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.
People always ask, “What comes first, the lyrics or the melody?” Hoboy. What a tangle at the bend in the river.
I don’t know why they’re so fascinated with the answer to this question. There is no definitive answer. Songwriters write in different ways.
Some write a full lyric first, and then put it to music. Others write a full track of music with melody but no lyrics.
You can make up words to a song based on a song title. Or based on a story concept. Or a beat, or drum loop.
Sometimes the instrument helps you find the song. I seldom find just melodies on the guitar that come out fully fleshed, and add the words later. If I start on the piano, it often happens that the melody will come first. So the instrument has something to do with the order of inspiration. Sometimes.
And sometimes the smell of gasoline, or the color of a dress … or the fragment of a conversation has everything to do with where the song begins. The melody lies there, clothes half-on. I envy her in her room, call to her in a lit whisper …
… and it ends with the mysterious, beautiful lines, somehow captured in the brittle shell of the tune.
I have written words and music just this way.
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.