Last night I sat on a little red chair and sang for around 30 people. Some were sitting real close … their closeness was almost air to me.
I was singing some new songs, really new and raw, so I wanted as much closeness as I could have.
But probably only two or three in the audience were really that close to me, I mean really listening. A few were texting. Some were shifting in their chairs. Others kept leaving theirs to get more drinks.
The temptation was to huddle over my chords, tune in on an inner transmission, and tune out the surrounding clamor. I wanted to hunch over and protect the songs, their ability to freely roam unmarked territories. I have learned how to be there, singing them, and six thousand miles away at the same time.
But I have also learned something else more precious: If you’re spending your time on stage worrying about the ones who aren’t tuned in, it’s almost impossible to be open and connected with the people who really came to listen.
Nothing like a night of musical chairs to speak of people, coming and going, like little leaps of faith.
Winter arrives early and takes its place at the window. The sky this afternoon has filled the air with snowflakes. There’s just a little light now in my upstairs studio, pale and lonesome as faraway music.
I’m dying to take a break from the songs I’ve been writing, but seem to be unable to. I’m afraid to fall out of the groove. I wake up every day and keep after them all day. I keep chasing after them, as if from far away.
Somewhere inside one or two longer, failed songs there’s an actual song buried. I go searching for it in the same way I imagine a sculptor goes digging for the right clay in some distant region where the conditions make the red earth soft. It’s something like that, except I go searching for songs.
However small, however hidden, nothing brings me back from my faraway like finding a new song. There’s no rushing the excavation. When it’s time, the music will send me flying from my perch, in longing for what the faraway song says.
Everybody in the crowd last night was beautiful and young and covered with a kind of gold dust.
My guitar was a bit out of tune, but I’m glad that wasn’t fixed. A twist of the knob and, you know, the dissonance would have gone away. But I left it alone. I left things on the human side.
I suppose I had learned each note so well it was time to forget some of them, so I did. I even forgot some of the words (typical of me).
But no one seemed to mind or notice a slightly sad B string.
The off-notes and missed lines, if you let them, humanize you and bring you and the listener closer together. The concert stands out as memorable not because it was a great performance, but because, however briefly, you touched someone. Covered them in gold dust. And that, I have found, is more than enough for one night.
A few hours after the gig, people have no recollection at all about whether your guitar was tuned or you got every lyric right, or what you wore. On the other hand, they will long be touched by your honesty, your humility, your human spirit and the gift you gave them. That gold dust.
Last night they wanted me to sing the way someone in love would, how someone wanting love would, how someone feeling alone might.
They wanted to hear me tell about hope after hurt, forgiveness, healing after disaster, summery longing, and life after betrayal and breakup (which sadly, I know a lot about).
Singing for people has taught me a precious thing: to breathe out kindness, the purest thing inside.
Everybody knows the moment kindheartedness walks on stage. It’s not anything you can conjure or pretend, rather a natural grace that comes around on its own when you yourself have lost people and irreplaceable moments.
When you accept that everyone is fighting a harder battle than you are, and that all have been touched by painful human experiences — loss, desolation, death, grief — then you know: kindness is language and melody. It translates into love, and consolation, and life and joy.
A simple song can bring strangers calm, and then it becomes a souvenir of kindness, something that follows a person around like a friend when there’s no one else around, a musical amulet that goes with them everywhere.
On stage, if I can tell in a quiet voice, I read you, my lips have memorized your life and my voice calls you alone … if for two or three minutes I can shelter an orphan heart, that’s a good night’s work.
Live performance is writing in pencil on a small postcard. It’s transient and something that the audience may not remember exactly but may talk about for some time to come.
It comes with surprises and no guarantees. It’s an entirely different way of being in the world.
The worst seat in the house belongs to the singer: on stage, I am as a mockingbird alone upon the house top. I feel the pain in my fingers, the rawness of making sound.
At the same time, it’s the best seat in the house: what I experience is something so unbelievably pure, which is before the sound actually happens. I hover like prayer.
There’s an aspect you don’t really get to command as a singer on stage: some sort of luck, a kind of spirit that informs the concert and brings something in you brilliantly to life. It’s hard to place my finger on it. I don’t really want to. But there is that mysterious thing that makes for a memorable evening.
I hope the room is full tonight. I pray somehow I will be lucky, have the grace to have that kind of night. I will be listening for particular voices among the concert to tell me I just did something memorable and good.
I want to be water and bread for everybody.
Everything eternal happens in a spare room after 1 a.m.
I’ve come downstairs from the loft after working all night, trying to find a new song. The one from the last few days doesn’t seem to be coming to anything. I can’t stand it suddenly. So we’re not speaking to each other, for now. (Songwriting is, mostly, a struggle against silence.)
So this one gets the drawer, for now.
Oh, yes, the drawer: I keep a musical
rummage treasure drawer of everything queer, strange thing I play, sing and record. Nothing made up is cast off or thrown away.
A lyrical fragment can lurk around in the little studio up the stairs for years. Or be standing beneath the aged chestnut tree just outside. Somewhere, somehow a bit of a song will reveal itself at some point.
Okay, back to work. Back to the gems waiting to be uncovered, tinkered with and made into meaning through their arrangement.
You see, I know how to fight with a song … and how to make up.
I have long drawn strength from the reverence with which I approach my art. As a child I was touched by the otherly beauty of liturgical hymn and speech that I heard in the chambers of churches, where everything sounded (and was) important.
At five or six I lived for songs my grandmother sang while she prepared the ritual food made of wheat and sugar, symbolic of death and resurrection. Even now I hear her chant her vesper-hymn, for loved ones who have fallen asleep, I mark her holy smile. I see:
A crowd lit with candles …
The priest’s hand over the merciful little garden of the dead …
My grandmother turning and walking away, and disappearing into her strange distances.
It seems prayer is my natural language. I enter the songwriting process, go into every gig with a prayer on my lips. I need to. I need to lean on something greater than myself, to be open just wide enough to let a condition of grace in. I have always seen the enormous light in it, and that’s what I try to get to as an artist.
It’s sweetness for me. It’s delicious.