How to Make a Mixtape for the Road
My grandfather showed me how to play Harry Belafonte on his Electrohome record player at age three (it was a suped-up console and it was beautiful); my brother tricked me into listening to Dolly Parton (all ten albums he owned at the time) with him at age ten; and I've been crafting mix CDs for boyfriends and precious friends since I was a teen.
I'm also into rituals. My friend Steph and I make an annual trip (a friendship honeymoon of sorts) to Upstate New York, and I supply the mix. The mood of my soundtrack nods to shared experiences, our mutual music loving, and an escape from the city grit.
And it's not uncommon for me to include a track by a musician we've seen together in New York. Patrick Watson, a mad musical genius, is an example. We took a gamble on him during NYC's CMJ fest one year and I've included a few of his hauntingly beautiful tracks ("The Great Escape" and "Man Under the Sea") in past mixes. And there was that one summer Steph was going through a Bob Dylan thing — reading all about his life in New York, the jams he penned, and every other Beat-era tidbit. I included "Boots of Spanish Leather" in that mix (even if you don't care much for Dylan, that song is damn good).
The best kind of mix celebrates the destination and the travel companion. And our annual trip goes something like this: Two broads hightail it out of Brooklyn for a weekend of nothing but good old-fashioned excursions in the great outdoors, Egyptian ratscrew competitions, Woodstock record shopping, Peekamoose dining (Big Indian), and hang time in the quirkily charming Catskills at our favorite bed and breakfast. One year we visited the world's largest kaleidescope; another year we went apple picking. Most recently, we took the Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery tour (I strongly recommend the Hudson Baby Bourbon). Of course, I crafted a mix for the occasion. With these three easy steps you, too, can have the perfect travel mixtape.
Step 1: Find your message in a bottle. Don't be shy.
Mixtaping is storytelling. And I seriously nerd out each time I make a new compilation. The method changes depending on who and what the mix is for. The Catskills Mix is all about celebrating a dear friend and a jaunt to the mountains, so when curating each year, I like to include old and new favorites, and attempt to pull Steph further away from her indie rock centric musical orbit. I practice the non-repeat clause (it's a cardinal sin to include a track from a previous mix), and firmly believe a mix can offer an opportunity to dust off old gems and discover diamonds in the rough. I once included the Ray Charles rendition of "Careless Love" from Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music with just that intent. I've slowly gotten Steph to fall hard for bluegrass. And I always insert a track or two that she's never heard before. One year it was Horse Feathers' "Belly of June," and this past year it was Loudon Wainwright III's "The Swimming Song." And there always has to be a little soul. I can't help it, I was raised in a house where singing along with Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, and the Supremes was pretty much required.
Step 2: It's all about sequencing.
Any mix I make comes with explicit instructions to listen to the tracks in order. How one track blends into the next matters. It matters a lot. There is a reason I will never follow Major Lazer's latest dance groove with Bon Iver's slowest, softest ballad. Too fast, too soon. Instead, I would mix in A Tribe Called Quest, Aloe Blacc, or Francis and the Lights as a mix shifter, perfectly transitioning from the dance party track into something that segues into an unhurried Bon Iver ballad.
Also, share the love. Don't give multiple tracks to one artist. The point of a mix is to do just that — mix it up.
Step 3: Medidate on your track rhythm.
Mix slow jams with the get-up-on-the-dance-floor tracks, as long as no one rhythm dominates the mix (unless of course the point of the mix is to get everyone up on the dance floor). Once I've set aside a base of songs, I streamline and play it back. It's iterative, and I probably spend a few hours too many listening and re-ordering tracks until the mix feels right. Nerd alert: I'm guilty of uploading draft mixes onto my iPod to test out the rhythmic blends during long subway rides.
This year, I've tailored the soundtrack Upstate New York Autumn Mix for Fathom. Bluegrass and soul remind me of summer's slow descent into the here-before-you-know-it arrival of fall. Take a listen and enjoy that sweet ride upstate.
See our Catskills itinerary for recommendations on lodging, dining, and hanging out
1. "That Home," by The Cinematic Orchestra (with Patrick Watson)
2. "Goshen," by Beirut
3. "Calgary," by Bon Iver
4. "Award Tour," by A Tribe Called Quest
5. "Otis," by The Durutti Column
6. If You Want To Be Happy For The Rest Of Your Life - Jimmy Soul
7. "King of Diamonds," by Motopony
8. "Playing House," by Active Child
9. "Blue Ridge Mountains," by Fleet Foxes
10. "Jolene," by Dolly Parton
11. "Queen Bitch," by David Bowie
12. "Clawhammer Melody," by Steve Martin
13. "King of Pain," by The Police
14. "We Can Work It Out," by Stevie Wonder
15. "Telephone Line," by Electric Light Orchestra
16. "Hard Times," by Gillian Welch
17. "Finch On Saturday," by Horse Feathers
18. "You Make Me Smile," by Aloe Blacc
19. "I Know Where The Summer Goes," by Belle and Sebastion
20. "Measurements," by James Blake