Shell Zenner

Shell Zenner shows me how to be discerning about new music

Last week, I talked about Phil Collins Paranoia, and how it’s ruining my love of music.

Well, luckily I have Shell Zenner in my life to hold my hand and tell me how to make it all better.

Shell is radio DJ and blogger who’s made it her life’s mission to discover new music. She is also, disappointingly, the same age as me, and yet a great deal cooler. I listen to her talking about how many gigs she goes to in a week, and realise that I spent the same hours cleaning the kitchen and watching Russell Howard’s Good News. Apparently, I can’t blame this behaviour on being 35 any longer. I have to accept that it’s an actual lifestyle choice on my part.

I tell Shell that I do, sometimes, hear new music (say in the background of adverts or on someone else’s radio), but nothing excites me. Is that because I’ve lost interest, or because there’s nothing much interesting out there? What I’m really curious about is whether there’s a bleeding edge of creativity in music that can offer me something I feel is entirely new, rather than a rehash of the same music that was around when I was a kid.

‘Well,’ she says, ‘I can list you a load of bands that I think you might like, and you can listen to a few tracks and see what you think. But I’ll also tell you how to find bands for yourself.’

‘I have no idea how to do that anymore,’ I say. ‘I used to read the NME and Select, and then I’d have to order any records that I thought I might like from Our Price, without hearing them first. It was always a bit of a risk. ‘

‘The NME’s still going,’ she says, ‘but you could just look at their website now.’ She goes on to list other music websites to: Clash MusicDIY, The FourOhFivePitchforkMusic Robot. The way we find new records, she says, has fundamentally changed. Nowadays, we can listen to any track that takes our interest instantly and for free; most websites will even include a link to the songs they review. ‘You only have to listen for five or ten seconds to see if you like it; if you don’t, move to the next one.’

She also suggests listening to radio stations that focus on new music, like BBC6 Music, XFM or Amazing Radio, where Shell has a weekly show. I suppose I was never going to hear fresh new sounds on Radio 4, was I? I wonder aloud whether I’ll just find all of this too overwhelming; it feels like I’m facing too much choice now, where half an hour ago I didn’t have enough.

‘I reckon you just need to commit a couple of hours a week to music. You can narrow it down by working out which writers and DJs have tastes like yours,’ she says. ‘Find a handful of people you trust, and follow them.’

But what about originality? Will I hear something that blows my mind ever again? Or does that only happen when you’re young?

‘I hear bands that blow my mind every week,’ says Shell.

‘But do you think that’s because you’re really into music?’ I say. ‘What I mean is, will I find anything that’s a completely new sound? Will I hear anything revolutionary?’

Shell thinks a while. ‘There’s a lot of revivals going on at the moment: garage, punk, grunge, shoegazing – there’s even a Brit Pop revival group from Japan. What you have to remember is that all of these are new to the kids who are into them right now. That’s why things sounded so new to you when you were a teenager.’

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I was sort of hoping you were going to tell me, “there’s this amazing new genre called something like – I dunno – aliencore, and it’s different to anything you’ve ever heard before, and you’ll have to learn to like it because it’s the future.”‘

‘There’s plenty of originality out there,’ she says, ‘but no. Not quite like that.’

‘And I also thought you might tell me that I needed to get into Grime.’

‘Grime? Why would I do that?’

‘Um…because it’s scary?’

‘Look,’ say Shell, ‘you already have a taste in music. Accept that. Make the most of it.’

And finally the penny drops. I am asking for way more than I could ever actually deal with. Music isn’t an intellectual challenge or a competitive sport: it’s a friendly companion through life. I am wanting to be at the burning edge of a revolution when there is none. Maybe it’s true to say that music took a great, unrepeatable leap forward in the fifties and sixties, but even that wasn’t without a whole genealogy of music behind it. Demanding that it happens all over again is a big ask, and it’s getting in the way of me appreciating bands and songs that I may come to love.

Shell gives me a list of groups that she thinks I might like, and me and Herbert devote a Friday evening to musical exploration, via Spotify and a few margaritas. Listening to music with H makes me nervous: it’s clear that everything we hear will fall outside his specified era of 1965-75, and he’s pretty – let’s say ‘specific’ and be polite – in his tastes. On top of that, I’m specifically expecting not to like anything we play, out of habit.

However, despite these inauspicious circumstances, we are both rather surprised to like the first track we play. It’s by a band called Unknown Mortal Orchestra, which you have to admit does not sound promising. Granted, they’re basically playing 60s psych, which we both like already, but they’re doing it well, and I am conscientiously not allowing myself to worry about originality anymore. There is nothing new under the sun. Everything is mongrel now.

Even more surprisingly, I catch Herbert buying their album on Amazon as I search for the next band. He’s almost sheepish about it, especially because he hates the idea of a dabbler like me introducing him to a record he likes. I bask in the warm glow of a minor moral victory (and three margaritas), as I play through Shell’s list of bands: Allah-Las, Fidlar, Valentine, Alt-J. I don’t fall in love with everything I listen to, but now that I’m listening properly I can accept that they’re all interesting in their own way. Soon, we’re following our own path through the ‘related artists’ that Spotify recommends, and we discover a The Horrors, Tame Impala, Grizzly Bear, Baby Woodrose…my notes become jumbled at that point. We had a good night.

The only thing that’s missing now is context. The records I love the most are anchored to particular moments in my life. Blur’s ‘Coffee and TV‘ summed up everything I felt when I got married; Finley Quaye’s ‘Maverick A Strike‘ was the soundtrack to a great holiday; Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye‘ revved me through my final year at school. I think that one of the reasons so many of us neglect our musical tastes in adulthood is because we lose the sense of being part of something bigger. Workplaces mix us up with people of different ages and tastes; parenthood keeps us in on Friday nights. Suddenly, we have to nurture our passions in isolation, without a reassuring crowd around who might occasionally catch our eye, and smile, and make us feel like we’re in it together. Too many of us fall down right here, because the joy isn’t the same when we can’t share it.

Learning to find new tracks that you like is only part of the process; to truly fall in love with them, you have to open up space for them in your life. Buying them is not enough. You have to play them over and over again and come to understand of them. Anything else is mere ownership.

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