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A Valentine's Mix Tape from 'Talk of the Nation'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Valentines is a big day for flowers and for chocolate and for mix tapes. Many of the inarticulate or gobsmacked amongst us believe that maybe Frank Sinatra or Marvin Gaye can express our emotions more clearly than Hallmark. And let's face it, there are few who can say let's get it on without eliciting a laugh.

But when it comes down to actually putting the mix together, it turns out it's not so easy. Put the most heartfelt song at the top. Should your entire mix scream I love you? Or do you prefer a more subtle approach? If you've tried this yourself, we want to hear your advice on what to do and what not to do. And if you're struggling with yours still now, call up with your questions. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. the e-mail address is and you can weigh in on our blog, that's at

Jessica Tylkowski joins us now. She's an editor at and an avid tape mix maker. She joins us from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today. Happy Valentines Day.

Ms. JESSICA TYLKOWSKI (Editor, Happy Valentines Day.

CONAN: Now, I should note that we put together a tape from suggestions we received from our listeners and blog readers of the past couple of days. It'll be up on our Web site at about 4 Eastern Time. And there are also mix tapes from some of the regular you hear here on TALK OF THE NATION. From Ken Rudin, Amy Dickinson, as well as NPR music reporter Felix Contreras, TELL ME MORE's Michel Martin and, well, there's one for me, too.

But Jessica, you work - this must be your busiest day of the year.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: It's a little like Christmas at the North Pole.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I guess it is. And everybody, I suspect, has the same kind of questions.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: It's surprising how often people think that they're being very unique with their request and I've received it at least a dozen times. Not to be derogatory toward this people or anything like that, but we've really been getting, aside from the, you know, I would like to burn Valentines Day to the ground. Painting my nails black type request. We've been getting three main mix tape request.

CONAN: And they are?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Well, first, there's mix tape request, oddly enough, largely from the best friends, people who are in love with their best friend or with a person that they know, but don't know how to tell them, and have decided that a Valentines Day mix tape is the best way to do that.

CONAN: Uh-huh. And this is so - they want something that says - well, they want to be a little cautious, too, I suspect.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Exactly. Exactly.

CONAN: They want something that if the person is in the same mindset as they are, the person will immediately recognize it as an I love you mix tape, but something that doesn't quite come out and say, you know, I love you, in case they have to play it down later.

CONAN: Well, here's the first song most requested by TALK OF THE NATION e-mailers and blog contributors, and I suspect this would not be on that tape.

(Soundbite of song "At Last")

Ms. ETTA JAMES (Singer): (Singing) At last, my love has come along, My lonely days are over, And life is like a song.

CONAN: Etta James, of course. So the appeal to the best friend might be a little more subtle.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: I'd actually received that song, not in this tape.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: From somebody that I didn't know very well.

CONAN: Aha. So I'm totally wrong as usual.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: No. No, it was really awkward. It was a terrible choice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What's the second kind of tape most frequently requested?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: The second kind of tape we'll be getting is, you know, I'm in a relationship with someone and I don't know how to express feelings, or I'm too lazy to go buy a Hallmark card. I, you know, I want some sort of sentiment that I can give this person since I don't know how to fabricate it myself, which they I guess they don't really say so much. That's just my interpretation. I'm kind of negative toward these people.

CONAN: Let's go back again to the TALK OF THE NATION tape and listeners' tape. And this is your excused upon, it's an evergreen.

(Soundbite of song "Let's Stay Together)

Mr. AL GREEN (Singer): (Singing) Ooh, baby. Let's stick together. Loving you whether, whether Times are good or bad, happy or sad.

CONAN: And I guess you could think in some ways there are - there's Al Green albums that are Valentines mix tapes by themselves.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Right. Although recommend just giving someone an Al Green album. I don't know perhaps for some of our older listeners that might be a good plan but in general with the under 35 set it would be a little more heartfelt to put it together yourself.

CONAN: I suppose. A little effort might go into it. What's the third type of tape that people most request?

Interestingly enough we're getting a whole lot of I would like to get back together with my significant other on Valentines Day type mix tape. So, you know, mix tapes either for you and that feeling of being left out. Or for the person in some sort of hope to woo them back to your side.

CONAN: So the I wish I were in love again if people remember old musicals. That's song would be perfect. The conversation with the flying plates I wish in love again.

So let's get some listeners talking about their suggestions. If you've made a mix tape and you have some advice for those still struggling with theirs or if you've - positive and negative advice, 800-989-8255. E-mail us

James(ph) is on the line. James calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JAMES (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call today.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

JAMES: All right. What I - first public college. I was coming in on a cusps of computers being made with CD burners. So, of course, the big hype was compilation CDs. And in my experience of making those CDs - my secret, so to speak, was all about the varying the pace. It could take anything too fast or too slow, but I had to kind of go in peaks and valleys and end with one big crescendo. And that's usually my recipe, and it worked pretty well when I was in college.

CONAN: Fast and slow - that showmanship is - Frank Zappa used to say. Is that good advice, Jessica?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Absolutely. You definitely don't want to go from, you know, a really, really fast song to a really slow song because that sort of jars the listener out of a sense of continuity in your tape. You really want it to flow like an album would. If you were putting together an album of your own music, you wouldn't do that.

JAMES: Definitely. Definitely. And it was almost - I guess it's the literary person maybe, because I was an English and philosophy major, as well. So I kind of had to go almost like a plot through a novel would go.


Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Absolutely.

JAMES: Where you had your climax at the end and it was all great once it over.

CONAN: James, when was the last time you made a mix tape?

JAMES: The last time I've made a mix tape. Oh, it's been such a long time. Don't put me on the spot like that. But I would have to say, 2003 actually.

CONAN: Well, I…

JAMES: The last time I actually made one.

CONAN: You made one to revive the practice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAMES: I think I will. I was good at it, and I loved doing it.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

JMAES: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Nadia(ph). Nadia is calling us from Cleveland, Ohio.

NADIA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

NADIA: Well, one thing that I do when I make mix tapes is sometimes I try and find a theme. Or you find songs that have kind of the same word and title, like, you might put a tree set together where there's a song like the "The Two Trees" or "The Little Tree" or the bark on the tree, and they kind of float together that way. But again, I also agree with the previous caller. You have to watch the tempo and the pacing because if everything was fast that the mix tape a little too phonetic. And then if you have everything slow, it becomes kind of trance-like, and you have to be careful with those things as well.

CONAN: Is that good advice, do you think, Jessica?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Yeah. Absolutely. One thing that I would be really careful of - and I see this as a huge pitfall, especially the format of our Web site is people send in a theme and we make a mix tape based on the theme.


Ms. TYLKOWSKI: But people fall into the trap where, like - where they pick songs based on their titles more than based on their content. And you have to be really careful. I mean, being cute and being silly is fun, but a lot of people fall into that (unintelligible) pitfall where you sort of pick songs based on their title, every song on their subject matter, and the tape doesn't really have any sort of meat to it.

NADIA: (Unintelligible) at picking songs, especially with the thing of Valentine's Day, songs that would mean something to whoever you're them to, you know. Often, if we have a shared experience, I'll pick a song that either reminds of that shared experience or was a part of that shared experience. And that will bring up a whole new range of emotions as well.

CONAN: Nadia, thanks for the call.

NADIA: No problem. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with Ira(ph). Ira is with us from Conway in Arkansas.

IRA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Ira, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

IRA: Well, I'd like to say that not only can songs be used to express love, but also to express a breakup. Now, I had a conversation an entire breakup conversation with a girl using only Beatles songs. I would play a love song, and she would play a song of love lost. And we we're just sitting in the room and, you know, playing back and forth. And I think I remember it ended with me playing "I've Just Seen a Face," and she playing "Sexy Sadie," and it's telling me I've made a fool out of everyone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: That's excellent.

CONAN: That's good. But did it have an unfortunate culmination?

IRA: Yeah. I mean, it was unfortunate but, you know, that was a few ago and so I'm completely over it.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: It's a good story.

CONAN: Well, you may get a tape in the mail saying today, that she isn't. You never know.

IRA: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you, guys.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Ira.

Also, how long should be these tapes generally be, do you think?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: That's a huge issue. A lot of people are very enthusiastic about making the compilation and so they do 80 minutes, 25 songs, as much as the CD will hold. And that's really a terrible way to go about it. I would say for beginners, you want to stick under 12, which I noticed that your mix tape was not. You didn't stick to that, which - I mean, you can make a good longer mix tape, but it's really - you end up trimming the fat a lot more if you stick to certain amount of tracks that you like to put on. I like to do seven.

CONAN: Seven?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Seven. It's a nice, long - it ends up being more like an album. Again, more - like 40 minutes. If it's really good they're going to listen to it again. So you don't have to worry about that so much.

CONAN: Well, that's all interesting advice. Let's see if we can get one more caller in. And this will be Rosie(ph). Rosie is with us from Henniker in New Hampshire.

ROSIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Rosie. You're on the air.

ROSIE: Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

ROSIE: I just told your screener about my mix tape formula.

CONAN: And what's that?

ROSIE: The mix tape formula is that - let's see, about 10 or 11 songs long. You have to make a really good song in the first song (unintelligible). The second two or three songs can be like boring, not so much - still like lovey-dovey but whatever because people are usually loose interest by then. And then the like middle song have to be really good, something that relates to the both of you. And then the last song have to be a huge, romantic crescendo. Because that's the last thing they'll remember about the next day.

CONAN: Give me a for instance on a huge, romantic crescendo.

ROSIE: Like Billie Holliday, "All of Me." Something like that.

CONAN: Yeah, it's a tough tune to follow, too.

ROSIE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Rosie. Are you sending out a mix tape this year?

ROSIE: I am.

CONAN: And is that the last song on it?

ROSIE: I'm not sure about that one - maybe.

CONAN: Maybe. Oh, you haven't finished it yet?

ROSIE: No. no. I'm a late starter.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Perfectionist.

CONAN: It's the fact that you're just getting it right.

ROSIE: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Rosie.

We're talking about mix tapes with Jessica Tylkowski at You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me introduce Gwen Outen who's here with us in Studio 3A. You hear her everyday, you just don't know it. She's the director of TALK OF THE NATION. And one of her jobs is to choose all the break music you hear during the program. So it's as if she makes a great mix tape for us everyday.

And Gwen, it's nice to see you here on this side of the glass.

GWEN OUTEN: Yeah, I was just going to say that to you.

CONAN: So how do you go about choosing music for the show. Are you using some of these same principles?

OUTEN: Yeah. Well, a lot of it has to do with the mood of whatever topic we're talking about. If it's a very, you know, kind of dark, intense topic that we're working on or that we're showcasing on the show, you don't want a light-hearted kind of music that you want.

CONAN: (Unintelligible)

OUTEN: Yeah. There's music that goes with everything. So it has to do with the mood, you know. It has to do with how you feel when you hear the music, and that usually is compatible with the topic.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And have you made a Valentine's Day mix this year?

OUTEN: I have not. I don't have a Valentines this year.


OUTEN: Yeah. Thank you, Neal, for letting me say it.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: You make one for yourself.

OUTEN: Yes. I can make one for myself. I have - the main thing - I'm representing the single people and the otherwise alone people. So the thing that's important I think is to not worry so much about lyrics of a song, but how it makes you feel, you know. You want to feel good. You want to dance. You want to not think about the fact that, you know, it is Valentines Day, doggone it, it came.

So, you know, feel good. One of the songs on my list would be "I Want You Back," by the Jackson 5. Because it's a funky baseline. Any - actually any song form the Motown era will make you feel good and you're not thinking about the fact that this 11-year-old boy is begging. Michael Jackson is begging I want you back. Don't worry about that, just, you know, get your groove on basically.

CONAN: And Jessica, are you making a tape this year?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: I did. But that's a secret.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: He's listening.


OUTEN: You can't have anything about it.

CONAN: I can't ask you to spill the beans, you know.


CONAN: Is it seven songs long?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: It is not seven songs long. I did break one of my own rule. It is five songs long.

CONAN: Five songs long. Really short.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Five songs. Really short, but you know it's become sort of a Zen art for me. I've made enough mix tapes to where I've become very minimalist with them. It's much more difficult to do a short tape than it is a long tape.

CONAN: And what kinds of requests are you going to be getting from people tomorrow, do you think?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Hopefully, they're all - wow, I heard you on NPR and you sounded so cute. I'm really banking on those ones. But tomorrow will be another - we get a huge variety of mix tapes. Everything from, you know, I'm in love with my professor - we're getting tons of those, I guess spring is in the air - to, you know, mix tapes for cleaning my shoes. Mix tapes for making dinner. Everyday it's a different thing.

CONAN: What do you do for I'm in love with my professor? I mean, Freddie Cannon's "Abigail Beecher," my history teacher. I mean, how many times can you play that?

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Well, it's - you know, it's not - it doesn't have to be about being in love with your professor. It can be about an unattainable relationship. It can be about something that would be embarrassing to you. It can be a tape for the professor to subtly let them know, that sort of thing. It's depends on what angle you choose to take with it. Which is why BMG is so fascinating, because multiple people make tapes for the same request so you get to see all sorts of different perspective.

CONAN: Jessica Tylkowski, I think you will be busy tomorrow. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Ms. TYLKOWSKI: Thank you.

CONAN: Jessica Tylkowski is an editor at With us today from the studios of our member station in Chicago, WBEZ.

Gwen Outen, I know you've picked one tune, your choice, to go out on today.

OUTEN: Yes. I picked "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers, because anytime, it doesn't matter what mood I'm in, it just makes me feel so good when I hear this song.

CONAN: And again, if you'd like to hear the TALK OF THE NATION mix tape or others done by regulars here on the program, go to our Web site at

Gwen Outen is the director of TALK OF THE NATION, with us here in Studio 3A. I'm Neal Conan. Ira Flatow is here tomorrow on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Have a great Valentines Day everybody.

This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Lovely Day")

Mr. BILL WIHTERS (Singer): (Singing) Lovely day. Lovely day. A lovely day.

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