10 songs that bring back memories of my travels: Emma John's playlist

Emma John
·7-min read

Keane O’Hara by John Doyle, John McCusker, Mike McGoldrick

I first met the trio behind this track in a hotel on the banks of Loch Lomond. They were recording for a TV series, and the vast window behind them looked out across the water’s placid surface to hills that seemed to constantly change colour, from grey to green to purple to blue. The wistful way this track begins – halfway between melancholy and joy – captures the wild beauty of theScottish countryside for me, before it breaks into an upbeat jig, like the sun coming out. It whisks me back to heather-strewn glens and lowering munros, to the serenity of inland waters and the weathered beauty of the coast, and in my mind I can picture myself in the Highlands, driving through scenes of unfathomable splendour towards a cosy pub, and a shindig.

Raccoon Dance by The Grit Lickers

Street musicians busk in Asheville, North Carolina.
Street musicians busk in Asheville, North Carolina. Photograph: Alamy

Of all the places that I can’t visit right now, I miss the west of North Carolina the most. I long to look out on the soft green nubs of its forest-covered peaks, to return to its mountain towns and spend my evenings in a hardware store or a soda shop where a group of men in plaid shirts and denim overalls have gathered for a fiddle jam. It is a place that throbs with music – particularly the old-time fiddle tunes of Scottish and Irish settlers, and the bluegrass into which they evolved – and sometimes I tune into its regional public radio station online to listen to the musical programming and soft southern accents and feel myself back there. This song is by my friends Zeb and Julie, two of my favourite Appalachian musicians (with whom I have often discussed raccoons).

All the Wasted Time by Brent Carver, Carolee Carmello from Parade (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Angel’s Share in 9th Street, New York
Angel’s Share in 9th Street, New York Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

My sister trained in musical theatre – many of our family holidays growing up were soundtracked with showtunes – and one of my favourite trips took place when she was invited to sing in a concert version of Parade at Carnegie Hall. She spent the week in rehearsals and in the evenings, we bar-crawled our way around Manhattan, revelling in the creativity and professionalism of New York’s bartenders. A friend sent us to Angel’s Share in the East Village; we were sure, as we stood in front of an unassuming Japanese restaurant, that we had gone to the wrong address. When we walked through the “secret” door into its frescoed bar, we were smitten – it’s been “our” place ever since.

Honeysuckle Rose by The Time Jumpers

Driving through the Texas panhandle.
Driving through the Texas panhandle.
Photograph: Alamy

I love the way the US pays you back for the time you invest in a road trip: an epic country revealing itself in all its magnitude and diversity, rewarding you with astonishing vistas and unexpected encounters. I once travelled for three days with a group of musicians as we drove between festivals in Tennessee and Colorado – nearly 1,500 miles – on a journey that ranged from wheatfields to desert ranges to snow-covered Rocky mountains. We listened to a lot of western swing as we drove and The Time Jumpers were playing as we crossed the Texas panhandle and witnessed a brief, sudden burst of green pasture, rolling to the horizon. It lasted less than an hour, and it’s all I’ve ever seen of that famous horse country; I’m desperate to get back for a longer look.

Rise like a Phoenix by Conchita Wurst

Conchita Wurst at the Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna.
Conchita Wurst at the Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna. Photograph: Moni Fellner/Getty Images

Vienna can appear a staid city – all rococo architecture and furred, bejewelled aristocrats – but it has a thriving underground culture. I was staying in Leopoldstadt, its hipster neighbourhood, the week Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision song contest in Copenhagen, and everyone was talking about her – people were so proud to have her representing Austria at a time when the country’s politics were beset by the far-right. By the end of the week, she was performing an open-air victory concert in a packed-out Ballhausplatz, and the grand government buildings seemed to float in a sea of people and rainbow flags.

Bayini by Gurrumul

Kakadu, Northern Territory.
Kakadu, Northern Territory. Photograph: Jason Jones Travel Photography/Getty Images

My grandparents live in Australia’s Northern Territory, a place I find alien and even a little frightening, with its tropical humidity, monsoon downpours, deadly snakes and crocodiles. But it is also a place of prehistoric wonder and ancient humanity, and ever since being introduced to Gurrumul’s passionate and tender voice, it has felt like the perfect soundtrack to the landscapes I encountered there, in lands such as Jabiru and Kakadu. There is something in its soulful simplicity that resonates with the freedom of the huge open spaces, and brings to my mind their vast rock canyons, and forests rich with living things.

Libiamo ne’ lieti calici from La Traviata

When I’m visiting a new city, there are three things I feel impelled to check out: the public library, the sports stadium, and – if there is one – the opera house. I’ve been to far more operas abroad than I ever have at home, and it all stemmed from my first trip to Rome in my 20s, when I stayed in a cheap little hotel near the Pantheon in midsummer. I was feeling overwhelmed – by the constant beeping of car horns and swerving of scooters, the bustle of the pavements, the shouted conversation from windows to neighbours walking below – and one evening I took refuge at a chamber concert in the salon of a dilapidated palazzo apartment. As a pair of singers performed this aria from La Traviata – to an audience of about a dozen – the heat and the hubbub fell away and I was left with a joyous appreciation of the irrepressible Italian spirit.

Cheek to Cheek by Fred Astaire

The Queen Mary 2 sails past the Statue of Liberty in New York.
The Queen Mary 2 sails past the Statue of Liberty. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Cruise ships have always struggled to appeal outside the “retiree” demographic and the pandemic’s not going to make it easier for them. But pick the right one, and you can be stepping back in time to the glamorous golden age of travel. This track reminds me of my voyage on the Queen Mary 2 between Southampton and New York, and eight days without anything to see from the porthole except ocean, sky, and the occasional excitement of a passing whale. The sunsets on deck were romantic, especially because they were usually followed by cocktails and dancing in the ship’s art deco ballroom. Heaven, I was in heaven …

Chale Chalo by AR Rahman and Srinivas from Lagaan movie soundtrack

Sunset on Chowpatty Beach on Marine Drive, Mumbai
Sunset on Chowpatty Beach on Marine Drive, Mumbai Photograph: Danny Lehman/Getty Images

My first independent trip was to India – a backpacking holiday with a tiny budget, an overambitious itinerary, and an 18-year-old’s lack of self-awareness. Travelling around the country on overnight trains, towns and cities passed me in a blur of excitement and fatigue, leaving strong sensory impressions – of deep colour and rich smells and the dizzying turning circles of tuktuks – but little real engagement. It wasn’t until I returned many years later that I found myself building relationships there – this song from the Lagaan soundtrack reminds me of languorous evenings in Mumbai, promenading along the seafront, delighting in the salty breeze and talking cricket with a new friend.

Faire is the Heaven from Music of the English Church

A view from Whiteleaf Hill on the Ridgeway near Princes Risborough.
A view from Whiteleaf Hill on the Ridgeway near Princes Risborough, Chilterns. Photograph: Alamy

Last year, in between lockdowns, I started walking the Ridgeway, an ancient route that runs along the Chilterns from Buckinghamshire to Wiltshire. The Chilterns aren’t tall, and the landscape isn’t going to cause your jaw to drop, but their gentle slopes and tumbling farmland with, here and there, cool, dark woods, were just the balm my soul needed. Walking their undramatic footpaths gave me a familiar comfort, like the speaking of a liturgy. When the second lockdown prevented me from completing the walk, I put on church music, took out my map, and pictured the places I’d been.

Emma John is the author of Wayfaring Stranger: a musical journey in the American South published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and available to buy at guardianbookshop.com