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.
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?
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.