Welcome to the monthly series where I write about the ideas and inspiration behind the Spotify playlists I release on the first of every month. There tends to be a personal story behind each of these, so I’ve committed to some friends, readers and myself to use this space to practice leaving my ego behind to make room for vulnerability. It’s scary being so forthcoming on the Internet, where strangers, friends and coworkers alike all reside, but I keep coming back time after time because of the responses I get from people saying thank you for writing about things that typically aren’t talked about openly. Thank YOU all for letting me open up and get real through good times and bad, time after time. On we go.
As I was working on February’s playlist in January, things all seemed to come crashing down once again.
What I hoped would be a month of new beginnings presented itself as a month of unforeseen endings. If you’re able, bear with me through this story; it’s longer than the average. But at the end of it, I hope you’ll feel a closer connection to this music, to me, and to the theme of finding change and turning points when they’re least expected.
When people in my life these days who didn’t know me during Sunset’s peak years find out that I have a blog, they often seem surprised. “Do you still write for it?” “How do you have the time?” I get these questions frequently, and for a long time now I’ve had to answer with an ashamed “no,” quick to follow up with praise for the amazing team of writers I have who do just about every bit of work for the site today. As I venture back into writing, I wanted to share some thoughts on where I’ve been since the days when I posted on here every day.
I’m a little scared to say this, but to be totally honest, for the past year or so, I’ve been thinking about shutting the whole operation down. I’ve written many a pros/cons list about it, but I’ve never been able to get the pros to outweigh the cons. Sure, it stresses me out when the site goes down and I haven’t the slightest idea how to get it back up. The cost of maintaining the site isn’t insignificant. And I haven’t been able to make time to write as I’ve been working really hard to build my career. But staring back at me from atop the list of cons is something that’s hard to put into words, let alone a bullet point: this site is a big piece of who I am, and frankly it’s a big piece of what got to me where I am.
So where am I?
Well, I don’t really want to bore you with a long, drawn-out story…yet. So here are a few bullet points about where I am, physically and mentally. Because if you’ve been a reader of this site, you know I’m not one to hide my feelings.
- I’m 30, living in San Francisco
- I’ve built a good career since moving out here. I’ve worked at a startup, at Google, at an ad tech company, and now at Pinterest, where I lead a team of 10 salespeople
- I’m a very proud aunt of 5 (soon to be 6!) little kiddos
- Nearly 8 years after losing my dad, I still struggle most days with the sadness that comes with losing a parent
- To cope with that, I’m investing a lot of time in myself. What does that mean? I spend the majority of my time outside of work running (just ran my first marathon this year!), reading, learning about a bunch of things that interest me (more to come in future posts), meditating, taking time to be grateful for a lot of things in my life, listening to music that I love – new and old, cheering on my sports teams and exploring places around the world
- And I’m feeling pretty ready to get back into writing
So maybe you haven’t been a reader of Sunset in the past. In that case, you may be surprised to see me talk about my real emotions. Yeah, it’s been 8 years and I’m still sad. No hiding that shit. But honestly, I wasn’t always that willing to openly talk about my feelings on here. I used to simply use this platform to write about music and what I heard. I didn’t include anything about what those songs made me feel or why. Until one day I’ll never forget.
I was having a conversation with my boss at my very first job out of college. He asked me about Sunset and my vision for it. After hearing my ambitions, he told me quite simply that he didn’t think I was going to be able to achieve them. Umm…what? My heart sank. Truthfully, I was offended. I was putting so much time and effort into this website and, just like that, he had the right to tell me it wasn’t going to work?
But I let him keep talking. He said that without injecting my own personality or emotions into the site, there was nothing to separate my blog from every other music blog on the Internet. I shared with him my fear of exposure, particularly as a female writer. He wasn’t entirely insensitive to that, as he understood that at the time it was a bit scary to put a picture of your face on the open web (I’m aging myself a bit here), but was able to convince me of the benefit of making your true self visible to the people you’re writing for.
Truthfully, it was a major turning point in my life. He was right. As soon as I put my personality into my writing, it began a conversation. I became connected to other writers, to readers, and perhaps most importantly to myself. Eventually, Sunset became about a lot more to me than just finding new music and writing about it. It became an outlet for me to share my feelings, which ranged from excitement to extreme sadness when returning to writing after my dad passed away in 2010. But the more I put out there, the more I heard back from people who were reading. People understood me, and on many occasions were able to sympathize and/or empathize with me, which got me through a lot of hard times. They celebrated with me when an artist I had been writing about began to “go viral.” They encouraged me to keep going, keep writing, and keep investing in the site.
When I interviewed for my first role at Pinterest, I remember being asked what I’m most proud of in my life. I loved that question, and it was an easy one for me to answer. Sunset. It’s something that I worked really hard to build. Among many other things, it taught me the importance of never giving up, of teaching myself new skills when I’ve felt challenged, and of investing time in myself and my own dreams, because even if they’re not what pays my bills, sometimes they’re everything I need outside of what pays the bills.
So as I’m sitting here in my apartment on a Sunday evening, reflecting on my weekend, my life, and where I am today, I realize that I owe it to myself to keep investing in this website and, in return, in myself. Because I’m pretty damn grateful for this website and all of the opportunities it has given me. It’s a part of me. And I hope it’s a small part of you. Or at the very least, that it’s been able to give you the smallest bit of joy, because at the end of the day, that’s what this thing is all about.
More to come from me later, but for now, will leave you with a short playlist of some of my favorite songs I’ve collected and written about over the past 9 years of writing for Sunset.
You may or may not have heard of this #100HappyDays campaign that’s going around. I first heard of it after noticing that a friend of mine from work had posted two days in a row on Instagram. I wasn’t used to seeing her post all that often, so immediately took note of her increased posting and this mysterious “#100happydays” hashtag that she had tacked onto both pictures. I asked her about it, and she sent me to the website, where I learned about this really simple concept of posting a photo every day for 100 consecutive days of something that makes you happy. Include the hashtag #100happydays, and if you make it through all 100 days, you’ve succeeded at something that over 70% of people fail to complete because of a quoted lack of time. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out, and hopefully my friends and followers on Twitter wouldn’t get too annoyed of this daily post.
Fast-forward 43 days: here I am. I’ve managed to post a picture every single day for the past 43 days of one small thing that’s made me happy. I’ve suffered a minor panic attack, and have learned ten important things about myself. Hit the jump to read about it.
I heard some of the most exciting news in my life last week, and needless to say, it made me incredibly happy. If you follow me on Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or really any social media network, you are likely aware that the company I work for was acquired by Google last Tuesday. The news came as a surprise to most of a company nearing 400 people, but I’d be absolutely shocked if it wasn’t a welcome surprise to all of us. Google. Wow. There’s so much to be excited about, but perhaps the things that excite me the most are the free food, the free shuttle rides to work, and having slides in the office. (Yes, I am a child.)
Despite that childish nature, I’ve realized something over the past three years that I’ve spent “in the real world.” It’s not a long time, but it’s long enough to understand what makes me happy and what inspires me to do my best every day. And when I found out about this Google acquisition, I started reflecting on these things, as I realized that I’m about to start a “new” job in a new place, and in wanting to make sure that I’m just as happy as I have been for the past eight months at Wildfire, I stopped to think about just what it is that has made me so happy lately. To begin, I think I have to give a bit of background on my previous work experience, though.
I started my first job at an advertising agency in North Carolina. I came on board as an intern, as it was nearly impossible for me to find a full-time job at the time. I had no work experience in marketing. I was a Human Rights major, thinking all through college that I would join the Peace Corps or work for an organization like Unicef. It hit me one semester, though, when I was taking a Sports Marketing class, that I really loved marketing. I had tinges of guilt here and there; I had always told myself that I would never work for any of the big, profitable corporations of the world. But something was drawing me to it, so I listened to my inner conscience and attended a short business program at Dartmouth that allowed me to explore marketing in a bit more depth. I continued to love it. But still didn’t have any real world job experience.
So, I lucked out with an internship at this agency in North Carolina, working specifically with one person to create an Account Planning department at the agency. Our mission was basically to bring consumer insights into the marketing and advertising process, so we could create strategic approaches to our work rather than simply creative. I have so much respect for my first boss there, who is still a great friend of mine. She taught me a lot of what I know today, and took a risk by bringing me onto her team of one, knowing that I had no real experience, but trusting that I was smart enough to figure it out and could learn quickly.
When my boss left the company, I switched over to another department, and actually made one more jump before I landed in what would be my full-time position at the company. I ended up as a Web Producer, a fancier name for a project manager on Interactive projects. To this day, I am extremely grateful for that opportunity, but knew all along that there was something missing. I often questioned whether I was in the right place geographically, as all of my family happened to be many states away (in all directions). I also didn’t ever feel passionate about my work there. Whether it was a lack of interest in the client base, perhaps the organizational structure of the company, or maybe simply that the agency lifestyle wasn’t for me, I felt somewhat empty. When I was finally able to admit to myself (with the help of a dear friend) that it was time for me to move on, I was about to make one of the best decisions I’ve made yet.
In my job search, I was much luckier than I was the first time around. I’m sure a big part of it has to do with the fact that I was looking for jobs in and around San Francisco, and the job industry is/was booming compared to the crippling state of the job market on the East Coast. Whatever the reason, I found myself with a couple different opportunities being handed to me, and at the end of the day, I chose the Social Media Account Manager position at Wildfire.
I won’t candy coat things and say there haven’t been times of frustration or disappointment at Wildfire. It is an incredibly fun place to work, but it’s also a job. There are pros and cons. But the bottom line is, I’m happy to go to work every day. That was something I could never say at my old job, where I found myself cringing at the thought of getting out of bed every morning. Months later, I think I’ve found out just what it is that made me turn this corner. Well, there are a few things, but the point is that these things are all constants that I have with me every day when I go to work at Wildfire.
First, I found an environment that excites me.
I work with exciting clients, I arrive to an energetic and fun workspace every day, and our industry is exciting. This sounds subjective, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m driven by the excitement of marketing, specifically within social media. And yes, it’s a booming industry, so that is exciting. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I have friends in finance who see “an energetic workspace” and think fast-paced, and perhaps stressful. While that would drive me insane, it’s exciting to them. If you’re looking for a job, I challenge you to find out what excites you and seek that out in a workspace.
Second, I found a place where I can be myself every day.
I can be myself around my coworkers, around my managers, and even around my clients. It’s refreshing, and it really allows me to flourish. I’m not sure this was really missing at my old job, except for the fact that I never had a very firm grasp or understanding of how to make a difference at my old company. Wildfire has allowed me to do that, and perhaps it’s part of its startup environment, but it’s made a huge difference in my happiness level.
Third, and I think most importantly, I found a place filled with people who I am excited to be around every day.
I say most importantly, because I really think this one makes all the difference. I wake up in the morning these days and get excited to get out of bed to go join my friends at work. There’s a level of understanding that we’re all there to achieve the same goals – help the company thrive, and of course, help ourselves and one another grow and learn. But beyond that, I’ve made some of the best friends of my life while working at Wildfire. I’ve met people who I know I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life, and that’s something really unique about the company. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
In a matter of weeks, our whole company will be facing change: we’ll be picking up and moving into the Google office spaces. While it’s an incredibly exciting time (for reasons like the slides in the office, yes), there’s also a bit of me that is nervous. Consider this: Wildfire is a company of under 400 people, and we’re about to join one of the biggest, most successful companies in the world. I fear that the sense of family that we’ve built at Wildfire might start to feel lost as we join a much bigger team in a much bigger space. It’s also a bit scary to think that there will likely be fewer to make a difference in the day-to-day, which is something that I’ve fallen in love with at Wildfire. I imagine Google is a much more mature and structured workplace, so understandably, we may not have all the same opportunities to incite change where we feel it’s needed.
At the end of the day, though, I know can brush these things aside and be overwhelmed with excitement. Because in the face of change, the three things that I’ve realized make me love Wildfire are constants. Those are things that can’t be taken from us. And I again will say that I think the third thing is the most important; I will still be in a place filled with incredible friends. Wherever we go, however far we move, we’ll still have each other as constants. I’ll still have the excitement of going to work and being with my friends every day. It sounds simple, and really it is, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize this. But if you haven’t yet found that or made the realization, I’ll share it with you again: great friends can be the single most important cause of happiness, and in the face of change, if they’re really true friends, they will be your constants.
I find myself starting these Straight Talk Sunday posts off with this often, and I’ve again got to say that I apologize for not making this “column” a very regular feature. I’m not sure if it’s because I haven’t felt like I’ve had enough time, or maybe it’s more that I haven’t been sitting down and thinking about an introspective piece for a little while. I’m going to go ahead and guess that it’s a mix of both. I got to thinking something today, though, and I think it’s worth sharing with all of you. It started with an e.e. cummings quote that I read today:
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
I think that as I’ve been flipping through the chapters of life, moving quickly from one to the next, I’ve forgotten to keep fighting at times. I’ve moved around a lot, met a ton of new people, and sometimes feel a bit like a chameleon, adjusting myself and my character to adapt to the atmosphere around me. Though I like to be able to say that I can fit into many different situations, I don’t ever want to pretend to be something or someone who I am not.
Though I typically am open to do so, today I don’t want to let my thoughts completely run free on the paper, partly because I’m not one hundred percent sure how to express them or what they really are. So instead, I thought I’d write a bit about who I am.
I am a sister.
I am a go-getter.
I am a writer.
I am a talker.
I am working every day on becoming a better listener.
I am a smiler.
I am a lover.
I am happy running.
I am happy sitting.
I am a home-body.
I am happy in your company.
I am happy by myself.
This is who I am. I don’t want to let you down. I wish I didn’t feel like I could.
I once tried to be something that I wasn’t.
It started with a trip I unwillingly took to a show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston with my mom. My boyfriend at the time was in town visiting and when my mom suggested that we go to the museum with her, it sounded like what could have been the worst idea of all time. Mom wasn’t having it. She made us go anyway. The exhibit was a collection of artwork from The Museum of Modern Art in New York while MOMA was renovating their space.
I’m pretty sure that I lost my boyfriend to a seat on a couch the second we walked in, but I decided to follow my mom and take a look around. After all, I had been dragged out there to begin with, I might as well see what all the fuss was about. I walked into a room full of Van Gogh’s, Pollock’s, Mondrian’s and I was immediately taken aback. The colors, the patterns, the feelings that came in the form of bursts of color, smooth brushes of paint, and intricate details caught not only my eye but also my emotions. All of the sudden I felt as though I could express my emotions that were so locked up in my high school body through something like this. In my mind it seemed as though modern art like this didn’t require an artistic mastery; it required a wealth of knowledge about yourself and how you can express your feelings. I had never been sure of how to express my feelings before.
Sure enough, I went back to school after that Christmas vacation and started painting. Emotions were all over the canvas. I was a high schooler who was battling a severe case of epilepsy. Boarding school didn’t necessarily agree with my lifestyle of choice. I was lost and confused and unsure of who my true friends were. I was constantly told by doctors that if I continued to take more and more pills, the seizures would somehow find a way out of my life. The pills piled up, and the seizures did too. I felt like a zombie who had to fight to keep my eyes open for more than a couple hours at a time. The medicine sucked the life out of me. And the seizures remained. Nobody understood me. Why was this happening to me, and what did it actually feel like? I’m still not sure I can tell you that. But I needed a way to get this growing pile of pain out of me.
I owe a lot to my mom for taking me to the museum that day. I was introduced to a world of people who took an alternative path to express their feelings. Tears are all too common. Even therapists didn’t quite get what I was going through. But a canvas, inviting of color, of abstractions, of tears mixed in to the paint – it was my sounding board. I created abstractions that nobody else might have understood, but that proved a point. I didn’t need to be defined simply as a kid fighting a troubling disease. I was a kid with a whole host of thoughts inside of me that could turn out to be something truly aesthetic. It didn’t need to be understood. It could be seen as something beautiful. Before this outlet, I wasn’t sure if I could be seen like that. Too much time spent on stretchers and hospital beds didn’t allow it.
At some point, I stopped making art. Before then, though, I was rewarded with a prize at my school’s graduation ceremony for my artwork. Something that came into my life without much warning had suddenly turned me into something new, something refreshed. It gave me something to be proud of. It allowed me to stand tall.
In the end, the art didn’t cure my seizures; I did. But it sure as hell helped me get to the point where I was strong enough to overcome something that was taking over my life and quickly making me feel as though I wasn’t going to make it through this battle. Painting gave me the feeling that I could stand up to my fears. Through standing up against what was quickly becoming the authority in my life, I found a way to fight.
Eventually, I fought back against the zombie-inducing medicine. I found something that worked for me. I became my own person again and found comfort in my life and in who I am as a person. Suddenly, as if by the work of a miracle, the seizures started becoming more infrequent. With each minute of my life that I gained back, I gained the strength to feel as though I was able to control my own life. The fight continued. I started to take over this imaginary battlefield. Soon enough, I won. I could hardly believe it. I fought that son of a bitch and was able to say that I came out victorious. The seizures went away. And so, too, did my art.
The great thing is that the art will always be there. It’s hanging in a room that, perhaps understandably, means a lot to me. I get flooded with emotions when I enter that room. It’s a reminder of what was, and what I overcame. It reminds me of a part of my childhood that was, quite frankly, largely taken away from me by demons that I didn’t ask for.
Something in me, though, tells me that we all have demons that we didn’t ask to fight. Mine was a medical condition, but others may have less concrete demons. In fact, though I had a somewhat concrete demon, what was less obvious was that I was trying to be a person who I wasn’t made to be. I was trying to be a person who followed all the rules and took life as it came to me. I was trying to go by the book, knowing that if I did as I was told, I would come out okay in the end. The fact is, that isn’t who I am. I’m a fighter. I’m alternative. I don’t succeed if I follow all the rules. I have my own way of living. I don’t like to imitate my life off of others who follow all the rules, despite the success that they may find. I’ve found my success by emulating the acts of the alternatives.
I owe so much to my mom, to Mondrian, to my art teacher, and hell, even to my case of epilepsy. All of these influences helped me find myself. And I look back today and am happy with where I am. Yes. I am happy and proud. It takes a lot of people a long time to find out how to say that, but I’m here to say that it is possible. I wasn’t sure of that when I was in high school, but it is. It just takes finding your path.
I want to relate this to music for a second. That’s what you’re here for anyway, right? I’ve recently discovered an artist by the name of Birdy. She’s got a voice that is unparalleled by many today. But she’s made a name for herself recently not by creating her own music that shows off her voice. She’s finding her path through echoing the masterpieces of others before her, such as Fleet Foxes, Phoenix and Bon Iver. It’s quite brilliant, really. She’s found her launchpad by paying homage to the greats who so many of us have come to know and love. She’s proven herself by showing that she can create beautiful covers of these already-magnificent songs. Soon it will be Birdy’s time to create her own path. But she’ll likely look back, as I have, to the inspirational artists who helped her find herself. I’ve included some of Birdy’s music at the bottom of this post. I know that I will be closely following her career as an artist, and I hope that you will be, too.
Lastly, I just wanted to mention that I’m not sure I’ve ever told you guys about this part of my past. Perhaps it’s because sometimes I try to forget about it. Or maybe it’s something that I wasn’t ready to share with the whole world. (Okay fine, the whole world might not be reading Sunset in the Rearview. But you guys are the world to me.) Either way, posts like these remind me that I have found a community here whom I trust enough to share my own very personal stories. It’s an alternative way to get over humps and hurdles, but as I said, I thrive on alternative paths.
But I have to thank all of you for being a catalyst for my happiness and success. I will never forget that. And I encourage any and all of you to reach out to me at any time. I heard from a fan recently who told me that he had lost his dad in the past few months. He remembered reading that I had lost my dad, and he reached out to say that the music and stories that I’ve shared helped him a lot. Things like that mean the world to me. I owe a lot to you guys, so please let me know if I can ever do anything for you. We’re in an invisible friendship that I’ll never forget. Don’t you forget that, either.
I just started a new job last Monday, and on Thursday I was asked to introduce myself in front of the entire company. Yall. That’s like 250 people. It was terrifying, but I did it. Got up in front of a full room and said my name, where I’m from, what I like to do in my free time, and a fun fact about myself. It went a lot like this.
[Lydia walks up to the mic. She is approaching the mic to grab it from the CEO who is one of her heroes. Her knees are shaking a bit.] “Hi everybody! My name is Lydia Simmons, I’m originally from Houston. [People around the room start cheering. What up, Texans!] I moved here from Durham, North Carolina for the job. In my free time…I spend a lot of that time maintaining a music blog called Sunset in the Rearview. I really like hip hop music. [People in the room giggle a little. Most likely they’re thinking ‘This little girl likes hip hop music? That’s weird.] Fun fact I guess would be that I lived in Kenya for a little bit and used to speak fluent Swahili. Really excited to be here!”
It was awkward and terrifying. But like I said, I did it.
The best part of it was that some people came up to me afterwards asking about my blog and what type of hip hop I like. That prompted this post, I suppose. Lately I’ve been digging up old school hip hop that I can’t help but love. The old school stuff built the platform for today’s stars to stand on, even if they don’t echo the sound. It’s an ever-growing genre, but it’s always great to see current bands sticking to those old school roots. A group that’s great at doing that is People Under The Stairs. Man, I fucking love those dudes. Pardon my language, but I just needed the oomph to emphasize how great they are. If you’re not onto them, you need to be. They recently released an album called Highlighter that is incredible. The album almost went unnoticed by me, because of the bold move by People Under The Stairs to release it independently in an effort to avoid low-quality MP3s being released. They worked really hard to release a high quality album: from hand-printed and packaged physical album artwork and only selling digital versions on their site at very large file sizes, People Under The Stairs went to extreme measures to maintain the quality of their sounds, at the risk of losing money. It’s great to see that they’re not all about the profits, as you rarely see that from professionals anymore. The good thing for us was that the music itself was quality, too. Some of their beats sample rock songs from my childhood (think Red Hot Chili Peppers), which only enhances the experience. Like hip hop that reflects on old school flows and is set to incredible, full-sound instrumentals? Highlighter is the album for you.
Now here I am being a douchebag and giving yall an MP3 of one of the songs – but I only intend for this to get you to fall in love and buy the album. Seriously. You need to.
So many people ask me how I can stand hip-hop or “rap music.” The thing is, most of the hip hop that I love will never be played on the radio. And I have a love/hate relationship with that fact. I love it because, well, partly because I’m a music snob these days (I’ve admitted to it and I’m okay with it) and I like having some sort of ownership of what I listen to. But I love it mainly because it means that the songs will remain respectable and not overplayed; songs that make it to the radio quickly get overplayed to death and become resented by many. (Read: “Pumped Up Kicks.”) But I hate it because it’s sad that the radio is in such poor state. It makes sense, financially (with the cost of radio streams and all that), but it doesn’t make sense morally. The artist who work their asses off to create great music don’t get the same type of money that the artists who are represented by major labels do. But whatever, it is what it is, and I’m not about to say I have the recipe for changing the system. So I blog instead.
To get more into what type of hip-hop it is that I love, though, I think it’s easiest to say that I love hip-hop that’s easy to listen to. I like melodic hip-hop. I love lyrical wordplay. I love an artist who is conscious of their surroundings. I love hip-hop that could easily be an indie-rock song if the person was singing instead of rapping. I love hip-hop that gets you moving. I love hip-hop that’s played witha full band. That’s about it. Not much more to say other than I love it. With all of my heart. Hip-hop is part of me. It always will be. Even when I’m a grandmother, I think I’ll still love it. Maybe not what the kids will be listening to then, but I’ll still have a love for hip-hop that I grew up loving. Something about that tells me that I might be the coolest grandmother EVER, and I’m cool with that.
Here are a few more new songs that embody all that I love about hip-hop. Press play on “8-Bit Kid” and tell me that couldn’t be an electronic song on its own.
MP3: “8-Bit Kid” – LiLa