Thanks for the Memories

Artists and the Early Experiences that Shaped Them

Aug 02, 2010 Issue #32 - Summer 2010 - Wasted on the Youth Photography by Dewey Saunders (illustrations by) Bookmark and Share


Everyone can point to formative experiences from childhood that influence his or her future endeavors, and most people who are passionate about music can identify definitive experiences that set the course for their eventual interest or musical pursuit. To explore the issue of early experiences and how they relate to future goals, aspirations, and ultimately where we find ourselves as adults, Under the Radar spoke with some notable indie-rock musicians and Dr. Jefferson A. Singer, Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College, one of the preeminent researchers in memory and early experience today.

"The most important current goals that we have, the goals that really matter for us in our lives, have a relationship to the memories that are more important, so that it may be that what you want most in your current life colors which memories are going to continue to have a resonance and an emotional importance to you.... I'd have to believe that the vocation that you choose and the direction of your passion in later life is going to give you a kind of selectivity about the memories that you recall and which ones matter most to you." — Dr.  Singer

In the same way that that architects may have vivid early memories of building with blocks or writers may have strong early memories of reading and storytelling, musicians seem to easily be able to point to musical memories as formative for them. Get them talking about early experiences, and the conversation inevitably returns to music. Amanda Palmer, one half of both The Dresden Dolls and Evelyn Evelyn, relates much of her early interest in music to her mother's Beatles, Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Beach Boys, and Bee Gees records. 

"I remember as a really little kid listening to the same record over and over and over again on my parents' turntable in our living room, sitting in a big armchair, with giant headphones that covered my head," says Palmer. "I couldn't flip the record over by myself, and I didn't know how to work the turntable, so every time a side ended, I had to go grab someone to come turn the record over for me. I would do that again and again and again and again. And it was just one record. It was Sgt. Pepper's.... I was probably six or seven."

Unlike Palmer, who was involved in the creative side of music from an early age, performing in community theater and singing in the church choir as a kid, Tracyanne Campbell of Scottish indie-pop group Camera Obscura didn't aspire to songwriting until her early 20s. Still, for Campbell, music was always her center, and she has similar early memories of being affected by song.

 "I remember hearing the Crystal Gayle song 'Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue' on the radio when I was a very, very young child," says Campbell of Gayle's 1977 rendition of the Richard Leigh classic. "I must have been between three and four, because I can remember the room that I was in and the house that I was in and that my mother was there. I think that was pretty much my first musical memory.... I still get a certain kind of buzz from listening to that song."

For many of us, like Palmer and Campbell, our first exposure to music is from our parents, rooting through old vinyl albums or CDs, looking for something to which we can connect. For some, however, like Eleanor Friedberger, it was a sibling who jumpstarted that love of music.

"[My older brother] was probably my biggest musical influence," says Friedberger, who plays with her brother Matthew in The Fiery Furnaces. "I kind of joke that he brainwashed me. We were in the same house, our rooms next to each other, so I listened to everything he listened to. He would play music very loud, even after I'd gone to sleep. He was a big Who fanatic, and I can remember him listening to The Who by Numbers, and the song 'Squeeze Box' coming on, and it being time to sleep with my eyes shut. I don't know why my mother wouldn't yell at him to turn it off, but she didn't."

When Dr. Singer relates memories to goals and the people we are today, he speaks not only about musical memories, but also of general life memories, events, and circumstances that influence us. For Palmer, one of her most vivid memories, and one that she feels explains much about her current pursuits, did not involve music at all, but rather a traumatic fall when she was two or three years old. 

"There was a little landing at the bottom of the stairs with two more steps that turned into the foyer," she says. "I fell all the way from the top, down to the landing; it was maybe 12 stairs. I sort of tumbled and bounced, like a kid would. I wasn't even really that hurt, I was just in complete shock that I had tumbled all the way down the stairs, sort of like a cartoon character. And I started crying. I ran into the kitchen where all the adults were—to this day I have no idea whether this really happened, but this is the way I remember it—and I went there screaming and crying that I had fallen down this set of stairs, and nobody believed me.... A lot of my issues as a kid were about not being believed, and I think one of the things that drew me, not just into music but into songwriting and screaming on a stage in front of a lot of people, is probably directly related to wanting to be believed."

Conversely, Pixies' Black Francis had a pleasant early experience that he points to as bringing him into live performance.

"I credit a fourth grade teacher named Mrs. Newstat, or Ms. Newstat—I don't know if she was married actually," says Francis. "She had a folk guitar, to use the vernacular, and she used to bring it to class and teach folk songs to the kids. Sometimes after school or during lunch, she would go to other schools in the district and would do her leading-the-children-in-song routine. She kind of took a liking to me, and so she would bring me as her sidekick. She would be there with a guitar, and I would be standing there in the front of the room teaching the class how to do rounds, for example. That was probably pretty important for my development. It wasn't just musical exposure, but it was getting up in front of people to address them in a musical way."

Friedberger can recall going to the Greek Orthodox church for which her grandmother was choir director until she died. "I can remember being very young and also very scared going to church," she says. "[I remember] going up to the choir loft, which was a very steep staircase, and seeing my grandmother standing there. Often they would plop me down next to the organist so that I'd be out of the way, but also just staring at the organist playing. And also seeing my grandmother, and not really understanding what was going on, because the service was in Greek."

Friedberger later went on to collaborate with her grandmother on The Fiery Furnaces' 2005 album Rehearsing My Choir.

For Broken Social Scene's Charles Spearin, appreciating sound grew out of his youth with a father who is both blind and Buddhist. Spearin's understanding of how his father experiences the world may explain some of his own current musical pursuits, such as The Happiness Project, where he uses people's recitations on happiness and the intonations of their voices to create music.

"One of the things [my father] enjoys a lot is sitting and listening to wind in the trees," says Spearin, who is currently working on a film version of his Happiness Project. "That's how he places himself in the world. So I used to sit with my father in the backyard and basically just listen to the sounds of what's going on around us. I really enjoyed those times. We still do it, all the time actually."

"One thing that we know is that human beings are attracted to familiarity. Things that we know and have repeated exposure to are more pleasing to us. So having listened to music early, and maybe even certain kinds of melodies or tunes that were familiar to you as a child, there is a pleasure that you'll take probably for the rest of your lives in coming back to those familiar melodies or familiar tunes." - Dr. Singer

Ben Goldwasser of MGMT describes his own musical education as being in several phases. He grew up in rural Upstate New York listening mostly to his parents' '60s records—The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Traffic—before gravitating toward edgier and more electronic sounds, things like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, and Stereolab, and finally early industrial music like Throbbing Gristle. Goldwasser's own creative endeavors have been equally varied, the first MGMT album, Oracular Spectacular, being more geared toward the electronic and experimental, and the band's most recent work, Congratulations, following more closely the classic psychedelic sounds of Goldwasser's youth. Many in the public and the media questioned the band's directional shift, but the chronology may also represent, like Dr. Singer says, a returning to the pleasurable sounds of early experience. 

"We weren't really trying to sound like that completely," says Goldwasser, "but I think it's a big reference point for us, because of the nostalgia that we associate with it, and what it means to people. I think popular music of that time is a universal language. People understand it pretty well."

Similarly, one could posit that Friedberger's contributions to The Fiery Furnaces' experimental, often bizarre approach to pop music is in some way subconsciously related to her experience as a scared and confused child in a church where music represented both a foreign idea and a comforting presence. Causation may not be completely clear, but one can certainly see parallels.

Dr. Singer says: "What you want now and what you're still looking toward in the future gives some of the recollections of your life their continued intensity." It is clear that the templates for those wants can be traced back to childhood. For musicians and those who intensely enjoy music, sound and song are vitally important, something to which we intimately connect and probably will for the rest of our lives. Whether we took our cues from parents, siblings, or other events, our early experiences have shaped us. No doubt we will remember them forever.



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