unrepeatable, beautiful

This morning, I sit in my little studio and write with a view of the birch-lined road and the light let loose in the garden.

I’ll work until 4:00 or 4:30, then pick up the children at the bus stop, and finally … head back home.

We fled to this faraway town a few years ago and never looked back. Some people here know I write lines that don’t quite make it to the edge of the page. But mostly I keep quiet about it, and keep making up songs.


It occurs to me there are artists who make their work beautiful in a way that they can never make their lives beautiful. One night they can have the world at their feet, and they can be all alone the next morning trying to find someone to have a cup of coffee with.

I believe you can stand for something beautiful and high without surrendering completely, without forsaking the simple, beautiful things that make a life.

I’ve always seen my songs as the evidence of my life, rather than the life itself. Life for me revolves around my wife, our children, the place where we live, those birches: the unrepeatable everyday beautiful, identical to all days.

missing, and meaning

When someone is missing, their possessions start to take on meaning.

Where I run into these things – a lover’s shirt,  her hairbrush, the empty dresser – I begin to make up songs. In a way, a song is just a long, loving look at whatever remains.


Outside the song, does an outside exist? The world and everything in it, every place and event spins and spins, then one day it will all slow down because nothing can spin forever. The world is just that way.

But inside the song, the world is a certain way. Inside of it, every molecule of everyone and every place, moment and thing swells with life, and is safe and sound forever.

ache, and art

One of the remarkable things about being a musician is that there are no rules. There’s no right way or wrong way to be one. You can experiment with every aspect of making up a song, and there’s no one way to listen to it.


But I do follow one rule: to honor the difference between an ache and a work of art.

An ache in itself is just that. It can affect you or you can ignore it.

But the art that treats the experience that made me ache is something altogether different. The aching is transformed, it’s alchemized: by a period of sensitivity, a moment of clarity, and a certain objectivity that doesn’t surrender the emotion but gives it form.

I could write a song about something that has gone wrong in my life, but it would not be a good song until it went through this alchemy. Otherwise, it’s not a song, really, it’s just complaining.

All my songwriting is an attempt to talk about the aching, whatever the cause. I never want it to ease; I don’t believe it’s meant to. I don’t care to master it. I just want to free it:

It’s up to the song to weep all my tears, and embrace everything with its ache.


Subtraction is just one of those beautiful words. Beautiful, all that taking away. Because to take away is to leave something rare and visible behind; it’s addition someplace else.

When I make up a song, I subtract:


Sound. A pause can be as beautiful as the note. It can make you want the note more.

Words. I look for what not to say, not what to say. I sing, “nothing remains of love” and you, the listener, fill in the missing pieces. I invoke your imagination to reveal the fullness of how little is left. Forced rhymes, familiar metaphors, clichés: I subtract them, too, because they get in the way of making art that’s new and genuine.

Last, I empty myself from the song. I erase the flesh of me and the ghosts of experiences that inhabit me. My life is just the scaffolding for the song, something I tear down as I work through it. Small details from my life are borrowed to make something that isn’t literally true, but something new and truer. If it’s art, the song eclipses the source material.

This afternoon I begin work on a new song. By night, what will be left of me?