There’s something deeply satisfying about writing songs without being hemmed in by expectations of a specific linear form or any particular idiom of music.
Yet it isn’t as simple as “out with the old, in with the new.” Here lies the beauty, complexity and excitement of songwriting:
Making up something that bears identifiable traces of its roots yet stays unmistakably my own … writing a song that puts me deep enough in the woods, and at the same time a clearing in the forest where people recognize me.
Most people bridle at unfamiliar things. The new blasphemes, it always does. The art is in straddling the two worlds, new and old, and this takes some precarious grace.
The moment of truth is when an unplucked string is finally strummed, it calls, and a strange and familiar heart answers.
There’s a misguided belief that just because you play an acoustic guitar and sing in a near-whisper close to the microphone, it makes you more honest than singer-songwriters who attempt to create an experience of truth in some other way.
Here’s the truth: Some songs are meant to calm you down. Some are meant to stir you up.
Some are transcendental, and some are just really dumb.
The religious hymn, praise to the king … songs filled with the sorrows of a dissolving marriage, or an inventory of lovers … they all have a place.
The dark, brave, thoughtful and serenely startling songs … tracks we can dance to, anthems we revolt to, beats we bounce to and sounds we make love to … they all have a place.
We may crawl out of a song feeling more in love, or younger, or angrier, or wiser, clutching a secret message of small meaning or nothing, nothing. We might seem lost. We might seem happy. There are a hundred different states of human yearning, and people need to feel them all.
What matters is that when a songwriter comes along with a pure heart and something to say, we listen.
There is no burden like unwanted things. Which is sad because, against all real evidence, things have feelings too. They don’t love in the human way, still:
That blue thrift shop sweater out at the elbows has a story. I try to imagine the places it has been, and who wore it before it was mine.
Those rundown cowboy boots slouched in the closet talk in accents from the Old West. I stare at them appreciating all the wrong roads they may have taken. Usually, I find a song in them.
Pale-portrait faces stored in the attic gaze sadly at each other, old, tattered books think softly to themselves in between readings, and under its yellow blanket, the whittled-down pencil dreams of writing again.
Not one of these things transcends its thingness; the artist who connects with them becomes all these things.
They become a part of my inheritance as a songwriter. Forsaken, they now take me in their arms.
I never know when or how a song is going to end. It’s something that eludes formula and analysis.
I do know that a song has a way of bending: The end of the beginning bends to the beginning of the end.
I can’t tell you how many times I have sung loss, and how often it was love that was hiding unconsciously in my heart … how many times I thought I was at the end, only to find another beginning.
Some days I’m certain those who don’t have faith know one thing more than me. Most days, one thing less.
Faith is the way to get where you’re going as an artist. Without faith, the leap to greater art never works.
I don’t pretend to know how a new song comes into my life out of nowhere. I don’t want to know. I have complete faith that the song will come.
Because when I do, another one comes, and then another. Sometimes it pays to just have a little faith.
I am convinced my soul was constructed to belong entirely to a life of making up songs, just as the cowboy’s was to rope calves and the sun was made to lay its palm over the window in my studio this late afternoon.
I spent time this week with two lawyers and someone from A&R. All of them pushing papers with big words and lots of numbers to keep the conversation going.
I have to confess there’s something about being with the fine people who work at these jobs that leaves me feeling alone. I’m the only one of my kind when I’m with them: an outlier, not easy to lasso into their carefully scripted conversations. I stand at the crescent of my hoofs at these meetings, head jerking away from the halter, ears searching for the stablegirl’s caress.
It’s different when I’m among my own kind, musicians and other artists, or when I’m home doing all my comfortable alone things: making up songs, tuning an instrument, reading, or just looking the day away in a pasture empty of everything but wildflowers and witchgrass.
At these times, I feel peaceful and occupied with all the things I know I’m meant to do.
* The title of a book by the amazing Nathalie Handal
We want to last, and for things to last … and I don’t know how to do that except through art.
I’m singing in a little town tonight, a whisper on the map. I’ll drive two hours through the countryside to get to it.
It’s the little towns I like. I can understand these places, settle in and lose myself in any one of them. They make me want something of what’s passed.
Maybe one day I’ll put the town, its lampposts undermined by twilight, half-hidden in my lines, and a song will become my history with the place. And maybe the song will give me the illusion that I never left, and the moment will last forever.
My life has been filled with longings. It’s consoling to be going tonight, on my way to another place I will miss.