strange companions

I think it’s not possible to be a songwriter without being a kind of instrument for other people.

In a way, when you’re making music you’re a conduit for what’s in the air, not just the culture and times you’re living in, but human spirit.

That was my experience early on.  As a  young boy, I was never invited to anyone’s party. I felt invisible. My social interactions were forced, unnatural performances. Strumming the guitar alone in my room was the most natural thing in the world to me.

In my teens I discovered the music I had been waiting my whole young life to hear. The singers I let in were not just my teachers, but confidantes I felt I would be able to talk to – after all, they were talking to me. My early songwriting was an attempt at dialog, a response to them.

I felt that the voices in the songs were my companions. I let them into my bedroom (and eventually my dorm room, and later my car) when no one else was around. I let them into my ears when I wasn’t listening to anybody else in the world.

It’s unusual, isn’t it, how we become so vulnerable with complete strangers. It’s natural to be reluctant to drop our emotional defenses for just anyone. Even with family and close friends, there are some things we just don’t share. But our favorite musicians, we let in. I really didn’t understand why until I began recording and performing my own songs.

Gradually, it became so clear: We trust the singers we love — to cheer us up, take us down, inspire and console us. The reason why we trust them is because they are vulnerable.

I am as easily torn and not easily mended as anybody else. By sharing my humanness through songs, I make myself vulnerable to the listener. The music reveals a type of strength, I think, which makes the listener feel I’m pretty good company to have around. I make her feel … safe.

Today when I write and sing something that’s really worth remembering and responding to, I’m remembering them, my strange companions. I’m releasing into the world again their quiet yet forceful musical spirits.

The kind of response I’m really after is for one of them, somehow, to drop me a line just to say, “Good song, Tony.” That’s what I really want. That, and to make you, the listener, feel it’s okay.

strange companions

 

words + music

People always ask, “What comes first, the lyrics or the melody?” Hoboy. What a tangle at the bend in the river.

I don’t know why they’re so fascinated with the answer to this question. There is no definitive answer. Songwriters write in different ways.

Some write a full lyric first, and then put it to music. Others write a full track of music with melody but no lyrics.

You can make up words to a song based on a song title. Or based on a story concept. Or a beat, or drum loop.

Sometimes the instrument helps you find the song. I seldom find just melodies on the guitar that come out fully fleshed, and add the words later. If I start on the piano, it often happens that the melody will come first. So the instrument has something to do with the order of inspiration. Sometimes.

And sometimes the smell of gasoline, or the color of a dress … or the fragment of a conversation has everything to do with where the song begins. The melody lies there, clothes half-on. I envy her in her room, call to her in a lit whisper …

… and it ends with the mysterious, beautiful lines, somehow captured in the brittle shell of the tune.

I have written words and music just this way.

wordsmusic

easy

It’s a beautiful song, this new one in the making … but not easy. The song would say, You’re not easy, too. We’re trying one another’s patience.

And so it goes with each song I make up. I have to depend on patience and persistence, and wisdom and courage, and boldness — more of each than I have — to make something that’s going to touch someone else. This is always the challenge, and it’s never easy.

But the part of songwriting that takes bravery is not that. No, it’s committing to whatever it is I make.

The only way to move past the fear of commitment is to go all in, with an open heart. There’s no other way with art. You’re never certain, and you can’t hesitate to put your art into the world because you’re just not sure.

I’m feeling brave today. And patience, it seems, isn’t different from bravery, it just takes longer.

easy

 

 

no rewind, no repeats

Tuesday night I unpacked all my heart before a roomful of strangers, closed it up after an hour or so, then carried it offstage.

And it was over, like a beautiful dream. No rewind, no repeats.

There is a remarkable thing about performing live, and it isn’t about getting everything right, which is so, so rare.

It’s about making a connection with people and sharing something that changes the way they feel.

Isn’t that what we live for?

norewinds

a little motel music

It’s twilight, and the notes I sang to people some hours ago seem to float in the air like motel room coat hangers.

Lying on the bed with my guitar and my remarkably low-fi, home recording studio away from home, it’s clear that the motel exists to help me think of loneliness and make up another song.

Things that are supposed to be so honest, so true, have to be done alone. And this mom-and-pop, roadside motor lodge is a calm and quiet place to do it.

No Wi-Fi. No 4K internet speed. No flat-screen TV.  It’s the perfect writer’s refuge. A place to escape the continuum of 24/7 connection.

Thousands of neon dots just like it once dominated America’s highways and byways. Now, they’re nearly extinct. They’ve largely slipped from popular imagination.

It’s a departure from the script of routine life, a place where someone who’s just passin’ through can make up a different past, a new destination, a new song.

You’re in a motel on the edge of town, and the big sky here leaves you lonely. You’re isolated and apart from everything, and it’s there that you can remember what you believe in, or what is—what is the nature of being, as you see it.

The motel is a place where I can remember what I wanted out of this songwriting thing in the first place: to be myself, rather than what others would want me to be.

I’m hoping tonight that the two of us, my Martin guitar and I, and this shabby motel room make for a dangerous combination.

apart

a crooked road

On Friday I’ll make the trip to a pretty little dot of a town along the Crooked Road, Virginia’s heritage music trail, to play some songs for a live audience. I figured in the spirit of the place I’m headed, I’d try some tunes that invoke a handmade style.

It will be August. It will be sunflowers as far as I can see. I won’t be thinking of Pennsylvania or Maryland, but they will come up anyway, popping up in the distance once I’ve driven far south enough.

The Crooked Road winds for some 250 miles through the southwest corner of the state, from the Blue Ridge into deeper Appalachia, home to some of the rawest and most arresting sounds around. There’s a feeling of timelessness about the region. The same style of music has been in the blood for generations. The music there has, like, 400 years of history behind it. The mountains know it in their bones. Some of the oldest, loveliest songs are known as “crooked tunes,” for their irregular measures; they lead the listener in unexpected directions, and give the music trail its name.

As I drive, I will think about the crooked little tunes I make up, their well-structured moments of breakdown, vulnerability and confession. I will think about how I sound less and less like anyone but myself, and the inner assurance knowing this gives me to continue on my musical journey, eluding genres.

When I first started out I was afraid of disappointing people who wanted me to sound like someone, well, from this century. Now there are enough people out there with an open heart who can’t wait to hear from me.

crookedroad

an open path

We try to arrange our lives, our careers, and our relationships into straight paths for easy journeys … but there are no straight paths.

I’m reminded of this on days I ride down the road toward the sea, and suddenly turn right along the inlet shore.

My traveling companions, words and music, move alongside me shattering and rearranging themselves.  Together we wander a different beach, reach no conclusions.

That’s a form of poetry. Discovering avenues and identifying ways to comment on beauty, or loss, or something. Seeking creativity and making consolation when there is no obvious right answer, no straight path.

There’s always going to be someone who wants you to stick to the straight and narrow: write a pop song, follow a formula, stay inside the lines. But the non-linear act of wandering, and wondering, and invention is a far more adventurous and rewarding journey.

I draw no straight lines. I go along an open path, the only one perhaps, Art, toward an unknown part of myself, perceiving nothing completely, and accept what’s becoming.

Approaching that which is greater than me.

openpath.png