I actually can’t remember listening to a lot of music growing up. It seems like most people I know can remember loving certain artists from the time they were toddlers, but the only music I ever remember growing up with was Anne Murray’s Christmas album. My parents would throw that record on the stereo, no matter the time of year, because I loved it so much (and so did my sister, but I think it’s safe to say I loved it more than she did. She’s always been a good sport when it comes to my musical tastes!).
My musical tastes came to light a bit later, when I started playing the piano. For a long time, in late elementary school and early high school, I was the only kid I knew that would choose Beethoven over The Notorious B.I.G. Along with a budding love for jazz, old ’40s swing, and a sneaking adoration for old WWI songs like “Danny Boy”, it’s safe to say I’ve not been part of the mainstream musical fold for a long time. I have a very eclectic musical taste, and my friends, at one time or another, have had to endure me forcing them to listen to my latest obsession (usually a female vocalist who can play a mean piano).
So, today, it’s Sunday afternoon, which generally means that I’m not doing anything important (I’m actually procrastinating packing up the rest of my bedroom). I’m listening to my iPhone mix on iTunes, and a song from the Broadway musical, “In The Heights” comes on. And immediately, I stop everything I’m doing to get lost in the complex beat, freestyle rap, and big orchestra elements. Because I have a variety of musical preferences, but Broadway stops me in my tracks, every time.
“In The Heights” is a story about a 20-something young man growing up in Washington Heights, which is a neighbourhood situated at the top of Manhattan Island, New York. And it’s so far removed from my experience growing up in a small town that it’s surprising that I relate to it so much. But I do. Because its main message is that everyone has a story – and everyone has a dream. That’s the human condition, and that’s something that I can relate to completely.
When I’m asked about my inspirations for my second book, “Lake Effect: Voices of Toronto’s History”, I like to point to music. It’s a cliche to say it, but so much of the musical history we have has been born of people trying to find a relatable way to tell their stories. Listening to old English ballads, or to one of my friend’s gorgeous rap songs, or to a Broadway musical, no matter how classical or modern it may be, lets me in on stories that people can’t tell any other way.
When I wrote “Lake Effect”, I listened to a lot of music from each era I wrote about. Irish dance, ’20s orchestra, even some modern songs that played during the time I was with my ex. Each song told a story – which set the stage for the stories I wanted to tell. And in the end, it helped me to realize that music never goes out of style – and those stories never die. Long after we’re all dead, Usnavi’s story in the music of “In The Heights” will live on. It’s humbling – and it’s something that I think is fascinating.
We set the mood with music. It’s the stage for love, sadness, death, and happiness. And with earphones plugged into my ears, I take my many walks around the city and let the music tell the story of an afternoon in Trinity-Bellwoods or a rainy day downtown. Who knows what long-dead stories will come to light when I’m hearing the chords of Vienna Teng as I stare at a 200-year-old building? Who knows the voices that will come through the words on my iPod as I wait to cross the street?
You can find the soundtrack to “In The Heights” on iTunes, and you can find “Lake Effect” here.