The Variable Life Soundtrack

Get to know the songs, follow the artists, and learn why they’re part of The Variable Life Soundtrack.


Discover and follow the artists on The Variable Life Soundtrack
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1. “Dive Deep” by Andrew Belle

Andrew Belle is an artist I’ve revisited every couple years, and his sonic and songwriting evolution keeps me curious about where he’ll go next. I’m thrilled to include “Dive Deep” on this compilation because of its steady, melodic fusion of atmospheric synth and guitars with anchoring rhythm.

Lyrically, it’s a great fit for TVL Soundtrack because of its invitation to examine emotions, self, and relationships: “This is my heart; dive deep.” Watch for Belle’s new album in 2017.

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2. “Let Loose” by Bora York

Hailing from my college city—Minneapolis, Minnesota—Bora York brings seriously fun groove. Intertwining lead female and male vocals enhance the already cohesive sound, and “Let Loose” is a fine, energetic track for any summer drive playlist.

“Never say never.” Embrace change and take new risks.

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3. “Ray Gun” by Lovedrug

Lovedrug is particularly meaningful for me on this compilation because one of their albums got me through a fantastically terrible job (which I write about in the book). Their emotionally textured alternative rock with distinct lead vocals takes me back to those moments of struggle and hoping for the next stage in my life.

“My body is calling on a love that I never knew…” speaks to the indescribable sense we get when we’re in love, when we’re meant to live for something bigger, and when we know there’s a better path we must explore.

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4. “Want” by Author

Comprised of a few guys from my hometown—Rochester, Minnesota—Author brings musical maturity beyond their years. Each angle of instrumentation deserves careful attention. Their brand of yearning, just-experimental-enough indie rock carries perfect conditions for the overcast days you want to acknowledge the dark side of life, yet still remain hopeful enough to make it to tomorrow.

For every one of us who’s been in the ambiguous territory of relationships, simultaneously wanting to stay together and end it immediately for all the emotional turmoil it causes: “Tell me now what I’ve been waiting for / Think of all the things that could be / Can you learn to live without me.” Relationships are hard; working through the conflict is what brings clarity, one way or the other.

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5. “In the Quiet (acoustic)” by Almighty American

Almighty American, moniker of Americana-leaning storyteller Michael Gay, is a special addition to this compilation because we were classmates years ago.

Today’s bustling world of smartphone slavery and constant productivity hacks isn’t sustainable. Almighty American knows that and invites listeners to find a simpler, honest, refreshing way to live. As a singer/songwriter in Minneapolis, he’s crafted deliberately stripped-down music on his latest EP to capture the raw emotions and, hopefully, the possibility of empathy for others.

Sweet words any introvert will relish (and even some frazzled extroverts and ambiverts): “In the quiet I can live and feel alive / In the quiet I can sleep to get my fill / … In the quiet, I’ll live happy on my hill.” Read this song’s backstory. Stay tuned for the full album, “Songs With Legs,” in 2017.

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6. “Jenny’s Room” by Hoyle

Florida-based Hoyle blends pop sensibility and steadying electronic elements in their take on alternative rock. Over their past several releases, lyrical hooks and consistent energy give listeners good reason to pay attention without becoming overwhelmed.

“Jenny’s Room” drives with 1980s nostalgia and an ominous warning of what our current relationships could become if left unchecked. “Tell me the truth / Don’t you lie” is as necessary and difficult as it’s ever been. Catch the new album, “Jenny’s Room,” out now.

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7. “Get Outa My Way” by The Exit Sound

Project of prolific musician and producer Lucas Hogg, The Exit Sound hits all the marks for modern energetic alternative jams without being trite. Lyrically self-aware party playlist material, “Get Outa My Way” offers Passion Pit-esque synths and layered vocal flourishes to form a put-it-on-repeat head-bobbing track.

Wrestling with self-doubt, seeking clarity, and navigating social expectations makes this a great complement to themes in The Variable Life: “A subtle whisper in my ear / breaks the moment of this fear / I have to get through the path that’s not so clear.”

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8. “Think About” by Jon Yoko

About a year ago, I met Giovanni Dodd in a local coffeeshop after exchanging Instagram messages. He’s the creative powerhouse behind Jon Yoko and scores of artistic endeavors around Greenville, South Carolina, and it’s no surprise he brings textured nuance to his music as well as his photography and fashion.

“Think About” is only one of the tracks in which Dodd explores the threads of family, spiritual searching, and personal weaknesses. With tasteful electronic ambient accents to a rap/hip-hop throughline, introspection merges into social consciousness, addressing America’s sharp tension over police brutality and Black Lives Matter.

“These streets ain’t safe for nobody / … I’m tired of getting on my knees to pray they don’t kill my / brothers and sisters, their actions looking suspicious.”

Public life and private life are fundamentally interconnected. Facing conflict and social pressures looks different for each of us. We’re better for hearing each other’s stories and personal experiences so we can better support others through life’s variables.

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9. “Variations on a Variable Life” by Bryce Miller

This is the most unique song on this compilation for two reasons: it’s more suited to an orchestra hall than to a music club/venue, and it’s a completely original piece—debuting here on The Variable Life Soundtrack.

Bryce Miller is a composer of immense talent and unrelenting creativity, and he’s also a friend I met while living in Oregon (the town I write about in the book). Pulling inspiration from the ethereal ambience of film soundtracks, and combining the themes of my book—especially finding beauty in complex choices and variety—Bryce composed this original piece to capture the essence of a person moving through a changing life.

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10. “Come” by Daje Morris

When I first heard Daje Morris’ music, I thought it was a highly curated acoustic coffeehouse playlist. Her vocal finesse carries the weight of an experienced singer/songwriter, with the lyrical resonance it deserves. Here’s what she wrote about her EP, The Bloom Project:

“I wrote these songs for the joy of it and the pain of it. I wanted to create something that might pull a scarlet thread through the fabric of our lives and connect us through our stories. I guess I thought that maybe this kind of connection would help us to feel a little less alone and a little less afraid in the living.”

Musically calming, “Come” is a fitting track for anyone in the middle of vulnerable relationships, seeking an honest way to communicate with someone who may or may not share the same affection: “Can I be honest / Can I tell the truth / When your eyes lock with mine / I won’t move.”

Relationships are always risky to some degree—that’s the nature of love. But love is worth the risk.

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11. “Falling Away” by Hope Country

New wave folk music hasn’t had its final say. St. Paul’s Hope Country brings fresh Minnesota air to the genre. Solo acoustic guitar and Midwestern crooning build into to full, deliberately-paced homage to Americana rock, complete with just enough twangy guitars for seasoning.

Getting lost in weeks of life running ragged, it’s easy to forget there are beautiful, good, inspiring things to pick us up—but not before we revel in the dirty, beat up, broken state we find ourselves in. That kind of fragility reminds us we’re human, and we need help.

“I look the sky, not a tear fills my eye / I am falling, falling away / So cut me up, string me out, leave me to die / See if God knows I’m falling away.”

Hope Country’s new, self-titled album is out now.

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12. “High Dreamer” by Kylie Odetta

Raspy, jazz lounge vocals meet moody piano rock in Greenville, South Carolina’s Kylie Odetta. “High Dreamer” moves through progressively added instrumentation and Odetta’s impassioned performance to create a subtly urgent plea for a dying relationship’s resurrection.

“You love the words too much / You need no limits, no back-ups / You know the heart is harder to hate / Than you’d like to think / You live in constant escape.”

We can try to run from tough conversations and vulnerable moments, but real connections require us to show up as our true selves, undistracted and responsible for our role in life.

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13. “Deathbed” by Great Awakening

Anthemic choruses, tight drums, and bleeding retro-nodding synths coalesce into the playfully serious musical romp that is Great Awakening. A project of two young men who lived in different U.S. cities, “Figure It Out” EP isn’t afraid to tap into weighty topics with plenty of optimistic energy and a dash of synth-pop idealism.

Great Awakening said about their work: “We want music that is congruent with our worldview and our faith, but doesn’t require us to give up risk, creativity, and beauty.”

Excerpts of their lyrics prove the murky territory they’re willing to explore, even if their hearts and minds are at war within themselves: “There’s just something about the tension of my feelings that keep clinging on for life.”

That’s the inner conflict we endure and resolution we hope for when we’re making choices that impact the rest of our lives.

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14. “Missoula” by Chris Bartels

Resounding hums begin the track by musical polymath Chris Bartels, before it gives way to folk-inspired guitar work and textured drumming. Is alternative ambient folk a genre? This can help make the case.

This song caught my attention for its interesting variations on repeating progressions. It reminds me of Lord Huron, a band I put on repeat during weekend adventures around Oregon (several of those stories are in the book).

The bridge’s frantic lyrical boldness belies their nonchalant delivery, suggesting a narrator’s cold distance from—what is it? a broken relationship? a tired search for meaning?—any stability in a challenging life: “Until next time / Until next time / Darling’s tidal eyes / Until next time / Until next time / Don’t waste limpid lives.”

The enveloping music and disorienting lyrics create a worthwhile exploration into the mystery. Most of us could use a few more moments of curious wonder without grasping for concrete answers.

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15. “Back” by The Cloud Hymn

Lush atmospheric guitars and earnest vocals make The Cloud Hymn a relatable afternoon or evening listen. John Nielsen, who calls Minneapolis home, crafts indie rock that fits nicely between the extremes of too upbeat or too relaxing.

“I wonder how you let it get so bad / But I really don’t, I just say that / Cause I know we sink alone.”

It’s easy to get lost in the details, or check out of life completely—that’s why intentional focus is so vital. Without help from others, we drown in isolation and disconnection. We can help each other through the messes and joys.

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16. “On the Loose” by Andy Lehman

Andy Lehman and his band are often found playing citywide events around Greenville, South Carolina, bringing the energy and singalong-ability you’d expect. They offer a personal, modernized take on classic rock anthems and love ballads.

“Somebody said you were on the loose / Somebody said you were on the move / …It may only come once / A shot at what you want /…Don’t wait until your back’s up against the wall.

Life is too beautiful and full of possibility to stay at home and take no adventures. Choose wisely, and take to the path.

Catch Lehman’s new album, Satellite State, in 2017.

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17. “trtH” by Hallel

Eric Philbert, the vocalist and musician behind the hip-hop moniker Hallel, has been making music in his home for years. He was one of the friends I made when I lived in Oregon, and we often talked about the tension of artistic vision and working on a project for a long time before others read or heard the final product.

Exploring faith, doubt, life purpose, and personal weaknesses, Hallel doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable: “I know you felt / When you were all alone and no one else was there and you asked / God, is that you? / Really, God is that true?”

Honest self-doubt may be the most necessary path toward real, renewed faith.

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18. “Versus” by Libby O’Neill

Singer/songwriter rock-tinted accents line the musical walls of Libby O’Neill’s work. The power of her music isn’t in a glossy pop veneer or catchy hooks, but instead is found in resolutely hopeful lyrics and vulnerable vocal performance.

“Go out with all you know / and meet the world outside your door / There’s so much waiting there / It’s all that you’ve been asking for.”

We’ll never know what our lives could become if we don’t go further than we’ve been and try what we’ve previously avoided. Take courage for the journey.

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19. “Don’t Go” by Pioneer Fires

Lusciously layered harmonies over driven folk instrumentation make Pioneer Fires a sturdy addition to the (kinda) post-Mumford & Sons landscape (at least their  banjo era, right?). When guitars and drums pick up with singing in tow, it transports listeners to South Carolina country roads with a sense of possibility for the next stage in life.

“Don’t worry, you can leave it all behind / Don’t go, there’s still time to mend / Don’t fall, this isn’t the end.”

There’s still plenty of adventure, love, risk, and reward out there in your variable life.

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