July has been a great transition month for me as I get used to my new house/city/country/culture, new neighborhood, my lessons, and anticipate moving into my job teaching English in the public schools in the coming weeks. A lot of my time has spent walking, exploring, and thinking. In the US I’d be listening to my iPod almost constantly – here? Nope.

Surprisingly, there was not a lot of music in my life in June, and since I’ve gotten out of the habit of making these for myself (instead preferring to spend my time making them for friends in recent years) I thought I’d kill a few birds with one stone and musically document my months here, treating myself to some musical therapy and sharing them with YOU.

This week I’ve been working on a mix that describes my Transition-y, Explore-y July. It’s a work in progress, but I’d like to share it with you today. I put it on youtube just for you:
Please enjoy!

[NOTE: Hover over the video and click on this ‘Playlist’ button to see all the songs in the mix.]

Burgervore: This is for you! I’ll include a screenshot of the mix in future months.

Below I’ve tried to lay out my (ha) Unified Theory of Mix Tape Creation for the first time, if you’re curious. It’s… long (which is why the videos are up here). I never really realized how involved this process was for me – how interesting.

I’ve always been a big believer in mixes – I like making them, I like receiving them, and I LOVE listening to them, for years and years after the fact. They take me back to places and people that I love, moments that I’ve learned from, and moods that I want to recapture. They play well (pun intended) into my desire to catalogue and remember things.

Some that I’ve made I’ve almost completely abandoned because of the bad memories and mental places I was at the time, but I would NEVER delete the playlists – blasphemy! Unlike my journals, which I will gladly never read again and burn for fire kindling. For me, that shit is toxic brain runoff, but mixes are works of art. (I’m aware some of you violently disagree on this point regarding journals.)

To me, a great mix CD does a lot of things:

  • It tells a story
  • It takes a complete emotional journey appropriate to the intended audience
  • It helps me express and understand my feelings
  • It helps me reflect on myself and my current situation (whatever it is)
  • It presents advice, hopes, and encouragement in an empathetic way
  • It is listenable on repeat
  • It expresses a full range of rich musical ideas
  • And, speaking for my own mixes, I try to ALWAYS end on a positive note! Life is too good to leave a mix feeling bummed out!

Predictably, given my ambitious mix goals, I have a few guidelines when I construct them:

  1. I try not to repeat songs, even across albums created years apart. Sometimes I fail, but I’m usually pretty good about it. The only exception is when I’m making a mix for myself – I’ll use whatever I want.
  2. Duplicating artists is ok, if the songs rock and have something distinct to say, but almost NEVER on the same mix.
  3. Nothing too long.
  4. Nothing terribly inaccessible, unless it conveys an appropriate mood in an entertaining manner.
  5. Some artists just don’t work on mixes. I’ve tried including Gnarls Barkley songs on a few in past years, but god, they just don’t mesh well with ANYTHING. Sometimes a song only works in its intended album, which I totally respect.
  6. I often like to include an instrumental, techno, non-vocal, or classical piece or two as a “palette-cleanser” between thematic sections of my “story.” This is an area where I feel justified presenting jarring transitions between songs.
  7. I usually go for between 20-24 songs, clocking in at about the length of a burned CD (~80 minutes).
  8. I prefer to have an even number of songs, or an equal number of songs in each “Act” of the story, but this is just getting anal.
  9. If I’m writing (and I consider this a form of writing, I guess?) for another person, I try to vet all the lyrics so the mix stays on “message.” A happy sounding song about death on a mix CD to cheer someone up is still about death. In one memorable instance, a song that I thought was about a man dancing with a beautiful woman was actually about staring at her corpse in a funeral viewing and describing a mental fugue state. It took me two weeks of listening to the song in the mix to pick up on that – I have no idea if the recipient ever picked that up. She never said anything. To be fair, I’m often lax with this rule if I feel that the music transports you emotionally enough regardless of what the lyrics are.
  10. Transitions are so, so important. I think of it as emotional dynamics. I’ll go through a mix a dozen times, just listening to the transitions between songs and skipping all the stuff in the middle of the song. Moods produced by music don’t change after 4 minutes – you need to ebb and flow, wax and wane.
  11. I TRY to tailor the songs to the type of music styles that the intended audience enjoys (I fail at this a lot, I feel).
  12. The mix must not wear out its welcome. I listen to the mixes I make for other people between 20 and 30 times AFTER I’ve done most of the major picking, discarding, and organizing, just to see if it holds up. It takes weeks, ideally. If a song doesn’t work, I’ll discard it and either replace it or go back to the transition/storytelling phase to reorder what I’ve got. I’ve completely scrapped entire projects because they never found their groove – pun intended, again! (For my own mixes I’m slightly less picky, but I already know that I like everything in my library, and I know I can change it any time. Once I give a mix to a person, it’s FINISHED.)
The best mixes I’ve ever made I can count on one hand, and still make me feel proud because, to me, it’s like capturing a beautiful plume of smoke in a perfectly-faceted crystal – well-balanced, reflecting a different view depending on how you look at it. I’ve received a number of stellar mixes, as well, and still listen to them often!

And maybe all this sounds pretentious to you. That’s cool. It’s still something that I enjoy doing, as much for myself as for others – like all good art, I feel. Go ahead and build your own mixes however you want! I don’t judge.

Do you make musical mixes for people? Do you have any guidelines that you try to follow? Holler at me in the comments and let me know your secrets!