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.
It’s like a prayer, in a way, to make a song. You are comforted by it, and corrected by it, and if it becomes a ritual never again are you the same.
I don’t remember how any of them get written. Only that by the end of the process, you’re like a child wanting their catechism to be over so you can go outside and play in the summer grass with your friends.
But it’s on to the next one. How? Where do I begin? The beginning kills.
Will the next be as good as the last? Will it be like it? Must it?
How to start making up a new song is like the problem of architects in an ancient city:
How to build where irreplicable libraries, shops and temples once stood, so in the midday sun the new structure will blend with the paper-white street of those days, but also be a part of now and tomorrow.
Can I retrace my steps to this street, I wonder …. I fear I can’t. Some days I’d rather find an alley doorway, close it behind me, go away and never write another.
But when I look more closely, the longing, really, is to make something pure:
To wander a different city. To write something that didn’t exist before. Not just a copy of the old city, however skillful, but something that will stand on its own, be relevant and lasting.
I pass a roadside hay field on my way home from the studio where a few of us are hiding out this week (we refuse to call ourselves a “band”).
They just cut and left it to lie, this last cutting. I linger because the hay is sweet.
The past re-arises alive from the scent of hay, fresh cut and curing in the sun. I think of my grandmother who grew her garden with dirt and stories of her escape from her war-ravaged village when she was a girl.
I’m such a reminiscent kind of person. I’ve thought a lot about why this is, and I believe it’s because memory is a kindness to me.
It’s like going into a trance: I sit down with a melody and reminisce. It isn’t pure memory, of course. It’s resemblance. Altered reality. My believing, my forgetting. I hear what I want to say. Memory is a kind of un-listening. My songwriting is an escape, and the shadows of the past are a place of repose where I can linger for a while before returning to the every day and moving on.
The scent of hay new-mown travels the road home with me. There’s no one on my mind this afternoon who doesn’t look like someone I miss.
Songs hold the knowledge that we are beautiful and alive … that we love, and hurt, and laugh, and cry … knowing full well that someday it will all come to an end.
The most mysterious aspect of being a human might be that — and songs know that.
How amazing, that I knew all that, I sometimes think to myself.
Truth is, my songs have always known much more than I know.
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.