The Essential Expat Playlist: Song Recommendations For Expat Ears

Every life needs a soundtrack, and the expat life is no exception. In fact, the expat life, with its extreme highs and lows, is probably particularly in need of music. Words alone are often inadequate to express the joy and excitement of living in a foreign country or the loneliness and anchorless-ness that you feel when you’re experiencing culture shock.It’s also worth mentioning that homesickness and culture shock can sometimes strike when you’re visiting “home” – after you’ve settled in as an expat, visiting or returning to your home country can feel just as difficult.

Here are a few songs we think any expat should listen to and always have handy. They’re not all specifically about being an expat, but each one does capture aspects of the expat life rather beautifully. These are songs about missing loved ones, about wanting to go back home, wanting to get away from home, and wanting a better life; songs about the excitement and weariness of being on the road; songs about goodbyes, regrets, hopes, dreams, discoveries, and restlessness.

We Gotta Get Out Of This Place – The Animals
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jCPjnuwdKkw?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
</p>

There are plenty of artists who have recorded their own versions of this song, from folk icons like Richard Thompson to pop-rock superstars like Bryan Adams, but the original recording by The Animals is usually acknowledged as the best, most definitive version. In the song, singer Eric Burdon talks angrily and fiercely about getting away from the dead-end, hopeless life in his dirty, industrial city, “where the sun refuse to shine” and where his father is dying. “Girl, there’s a better life for me and you,” he sings at the end of each chorus, a sentiment that many expats will know quite well.

<p>
We’re Leaving – DeVotchKa
</p><p>
<iframe width="500" height="281" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ycSG8Ye7eJU?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

So much of being an expat is about leaving – leaving behind the place you’ve grown up in, leaving behind family and friends, and then, eventually, leaving behind your adopted home and the friends you’ve made there too, either to head to a new country or return to your own. As we all know too well, leaving is painfully difficult, but it’s exciting and joyous too, and DeVotchka capture it beautifully on this song that’s both a celebration and a lament. Their blend of Eastern European, mariachi, spaghetti western, and indie rock music is always brilliant.

<p>
Sloop John B – The Beach Boys</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/nSAoEf1Ib58?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

Being an expat is wonderful in many ways, but still on some days nothing goes your way. The plaintive chorus of this song, with its repetitions and variations on “let me go home” perfectly captures the way you feel. For a song that’s essentially about being miserable and wanting to go home however, Sloop John B is incredibly uplifting, especially the version recorded by the Beach Boys. The original, The John B Sails, is a traditional folk song from the Bahamas, and had already been recorded by numerous folk musicians (sometimes as Wreck of the John B), including The Kingston Trio and Blake Alphonso Higgs.

<p>
People are Strange – The Doors</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZRAr354usf8?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
</p>

Everyone knows this classic Doors song, but few people really pay attention to what it’s about. So what is it about? Well, ours isn’t the final word on it, but listen to the lyrics as an expat, and you’ll probably find that the song almost perfectly describes your life, at least at one point of time, when you were new in your adopted country, when you knew no one and no one knew you. “People are strange when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly when you’re alone.” We’ve all had days like that.

<p>
Englishman in New York – Sting</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/d27gTrPPAyk?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
</p>

No expat playlist could be complete without this classic. Although not too many people today are aware of the fact, the subject of the song isn’t Sting himself, but another real person, the rather eccentric writer, storyteller, and gay icon Quentin Crisp, who was a friend of Sting’s and who moved from London to New York at the age of 72. Although many lines in the song are specific to Crisp, his experiences, and his worldview, on the whole there’s a lot that any Englishman in New York – and in fact, any expat – can identify with, from differences in little daily habits to the deeper cultural clashes. Inevitably, there are a number of covers that adapt the lyrics to other singers’ own situations – Africain à Paris and Jamaican in New York, for example. These are also worth checking out, especially if they’re closer to describing your own situation.

<p>
Space Oddity – David Bowie</p><p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/cYMCLz5PQVw?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
</p>

Of course Space Oddity isn’t about being an expat but about being an astronaut. Sometimes though, as many expats are aware, living in a foreign country can be about as strange and lonely as living in outer space. For a more contemporary take on the song, check out Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s version, shot aboard the International Space Station.

<p>
America – Neil Diamond</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="281" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/wTSLRbm8L9E?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

The theme of this Neil Diamond song (also known as Coming To America) is the United States’ long history of immigration. It’s a tribute to the US and the millions of people who’ve travelled the world to live there throughout the centuries. Both musically and lyrically, the song does a great job of capturing the immigrant’s sense of hope and possibility, their long journeys from their home countries, their arrival in the US, and their struggles to make a life there.

<p>
America – Simon & Garfunkel<p>
<p><iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/W773ZPJhcVw?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

This is another song that’s specific to the United States, and although it isn’t exactly about being in a foreign country, the experiences and emotions of the two protagonists as they “look for America” will certainly strike a chord with expats anywhere in the world. The tone of Simon & Garfunkel’s America isn’t as confident, strident, or simple as Neil Diamond’s – as always, there’s a great deal of complexity and nuance in Simon’s writing. Through the course of the song, the mood rises and falls, and then rises again, as the lovers are eager, optimistic, playful, and hopelessly lost at different times through their travels.

<p>
So Far Away – Dire Straits</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/YIHMPc6ZCuI?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

Not every expat is lucky enough to move along with their partner or family. Living in a foreign country all by yourself, with the one you love living many miles away, can feel exactly like Mark Knopfler does in this classic Dire Straits song: “I’m tired of being in love and being all alone, when you’re so far away from me …” Of course, back then there was no such thing as Skype, but nonetheless, sometimes even a video call just isn’t good enough.

<p>
That Leaving Feeling – Stuart Staples</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/XytH6l0xChE?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

This is a gorgeous song, with brilliant orchestration and the deep, brooding voice of Tindersticks singer Stuart Staples, joined by guest singer Lhasa de Sela. The two of them argue about the whys, the hows, and the whether-we-shoulds of leaving. The entire album, Leaving Songs, is full of themes of leaving, loss, goodbyes, escapes, memories, and regrets. You could probably pick several more songs off the album to add to your playlist.

<p>
Homeward Bound – Simon & Garfunkel</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/7z9wd9bS1FM?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

Ideally, no playlist should have two songs by the same artist, but since it’s Simon & Garfunkel, perhaps it’s okay to cheat a little. Besides, few songs capture homesickness as well as this one does, and not just the ache of being far away from the people and places you love, but in particular the weariness of being on the road. The narrator is a singer on tour, but the sentiment is one any expat will readily identify with.

<p>
What If We Went To Italy? – Mary Chapin Carpenter</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/x8dRCLy27fU?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

What If We Went to Italy? isn’t the most striking song on Carpenter’s 1996 album, A Place in the World, but it’s a song that slowly grows on you. For anyone who is an expat, its charms are irresistible. “What if we went to Italy,” she starts off singing, and although at first she’s talking about going there just for the summer, she later asks, “What if we never got back on the plane?” She goes on to describe the perfect expat life: a villa in Tuscany, leisurely meals, lazy days, and a general sense of contentedness, where even your lack of Italian doesn’t really matter, because “words are replaced under Siennese skies by nothing so much as a nod and a sigh, and a wish to be always like this”.

<p>
Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye – Leonard Cohen</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="281" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/DQk3wyFG6Fg?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

Here’s another song about leaving and goodbyes, but this one is meant to remind you that goodbyes shouldn’t be tearful. “You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,” Leonard Cohen sings, “it’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea.” And whether it’s about lovers, friends, family, or places, as always, Cohen is right.

<p>
Anywhere I Lay My Head – Tom Waits</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/4GOqbFq8R_M?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

With all the songs he’s written that are steeped in the sense of a particular place, all the themes that revolve around being an outsider, leaving home, being lost, being on the road, and so much more, it’s impossible to not have a Tom Waits song on this list. There are probably plenty of other songs you could pick, but our choice is Anywhere I Lay My Head. The broken weariness of the song, the desperation and yet the determination with which Waits sings, “Oh, but anywhere, anywhere I’m gonna lay my head, oh, I’m gonna call my home,” is very evocative. Fans of Scarlett Johansson’s might want to check out her decidedly more up-tempo cover of the song from her 2008 album of the same name.

<p>
Wanderlust – Mark Knopfler</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="281" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/2VAw9nIxnk0?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

Of course, being an expat isn’t all about being lonely and homesick. Going to a new place to start a new life is exciting and rewarding, and plenty of people deeply enjoy moving from one place to the next, never settling down for too long. “Packin’ up all our faith and trust, me and the wanderlust” – if that’s how you feel, here’s a song for you. And even if you don’t particularly have wanderlust yourself, you’ll certainly be able to appreciate the feeling as you hear Knopfler sing about it.

<p>
Slowness – Calexico</p>
<p>
<iframe width="500" height="375" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/OrDQWQzwSM4?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe></p>

Calexico’s Slowness is one more song about the beauty of being on the road. If you’re paying close attention, there’s also a bit to remind you of the dangers of being on the road, but it’s easy to miss that part when you’re swept away by the leisurely, reassuring rhythm and melody, the sweet harmonies and pedal steel guitar, and the beautiful line about the stars “in their slowness”. No matter where you are and what you’re doing, this is a song that’ll want to make you want to hit the road, even if only for a long, late-night drive.

by Garreth D'Mello

What are your favourite songs about being an expat? Let us know in the comments!