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.
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.
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.
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?