A Year Without Music

This year, the blog turned six. Not that I count the birthdays of Sawdust & Gin at all. (I often forget that I created it just days before my own birthday, so the festivities get muddled.) Its fifth year was easily my favorite—the onset of the pandemic gave me a challenge, one that I overcame with a surprising amount of resolve. There were a few weeks when I felt overwhelmed and scared, but most of the time I was vacuum-sealed, letting all the world news bead and slick right off my plastic shell without flooding my psyche. 

In 2021, I couldn’t keep the dam up any longer. With new COVID variants emerging, I revisited my fears of being infected. After I got vaccinated, I felt betrayed that most of my friends didn’t prioritize meeting up with me after the long year when I couldn’t see them. Not to mention all the institutions that we lost after the sudden lockdown—I acknowledged the sadness of their closing but never truly grieved. (Cuties Coffee will live on in my heart; the community continues to provide necessary spaces for queer folks, just without tea and pastries.) And as the natural disasters raged during the summer, I realized I also didn’t feel safe or comfortable in my own home. 

So I didn’t listen to music for eight months of this year. This was a red flag about my mental health that I couldn’t see during those many moments of silence. To listen to old music felt like a waste of time and trying to force myself to listen to new music became a task too great to conquer. It seems silly to look back on it now, knowing that very task has provided me with a joy that I can still feel in memories ripened after a decade or longer. 

One’s own mind can be a stubborn adversary. So I started seeing my therapist. And like a Claritin commercial, my world slowly began to become clearer as I started to feel more like myself. Unfortunately, I also feel like a completely different person. And the cycle of self-discovery continues. 

As the sun began to peek through the blackout curtains of my life, I dipped my toe into familiar territory—specifically, my Bandcamp notifications. The hundreds of artists I follow on the platform became a pool of talent that gave me a certain comfort that had been missing for months. But I couldn’t just start anywhere after a hiatus of over half a year. New music from my number one artist of 2015 seemed the most logical place for my new beginning. And when I listened to 3 by Ngaiire, I cried. My depression was easing away as happiness flowed, and both created a strangely familiar frenzy that I still feel when I hear the lyric, “I wrote a song, yeah I wrote a love letter.” 

From there, I dove into new music from artists I had forgotten or from independent labels that never stopped chugging. My devotion was heaviest in January, February, November, and December, but it was not superficially spent. All the work that barely missed the cut still deserves recognition, starting with The Cherries Are Speaking by my friend Dan Knishkowy aka Adeline Hotel. Not only is it a figurative beacon of light, brass gleaming, it also gave us a chance to reconnect. We traded music recommendations and realized that the Japanese label, Flau, was playing prominently in both of our play histories. Small coincidences such as this always fill me with warmth. 

Dan also recommended the compilation of works called Shiki on Cached Media and it changed the course of my autumn. Recorded in socially-distanced spaces, the collaborations are uniquely expansive. Each individual album was released by season starting in fall 2020, and each has its own clever ties to its respective time of year, described in detail in the liner notes on Bandcamp. Fuubutsushi is the name of the first installment and also acts as the name of the group; the term represents a seasonal nostalgia or “a longing for the approaching season upon its first sign.” The records received the adoration they deserved upon release which led to the 36-song compilation (Shiki translates to “four seasons,”) and a limited-production CD box set, of which a few are still available

Additionally, a particular Flau record that I anticipated placing on my list was See-through by Kumi Takahara. This beautifully-paced toy piano LP was eliminated on a technicality regarding a labelmate that I dare not reveal for fear of more spoilers. (Let’s just say I really loved what Motohira Nakashima had to offer. And now, I’ve already said too much.) Speaking of ambient, Javier Rodriguez released yet another LP with prominent hip hop influences and it makes me even more a fan of this low-profile producer.

One of the few significant new pieces of writing I worked on this year was the interview I completed with my friend Dresage, aka Keeley Bumford. Terror Nights / Terror Days was deeply moving, literally, like an undercurrent. I did get to dig into that EP over the summer in preparation for the chat we had over Zoom, but I only don’t consider it new music since I had heard an early version of it the fall prior. (Keeley, if you’re reading this: I found an old text with a link lol I knew it wasn’t just déjà vu.)

The opposite of low-profile, I also loved Lil Nas X’s debut album, MONTERO. I’m still dumbfounded by the reception of this Black, queer artist, and I am quivering with excitement to see where he goes next. Mykki Blanco—another pioneering Black queer musician—released Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep, which included serious bangers that I found uplifting. DAWN also dropped a pop album for the ages. I got the same fuzzy feeling listening to Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer as I did for Second Line, with no skips and melodies that get me moving before I realize what song is playing. 

Considering the hours I spent reading Crying in H Mart, I think the artist I spent the most time with this year was probably Japanese Breakfast. Because, aside from her devastatingly beautiful book, I listened and loved Jubilee as well as the soundtrack she wrote and recorded for the video game, Sable. Last but not least, I simply do not have words to express my continued fascination with Madeline Kenney’s musical style. Simultaneously lush and edgy, her Summer Quarter EP and birthday single were as warm as friends on a carefree day. 

As previously iterated, my year wasn’t really dedicated to new music, but I often minimize my own accomplishments. I completed 20 issues of my zines that I began working on in earnest last year; I had only planned for 19, but now I have at least 25 in the works. I read more books this year than in the past few years combined and tapped into a joy that I haven’t fully taken advantage of since I was a kid. I don’t necessarily have affection for my day job, but I feel incredibly lucky to enjoy what I do and not let it stress me out…too much. I choose to work one day a week at my office and I genuinely do love the routine. I would be remiss not to mention the medical support I have been able to access this year as well, from getting vaccinated and boosted to treatment for shingles (how?!). 

When I revealed to a friend that I was feeling not-as-depressed, and thus listening to music again, she reacted with a quiet sadness. I had never shared that I was having a difficult time but if I had, she told me in softer terms, it would have immediately clued her into what I was feeling. This introduced the frenzy that I now keep at a low hum in the back of my head. In that moment I felt seen, yet unable to express myself. I felt loved yet ashamed. And now my goal is to balance those feelings every day. 

While I used to think of myself as an optimistic jack-of-all-trades, I now feel the tides crashing on every side, making me doubt my every so-called skill. But thankfully, I also found the music to help me through the end of this insane year. And even more new discoveries will lead me through the years to come. 

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