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.
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.
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?