Near the cemetery you always find stone cutters and gardeners. Near the courthouse, lawyers’ offices and newsstands. In March, the silence of a park bench at four o’clock: The songwriter. Noticing things.
Late-winter sun stealing over the ground, an old woman drifting toward you in this light.
She catches your eye, she says, “where are you from?” And you say, “I’m from California.” And she says, “Oh, I was there, when my husband was alive, eight years ago.”
And then, if you just listen, she will tell you one of her most intimate feelings: “Oh, how I want to be there.”
And you realize she’s just given you gold, and over the next few days the muses will say to you, “OK, this has become a part of you, it’s a part of your sonic palette now. She has given you her story with the full weight of her heart. We will be making from this story something that wasn’t there before.”
When you’re a songwriter, the knowledge of everyone who ever lived will come upon you at the park bench, sooner or later, if only you stay there.
They keep wanting me to sing that beautiful sad song, the one they know, over and over.
Sometimes, it’s one I wrote. Often it’s a cover: something lonesome by Hank Williams, that Beck tune off Sea Change with its gentle mid-tempo strumming … anything from Elliott Smith or Nick Drake ….
I like playing other artists’ songs, but mostly in my studio, on break from something I’m in the middle of making up. On stage, not so much. Who needs me when the originals are so, so good?
It’s simple: A cover artist never changed the world, or left a deep-enough mark. And I’m at that stage where I’m pretty sure that it could all disappear in a heartbeat if I don’t live and breathe an authentic story. My greater imperative as an artist is to challenge what came before and make something new.
Hmmm … there is that Radiohead song, the one I’ve reworked with a deft alt-country hand into my very own. It works in a way you wouldn’t think it would, or could for that matter. Yes, that one I’ll proudly play.
The sunlight coming through the aspen branches this afternoon seems tired from traveling. It finally makes its way to the house and scribbles something on the frost-thick windows with meaning only for us who live here.
It’s good to be home again. The bookcases lining the walls, our kitchen – the soul of the house – Dakota the Singing Husky comfortably reclined on the rug: Wherever I look, this place holds me up.
Every day I have the day I set out to have. It’s work and I love it. Still, today feels easier than yesterday, when I texted the engineer every two seconds, checked for email from L every five minutes, paced and worried, wondering if she would trust me with the new arrangement. We were in the city every day this week working non-stop on her new tracks. There’s this project and two others, and the weekly live shows … it can all seem rushed and desperate, and it’s easy in our rushing to brush past our own lives.
But slowness enters me when I’m home. I don’t hurry, because the house does not. I love being here and enjoying the natural world. I find it nourishing, but not in an artistic way. For me, music happens out of tensions and counter tensions.
Many people begin making art because something emotionally consequential has happened to them, which they think they need to get out. I think that’s the amateur’s impulse for making art. If you wait for inspiration, you aren’t going to make very much art, unless you have a much more interesting life than the people who make art every single day do.
Okay, back to work. Back to the upstairs studio, back to the song fragments waiting to be uncovered and built upon.
I sang in church all the time as a boy. I was this straight-laced kid who could sing like an angel. The choir loft seemed very near the sky.
Singing enveloped me. There was no sense of performance or judgment. I didn’t wonder how to sing beautifully. I just sang, and each time I opened my mouth I believed I would hear the same sound I had heard before.
These days I pray for the beautiful sound every night before I step on stage to play my songs:
“God, help me find that place as a singer when you believe you’re visited by the Holy Spirit and it passes through you. Amen.”
In all other ways, singing remains this 10-year-old’s experience for me; it never ages. I have more experience of life. I’ve known the stages of grieving a breakup. Life changes, but singing is a constant.
To be onstage and draw a breath and hope a beautiful sound will emerge, and to hope everybody listening will hold you with their love and attention, is still an act of faith.
Silence is the language of the beginning of a song, before it rushes out of my throat, before the sustain pedal clicks, when I hold an intruding melody to my chest for the first time.
Silence is also the language of the end of a song, when I’ve emptied my heart.
It’s the missing word for what’s missing at the end of a performance, when the seats are left empty and there are no more words and whispers.
It’s the final tune that follows me into sleep, and vanishes at the sound of my voice the morning after.
There is the silence of a winter’s afternoon, falling in the darkness of the house, which I have just broken with a single note.
It’s the sound of the track down the road from here, before there’s a train.
And then there’s your silence, which I think of as the love letters you will never send me.
Who brings the silence? What for? It is always perched on the branch of my voice. If I only knew where it came from.
“He leads me beside quiet waters.” — Psalm 23:2
Home again, and I put on my boots to shovel snow from, well, everywhere. We have about a foot of it. I’m glad I’m not that broken tree although it looks sublime.
A north wind whistles softly and cold. Snowfall jewels my hair.
Now two crows throw their voices into the gray air. Two notes of music that have escaped the February songbook.
The winter quiet and white light make me feel peaceful now, a contrast to the writing and recording schedule I was ravaged by the past two weeks.
Last night, driving in, I couldn’t wait to be home to see my children, D and B’s sweet faces, and Dakota the Husky. Not that I’m ever immune to their loveliness. I love being with them. I love doing nothing and everything with them. I love our quiet winter weekends. I like it quiet. I like to be around the people I like and love.
I love my art. I like that it lends itself to paying the bills. I don’t have to wreck my art for that purpose (too many musicians do). That would be a tragedy. Even the parts of the work I don’t like … help me recalibrate myself.
I love what I do, and I love why I do it. I don’t do it for fame or adulation. I do it to have the kind of life I have set up for myself.
My relationships with my children and that husky (and just a few close friends) make my life great. The triangle of faces pressed to the iced window when I drove up last night … the only wedge that can open the cold heart of winter.
Which came first, memory or voice?
Early in life, you find certain voices that speak to, nourish and guide you. What I always remember about my childhood is my grandmother whispering to me, telling me secrets, dreams, and about the old country.
When you become a singer, you find your voice in whatever it is that stirs the house of your heart. In mine I hear:
Floorboards creaking, the way they ache.
The steely timbre of thunder rattling the walls.
The tap, tap of rain on the roof.
Perfect sunlight angling into my little studio, fingering the house with its own acoustics.
Twilight sobbing down the side of a solitary barn out back.
A rhythm in my own breath that says I’m living.
* * *
It’s a niagra of sounds, it’s any sound that shares my hunger, my thirst all day to hear and sing more.
Maybe you hear a song, maybe you don’t; it’s a choice we all make. I’ve lived in many houses and left remnants of song in every one of them.