Kindness in Sound

“House,” and the value of music mentoring

There is something so utterly innocent, beautiful and inspiring about this video, that it brings tears to my eyes just to think about. We begin with a monologue by UK artist Kindness, seated and addressing the camera initially with a brief discussion of “pop music.” He is dressed in a minimalistic black suit and long hair, and asks us “Why do adults resent [pop music] so?” he asks. “And why do I like it?” Kindness is struggling to understand the joy and frustration that he draws from pop music, in all it’s mysterious, shining inconsistency and occasional brilliance and joy. Pop music has been frustrating intentionally subversive, and derided or misunderstood by older people since its birth. I am speaking especially of the 20th century, and particularly referencing Beatlemania.

In this video, Kindness is seated alongside two keyboards and a drum machine, with a child named Ramon. The first half of the video shows the two of them playing and experimenting with the instruments. They talk, test their instruments, and experiment with the fascinating sounds that they can make. Together they try to recreate the sound of Kindness’s most popular song, “House.”

About halfway through the video, another musician joins them, and soon they are making music, dancing around the room and celebration the feeling of the music, and the spirit of experimentation and freedom licensed to people when they are free to test themselves creatively, and test what can result from uninhibited collaboration and self-expression. Their dancing communicates pure joy and youthful celebration, and it is one of the cutest things you can hope to see.

What I love most is that this video pairs the hopefulness and vibrancy of the song “House”, which is a warm and gentle plea for love in the face of desperation, with the innocence and simplicity of a music lesson on video. “I can’t give you all that you need/ But I’ll give you all I can feel,” goes the chorus of the song, and this line, to me, lies at the core of this video’s genius. Music is such a pure and universal expression of one’s feelings, and it appeals to every person, regardless of background. Given access to an instrument, or a studio, and a good teacher who can provide proper motivation and encouragement, any person can create something unique and beautiful that reflects their indelible individuality and humanity. This video demonstrates just such loving and nurturing support for individual creativity, a thing that is rare in most educational settings, and it is a beautiful thing to witness.

When the two try to describe the sounds of the track, they struggle to find the words for the sound they are creating. Adjectives like “muddy” and “scrambled” emerge in their conversation… but in fact the feelings associated with their music is impossible to describe. The effect of good music is that it eludes description, and can hardly be captured in words. Kindness can only have created the sound we hear by testing and experimenting with the equipment and instruments, and only with the guidance and training of a previous mentor, just as he is mentoring this child.

To me, this is what makes music so precious… it is the collective story of people, passed down from person to person, through the decades, centuries, and millennia. We have been recording music with our guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, and microphones, turntables, and computers in recent years, but people have been strumming and dancing and testing sounds and harmony and lyrics, expressing the human experience in sound, since the beginning of recorded history. It is the lifeblood of personhood, and it is infinitely precious. What I love so much, is that this video manages to encapsulate that experience. Kudos to Kindness, this video is brilliant.

The Lights are Calling Me

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.

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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.