musical chairs

Last night I sat on a little red chair and sang for around 30 people. Some were sitting real close … their closeness was almost air to me.

I was singing some new songs, really new and raw, so I wanted as much closeness as I could have.

But probably only two or three in the audience were really that close to me, I mean really listening. A few were texting. Some were shifting in their chairs. Others kept leaving theirs to get more drinks.

The temptation was to huddle over my chords, tune in on an inner transmission, and tune out the surrounding clamor. I wanted to hunch over and protect the songs, their ability to freely roam unmarked territories. I have learned how to be there, singing them, and six thousand miles away at the same time.

But I have also learned something else more precious: If you’re spending your time on stage worrying about the ones who aren’t tuned in, it’s almost impossible to be open and connected with the people who really came to listen.

Nothing like a night of musical chairs to speak of people, coming and going, like little leaps of faith.

musical chairs

far away

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.

faraway

kindness

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.

kindness

water + bread

Live performance is writing in pencil on a small postcard. It’s transient and something that the audience may not remember exactly but may talk about for some time to come.

It comes with surprises and no guarantees. It’s an entirely different way of being in the world.

The worst seat in the house belongs to the singer: on stage, I am as a mockingbird alone upon the house top. I feel the pain in my fingers, the rawness of making sound.

At the same time, it’s the best seat in the house: what I experience is something so unbelievably pure, which is before the sound actually happens. I hover like prayer.

There’s an aspect you don’t really get to command as a singer on stage: some sort of luck, a kind of spirit that informs the concert and brings something in you brilliantly to life. It’s hard to place my finger on it. I don’t really want to. But there is that mysterious thing that makes for a memorable evening.

I hope the room is full tonight. I pray somehow I will be lucky, have the grace to have that kind of night. I will be listening for particular voices among the concert to tell me I just did something memorable and good.

I want to be water and bread for everybody.

waterbread

making up

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.

making up

 

strange companions

I think it’s not possible to be a songwriter without being a kind of instrument for other people.

In a way, when you’re making music you’re a conduit for what’s in the air, not just the culture and times you’re living in, but human spirit.

That was my experience early on.  As a  young boy, I was never invited to anyone’s party. I felt invisible. My social interactions were forced, unnatural performances. Strumming the guitar alone in my room was the most natural thing in the world to me.

In my teens I discovered the music I had been waiting my whole young life to hear. The singers I let in were not just my teachers, but confidantes I felt I would be able to talk to – after all, they were talking to me. My early songwriting was an attempt at dialog, a response to them.

I felt that the voices in the songs were my companions. I let them into my bedroom (and eventually my dorm room, and later my car) when no one else was around. I let them into my ears when I wasn’t listening to anybody else in the world.

It’s unusual, isn’t it, how we become so vulnerable with complete strangers. It’s natural to be reluctant to drop our emotional defenses for just anyone. Even with family and close friends, there are some things we just don’t share. But our favorite musicians, we let in. I really didn’t understand why until I began recording and performing my own songs.

Gradually, it became so clear: We trust the singers we love — to cheer us up, take us down, inspire and console us. The reason why we trust them is because they are vulnerable.

I am as easily torn and not easily mended as anybody else. By sharing my humanness through songs, I make myself vulnerable to the listener. The music reveals a type of strength, I think, which makes the listener feel I’m pretty good company to have around. I make her feel … safe.

Today when I write and sing something that’s really worth remembering and responding to, I’m remembering them, my strange companions. I’m releasing into the world again their quiet yet forceful musical spirits.

The kind of response I’m really after is for one of them, somehow, to drop me a line just to say, “Good song, Tony.” That’s what I really want. That, and to make you, the listener, feel it’s okay.

strange companions

 

words + music

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.

wordsmusic

easy

It’s a beautiful song, this new one in the making … but not easy. The song would say, You’re not easy, too. We’re trying one another’s patience.

And so it goes with each song I make up. I have to depend on patience and persistence, and wisdom and courage, and boldness — more of each than I have — to make something that’s going to touch someone else. This is always the challenge, and it’s never easy.

But the part of songwriting that takes bravery is not that. No, it’s committing to whatever it is I make.

The only way to move past the fear of commitment is to go all in, with an open heart. There’s no other way with art. You’re never certain, and you can’t hesitate to put your art into the world because you’re just not sure.

I’m feeling brave today. And patience, it seems, isn’t different from bravery, it just takes longer.

easy

 

 

no rewind, no repeats

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?

norewinds

a little motel music

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.

apart