Lexicon Intimacy

Kat Lister takes us on an intimate journey in music

Noun, a closeness, or familiar atmosphere

The first time I passed through the red-painted gates of Nunhead Cemetery in London, I reached for my headphones because I was looking for stories that might transport me away. Very few people were milling around in the early weeks of our national lockdown and as my feet crunched against the gravelled path, percussive sounds hissed and rattled at me with every footstep that I took. I tightened the ear cushions either side of my head, silencing the deafening squawks of a rabble of lime green parakeets overhead, and swiped at my iPhone, summoning musical spells and incantations into the void.

When London locked down, I had to find my movement and connection elsewhere – and I found them in music on my daily graveyard walks. When I listen to certain voices from the past, I feel an intimacy and a connection with them that supersedes everything else. Particular singers draw me in. They trickle like water, they magic me away. And on that dismal morning in the spring of 2020, at the peak of our first Covid wave, it was the distant rasps of the American folk and blues singer Karen Dalton that rippled around me in ever tightening circles; pulling me inwards, drawing me outwards, showing me the way as I squelched and sloshed through the mud.

Why does certain music make us feel – and remember – in the ways that it does?

I can’t tell you exactly when I first heard the frayed vocals of this ethereal singer, but I can tell you how she made me feel. But why does certain music make us feel – and remember – in the ways that it does? As Alex Ross points out in his musical odyssey, The Rest is Noise: “Ultimately, all music acts on its audience through the same physics of sound, shaking the air and arousing curious sensations.” Science tells us that sound waves travel through the air to our eardrums – mine and yours – in exactly the same way. And yet, instinct might tell us that no two responses to those vibrations will ever be the same. Arguably that’s where the magic lies. There’s a certain alchemy to be found between those headphones. Not only in the many differing ways we interpret the music we love, but in how we choose to listen to that music, and where we choose to listen to it, too. The intimate memories certain songs can evoke. And the wild journeys it often inspires us to take.

This idea of the particular intimacy we find in musicality begins very early in our lives, perhaps even in the womb when first, delicate bonds are formed, according to research from Voices. Here, a mother’s voice becomes our first song and the melodies we use to speak to babies after birth – a playful uplift, a higher pitch – allow us to form strong connections to the new worlds we’re discovering. Perhaps this begins to shed light on how, as we grow, our relationship to music allows us to anchor ourselves firmly in an otherwise fleeting moment, or transport us to another place; an alternative feeling from our past.

Intimacy cannot be replicated – nor can its power be underestimated but, with music, it can be summoned.

For me, these epiphanic moments are as diverse as the melodies that bring me closer to my inner and outer worlds. The bump and grind of T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy transporting me back to my 36th birthday on a sticky dance floor in north east London. Or how about the sweeping, soaring rhythms of Paul Simon’s Graceland, the undulating rhythms that never fail to evoke childhood memories in the backseat of my father’s Volvo as he drove. Only the other day, I heard the haunting bassline of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and when I closed my eyes I imagined myself in a landscape I’m yet to discover – the immense sunset skies of the Mojave Desert.

In Icelandic, the word angurværd, loosely translated as tender sadness, describes a feeling of sweet yet melancholic nostalgia, the kind of feeling one gets when listening to the world-weary warbles of Karen Dalton or the rippling whispers of Nick Drake. Ramblers without a fixed abode. Singers who are still finding their way back to us. Unravel the multitudinous strands of our listening experiences and every single thread leads us to a different internal terrain. For example, during the bewildering years of my late-teens, Dalton’s aches became mine, too. A supernatural transubstantiation that occurred between the plucks of her banjo and the frantic scribbles of my ballpoint pen. Lyrics were written out in my bedroom like prayer cards.

If I was where I would be
Then I would be where I am not
Here I am where I must be
Where I would, I can not

Her restlessness gave me hope as I listened quietly on my stereo waiting for something, anything, to happen. Even now, when I hear the opening bars of Katie Cruel, I still feel that desperate longing, the desire for some kind of motion deep inside. Perhaps she’ll always be with me, that frustrated teenager, swaying to the sounds of a twelve string guitar, willing me onwards, pulling my eyeline upwards, from muddy grass to voluminous sky.

Intimacy cannot be replicated – nor can its power be underestimated but, with music, it can be summoned. If we create the right environment and dare to allow ourselves to be fully immersed, we might discover it has the capacity to bring us closer. And that’s only to our surroundings, to our past and present selves, but also to the thing that music does best, perhaps what I was searching for as I stomped around Nunhead Cemetery: joy.

She began her career on the legendary news desk of the NME and now writes for the Sunday Times, Vogue, Vice and The Guardian among others. Her first book, The Elements, is out September 2021.

Kat Lister is a writer, editor and author with more than a decade of experience in magazine media.

Lexicon of Sound