Pandemic Soundtrack

BY Natalie Koski-Karell | Pandemic Diaries

We all have our own pandemic soundtrack. Maybe it’s an endless play-by-play of news about the coronavirus vs. the economy. Maybe it’s your kid practicing the piano. Maybe it’s Spotify, podcasts, or perhaps even those vinyls you’ve never had the chance to play.

Mine is a radio station.

When my brother first moved to Seattle in the early 2000s, he introduced me to its local station: KEXP. He said it played the best music. I’ve been listening to it ever since. Before COVID-19, I would turn it on once a week or so. Now, it’s on every minute. When I told my brother that I’m listening to KEXP non-stop he asked me why I didn’t listen to the local Berkeley station instead. The thought had never occurred to me before. Besides, nothing could come close to KEXP.

The DJs seem to track shifts in my mood: On Sunday morning, the ambient “Pacific Notions” set welcomes me gently into a new week of staying home. I listen to soul music on Sunday night (“Sunday Soul” — the DJ’s voice is cute), Latin on Monday (“El Sonido”) while I’m cooking up my 150th meal in a row, and party jams on Friday (“Friday Night”) so I can text a twerk video to my girlfriends. Not only does KEXP seem to know when my mood changes, but it’s somehow started to manipulate my senses. I’ve tuned in to the Saturday morning reggae show so many times in the last decade that I feel like I can taste brunch when I hear the sound of the Toots & the Maytals.

These days, the sets are infrequently interrupted by the voice of the soothing host, who whispers, “you’re not alone… we’re all in this together…” or makes announcements that hint at the times; a blood drive, a vehicle donation program, a fundraiser for a women’s shelter — Mary’s Place. We need more blood, less cars, and reminders that this is harder for some more than others.

Through music, KEXP beautifully tracks the present unfolding and pays homage to our mounting losses.

Mid-March: DJs are playing this earworm called “Stop Pretending” by a local Seattle band, Deep Sea Diver. The band has invited fans to participate in “a collaboration exercise” to write songs at home in order to “find connection in a time of duress & isolation.The bandmates produced “Stop Pretending” while independently sheltering-at-home.

Honey I don’t pretend to understand

Why everything’s falling apart…

March 30: Bill Withers passed away, and DJs are playing his music all day as tribute. The KEXP app shows the album cover of whatever song is playing and I can’t stop staring at the cover of Bill’s Greatest Hits collection: a long-stem rose, an espresso in delicate porcelain, a tea cookie with a bite taken out of it, a glass of white wine, a crystal bottle of Cognac, a black marble ashtray with a ruby red cigarillo resting on its edge, all on a pristine white table cloth. If you ask me where I went during the pandemic, I would say home, Safeway, and a smoky nightclub in a decade I never lived in. 

Late-April: Mike Huckaby, the legendary house music producer, dies from complications of COVID-19. As part of its electronic show, “Expansions,” KEXP is playing an hour of Huckaby originals late on Sunday night. I decide there and then that I will go to the MVMT electronic music festival in September. Something to look forward to; it hasn’t been cancelled — yet.

May 6: Another death. Today I wake up to Kraftwerk at 8 am, which isn’t ideal, but news just broke that Florian Schneider, one of the founders of the band, has passed, and KEXP is in tribute mode again. “It seems like everyday we’re losing another artist,” the DJ says.

I’ve never felt closer to music, and to musicians. I’ve gotten close to the DJs, too. Cheryl Waters hosts “The Midday Show,” a variety set, every weekday from 10 am to 2 pm. She sounds like a cool mom, the kind who would casually play Jason Molina singing “Farewell Transmission.” After Cheryl, Kevin Cole takes over. I’ve listened to their transition every day since the shelter-in-place began. At first, it was a simple “hey, how are ya, have a great show” but lately, now that Cheryl is DJ-ing from home, their interactions are more drawn out and intimate, like two friends used to seeing each other every single day catching up and not wanting to cut their conversation short. They seem to truly, genuinely, miss one another. And you know what? Even though I still hear their voices every day, I miss them too.

You can listen to music any old way, but only a true radio station hand-picks tracks, takes requests, and reads messages from its listeners, 24/7. Maybe that’s why I’m so dedicated to KEXP; It can receive messages from the beyond.

One night, the DJ shares an email from a high-school senior: “Today, Seattle cancelled high school graduation. I didn’t realize that the last day I went to school would be my last day of high school, ever.” I think back to my own high school graduation ceremony and all the affiliated, unceremonious parties, and start to tear up, just a bit, for the high school senior’s sake. The crying feels good.

The radio compliments the chirping of the birds outside my window. KEXP carries me through friendship, death, hope and nostalgia, through sound alone.

 KEXP’s motto is “Where the Music Matters.” Music is the conduit for what matters.

Natalie Koski-Karell, College of Environmental Design MA, Class of 2020, Southside, Berkeley, CA