To find the mystery of California, one doesn’t need to look beyond the name. Possibly coming from a romantic novel by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo, “California” is used to describe a mystical golden paradise.
California is still a myth that is 100% golden and the stuff of romance. It’s here, nestled in the desert, bordered by the mountains, chilled by the ocean air, and warmed by the sun that knows no seasons beyond summer and spring, that the power of the land meets the power of the creative spirit. It’s a place where people try to tackle the impossible. And at moments, it all seems a little too good to be true.
But in return, Southern California has helped influence, inspire, and deliver everlasting changes to the music sphere. California songs feature not just a sun-baked sound cruising at just a half step slower than the rest of the world. They also inhabit the space, the loneliness, and the isolation inherent in a city where freeways were built on top of train tracks, and parts of the city may as well be another state.
So how does one summarize Southern California’s deep influence on music? It’s easy: we don’t. It’s an impossible ask. But several iconic songs embrace California’s style and the SoCal life, and in sharing these, we also lay out the threads and the permanent changes California has made on the world of music.
“Ladies of the Canyon” – Joni Mitchell
Tucked in the hills behind the Hollywood strip, the creativity and influence of Laurel Canyon felt like a well-known secret to the ’60s and ’70s songwriters that flocked to its mountains. Simultaneously providing the space to craft alone and the inspiration to collaborate with others, famed musicians packed in living rooms to share their craft. Among the most well-known creative residents was Joni Mitchell, whose Laurel Canyon house and the everyday experiences within it, were immortalized in “Our House” by fellow Canyon resident Graham Nash. The California air brought forth freedom of expression and freedom of instrumentation on “Ladies of the Canyon.” It’s an album that encapsulates geography and folk music at the same time. Before she was Blue, she was a lady of the Canyon.
“California” – Joni Mitchell
And then there was, of course, Blue, the album that hits almost every Top 100 list; the one that record seekers still attempt to find on vinyl; an album that Brandi Carlile played in its entirety in a cell phone free show at the Walt Disney Concert hall. And it’s here that we find the track “California,” identifiable by the opening dulcimer, where Mitchell yearns for her home even while visiting the great cities of the world. It’s an anthem for all California lovers during their time away: “I’m your biggest fan California, I’m coming home.”
“This Town” – The Go-Go’s
Blending harmonies, beats, surf-pop guitar, and punk, this debut hit album combined the genres before it and simultaneously prepared for the next wave of ’80s music at the same time. It’s rock but not overwhelming; it’s ’80s pop, but it has a touch of crunch. It’s a musical invitation, almost as enticing as their wish in “This Town.” The Go-Go’s dare us to join Los Angeles: “Jump in the race.” Make a wish and jump into the city of dreams.
“California Paradise” – The Runaways
A walk down the Sunset Strip yields stories behind every storefront. And within the walls of the Whisky, the Runaways certainly made their mark. While their sound transcended both coasts, the always energetic and sometimes cathartic music of The Runaways is both a product of and an influence on punk. Getting their start in the punk glam scene of Los Angeles while playing at the Whisky A Go Go and The Disco, the Runaways seemed to reject everything before them (mainly, all-male punk groups) and rewrite the genre while creating a space for edgy rock feminism. Their debut eponymous album didn’t just launch the careers of Joan Jett and her bandmates; it was the start of a legendary shift in punk, one that allowed bands like Northern California rockers The Donnas and Southern California band L7 to thrive. On Queens of Noise, The Runaways turned their sound towards a dedication to their Southern California roots on the track “California Paradise” and a reflection on their hopes and dreams with “Hollywood.”
“The Only Place” – Best Coast
Before Best Coast leapt into the swirling, ethereal production of California Nights, they created a homegrown, melodic playground to share their love of the California coast on the album The Only Place (as if their name didn’t do it enough justice). The Only Place didn’t just create a soundtrack for Southern California; it finally asked the question no one was brave enough to ask: “Why would you live anywhere else?” The music video for “The Only Place,” the lead single off the album, sports a destructive Los Angeles day: partying and playing music in the sun, driving in a convertible down the coast with a California Republic flag, and throwing instruments into the Los Angeles River. The fact that it was recorded on a record label called Wichita makes it all the better.
“All I Wanna Do” – Sheryl Crow
The Tuesday Night Music Clubs have changed since 1993. The album’s title is a reference to the songwriting group that helped create the album, but one can’t help but consider the clubs that have shifted in the Los Angeles scene since the inception, creation, and celebration of this album. The famed clubs of the strip are still known by one name monikers: The Roxy. The Whisky. The Troubadour. In 1993, these clubs played host to the grunge phase of the ’90s and the early development of metal. Now, pay-to-play models have been adopted by several venues, changing the feel. But fret not: leave it to Sheryl Crow to remind us of what we really need to focus on. All we need to do is have a little fun. And the rest will fall into place.
“West Coast” – Lana Del Rey
The quintessential element in the first single from Ultraviolence, “West Coast,” is the dramatic switch between verses and the chorus. The woozy, swaying chorus that comes out of left field (left coast?) switches with such energy that it echoes the back and forth of the city. The first time you hear it, it’s startling, and then, eases into unique and memorable, and suddenly you’re pressing repeat over and over again.
“Malibu” – Hole
Don’t let the dreamy acoustic guitars at the beginning of “Malibu” trick you into thinking this song is a beach time cruiser. Malibu itself, a combination of celebrity homes and rehab facilities, does itself embody the dichotomy of a starstruck culture. And the song itself, both beautiful and painful, shares a dark side of celebritydom and the dualities and dichotomies of that life. Alongside a potential escape route from the celebrity skin so many wear, Malibu also offers intrigue and a simultaneous request to “fly” towards it. A give and take, like the sea below, and a recognition of the ebb and flow of Southern California life.
“San Andreas Fault” – Natalie Merchant
It’s hard to say that a song is “hidden” in an album when it’s an opening track. But when hit single “Wonder” is track number two, it makes sense that Natalie Merchant’s ode to a movie star is lost among Tigerlily. When Merchant re-released the songs of Tigerlily on 2015’s Paradise Is There, you can’t miss it. Echoey and layered, it is the opening scene to the story of Natalie Merchant’s transcendence on both female singer-songwriters and Los Angeles.
“California Soul” – Marlena Shaw
Released in 1969, “California Soul” could have and probably should have taken a slot on Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the strings and horns that line “California Soul” anchor us to another time. Like California itself, the air and the vibes, they grab us and never let us go.
“Andres” – L7
The Album title, Hungry for Stink, could have been mistaken for New York City, a town infamous for the smell. But the opening lyrics to the song “Andres” root us in the Northern part of Los Angeles. The problems facing our young rockers are simple: Locks and A/C. Who is Andres anyway? But the beauty of the song is in the simplicity; that songs don’t necessarily need a story and that they can still encapsulate the tone of a place in their instrumentation.
“Eden” – Sara Bareilles
At first listen to “Eden,” without paying attention to the lyrics, you might gloss over the reference to Los Angeles. The metaphors to the story of Eden litter Sara Bareilles’ song about falling out of love with her former home. We can’t have beauty without pain, and Los Angeles, while a paradise, also has harshness, and hardness within it. Eden reminds us of this.
“Spectacular Views” – Rilo Kiley (Jenny Lewis)
The last full song on The Execution of All Things, “Spectacular Views” could have referred to the glorious landscapes that Angelenos are privy to. But instead, the song centers on the beautiful mystery that happens when feelings and locations stay with you over time. And that’s Southern California. We don’t know why we feel the way we do here. What we do know is that amongst it all, it’s beautiful.
“T-Shirt From California” – Mustangs of the West
“T-Shirt From California” is a sentimental song about love gone wrong, written by lead singer Suzanna Spring (co-written with Wes Hightower) and recorded at Snuffy Walden’s Taylor Made Studios. “I wrote ‘T-Shirt From California’ when I was living in Nashville and homesick for California,” said Spring. “Sitting on my couch one morning, strumming my guitar, the chorus melody and chorus lyrics came through, almost complete. I took that chorus into a writing appointment with Wes Hightower, and we wrote verses and the story. He had an idea for those great Beach Boys harmonies in the chorus, and Mustangs of the West has such a beautiful vocal blend; it was natural that we’d record the song.”
“Gone West” – Gone West
Colbie Caillat exudes Southern California’s sun and beaches throughout her music. Since relocating to Nashville several years ago and forming the band Gone West with fiancé Justin Young, dear friend, and longtime collaborator and co-writer Jason Reeves, and his wife, Nelly Joy, the band released their single, “Gone West” on traveling back to California by way of Tennessee and Amarillo.
“Calico” – Brooke White
Former American Idol contestant from season seven, Brooke White, released a Nashville country-style album written, recorded, and produced entirely in California. Calico embodies the rising of contemporary country music – a style that stretches traditional country music norms blending elements of pop and rock music with Laurel Canyon folk. The title track, “Calico,” speaks of her journey on Idol and mentions several iconic musicians. The album is peppered with song references to California, with “Pioneer” telling the story of her journey from Arizona to California.
About the Author:
Michelle DeLateur is a Los Angeles-based photographer, videographer, self-taught guitarist, and Packers fan who’s constantly on the lookout for new vinyl. She is also a contributor to No Film School and covers events for The Knockturnal. You can check her out on Twitter and Instagram at @mdelateur or view her work at delateurmedia.com.