There’s a lot more to making a mix than just throwing a bunch of songs onto a Spotify playlist or a CD. It’s about creating a mood or emphasizing an emotion, playing to a theme or singing what you can’t speak aloud. You don’t make someone a mix unless they’re really important.
So I have a new feature here on the blog–MIX TAPE MONDAY. I’ll dissect mixes I’ve made for other people, and maybe even a few people have made for me, to dissect what works. A note before we begin: we’ll use the term “Mix Tape” as a general term here, because “Mix CD” or “Playlist” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Up first, we have the APOLOGY MIX. I’ve made a few of these in my day, but this one, titled The All Or Nothing Days (2014) is especially poignant because it was made for my friend Jason. The epic fight we had, which lead to seven years of silence between us, was part of the inspiration for The Big Rewind, and the first thing we did when we reconnected (thanks to our awesome friend Corey, seriously, she rules and I owe her my whole life.) was make each other mixes. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t planned a lot of this mix ahead of time, and I was glad I finally had a chance to use it.
A quick word about Jason: He was my mix tape protege, and has taken the art form to a new level. He can pick songs and clips that are so precise, so devastatingly perfect, that it borders on sadistic. He has made several of my all-time favorite mixes, including She Doesn’t Think My Tractor’s Sexy Anymore (2005) which should be in some sort of mix CD museum for it’s sheer brilliance.
The Apology Mix is meant to be listened to on headphones. It’s a close, intimate type of mix, so make sure each of your messages comes through loud and clear. You won’t around to explain the meaning of each song, so be precise in your choices.
Your mix needs a title. Untitled mixes are for chumps. The title tells the listener what they’re in for. This one, The All-Or-Nothing Days comes from one of Marv’s lines in Sin City: “These are the old days, man, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. They’re back.” One of my geekier talents is how much of Sin City I can recite. Get Jason & I together and we can do pretty much the whole movie.
The Opening Number
I cannot stress how important the opening number of a mix is. It sets the tone, and if you pick the wrong song, you can set the listener up for a confusing experience. In this case, I went with the Tragically Hip’s “In View.” Not only is it bright and upbeat and fun, it also sets up the tone, lyric-wise: “I’ve been meaning to call you” is a particularly poignant sentiment, given the circumstances under which this mix was made.
Might as well get down to it. Now, I think the Smiths are the perfect mix tape band; they have a song for every wonderful miserable niche emotion, so I went with “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” But a single song won’t do it, so you’re going to want to group them. I tied “Bigmouth” into a nice package with Tom Waits “Bad Liver & A Broken Heart,” then capped it all off with New Order’s “Regret” to bring things back around.
Using sound clips is a great way to create transitions, hint at what’s next, or change the mood. Because Jason & I quoted movies constantly, I used a wide variety, including Down With Love, Sideways, Mystery Science Theater 3000 and, of course, Sin City, at a number of different points on the mix. But be careful–like a phone conversation or a dinner party, you don’t want to get too chatty. Let the music do the work, and keep it short.
Things Are Fun When They’re Fun
Yes, it’s an apology mix, but you want to get some good times in there too, otherwise the whole thing drags. I used The Replacements “I Will Dare” and Tenpole Tudor’s “Love and Food” to remind him how much fun we could have when they two of us really got going.
If you and your pal have been exchanging mix CDs for awhile, callbacks are always a good way to acknowledge the conversation that mix tapes make up. In this instance, I used Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Why Don’t You Do Right,” mirroring the Amy Irving version (from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) from his first mix, Barbara Novak? Oh, That Don’t Ring a Bell.
I’m Still Sorry
Get a few more apologies in there, just to make sure they know how fucking sorry you are. I went with Ryan Adams “My Winding Wheel” and Warren Zevon’s “Reconsider Me.” But this late in the game, the apologies need to have an “I’ll do better,” promise to them. We’re looking forward, not backwards.
Love and apology mixes have one thing in common: The Kicker. The Kicker is the track, usually near the end, that puts all your feeling out there, hard. This is where it all comes out, cards on the table, heart in your hands. On the apology mix, it’s generally designed to make the listener cry. On The All Or Nothing Days I went with Simply Red’s “Sunrise.” Not to be outdone, Jason’s kicker, in reply, was Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart For Awhile.” He plays dirty.
The Last Track
You want the last track to have a sense of wrapping it all up and closing it all out. The songs between the Kicker and The Last Track should gradually bring things to the end, so don’t have a bunch of super bouncy songs and then slow things down, or vice-versa. The apology mix is a journey, from heartbreak to reconciliation. You want the last song to look to brighter days ahead.