During the current circumstance, I have been using music as a way of voicing my present feelings. Singing has always enabled me to do this and now, more than ever, I feel the need to magnify how singing has helped me as a child, transition into adulthood.
Having been brought up with just my mum and I, our communication has always been strong. We are definitely lucky enough to have each other, regardless of external events creating conflict or trauma in some way or another. I suppose having her as my source of home has enabled me to sing at a pace that feels comfortable, without feeling like the response would be judgmental or damaging. Singing, unknowingly, became one of the main ways that we remained connected. The places in which I sing to her haven't changed that much, but we as characters have, and therefore the singing ritual grounded us both with one another regardless of circumstance. Lockdown, a time where staying connected is so important but is definitely challenging, has encouraged me to sing just like I used to when I was a little girl with mum.
Those Car Rides
The car was our safe place, especially as our actual home was always an uncertain territory. Even though our feet were not steady on the ground, and the “home” was always a fractured picture, we always had the car rides together. She made sure that despite financial difficulties that fluctuated dramatically – always leaving me worried for the next day, and the days after that – we always had a running car. At times, our safe space was hanging on by a thread. The flat tyres that we could not replace, the indicators that broke, the MOT that mum couldn't afford was due. While others might have just been able to get these things fixed, fighting against the tide was normal for us. We always found a way to do it though, because the car was our home and my little performance space.
Our drives in the car were so special. It may not be seen as a luxurious experience, but knowing that I could shut the door, close the windows and have the choice between listening to the radio and actively being the radio myself, always excited me. Mum and I used to live in Amsterdam when I was 8 years of age. Instead of shortcutting the route – traveling from Kent to Amsterdam by plane – we drove to Dover Priory, took the ferry, and drove the four hour drive from Calle to Amsterdam. On the drives down there, we would stock up on snacks, ready to embark on a new adventure and I would start to think about the songs that I wanted to sing for our journey.
I always considered the songs that mum enjoyed hearing me sing, because after all, I wanted my audience to enjoy the experience as much as I did. She was so used to my ‘go-to playlist’ that she would normally select songs that she knew I enjoyed singing. The selection was quite small but the songs felt colourful and very inclusive. At my young age, the selection was always light and bouncy, never too serious. Usually it was High School Musical songs, or Taylor Swift – songs that seemed to have a significant impact on me at the time. Never too emotional, and very entertaining. Mum would try to encourage the older music from her generation that had more texture, but I was too wrapped up in the “bubblegum” and “fun” songs that reminded me of my age. It may have been a light relief, during a time where I was exposed to adult situations (money and housing).
The hours would go so quick, especially as I would ask mum what she would rate me out of ten for my performances. It would fluctuate, usually between an eight out of ten and nine and three quarters. I would never make it to that 10 out of 10. I guess it was mum's way of encouraging me to keep going with it. Those ratings are so prominent in what I do day to day.
School was an unsteady time. Between trying to fit into a social category and living in temporary housing, the car trips going too and from school were always the highlight of my day. School numbed parts of my creative access, which was probably why it became prominent in the car journeys. Mum would stop off for petrol and by the time she would come back, I would have a song ready to sing for the journey ahead. Depending on what mood I was in, I would choose an “appropriate” song. It seemed to be a light hearted, bouncy tune on the way; it set the day off right. I would always be aware of mum listening. I knew she had to primarily focus on the road ahead, but I wanted her full attention, so I would ask “Are you listening?” In response, she would say “Yes Milli, I am,” in an always tiresome way. She wasn't tired of me, just of the habitual reassuring role.
At this point, we were based in Barnet, North London, and from my position in the car, the surroundings were always a little flat and bleak. I would describe the lines of houses as the perfect family home, but not a lot of character to it. The chocolate box aesthetic never appealed to me, but we both had our daily dose of seeing them, street after street. Even though mum and I were not in steady housing at the time, I didn't look at these houses on the way to school with envy, because I was acutely aware that the car was a unique place that held a high status in both our lives.
I wondered if people would ever see me and assume what my home was like. The car had such colour and character to it. The interior was always a little dirty, the back seats had ikea bags filled with homely goods, such a kettle and tablecloths. The front side pockets were stacked up with snacks and coffee flasks. It felt so normal and brought such warmth to my childhood, having these objects continuously surrounding us. Looking back now, it seems to show how ready we were to move into a new place, and face another transition. When I finished my morning selection of songs from Hannah Montanna, I would feel ready to face the day.
Using the car as escapism and a place where music became the primary focus, distracted my thoughts about school and home. Sometimes, when mum got paid, we would stop for a hot drink on the way back from school. It wasn't just me who was invested in the ritual. If I had not sung for half of the journey, mum would say “you haven't sung any songs yet?”. I was the singer of the car journey and to know that there was a void when I hadn’t sung, felt rather validating. The song choices would vary, depending on my day. If I had a day where a teacher misunderstood me, or I simply wasn't getting on with the people, I may have opted for something like Adele or Sam Smith'. I found their lyrics to be emotional and triggering but it definitely allowed me to let off steam, without directly talking about what had distressed me about my day. Singing became the glue in those car journeys.
Naturally, sleepovers and playdates occur when friendships are quickly formed in a school environment. Suddenly, I found myself in a new car, one that had no interior colour, the back seats were bare and I saw about three car fresheners in the front. Everything was clean and neat. I would sit up straight and keep my hands to myself, while we would drive without the radio on. The families that I became involved with didn't seem to talk much in the car and there was definitely no singing involved. The content of the conversation used to be “Do I turn right here Milli?” when they would be kindly dropping me home after a playdate. How can families not talk in the car? The silence is painful. I found myself waiting for the indicator in the car to make a sound to fill up the empty space. Every family communicates differently, but it just reinforced how grateful I was for our car, my mum as my audience member, and the joy that sound would bring to our space. A sigh of relief as I would enter back into my car with mum, putting my feet up, putting the windows down and instantly falling back to the singing ritual.
People say that children NEED stability in the form of a house; that consistency is demonstrated through these rather large objects for children. For me, stability has always been there with my relationship with my mother. As an only child, the conversations between us two have always felt safe and secure, and the car provided the place where we could work on those things during the darker chapters that occurred, as well as letting me continue my creative practice.
Lockdown and adulthood performances
It is no surprise that remaining optimistic during Covid-19 has been challenging, to say the least. Now at 21 years of age, my mum and I have a stable home in Kings Cross. It’s basically the center of London, and a location that will hopefully provide creative opportunity when the pandemic slowly lessens. For many, Covid has fractured their routine, and for us, the car journeys have lessened too. We still go on car journeys together, but now we have an actual home that gives us some kind of establishment, it doesn't seem as necessary – especially as it costs to go in and out of the congestion zone. It looks like the singing ritual that has continued into adulthood, has shifted into an actual home now...
Priorities have changed and the focus has shifted into survival mode for everyone. I look back at photos and battered videos of me singing in the car and in a room that's messy with piles of clothes surrounding me, without a care in the world as to who is listening. Entering my adult years, I would be lying if I didn't say that I have lost some of that natural ability to just sing for the sake of it. There is an evident agenda – we are expected to do these hobbies with the intention of it going further into a career/a money-making endeavour. It didn't even occur to me that singing could be a career as a child, as it was such an expressive hobby that was confined to car journeys with mum. I guess I have become protective over those memories, where tears of happiness and sadness were projected.
In a generation where music is platformed across all forms of social media, where we are conditioned that it is a gateway for getting recognised, It just doesn't feel as real as those car journeys – upping your followers and being consistent on this small rectangular device. How can I be authentic in putting my music out there when I am used to the golden approval from my mum in the car. Nothing seems to live up to that. It may be a simple joy to some but it feels deeply validating.
Maybe this is something I could try to do more of, especially since we all have the time and space to do so – at least more than before anyway. Disconnecting from my performance space in the car with mum and being vulnerable elsewhere may surprise me. It seems like the obvious next step, since I love singing so much but it's incredibly daunting. Unknowingly, this pandemic has had its positive effects with regards to my singing rituals. Now having stability in an actual home, it seems possible that I can go further in a music career in some form, however big or small. I suppose I underestimated how limited I felt when being in the front seat of a car for so many years.
Every day mum and I meet at 3.00PM in the living room to ground ourselves and for me to sing. It may seem a little silly to establish these “appointments'' daily, but otherwise we would just float through these melancholic days, and communication would be lost. It is beneficial in so many ways, however, singing to mum as an official adult, has a completely different tone. I guess as the years have gone by, “adult” situations and traumas have overridden the good times at points, and in a time where the pace has slowed down, grieving my losses and simply staying put in our new home, has been triggering. The fragility that is associated with the words that I sing now are so relatable. It moves both my mum and I both to tears sometimes, as there will be at least one sentence sung that will remind us of these events.
We don't have to keep moving from place to place anymore, and there are no more distractions. We don't talk about the houses we are passing in the car, we don't discuss the light hearted things that have happened in our days and we don't have anywhere to go really. Regardless, we stick to our routine and fight through the discomfort.
It seems like an opportunity to have a “there's nothing to lose” kind of attitude, while things are tragically happening around us as the pandemic continues. It took so much to brace myself for a new audience, but I am trying to adapt to this stability that we now have through having a home. I posted a singing video on Instagram for the first time in ages and it felt like a step forward. The idea of receiving any type of validation, good or bad, seemed to be the driving purpose. I wanted to know what the world would think, whether they would click the like button or furthermore, actually listen to it and comment their thoughts. In a way, it felt like cutting the umbilical cord with my mother all over again, and giving the world a chance. The thing with social media is that you can't read whether people have liked it because it's a force of habit when you're scrolling, or if they actually like what they hear, and think “wow, she has a good voice”.
2021, I plan to disconnect from these precious memories, and from feeling like singing to my mum is my only safe space. In a social media world, I may feel a balance between exposing my creative practice and saving the parts that I want to keep for later. It doesn't need to be an all or nothing process, but I will attempt to use these new ways that feel slightly uncomfortable.
On 8 April 2021, 13:26 Juliet Sawyer Contributor commented:
Loved reading this! Very honest, heart-warming story