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.
Last night they wanted me to sing the way someone in love would, how someone wanting love would, how someone feeling alone might.
They wanted to hear me tell about hope after hurt, forgiveness, healing after disaster, summery longing, and life after betrayal and breakup (which sadly, I know a lot about).
Singing for people has taught me a precious thing: to breathe out kindness, the purest thing inside.
Everybody knows the moment kindheartedness walks on stage. It’s not anything you can conjure or pretend, rather a natural grace that comes around on its own when you yourself have lost people and irreplaceable moments.
When you accept that everyone is fighting a harder battle than you are, and that all have been touched by painful human experiences — loss, desolation, death, grief — then you know: kindness is language and melody. It translates into love, and consolation, and life and joy.
A simple song can bring strangers calm, and then it becomes a souvenir of kindness, something that follows a person around like a friend when there’s no one else around, a musical amulet that goes with them everywhere.
On stage, if I can tell in a quiet voice, I read you, my lips have memorized your life and my voice calls you alone … if for two or three minutes I can shelter an orphan heart, that’s a good night’s work.
Everything eternal happens in a spare room after 1 a.m.
I’ve come downstairs from the loft after working all night, trying to find a new song. The one from the last few days doesn’t seem to be coming to anything. I can’t stand it suddenly. So we’re not speaking to each other, for now. (Songwriting is, mostly, a struggle against silence.)
So this one gets the drawer, for now.
Oh, yes, the drawer: I keep a musical
rummage treasure drawer of everything queer, strange thing I play, sing and record. Nothing made up is cast off or thrown away.
A lyrical fragment can lurk around in the little studio up the stairs for years. Or be standing beneath the aged chestnut tree just outside. Somewhere, somehow a bit of a song will reveal itself at some point.
Okay, back to work. Back to the gems waiting to be uncovered, tinkered with and made into meaning through their arrangement.
You see, I know how to fight with a song … and how to make up.
I have long drawn strength from the reverence with which I approach my art. As a child I was touched by the otherly beauty of liturgical hymn and speech that I heard in the chambers of churches, where everything sounded (and was) important.
At five or six I lived for songs my grandmother sang while she prepared the ritual food made of wheat and sugar, symbolic of death and resurrection. Even now I hear her chant her vesper-hymn, for loved ones who have fallen asleep, I mark her holy smile. I see:
A crowd lit with candles …
The priest’s hand over the merciful little garden of the dead …
My grandmother turning and walking away, and disappearing into her strange distances.
It seems prayer is my natural language. I enter the songwriting process, go into every gig with a prayer on my lips. I need to. I need to lean on something greater than myself, to be open just wide enough to let a condition of grace in. I have always seen the enormous light in it, and that’s what I try to get to as an artist.
It’s sweetness for me. It’s delicious.
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.
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.