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.
For the next two days I’m living in a sunny, spare room over a bookshop, in a one-pump, two-church town by the sea. It’s a kind of self-imposed exile. I have this song to finish, and, well, to begin rediscovering who I used to be … .
I don’t know anyone here. I’ll wander around among the streets, be quiet and observe people living their lives, invisible to them, as if air. In between I’ll hold up in my little room and work on the song.
When it’s finished, I will be with them forever. I will be able to say I was in their shops and in their post office, I went through their gardens, their library and coffeehouse, I heard them talking and laughing, I saw them daydreaming and crying at invisible motives of sorrow and joy. They never saw me, but I was there.
I have learned to work in a way that interaction doesn’t allow for, and this has leaked through to the speaker in many of my songs, who I think of as a ghost.
Who else could purvey these subtle, breathy tunes that leave bare all things invisible?
Standing alone on a small empty stage beneath a wash of spotlights, soundchecking acoustic guitars, it’s easy to see that a dimly lit concert hall is a house of worship. Melody is a profound spirit, after all. I mean, who can say what it is?
When I was starting out, I felt every time I walked on stage I could lose my job. Or that something else really terrible could happen. Or that I could be discovered, become the next big thing and win the emperor’s crown.
Because in the beginning, I believed every show was about me.
But I’ve figured out that all those people, the ones who come and listen … no one is there to harm me, or anoint me. They’re all there, well, to talk to God, and connect to their higher selves.
Every night there’s something living about it. It’s a church: people come to kneel heavy and feel things. There is also joy, and there is freedom. How often we talk about all the terrible things people do. But left alone, on their own free time, they’ll come to have music wash over them.
This is when you finally know as a singer that your place on earth is your place. It’s your stage, it’s your song. You have been put here to sing it, to get up there and give. Not to go inward or get afraid, but to look people in the eye, stay with them, and worship with them.
They close their eyes, I close mine, and we all drift off somewhere.
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?
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, your 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.
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.
If your heart is broken, a song is a good place to grieve. If you want someone to fall in love with you, a song can be the place to take them in.
I believe that all songs – the happy ones, the sad ones, the lullabies, the protest tunes, each social commentary and every funeral dirge – all of them are love songs, just as every poem is a love poem, simply by virtue of being written.
Because making up a song, about anything, is a positive, loving act.
Songwriting works to take energy away from the spiral you get into as a fully living person who has formed a feeling about something following an emotion, and puts it into the construction of something of meaning.
I build my songs from every person I’ve ever loved (and every relationship I have mourned). Songwriting helps me to live through my moments with them, and then it helps me remember, if I want to.
Somedays, I really, really want to, because the times and places we were together, the things we meant and said to one another … they aren’t just moments I can leave behind me.
Making up a song about those moments allows me to bring people back after they’re gone. They come around again, just in another form.
Even after a thousand years from now, when I’m just a singing hologram, they will always come around again.