To compose a melody, pretty as a ladybug — this is the most important thing to me as a songwriter. And, of course, to pack a lifetime’s worth of heartache into one brief phrase.
But what astonishes a listener is the singing. Why do I sing?
Because when I sing there are mermaids in the imagination swimming up the sweet air to reach me.
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Because to dip into a near-whisper and reach people who are listening is a deep, deep treasure for me.
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Because I have seen old men cry when they sing. It can be winter in the body but when they sing, spring comes early and stays long enough for the wildflowers to believe it. One day I would like to be old like that.
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Because I believe there’s a God and I feel Him when I sing.
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Because when I’m singing, anything that has ever hurt me or could is as far as a train whistle I can’t hear or remember.
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Because it’s impossible for me not to.
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Because I don’t need a reason to.
A new song is such a terrifying angel. It appears not with honey and words, but as a spark, hair all disheveled, clothes torn.
My instinct when it arrives is to hold on for dear life. It’s too great for me, my human body almost too small to contain it.
I cannot speak, I cannot shout. How will I ever translate this invasion into definition and form, give it simplicity and emotional groundedness?
Then without warning it happens. I don’t know how or when but I begin to hear my own soul’s voice reminisce with me: about the souls, those small whispering things, of people I have known and loved, about places where I laughed and suffered, with tears and sighs. I begin to recreate passionately Ithacas I’ve lost.
The song arrives. I witness light. That maelstrom of directionless sound first unleashed to the heart is carried home.
Sunlight comes in the window and lights up my notebook and guitar and hands as they work on a set of brand new songs.
I write for the near-whisper that is my voice, pained and torn at the edges from heartbreak and acceptance. And for the audience that is open to receive it.
So what will it be: a clear-cut tune about troubled love? Something with elusive imagery? There are some good ghosts up here in the studio.
The crux of a song, any good song, is what will hold. What will stay, and will it hold grace and lasting ease.
Songs that find their homes beneath the skin, they hold. The ones that cost me something deeply emotional to write seem to hold. I am faithful to feeling, and emotional accuracy. These things hold.
You don’t need a big voice, you can sing quietly, like in a whisper, and the right audience will find in it and in your songs what they’re really after: a gorgeously hushed communion.
Near the cemetery you always find stone cutters and gardeners. Near the courthouse, lawyers’ offices and newsstands. In March, the silence of a park bench at four o’clock: The songwriter. Noticing things.
Late-winter sun stealing over the ground, an old woman drifting toward you in this light.
She catches your eye, she says, “where are you from?” And you say, “I’m from California.” And she says, “Oh, I was there, when my husband was alive, eight years ago.”
And then, if you just listen, she will tell you one of her most intimate feelings: “Oh, how I want to be there.”
And you realize she’s just given you gold, and over the next few days the muses will say to you, “OK, this has become a part of you, it’s a part of your sonic palette now. She has given you her story with the full weight of her heart. We will be making from this story something that wasn’t there before.”
When you’re a songwriter, the knowledge of everyone who ever lived will come upon you at the park bench, sooner or later, if only you stay there.
They keep wanting me to sing that beautiful sad song, the one they know, over and over.
Sometimes, it’s one I wrote. Often it’s a cover: something lonesome by Hank Williams, that Beck tune off Sea Change with its gentle mid-tempo strumming … anything from Elliott Smith or Nick Drake ….
I like playing other artists’ songs, but mostly in my studio, on break from something I’m in the middle of making up. On stage, not so much. Who needs me when the originals are so, so good?
It’s simple: A cover artist never changed the world, or left a deep-enough mark. And I’m at that stage where I’m pretty sure that it could all disappear in a heartbeat if I don’t live and breathe an authentic story. My greater imperative as an artist is to challenge what came before and make something new.
Hmmm … there is that Radiohead song, the one I’ve reworked with a deft alt-country hand into my very own. It works in a way you wouldn’t think it would, or could for that matter. Yes, that one I’ll proudly play.
The sunlight coming through the aspen branches this afternoon seems tired from traveling. It finally makes its way to the house and scribbles something on the frost-thick windows with meaning only for us who live here.
It’s good to be home again. The bookcases lining the walls, our kitchen – the soul of the house – Dakota the Singing Husky comfortably reclined on the rug: Wherever I look, this place holds me up.
Every day I have the day I set out to have. It’s work and I love it. Still, today feels easier than yesterday, when I texted the engineer every two seconds, checked for email from L every five minutes, paced and worried, wondering if she would trust me with the new arrangement. We were in the city every day this week working non-stop on her new tracks. There’s this project and two others, and the weekly live shows … it can all seem rushed and desperate, and it’s easy in our rushing to brush past our own lives.
But slowness enters me when I’m home. I don’t hurry, because the house does not. I love being here and enjoying the natural world. I find it nourishing, but not in an artistic way. For me, music happens out of tensions and counter tensions.
Many people begin making art because something emotionally consequential has happened to them, which they think they need to get out. I think that’s the amateur’s impulse for making art. If you wait for inspiration, you aren’t going to make very much art, unless you have a much more interesting life than the people who make art every single day do.
Okay, back to work. Back to the upstairs studio, back to the song fragments waiting to be uncovered and built upon.
I sang in church all the time as a boy. I was this straight-laced kid who could sing like an angel. The choir loft seemed very near the sky.
Singing enveloped me. There was no sense of performance or judgment. I didn’t wonder how to sing beautifully. I just sang, and each time I opened my mouth I believed I would hear the same sound I had heard before.
These days I pray for the beautiful sound every night before I step on stage to play my songs:
“God, help me find that place as a singer when you believe you’re visited by the Holy Spirit and it passes through you. Amen.”
In all other ways, singing remains this 10-year-old’s experience for me; it never ages. I have more experience of life. I’ve known the stages of grieving a breakup. Life changes, but singing is a constant.
To be onstage and draw a breath and hope a beautiful sound will emerge, and to hope everybody listening will hold you with their love and attention, is still an act of faith.