People always ask, “What comes first, the lyrics or the melody?” Hoboy. What a tangle at the bend in the river.
I don’t know why they’re so fascinated with the answer to this question. There is no definitive answer. Songwriters write in different ways.
Some write a full lyric first, and then put it to music. Others write a full track of music with melody but no lyrics.
You can make up words to a song based on a song title. Or based on a story concept. Or a beat, or drum loop.
Sometimes the instrument helps you find the song. I seldom find just melodies on the guitar that come out fully fleshed, and add the words later. If I start on the piano, it often happens that the melody will come first. So the instrument has something to do with the order of inspiration. Sometimes.
And sometimes the smell of gasoline, or the color of a dress … or the fragment of a conversation has everything to do with where the song begins. The melody lies there, clothes half-on. I envy her in her room, call to her in a lit whisper …
… and it ends with the mysterious, beautiful lines, somehow captured in the brittle shell of the tune.
I have written words and music just this way.
Tuesday night I unpacked all my heart before a roomful of strangers, closed it up after an hour or so, then carried it offstage.
And it was over, like a beautiful dream. No rewind, no repeats.
There is a remarkable thing about performing live, and it isn’t about getting everything right, which is so, so rare.
It’s about making a connection with people and sharing something that changes the way they feel.
Isn’t that what we live for?
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.
On Friday I’ll make the trip to a pretty little dot of a town along the Crooked Road, Virginia’s heritage music trail, to play some songs for a live audience. I figured in the spirit of the place I’m headed, I’d try some tunes that invoke a handmade style.
It will be August. It will be sunflowers as far as I can see. I won’t be thinking of Pennsylvania or Maryland, but they will come up anyway, popping up in the distance once I’ve driven far south enough.
The Crooked Road winds for some 250 miles through the southwest corner of the state, from the Blue Ridge into deeper Appalachia, home to some of the rawest and most arresting sounds around. There’s a feeling of timelessness about the region. The same style of music has been in the blood for generations. The music there has, like, 400 years of history behind it. The mountains know it in their bones. Some of the oldest, loveliest songs are known as “crooked tunes,” for their irregular measures; they lead the listener in unexpected directions, and give the music trail its name.
As I drive, I will think about the crooked little tunes I make up, their well-structured moments of breakdown, vulnerability and confession. I will think about how I sound less and less like anyone but myself, and the inner assurance knowing this gives me to continue on my musical journey, eluding genres.
When I first started out I was afraid of disappointing people who wanted me to sound like someone, well, from this century. Now there are enough people out there with an open heart who can’t wait to hear from me.
We try to arrange our lives, our careers, and our relationships into straight paths for easy journeys … but there are no straight paths.
I’m reminded of this on days I ride down the road toward the sea, and suddenly turn right along the inlet shore.
My traveling companions, words and music, move alongside me shattering and rearranging themselves. Together we wander a different beach, reach no conclusions.
That’s a form of poetry. Discovering avenues and identifying ways to comment on beauty, or loss, or something. Seeking creativity and making consolation when there is no obvious right answer, no straight path.
There’s always going to be someone who wants you to stick to the straight and narrow: write a pop song, follow a formula, stay inside the lines. But the non-linear act of wandering, and wondering, and invention is a far more adventurous and rewarding journey.
I draw no straight lines. I go along an open path, the only one perhaps, Art, toward an unknown part of myself, perceiving nothing completely, and accept what’s becoming.
Approaching that which is greater than me.
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.