Most of us went through a period of tremendous, unprecedented change when COVID-19 hit. But for Benji Horgan and his wife Hilary, the world doubled down on life-changing experiences. Their daughter, Finley, was born only a couple weeks before their city of Baltimore’s shelter-in-place order was enacted. While Benji’s grateful for the extra time with his family that working from home has allowed, he’s also been met with the anxieties and transformations that come with fatherhood — all amid a world of immense uncertainty. In order to be present and bond with Finley, as well as work through the feelings of new fatherhood, he turned to his lifelong love of music to create an intentional space in his life, and he’s documenting and sharing these beautiful, intimate moments on his Instagram.
“I wasn't carrying this human inside me, so I clearly have love and affection, but I wasn't feeling that intimacy that Hilary was throughout her pregnancy. I still feel this need of ‘I need to figure out who you are and you need to know who I am, because you haven't heard my pulse. You've heard my voice perhaps, but how do we get to know each other?’ That's really overwhelming, at least for me as a father, and also this fear of "I'm going to screw this up," he described. “I think music has been really helpful as an aid to help me find the words for Finley and for me to introduce aspects of myself to her, at least metaphorically. I'm not sure if that's how that will land in the long term, but I think, if anything else, it's been great for me to process how I'm feeling or what's happening during a given day through an album or through music.”
Music’s been a staple in Benji’s life, long before Finley came around. When he was little, his own parents gifted him a Sony Walkman with B.B. King and Elvis Presley's greatest hits, “because that's what my parents liked, and they had no clue what I liked at like age seven or six.” But he says that laid a solid foundation for his music tastes that have been expanding ever since. Later on, he tried a few times to be a musician himself, picking up the guitar and the banjo and various points in his youth, but nothing ever stuck. After a college friend gave up on his short-lived dream of being a hip hop DJ, Benji inherited a couple turntables and a mixer. Not only did this jumpstart his vinyl habit, he eventually became a DJ at a college radio station and began DJing for parties and local bars around his college under the name Spinjamin. “Spinji for short,” he grins.
He also points to music as a centerpiece of his relationship with his wife. He describes himself as a bit more of a crate digger, and Hilary as more into mainstream music, but he says they’ve always complimented each other’s tastes and introduced one another to unique and interesting things. The bond they share over music is something they deliberately wanted to center in their space and family life.
“We have a television that's in our basement, and we intentionally did not put a television in our main living room. We put a turntable there, in anticipating a family, that we'd have something to infuse the space but it wouldn't be a distraction from the space. The people in front of us would be our focus. So every night at dinner, we put on a different album and have conversations about it or sometimes just blatantly ignore it, but that's our tradition.”
When Finley came along, it was only natural that music was a key part of his blossoming relationship with his daughter. In the beginning, Hilary was on leave, but at around 4 p.m. every day, he would pop out of his office and hold his daughter for an hour and put on an album. “It's different now, because we're both working. We're juggling things a lot. Her sleep schedule thankfully has changed. That was such a special time, because I just got to be with her, hold her. This was our time in the chaos of everything else.”
His listening sessions with Finley also began around the time a friend asked Benji to start sending him albums over text, with a short explanation of the album and why it’s an important listen. After about five days, the friend suggested he started posting them somewhere. “I also wanted to share pictures of my baby online, but not be that person. You know?” he laughs. “So it just came together in a way that was not intended to be public but really just a way for me to process my feelings for Finley, and my feelings of the day with Finley.” Naturally, his adorable photos and moving captions are hashtagged with #vinyldad and #spinswithfin.
They never really have a plan ahead of time for what they listen to; instead, he and his wife collaboratively choose that day’s album based on what’s happening in their family or the world. Selecting an album is a time for Benji and Hilary to meditate together on the challenges of the day or what they want to celebrate, and how they want to reflect or process it with their music. “A couple times, it's like, ‘Screw it. We're just putting on Beyonce. It's great. Let's just dance,’ or, ‘Hey, today sucked. We're going to put on some metal and it's going to be fine.’ But I think a lot of it is based on the conversations that Hilary and I have together about what was happening during our day.” Often, their music selection is a way to process or learn about what’s happening outside their family’s home.
“Last week, we were processing all of the racial injustice that occurred, especially with the recent murder of George [Flloyd]. I think going back to artists of color and listening to them. Obviously, I can't have conversations with [Finley] yet about race, but trying to explain to her the importance of that, and then specifically looking at the Darrell Banks album, considering that he was slain by an officer himself. While [under] different circumstances, I think it's a way to raise consciousness but a way that could be accessible to a child,” he said. In his Instagram post about that day’s listening session, he writes, “ I hope that in times of conflict, confusion, and injustice, that Finley will turn to music as a way to process challenging situations and recognize the mutuality she shares with others.”
He says one of their most emotional listening sessions was of Van Marrison’s Veedon Fleece. He explains that one of their family’s close friends, who will be Finley’s godmother when things return to normal, lost her father to cancer and was “limited in grieving” due to COVID, and the morning before he passed they were listening to Van Morrison, “because that was family music.” In solidarity, Benji’s family listened to Veedon Fleece together: “it really helped us be with someone when we couldn't physically be with them.”
The most common theme across Benji’s posts is the presence of a lesson for his daughter. Right around the time he noticed Finley beginning to show glimpses of her personality, instead of just sleeping all day, he began to have some anxiety around who she might be one day and how he could best support her in that. “‘What is your personality going to be? Are you going to be accepted? Are you going to be a total weirdo? Are you going to be a bully?’ Just an overwhelming [thought of] fatherhood of ‘how do I let my daughter be but also give her guidance in something?’” To answer that question, he turned to De La Soul, and they listened to 3 Feet High and Rising together. He read and thought about the ways De La Soul were able to defy a genre and create a sound, voice and space so uniquely their own early in the game. This is the approach De La Soul helped him decide to encourage Finley to take: “No matter what happens down the road, I can at least try to pass this on to her: whatever space she's in, make it her own, and be proud of the traits that you do have."
While Benji says he couldn’t live without streaming and other forms of music listening, the medium of vinyl specifically lends itself to the type being present and passing along lessons to Finley, allowing them to feel separation from the commotion of the outside world. He enjoys holding up the record to Finley and talking through the liner notes with Hilary. “There's nothing in front of us but the album and each other. I think it's a great learning tool in that regard.”
While he’s not sure how this project and tradition will grow and change as Finley does — whether they’ll print the posts in a book or let her take over the account eventually, or something else — he says he wants to have “a record for her and for us of ‘Here's where we're at, and here's how we're choosing to remember these moments.’” Regardless, one of the things he’s looking forward to the most is the day the tables turn and Finely is able to introduce music to him. He’s acutely aware of the way time can cause us to grow out of touch with certain genres or circles, and he hopes one day she’ll one day play a part in curating their listening time. But for now, that role’s up to Benji and Hilary.
“I think, looking back, music does form all of us, and it does form aspects of our personality. I think it's part of how we're nurtured in families, in friend groups. I'm excited to see what she turns out to be.”
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.
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