bulletproof

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.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?

 

that’s beautiful

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, yourthatsbeautiful 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.

 

 

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

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.)

 

masterpiece

masterpiece

The thing I most dreaded when I began making up songs as a teenager was being struck down by an F-150 before the world could hear my masterpiece.

Not so much anymore.

These days I don’t sit and wonder if my next song will be liked by hundreds of thousands of people. I don’t care whether the world will consider it a major work. I make up songs for one reason: to get free.

Songwriting makes my feelings manageable. Some people fight or pray their way out of really painful situations; I just have to tell you how bad it felt. The grief is released, mastered in a sense, through the work. I am able to move forward from it — you never move on from grief, you only move forward — after that transcendent moment when suddenly it’s art.  To be able to do that makes the song, for me, a masterpiece.

It has a little something to do with craft, skill and workmanship. It has nothing to do with being popular. (If the goal is to be popular, then it’s all about the judgment of the world.)

It has everything to do with carving the battle scars deep into the work itself.

As long as I’m satisfied that the song I’m writing has that character, I know that even if, in the grand scheme of things, it’s the perfect emblem of unimportance, even if it’s mortal and has provided but a moment or two of consolation or healing, it will still be a masterpiece of sorts. It will be, if only for a little while, my masterpiece.