Last night I sat on a little red chair and sang for around 30 people. Some were sitting real close … their closeness was almost air to me.
I was singing some new songs, really new and raw, so I wanted as much closeness as I could have.
But probably only two or three in the audience were really that close to me, I mean really listening. A few were texting. Some were shifting in their chairs. Others kept leaving theirs to get more drinks.
The temptation was to huddle over my chords, tune in on an inner transmission, and tune out the surrounding clamor. I wanted to hunch over and protect the songs, their ability to freely roam unmarked territories. I have learned how to be there, singing them, and six thousand miles away at the same time.
But I have also learned something else more precious: If you’re spending your time on stage worrying about the ones who aren’t tuned in, it’s almost impossible to be open and connected with the people who really came to listen.
Nothing like a night of musical chairs to speak of people, coming and going, like little leaps of faith.
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.
When I go on tour, I meet a lot of interesting people. After a show near Woodstock this week, a sweet man calling himself Star Blanket handed me a mysterious bag whose contents, he said, would make me … bulletproof.
I opened it and looked inside it, and it was white willow bark, a cage necklace, and a dark blue, patterned linen handkerchief containing a pinch of black pepper.
It made me realize that I will never fully understand the millions of bizarre ways that music brings people together.
Bulletproof … sometimes I wish I could be. Being a singer-songwriter leaves you wide open. Not bulletproof at all, in fact.
I’m amazed how critics in particular affect me. The good reviews make me feel heard, understood, even loved. The bad ones make me feel sad, misunderstood and rejected.
(I suppose a bad one is better than being ignored, right?)
Everyone says you have to have pretty thick skin to stand doing the work I do, but artists don’t have a thick skin. What good is an artist who’s bulletproof?
My friend Ryan stopped by this afternoon. I played him a song I started recording last week. (I’ve got an acoustic guitar, a lead vocal, and a temporary background part on it so far.)
“That’s beautiful,” he said.
I never know what to say after someone says, that’s beautiful, except to agree with them. For me, beauty is an end of conversation.
The beginning is different: This is when you have to be suspicious of your best lines, your best melodies. Then your song has a chance of being beautiful and alive against them.
The beginning produces all the discoveries. That’s when you start to say the things you didn’t know you knew or could say.
Even your deepest, most serious problems very few people are going to be interested in unless you yourself, in the act of making up the song, make some discoveries about them. Then your song has a chance of delighting someone and locating something true which the listener couldn’t locate by themselves. You can share a life then.
When all the pieces fit this way, when the song comes out beautiful in the end, that’s how you know you had a good beginning.
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.
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.
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.