Words by Austral
Out west, on the dry, dusty border to South Australia – when the Great Dividing Range has long since fallen away to saltbush and reddened earth underfoot – lies a small town braced against an unforgiving landscape. By day, a relentless sun bears down on half-closed eyes and dust-flecked cheeks. At night, scorched plains hold ghostly, silver hues under a deep and radiant sky. Here, faint echoes of the world beyond carry slowly, and like the wind and rain with which they arrive, are little more than shattered remnants of distant activity.
Against this backdrop, a fractured relief of music and art was etched across my formative years. Borne in the hands of visiting friends and family, or gleaned from the aged and faded collections of tired classrooms – literature, music, painting, and architecture announced their existence in jumbled and confusing collages. While this tyranny of distance no longer tethers the rafts of my curiosity, it has left an enduring passion for the kaleidoscopic lens through which I often caught sight of and began to structure the wider world – the mixtape.
Long-considered the domain of anxious adolescence, cash-strapped romance and the failing tape-decks of second-hand cars, it is in fact a vital and prominent medium through which artists and labels mark, traverse and share musical territories. More widely, it is an open and enticing call to craft stories and intelligible patterns amidst a ceaseless maelstrom of isolated sounds. What follows, then, isn’t a diary of longing – the lamenting of a once-popular format; a eulogy for a lost art, or misguided pining for a physical object. It is instead a brief reflection on one of the vibrant rituals through which we engage with a treasured facet of our lives.
To approach an album is, in one sense, to gaze at a finely-framed canvas. While the composition it supports may delve through many layers of influence, texture and mood, it is – at least immediately – a depiction of a singular world; a land unto itself. As a collection of disparate moments, the edges of a mixtape’s canvas are, by contrast, yet to be drawn back. Spilling open and unfiltered in to the many scenes from which it draws, it need not rely on fixed beginning and end, or a definitive sense of boundary. Its structure instead pivots on a lilting, trailing-in and -out between fleeting glimpses of wider conversations. In this brief journey through unfamiliar suburbs, a blurry assortment of passing landscapes and interiors merge steadily to form a warped, unbounded musical cartography. With no fixed terminus, your carriage appears set to press on long after you have gathered your coat and pushed through the turnstile.
Enveloping this indulgence of the listener, the heart of a mixtape’s aura rests firmly in the hands of its compiler. Unseen but ever-present, they task themselves with a brief but intense curation of the mind’s eye. With warm diligence, it is their restrained joy and privilege to silently guide their audience through an array of scenes dappled in washes of light and shade. Of course, the attempts of the casual listener – my own attempts – are often primitive, at best. Asking only firmness of thought and a glimmer of imagination, a mixtape kindly forgives a lack in technical skill; a patchwork to be assembled and enjoyed by all. Yet, this approachability belies a great capacity to cultivate scenarios of immense depth and variety. It is here that those with a certain deftness of touch and command of vocabulary – the artists we follow and admire – may reveal the finer intricacies of the medium. Unshackled by the rigours of more formal undertakings, a mixtape offers a chance to explore avenues of thought which may never see wider or more refined expression; a sketch of ‘wasted hours’ – moments of unstructured experimentation; inspiration; failed attempts – supporting the finished monuments we may eventually hold dear. These brief exchanges offer fertile ground for both artist and audience – for the former, a small sketchpad for the rehearsal of assorted strokes; for the latter, a leaping dive in to the oils and acrylics from which their favourite artworks are composed.
Whether pieced together by a friend at their desk, or a band on the road, mixtapes are patterning systems through which a loose assortment of elements may be made intelligible. At their best, these woven meanderings find resonance with concerns beyond the mere appreciation of sound – the unspoken nature of a friendship; the aesthetic sentiments of a blossoming label; or the motivations of an established artist.
But strained metaphors and tenuous anecdotes will only stretch so far. Some sense of direction is needed; a run of thread worth following, however thin. Certainly, it is daunting to jump headlong in to a largely unmapped, unsorted and imprecise art form. Yet, there is an enthusiastic cast of voices, bounded by our shores, threading beguiling arrangements that reveal some greater sense of time or place than the consideration of their individual ingredients. Whether it be with worn reels of faded pasts; the distant sounds of figures at our fringes; the colours of personal turmoil, or the humming backdrops to wild nights spent in darkened halls – all offer recurring glimpses of the pulsing, melodic spectrum of antipodean hearts.
So, should you find yourself with a blank expanse of thought while pressed against the window of a bus; tucked between the quiet shelves of a library; the noisy aisles of a supermarket; or sprawled across a stretch of your bedroom floor – compose a letter. The tones you arrange will serve as the ink on your page; the words never quite grasped in imperfect conversation; the small gestures often left unnoticed. A small refuge to explore, enjoy and share – it will, if nothing else, bring you closer to the sounds and faces you love.