony and instrumentation and beats and effects. Do it for us. We love you.