Each month with In Our Headphones, members of KEXP's Digital Content team share the music that's resonating with them right now.
I should start with honesty. This column is called In Our Headphones with the concept that we’re talking about the music we’ve been listening to recently. But for this month, I had to make an intentional choice outside of my current rotation. Because, truthfully, I’ve been in a funk. Most of the music I’ve opted to listen to has been in service to feeding into this gloom that’s crept from who-knows-where and mired me into self-defeat and self-pity. While I have found solace many times in sad songs, it’s not a cure-all. And I’m realizing, really as I write this, that sometimes you have to make the choice if you’ll drink the poison or the antidote – which is what thankfully led me to my pick for this month.
I became enamored with Laraaji last year after stumbling onto “Unicorns in Paradise,” a sprawling improvisational hour-and-a-half meditation on a Casiotone and zither harp he recorded in 1981. I soon discovered upon digging deeper just how foundational Laraaji is to new age and ambient music. Following a career pursuing stand-up comedy and upon discovering his love for the zither in the late 70s, Laraaji would busk at New York City’s Washington Square Park where he was heard by Brian Eno. Eno would later enlist Laraaji for his legendary Ambient series, producing Laraaji’s third record Ambient 3: Day of Radiance.
Long story short, I fell into a rabbit hole exploring Laraaji’s fascinating and prolific career and became particularly fascinated with 1984’s Vision Songs Vol. 1. The album veers away from his instrumental meditations and puts a focal point on Laraaji’s vocals, correlating with his Celestrana public access television show which I cannot recommend enough if you love new age meditations sung by frog puppets. I put myself firmly center in that Venn diagram.
What I really want to talk about – three paragraphs later – is the album’s centerpiece, “I Can Only Bliss Out (F’Days).” So much of Laraaji’s music is spiritual, seeking out into the ether and broaching the divine through amorphous tones. “Bliss Out” puts into words what he typically explores wordlessly. A feeling of gratitude, a humble account of what it feels like to encounter the unknowable cosmic forces holding our universe together. He somehow encapsulates his feelings about the unending universe with a simple drum machine and keyboard.
“And as I take into consideration
All the inspiration that has been allowed to flow through me
What else could I be?
But blissed out for days and days and days”
I think about these words often, or maybe not often enough. How rare it is that we appreciate the very act of inspiration. A lightning bolt of an idea rushing through your head. Where might it come from? We’ve all likely felt it in some manner big or small. Maybe it’s just synapses firing off in our brain a certain way or a spiritual force moving unseen. Who’s to say. But what a gift it is! To have been a vessel for a good thought, to feel epiphany surging through your mind and body. I lose track of this far too often. I get so caught up in what I could be, what I could do, how I’m failing, why I’m not as good as I should be. I wonder how much time I’ve wasted on bad thoughts that get me nowhere.
I know firsthand that it’s not always so simple to choose happiness. Still, in everything, I want to do my best. Laraaji reminds me that the act of practicing small acts of gratitude can have a ginormous impact. To appreciate the world and its mysteries, to take in that all of this around us is bigger than we can even comprehend. If I can start to practice that more, it won’t be long before I’m blissing out too. – Dusty Henry
P.S. You won’t want to miss out on this incredible session and interview with Laraaji for LIVE on KEXP at Home from earlier this year.
“Well, is he a punk or isn’t he?”
I resist easy categorization because I’m so many different goddamn things wrapped up into one person. It’s easy for people to gently question me or outright roll their eyes when I say I identify as a punk-rocker because I’m a Black man who doesn’t sport a heavily spiked leather jacket or pink hair. Human nature dictates we look at people as shallowly as possible; that we put others into boxes and interrogate them rather than ourselves when they challenge our flimsy expectations.
I’ve been thinking about punk as a religion rather than an aesthetic or lifestyle personal brand because I’m entering the final month of living in the house I’ve been in for eleven years, a mother-in-law unit with very fucking cheap rent that hasn’t raised a dime since I moved here — even as the cost of living in suburban Tacoma has steadily climbed and will continue to do so until there’s no difference between living here and an equally quiet neighborhood in, say, Redmond. Am I less punk because I found a big room in a decent-sized house instead of a room in a warehouse? My rent’s probably cheaper here. Like, deliriously cheap. Like, “You pay HOW LITTLE to live here??” cheap.
I moved here in the summer of 2010, under duress and in the throes of near-emergency for reasons too private to divulge here; a situation I’m way over but one where I’m not entirely sure I’ve fully forgiven the other person involved. It was the first place I looked; the owner of the house was a very friendly, very talkative lady who ran her business out of her decent-sized home. The room had its own private entrance through the garage and was basically in a separate wing from the rest of the house — the other side of the laundry room. My landlord and her husband — dating when I moved in, married at the tail end of 2012 — have always respected my rather obscene need for privacy and solitude and have never, not even once, asked me to turn the music down.
Early on, she told me I couldn’t smoke weed in my room but at some point decided against enforcing her stance as not to continue fighting a losing battle.
What’s all this — aside from blaring music with the windows open — have to do with being a punk? Did I mention the rent was cheap? I was working nights at a supermarket; right down the street from my old place and six minutes from parking lot to driveway of my new one. I was writing about music on my off-days and for hours on days I did work; not yet freelancing but far removed from being a hobby. Nearly a year and a half since I queried my friend about writing a lo-fi/garage-rock column for his world-renowned hip-hop blog and minted Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes. (The reverse-switch of my name was an Andre 3000 reference; my love for the confusion it still inspires is punk.)
At this point, I knew I wanted to be a writer, an artist, a person working in some form of creativity. I had no delusions of believing I would be compensated reasonably for the path that had chosen me, so a place that was inexpensive to live was most essential. A few weeks later, when I was moved to the day shift over store politics that had nothing to do with me, my hours got cut by more than half and having cheap rent practically saved my life. I wrote more, listened to loud music during all hours of the day, and still drove to Seattle for friend time and shows whenever I could afford it.
Over a decade onward from those first days — through the grief and breakdowns and lengthy stretches of depression; through sleeping on a twin-sized bed well into my thirties and even sharing it with a procession of short-term flings, not-exactly-platonic friends, and doomed romantic partners; through the late nights returning home from last call at the venue; through disrupting the peace of this quiet, somewhat conservative neighborhood with loud punk rock music — I now sit in a room with a bunch of empty, folded boxes sitting in the middle of my floor. I’m leaving my cheap rent behind in favor of an adventure in cohabitation; sharing a Seattle basement condo owned by my love, where we will embark on a journey that just might end with us sharing a home in Tacoma. She doesn’t like too-loud music so I will inevitably blast Buck Biloxi and the Fucks as forgivably as I can while she’s not home. My professional life is blooming — something I couldn’t have possibly ever predicted for myself — and it seems like I’m poised to leave the starving artist lifestyle behind for good.
All the more reason for people to roll their eyes at me when I self-identify as a punk. — Martin Douglas
You better keep me poor and busy or I’d be a danger
— Xenia Rubinos
I’m listening to Xenia Rubinos’ music through my headphones now, sitting at my desk getting ready for more work and thinking that the complete discography of the Boricua-Cuban composer and singer is impossible to fit into a premade box. To build her career, Xenia never took advantage of the monolithic ideas of the “latinidad,” always present in the music industry. Quite the contrary, her music sounds like "Xenia Rubinos" and that element that allows for her immediate recognition is one of the things that most made me trust in her music.
“Working All the Time” is her most recent single, released alongside the announcement of Una Rosa, Xenia Rubinos’ third album set to be released on October 15 via ANTI- Records. This will be her first LP in four years, and will complete a series of recently released songs: “Who Shot Ya?”, “Did My Best”, and “Cógelo Suave”. On a personal level, each of these songs is like entering a story in a parallel universe, with diverse characters and the voice of Xenia acting as both an omnipresent narrator and the person responsible for interpreting the protagonists of these stories.
Musically, Una Rosa incorporates bolero, R&B, and the freedom to go through romance and aggression with integrity and harmony. The thing is, her music transcends all kinds of borders, including the emotional ones. She expands the boundaries of sound while forcefully blending them, releasing powerful messages that touch on identity, pain, and healing. In addition, her quest has explored her own personal experience of growing up in this country within a constant cultural duality, then finding space to breath, containment and a solid place in the typical New York-based Latinx music scene.
"People need rest in order to think and to organize," explains Xenia about this new single, which is accompanied by an incredible video clip directed by Mario Rubén Carrión. The video demonstrates, visually, how the capitalist labor system absorbs souls and energy from people, leaving them empty and unsatisfied. This necessary song appears in the midst of a global pandemic that has devastated the world and how we imagine it, forcing us to reevaluate priorities, energy, and objectives to feel a little more human. — Albina Cabrera
As a recent New York transplant, I’ve made it a personal mission to learn the music history of this incredible city. It’s a tall mountain to climb. With the help of books like Love Goes to Buildings on Fire and Meet Me in the Bathroom, I’ve been learning a bit about Harlem salsa of the ‘70s and who did coke with The Strokes in the early aughts — but the education has been slow, and now made all the slower with the arrival of summer.
It’s house music that has always accompanied summer wonder for me. For long, sweltering days and even longer, stickier nights, nothing keeps time quite like BPM. Summer has a natural rhythm to it, circadian in its own right; if you can tap into the flow, it’s an endless groove that always ends all too soon.
And this isn’t just any summer. We are back in the roaring ‘20s, roaring back to life after a year and a half of isolation. The energy in New York is, for lack of a better word, infectious. Not only are music lovers packing out venues across the boroughs, but music makers are breathing new life into their craft, some for the very first time.
I live in a studio that shares a kitchen with another unit, and the person who occupies it recently dropped his first single as SEEM. “Catch A Feeling” is a summer house banger that sounds like how a July night in New York feels: humid, enveloping, and just the right kind of chaos. The production is a dynamic and elaborate affair, with bright hi-hats, throbbing bass, and full-bodied synths mimicking the dizzying clip of city nights in oppressive heat. The beat is paced for a marathon, not a sprint and drifting off the production, SEEM’s distorted vocals swing at you in different registers. It’s easy to make out “Catch a feeling” and what sounds like a three-person tangle bound for a backseat; but the line served up with resounding clarity is “If you want to run away.” Despite the moody electronic flourishes that constitute its darker soundscape, the song is a playful invitation to indulge. Equal parts mischievous and liberating, “Catch a Feeling” is an irresistible groove — a song for your first drink of the evening, for the dancefloor at midnight, and for the diner at sunrise. Like summer, it ends all too soon with a tight run time of 2:46. And like summer, your appetite for SEEM’s debut may be equally insatiable.
I’ll return to the books documenting New York’s formative years in music at a later date. For now, the artists soundtracking this unforgettable moment in real time are keeping me locked into the present and eager to hear what else is on the horizon — or should I say *skyline. I would say don’t listen to “Catch a Feeling” if you aren’t trying to catch a feeling, but you know you are. — Tia Ho
In this month's edition of In Our Headphones, KEXP's Digital Content team celebrates Pride with picks from artists in the LGBTQIA+ community.
In this month's edition of In Our Headphones, KEXP's Digital Content team shares music by Asian and Pasifika artists that have been in their personal rotation lately.
Each month with In Our Headphones, members of KEXP's Digital Content team share the music that's resonating with them right now. For this installment, in conjunction with International Jazz Day, a few of the team members share their reflections on jazz music in their personal rotations.