beach place

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.

beachday

love songs

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.

love songs

 

 

 

01:22

When I dress to go out, I usually end up taking off the leather cuffs I have put on … or the vest, or the belt, or the hat.

This sort of thing occurred to me when I was making up a song last week. I kept thinking it needed fewer words, fewer notes, fewer instruments, less overdubs. It sounded better when I took things off and cut things out.

So my latest tune clocks in at a brief, unadorned minute and 22 seconds.

For me, one of the great things about a song is its poverty. I love the quote about the sculptor who, when asked how she made such beautiful objects, responded that she simply removed everything from the raw material that wasn’t the object itself.

Most of my songs are compact and close. Brief as snapshots. Barely there. Each tune gets its moment, and then it’s quickly over without lingering in a specific melody or set of chords for too long.

The perfect piece for me works within an inch of its life.

Have you wondered why most of the popular songs are about the same length? There aren’t any super short or many really long songs on your dial.

Is it the result of an engineering limitation of the phonograph? The artist’s desire to hit the mainstream? A record label’s desire to profit from that?  Or maybe the human brain only likes 3-minute songs? I just don’t know.

I’m sure about one thing:

The only reason to make one up is to resonate in some corner of the heart. Only an artist and his fans can say how many minutes it takes to find a door into a feeling.

122

world’s oldest musical instrument

I loved museums when I was a boy, and I still do. The great ones in New York City,  especially the Natural History Museum, were places of wonder to me.

Some shows last week along the southern Atlantic coastline led me to the Smithsonian, where I spent hours wondering at this flute, discovered in a cave in Germany just ten years ago.

It’s about 35,000 years old, which makes it one of the world’s oldest manufactured musical instruments. Two pieces of carved and hollowed-out mammoth ivory, joined together and sealed. The flute had at least three finger holes and played a five-note scale.

The five-note scale is found, in different forms, in most of the world’s music, including Gospel, Folk, Jazz, American Blues and Rock. Which got me thinking:

We’ve had the ability to play any melody in popular music for tens of thousands of years. Who’s to say some of these tunes that are kicking around the pop charts haven’t been around for 30, 40, or 50 thousand years?

I know it’s far-fetched but there’s only a handful of notes and there have been human beings for millennia playing around with all the same notes, and the vast majority of music has been passed down anyway.

I suppose this is why we have the Museum: It’s a place to find remnants of every interesting or valuable thing we have ever touched alongside thousands of labels describing what’s gone, to help us make sense of the things that are left and begin anew from what we had discovered from the old.

I’m reminded how in my own real-life museum I have collected hundreds of artifacts, although they are stored as haphazardly as pencils and lyrics stuffed in cabinets, analog tapes and guitar strings tucked in drawers.

There is no order to them; they are curated in a chaos of hurt and joy. Endless artifacts of memory pressing against my heart, the songwriter’s gallery.

artifacts

never easy

Today the sun almost shines in the palest sky. I’m trying to get into the day and finish up the second song for a new EP. I have to.

It’s a pretty song, but not easy. The song would say, “You’re not easy, too.” We’re trying one another’s patience. And I need to be braver than that.

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

But the part of songwriting that takes bravery is not that. It’s committing to whatever it is I’ve set off to 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.  (Or relationships. That’s for another post.) 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.

nevereasy

warm spot

When I was 18 or 19, I decided I was going to get a gig at a famously dusty and dim, folk music club in New York City. Its purple neon beacon, hanging three feet below the century-old pressed-tin roof, blared two city blocks, a kind of downtown iconography.

It was the kind of place where you could just feel the years, the presence of all those wanderers and dreamers who took the stage there. I wanted to stand on the same small stage at the end of the long room of brick and wood as those artists. I wanted to see my name outside on the hand-drawn marquee.

I went down there every Tuesday, for months, and waited. Months turned into, well, a year.

I got to know the owner. He would listen to me sing and say, “no, not yet.” He had a few suggestions, too: “Learn how to use the microphone.” “Your original songs are better than your cover songs, so don’t bother with covers.” And I would say, “well, thank you, but when am I actually going to get a gig?” And he was, like, “no.”

After a year it occurred to me: go to a different place. Go to a different place. I was so determined up until then to sing here that it never really dawned on me to go somewhere else. Finally I did, to an indie music club a few short blocks away. The audience was different there, they were into different sounds. I began to resemble someone who wasn’t waiting anymore.

Sometimes you just have to move from over there to over here, because they keep saying no over there. As an artist you have to feel that for yourself: when you’re in the right place, or when you really have to move on, or back off, or let the flow of life take you elsewhere.

This is probably the most important thing I learned early on: figuring out when I’m in the wrong place and going onto the path where I need to be. It’s like being in the ocean, and feeling a warm spot and then feeling a cold spot. You have to be able to move to the warm spot, away from the cold one. That’s how a new anything – art, a following, anything – takes shape.

You can always change your spot. You can change your audience, too. But you, the artist, do not get to decide the truth of what they want and believe.

warmspot

 

threads

My latest song was inspired by a lovers’ spat I witnessed outside the movie theater here in town. It’s about a terrible, terrible betrayal, and the possibility of moving from the brokenness to happiness, if only for a few moments.

When you’re a songwriter living in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people —

Those two parting angrily on the street, leaving their love affair hanging by a thread …

The grammar school teacher who retires after 36 years … the heartworn glow of the movie marquee that says, “Thanks Mrs. R for everything” …

Old timers settling world affairs at the donut shop, their opinions steeled with stubbornness and age …

Young girls, beautiful as warm countries, cheering on the school basketball team on a Friday night, living life as it is, thread by thread.

So many of the songs I make up are tapestries of other people’s threads. Nothing but the musical strand that binds them is my own.

Sometimes I think I need a large city. But you see so little of the world there: we slip easily into our private lives, drift into minorities. In the little towns there just aren’t enough folks for that.

In the city, I would only have read about things in the paper. I wouldn’t have picked up all the threads.

threads