Words by J Beverly

Music connects us to one another. According to Classical Music, it’s possible that our language developed from the music-like sounds of the animal kingdom, and our own first songs were our attempts to convey vital information about ourselves and our surroundings. The thread of that still continues—when artists make songs about specific places, they’re communicating the profoundness they experienced in that location and with the locals. Through music, you can learn about different places more viscerally than merely reading about them—which might inspire you to visit those sites yourself. Here are five great songs about places around the world.

Sufjan Stevens: Holland

This talented multi-instrumentalist is lauded for his introspective lyrics and hypnotic instrumental arrangements, which he uses in full force to create songs about human connection. In his song “Holland”, Stevens sings about a brief, sweet love affair he once had in the titular town next to Lake Michigan. With only two verses, Stevens describes the place as an in-between space of falling in love and falling apart, where it was safe enough to savor what he knows will eventually end. Stevens recorded his instruments using the Shure SM57 microphone, an industry-standard mic with a dynamic range and cardioid pick-up pattern that allowed him to capture his raw sounds faithfully. He then used a Roland VS-880 Digital Studio Workstation to mix the piece, as its self-contained digital recording system and on-
board multi-effects allowed him to track guitars, woodwinds, and other instruments onto the song. Both pieces of equipment helped polish “Holland” into a Sufjan Stevens classic.

Billy Joel: Vienna

Billy Joel’s lyrical songwriting and versatile piano playing earned him his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His song “Vienna” is one of his most popular hits—a bittersweet, melodic tune that recalls a place Joel once visited with his father. Joel wanted to express his deep respect for how Vienna looked upon the elderly as thriving, important members of the community, so in contrast to America’s disdain for them. “Vienna” is a metaphor for the idyll of old age. To play the song, Joel utilized the staple instrument for his earliest hits: a Steinway piano, the gold standard of concert pianos and one of Joel’s favorites because of its tonal consistency and superior craftsmanship. He also uses the popular, unidirectional Shure SM58 microphone to record his music.

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska

Bruce Springsteen is the archetypal rock musician known for his heartfelt songs centering around the American working class. In his song “Nebraska”, Springsteen narrates a tragedy of the Nebraskan community through the eyes of its perpetrator, Charles Starkweather, who went on a murder spree in 1958. Rather than disconnecting from the murderer, Springsteen examined the kind of isolation that could separate someone from morality, bringing to light the undercurrent of fears prevailing within the milieu. To arrange this dark masterpiece, Springsteen used a TASCAM PortaStudio and Gibson Echoplex—innovations for a time when artists weren’t expected to have demos before going into the studio. He enacted the process in his spare bedroom, utilizing the PorstaStudio’s built-in microphone to record and the Echoplex’s loop function to mix. With them, he managed to give “Nebraska” an authentic, vintage vibe.

Green Day: Christie Rd.

Green Day encapsulated the restlessness of a burgeoning generation during the turn of the century and is therefore known as a timelessly influential band. Many of their songs are infused with commentary on the sociopolitical climate—making “Christie Rd”. an exception. Its subject matter lingers on the bandmates’ personal fondness for a quiet spot in Martinez, California. The site was a sanctuary where one could escape parental scrutiny and simply be with friends. Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead guitarist and vocalist of Green Day, utilized his famous Fernandes Stratocaster guitar, nicknamed “Blue”, and embellished with both Seymour Duncan JB Humbucker for excellent articulation and stickers for his advocacies. The band generally records with the TELEFUNKEN Elektroakustic M80 microphone to incorporate a crisp clarity and warm body to their music.

Toto: Africa

The American band Toto is renowned for their exciting blend of rock, pop, and progressive musical elements. Their ability to craft catchy tunes has won them several Grammy awards and continual relevancy—in fact, Weezer’s cover of their 1982 song, “Africa”, made it to ‘Our 50 Favorite Songs of 2018’. Africa has many interpretations, but at face value, it’s an ode to the continent. The beauty of the place reminds the narrator of what matters most in his life, and he dedicates himself to living out his values and to “bless the rains”. The song allegedly came about when the band wanted to experiment with the polyphonic analog synthesizer Yamaha CS-80, especially its ability to imitate instruments like the flute and the kalimba. The band also used an Apple Logic ES2 Software Synthesizer to double
and amplify the Yamaha CS-80’s sounds.

Music of and from different places can give you a new perspective on the world and invite you to explore it. Listen to the songs above to have an international aural tour…

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