Yesterday’s mixtape: Driving through the past

Sounds of childhood memories and the music that accompanied them.

Art by Dimitry Kuznichenko.

When I was eight years old, my mother brought home a CD. On it was a discounted Target price tag and a photographic cover of sharp, deep green grass. It was called Amazing and it became my family’s car CD.

Car travel wasn’t a big part of my life until we moved to the Central Coast in late primary school. My dad didn’t even learn to drive until we moved. From then onwards, we commuted between two houses almost every weekend: one in Sydney’s Inner West where we visited my aging grandparents, and the other, almost another world away (or less than two hours drive) in North Avoca.

My grandparents still lived in Marrickville and we kept up the facade that we were located minutes away — due to my mother’s fear of abandoning them in their old age. My garish yellow Terrigal Primary School polo would be torn off my head before I ran to greet my grandmother on her porch, Holyoake flowers bending towards me on the path. 

I began to associate the commute between the two parts of my life with this random compilation CD. It became common practice to “put Amazing on”. The Chemical Brothers’ trance-like-track ‘Star-Guitar’ cements me in the back seat of our bright blue Honda Jazz, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, its steel beams stark against the sparkling Hawkesbury River. I was a fan of the jarring drum solo in ‘Radio Number 1’ by Air. I can still envisage exiting the hot-asphalted freeway, rolling down the windows as the air quality changed — the lazily muttered lyrics of the French duo psychedelically floating from the stereo. 

When the Verve’s ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ played, I would always feel embarrassed. Urgently, I would talk over the sombre ode to misery with some nonsense about a spelling bee or recent camp — evidently aware that its lyrics were a little too dark for a year-four student. 

I only realised the formative effect of this car CD in early adulthood. It came with the epiphany that my music taste has reverted back to what my parents played me as a child. 

The Mamas & the Papa’s (both my parents and the band) informed my love of folk harmonies, manifested in artists like the Fleet Foxes and Weyes Blood. Memories of my mum singing along theatrically to ‘Babooshka’ by Kate Bush in our garden, has culminated in the current state of most of my playlists; St Vincent and Caroline Polachek, an art-pop obsession. 

A full circle. Comforting in its unavoidable nostalgia.

“Even if the artists are different, I look for the same rhythms and timbres to the songs,” my good friend Kira tells me. She was born and bred in Sydney’s inner-west to left-wing, academically minded parents. The sounds she was raised on — New Order, the Pixies and Nick Cave (to name a few), contributed to her prolific music proclivities. “My parents would blast music in the car… Every feeling was augmented and amplified over the stereo so there was no chance of missing it.” Her love for New Wave has never wavered. “I listen to a lot of the same bands… Bjork, Massive Attack… a lot of 80s and 90s music I got into in my late teens I didn’t even realise my parents were playing when I was little!”

There is no questioning the codependence of music and emotion. Memories segment themselves in the pauses between beats. As a child, this attachment to feeling is even stronger, as so much is new, fresh or not yet understood. 

Alexa, now an eclectic, indie-pop listening med-student, recounts how her father listened to The Best of Bowie when he drove her around as a four-year-old. ‘Space Oddity’ has stuck with her. “Since my parents’ divorce, it makes me feel nostalgic and sad for my father because I haven’t seen him in… seven or eight years. It just feels like the distance between us is [similar] to that person on a space station looking down at Earth.”

For some, the music they played in the car provided a connection to culture, belonging and identity. “We used to always listen to a South African singer called Johnny Clegg… on car trips and got into learning all of the lyrics…in Zulu”, Anneka recalls. Her parents moved to Auckland in 1999 from Cape Town. “It was [how] my sister and I learned more about our South African heritage”.

For others, the music their parents played alienated instead of embraced. Vanessa, a fresh graduate and my long-time friend, grew up on mixtapes of her aunt’s favourite Chinese music. I ask her whether, when she hears those songs, she feels some sense of kinship with the music of her background. She laughs and tells me she doesn’t. 

It wasn’t until University that she developed a love for music. “I still remember going to Splendour for the first time.” We reminisce about listening to Triple J together on the drive up, blasting it by unsuspecting sheep, “going to that festival sparked my new love for music…It was just such an amazing experience”. 

Whether tinged with fondness, melancholy, apathy or comfort — the car CD provided a soundtrack to the psyche of many a childhood. In the age of Bluetooth, boundless playlist choices have overtaken the predictable tangibility of a tracklist. I think that’s okay because one thing always remains the same — nostalgia thrives on change.

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