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

ritual

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.

ancientcity

linger

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.

linger