beach place

There’s a place on the coast that I go to now and then for stretches of isolated songwriting. It’s a place where I can gaze out at sea for hours and listen to the waves bring the eternal note of heartache in.

A new set of songs I’m writing is evolving as an intricate, relationship breakup album. It will sound like the heart shutting, and possibly mending.

Many songs about heartache and isolation exist in the world. (Music is somehow the perfect medium to express these things.) Why chart the demise of a relationship over another 7 to 10 songs? I suppose I want the songs to be the only heartbreak the listener will want to experience more than once.

The place where I’m hiding out reminds me a little of my grandmother’s house. Her home was two rooms. She had a bed, a dresser, a couch, a stove and a refrigerator. I loved staying with her. My parents sent me on the train the 80 miles to live there every summer. I slept on the floor, got up at daylight to feed the cats, make prayers, water the garden, snap string beans which would be perfectly cooked and tossed in a lemony dressing with toasted almonds for lunch, and now and then help her spoon quince sweet preserves into jars. Then we walked to the beach.

When I think of the peace, the love, and how simple things were then, I know … this is where I got the quiet place in my songs and in my heart.

beachday

love songs

If your heart is broken, a song is a good place to grieve. If you want someone to fall in love with you, a song can be the place to take them in.

I believe that all songs – the happy ones, the sad ones, the lullabies, the protest tunes, each social commentary and every funeral dirge – all of them are love songs, just as every poem is a love poem, simply by virtue of being written.

Because making up a song, about anything, is a positive, loving act.

Songwriting works to take energy away from the spiral you get into as a fully living person who has formed a feeling about something following an emotion, and puts it into the construction of something of meaning.

I build my songs from every person I’ve ever loved (and every relationship I have mourned). Songwriting helps me to live through my moments with them, and then it helps me remember, if I want to.

Somedays, I really, really want to, because the times and places we were together, the things we meant and said to one another … they aren’t just moments I can leave behind me.

Making up a song about those moments allows me to bring people back after they’re gone. They come around again, just in another form.

Even after a thousand years from now, when I’m just a singing hologram, they will always come around again.

love songs

 

 

 

01:22

When I dress to go out, I usually end up taking off the leather cuffs I have put on … or the vest, or the belt, or the hat.

This sort of thing occurred to me when I was making up a song last week. I kept thinking it needed fewer words, fewer notes, fewer instruments, less overdubs. It sounded better when I took things off and cut things out.

So my latest tune clocks in at a brief, unadorned minute and 22 seconds.

For me, one of the great things about a song is its poverty. I love the quote about the sculptor who, when asked how she made such beautiful objects, responded that she simply removed everything from the raw material that wasn’t the object itself.

Most of my songs are compact and close. Brief as snapshots. Barely there. Each tune gets its moment, and then it’s quickly over without lingering in a specific melody or set of chords for too long.

The perfect piece for me works within an inch of its life.

Have you wondered why most of the popular songs are about the same length? There aren’t any super short or many really long songs on your dial.

Is it the result of an engineering limitation of the phonograph? The artist’s desire to hit the mainstream? A record label’s desire to profit from that?  Or maybe the human brain only likes 3-minute songs? I just don’t know.

I’m sure about one thing:

The only reason to make one up is to resonate in some corner of the heart. Only an artist and his fans can say how many minutes it takes to find a door into a feeling.

122

world’s oldest musical instrument

I loved museums when I was a boy, and I still do. The great ones in New York City,  especially the Natural History Museum, were places of wonder to me.

Some shows last week along the southern Atlantic coastline led me to the Smithsonian, where I spent hours wondering at this flute, discovered in a cave in Germany just ten years ago.

It’s about 35,000 years old, which makes it one of the world’s oldest manufactured musical instruments. Two pieces of carved and hollowed-out mammoth ivory, joined together and sealed. The flute had at least three finger holes and played a five-note scale.

The five-note scale is found, in different forms, in most of the world’s music, including Gospel, Folk, Jazz, American Blues and Rock. Which got me thinking:

We’ve had the ability to play any melody in popular music for tens of thousands of years. Who’s to say some of these tunes that are kicking around the pop charts haven’t been around for 30, 40, or 50 thousand years?

I know it’s far-fetched but there’s only a handful of notes and there have been human beings for millennia playing around with all the same notes, and the vast majority of music has been passed down anyway.

I suppose this is why we have the Museum: It’s a place to find remnants of every interesting or valuable thing we have ever touched alongside thousands of labels describing what’s gone, to help us make sense of the things that are left and begin anew from what we had discovered from the old.

I’m reminded how in my own real-life museum I have collected hundreds of artifacts, although they are stored as haphazardly as pencils and lyrics stuffed in cabinets, analog tapes and guitar strings tucked in drawers.

There is no order to them; they are curated in a chaos of hurt and joy. Endless artifacts of memory pressing against my heart, the songwriter’s gallery.

artifacts

still life

My right arm is all strapped up and bandaged. It’s just bruised. I tripped over a guitar cable and down some stairs.

For comedic relief, I’m telling everyone else an entirely different story. Some people I tell I was injured practicing the mysterious art of Japanese Ninjutsu. Parachute-jumping. Rock-climbing. Bull-riding.

A good songwriter never lets facts get in the way.

I’ve got some half-written songs waiting on me. Things are still moving but it’s taking longer than usual. I know I’ll finish them, eventually.

Grace has something to do with quiet and stillness, and waiting – on your healing, on other people, on your best intentions or your gut. On God.

Soon enough little words and a little tune will come out of the silence, like a prayer prayed back to the one who prays. And if it’s really meant to be, the song won’t disturb the silence from which it came.

still life

A three-legged dog walks into the saloon and announces, “I’m alookin’ fer the man what shot my paw.” (I’m so sorry.)

 

living room music

There’s a tempo they want. A sound quality they want. There are subjects they won’t air. The music industry (like any other successful industry) is about formulas and rules.

Follow them, and you will succeed in it as a songwriter and, for better or worse, likely remain a part of it for life. Incidentally, the formula looks like this:

This Brightness plus that Tempo plus this Timing and that Song Duration
multiplied by
LOUDNESS (imperative for chart-topping success this century),
divided by
such-and-such Chord Structure plus Harmonic Complexity = Chart Hit

If that’s the business you’re in, you keep doing this, because it brings you rewards. The tradeoff is that you end up with a body of contemporary hits that are cookie-cutter and calculated. Not anything meant to last.

If you’d made the choice not to follow the rules, then you have freedom to make something that could last. Like, living room music.

Before it was an industry, before Nashville, before Honky Tonk, before Rockabilly, country music truly was living room music. It had this timeless, front-porch quality to it. Much of it very dark and brooding, and depressing and tragic. And beautiful.

I aim with most every song I write to absorb some of that and evoke the past time, but at the same time make something new. Hopefully, something special and very cool to enough people.

This lofty height can only be reached from a place of autonomy. Without record companies, or radio dials, or A&R executives in the middle.

I have never made up a song with an ear or an eye for the marketplace. “Will it touch someone, and will it last?” is always what I’m up against.

I know how to make up that other kind of music. I choose not to. I choose to make quirky, alt-country songs I believe in, instead.

When a song is a hit and makes the artist famous, popular culture declares the song is great art. But of course, popular is not a measure of art. There are many things you can do to get everyone to hear and download your music that have nothing to do with whether it’s great art, just as there are many ways to sell a novel or increase your blog readership.

Do what you believe, not what’s going to make you popular.

OK, break time’s over. Back to my plain but very wonderful little studio up the stairs.

livingroommusic

 

 

how to tune a guitar

You go for a drive with the top down and let the guitar sit in the passenger seat.

Make the first left, that way your destination is farther and the road to it prettier, the blossoms absurdly violet. Lose your location.

Fiddle with the radio dial. Brush past the popular music stations to the one of choice. Pause there just to adore someone’s croon.

“She was 21 when I left Galveston …” Begin thinking softly to yourself about the sadness heard deep inside the radio.

Now pick up the guitar and press your side close to hers. Begin tuning. The notes the open strings make, from the thickest to thinnest, are as follows:

E – the lowest string. The hollow Echo of a voice which speaks in an empty room.

A – she whispers sea “Anemones,” but my heart does not look up.

D – the 4th string. Dragonfly and water lily.

G – Sound becomes flesh for God to enter.

B – the Buzz and babble of billions of white bees in succulent afternoon.

E – the highest string, Exhaling verses blown back in air.

Gathering your fingers around her, reach inside her wires and steal away her heart. At last, you are playing.

tuneaguitar