Lastu Lainehilla (Driftwood) by Jean Sibelius
I never travel without a necklace that has a tiny bronze figure from the Finnish epic Kalevala. This talisman was given me by Anna-Kaisa, a teenage music prodigy, on a summer exchange when I was 15, which launched my love of all things Nordic. That summer I had my first sip of cloudberry vodka, took my first sauna, and learned to row a boat: all revolutionary for a kid from a family that had never taken holidays abroad. Anna-Kaisa and I became close friends, and I often returned to Helsinki for more saunas and vodka, and to hear her accompany the beguiling soprano Karita Mattila at the opera house.
Love Among the Sailors by Laurie Anderson
Fierce storms, continuous night and mercurial ice: winter is a challenging time to travel between settlements in Greenland, where I lived for three months in 2010 on an arts scholarship. I immersed myself in life on the island of Upernavik and set to work getting to know this welcoming community in depth.
I learned about the wider archipelago from hunters who knew the waters of the north-west coast intimately, and shared sober conversations about sea ice conditions over coffee or a mug of seal stew. As the weeks progressed, sometimes it seemed I would never leave the island. This ballad – written by Anderson at the height of the Aids epidemic – brings back all the loneliness and menace of the polar darkness.
Folon by Salif Keita
I wonder if the days of being able to travel on impulse are gone for good? One day, in my second term at university, I decided to skip lectures and booked a seat on the Eurostar to Paris departing the next day. I stepped off at the Gare du Nord with only a few euros, a notebook, and a bottle of green ginger wine. I planned to seek shelter in Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop that had long been a beacon for poets. George Whitman (the shop’s owner) beamed, said that he loved green ginger wine, and told me I could kip upstairs among the books in exchange for cleaning the windows; he showed me how, using old newspapers. By night I shared the shop with a handful of itinerant writers who passed on countless book and music recommendations, and advised me on the best cafes to wash in secretly each morning. This exquisitely wistful song (Folon means “in the past” in Bambara) by the great Salif Keita was one discovery that was well worth missing a few lectures for.
A Day in Space by Ballboy
I worked in a bakery in Edinburgh while I saved money for my first major expedition: a year living in the rainforests of the Pacific north-west. These intervals of preparation are as much a part of a traveller’s life as time overseas, and can be an adventure in themselves. I shared a chaotic flat near the Meadows with the manager of Edinburgh band Ballboy, for which my friend Katie [Griffiths] played keyboards, and a few other musicians. It was a year of scrounging guest passes to gigs, and the band had just played a John Peel session, so we could all feel the wind in our sails and stardom seemed just around the corner. The child in this song dreams of looking back at the Earth from space and “watching continents drift by and come round again” – it’s an anthem for anyone who dares to imagine boundless possibilities.
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Ára Bátur by Sigur Rós
These days you’ll find almost as many artists and musicians as fishers on the north coast of Iceland. When I arrived in Siglufjörður (later famous as the location for the TV drama Trapped) my host Guðný gave me the key to my cabin, saying: “Jónsi was the last person to sleep in your bed.” The Sigur Rós lead singer’s falsetto found an echo in the sound of the wind that wailed down the fjord and blew through the gaps in my iron roof. This song about a perilous voyage captures the austere beauty of that landscape, which demands such courage and resolve of those who live there. I love that it is partly sung in a made-up language the band call “Vonlenska” or “Hopelandic”, suggesting something beyond words.
Because the Night by Patti Smith
I often write about islands but there’s one in particular that has lured me back time and again like an unshakeable addiction. I got to know New York one summer, working in an arts studio in an old warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By day I toiled over iron printing presses and sweltering vats of molten lead, but through the vast windows I could see skyscrapers shimmering across the East River, and the nights were my own to explore Manhattan. Patti Smith’s voice has a raw darkness shot through with energy which will forever remind me of the filthy, chaotic and completely beautiful pulse of those nights at parties on Williamsburg rooftops and dungeons in Hell’s Kitchen, and which made sense when later I read her own account of her 20s in the city, Just Kids.
The Sleepers by Fred Hersch
A few years ago I was commissioned to interview the artist Lynne Avadenka, and we arranged to talk on the five-hour drive from her home in Detroit to Chicago, where we both had meetings lined up. Conversations on the road, with friends or strangers, often have an urgent intensity and this was no exception. Towards the end of the ride, Lynne began to play Fred Hersch’s extraordinary settings of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and it was on these sweet blue notes that our tiny Toyota swooped down a flyover and into the Windy City.
Station to Station by David Bowie
I finished the manuscript of The Library of Ice at the Jan Michalski Foundation, an arts centre and writers’ retreat in the foothills of the Swiss Jura. Each writer is given a “treehouse” – a state-of-the-art cabin, which hangs from a massive concrete canopy designed to mirror the forests that surround it. Dan Richards was there at the same time, working on his book Outpost. When the mountain peaks vanished and the lights of Lausanne began to glitter on the south-eastern horizon, we’d end the day with conversation, music, whisky and the local speciality, cheese biscuits. This prelude to Bowie’s Berlin days brings back those leisurely discussions of future journeys, the passing hours marked by the occasional gleam of a little local train clattering through the dark valley.
Time after Time by Miles Davis
It’s the traveller’s eternal dilemma: caught between the lure of well-known places and a yearning for new horizons. There are cities I love going back to – Munich is one – that satisfy both these instincts, offering easy familiarity and astonishing aspects on each new encounter, just as an original recording echoes through every subsequent version of a song. I wish I could travel back in time, too, to see Miles Davis perform this sublime instrumental version of Cyndi Lauper’s hit during a 1988 concert at the Munich Philharmonic.
Listen, the Snow is Falling by Galaxie 500
Last year, I was locked down in Oxford writing a book about snow in different cultures around the world. Many kind people sent me folk melodies and songs on a snow theme, of which my favourite is this magical cover version of a Yoko Ono original. The lyrics feel even more poignant in a time when weather patterns can sweep around the globe but humans must stay home. It is one of the hopeful things about these difficult times that rather than ceasing to travel, we’ve discovered the possibilities of travelling in our imaginations.