how to tune a guitar

You go for a drive with the top down and let the guitar sit in the passenger seat.

Make the first left, that way your destination is farther and the road to it prettier, the blossoms absurdly violet. Lose your location.

Fiddle with the radio dial. Brush past the popular music stations to the one of choice. Pause there just to adore someone’s croon.

“She was 21 when I left Galveston …” Begin thinking softly to yourself about the sadness heard deep inside the radio.

Now pick up the guitar and press your side close to hers. Begin tuning. The notes the open strings make, from the thickest to thinnest, are as follows:

E – the lowest string. The hollow Echo of a voice which speaks in an empty room.

A – she whispers sea “Anemones,” but my heart does not look up.

D – the 4th string. Dragonfly and water lily.

G – Sound becomes flesh for God to enter.

B – the Buzz and babble of billions of white bees in succulent afternoon.

E – the highest string, Exhaling verses blown back in air.

Gathering your fingers around her, reach inside her wires and steal away her heart. At last, you are playing.

tuneaguitar

masterpiece

masterpiece

The thing I most dreaded when I began making up songs as a teenager was being struck down by an F-150 before the world could hear my masterpiece.

Not so much anymore.

These days I don’t sit and wonder if my next song will be liked by hundreds of thousands of people. I don’t care whether the world will consider it a major work. I make up songs for one reason: to get free.

Songwriting makes my feelings manageable. Some people fight or pray their way out of really painful situations; I just have to tell you how bad it felt. The grief is released, mastered in a sense, through the work. I am able to move forward from it — you never move on from grief, you only move forward — after that transcendent moment when suddenly it’s art.  To be able to do that makes the song, for me, a masterpiece.

It has a little something to do with craft, skill and workmanship. It has nothing to do with being popular. (If the goal is to be popular, then it’s all about the judgment of the world.)

It has everything to do with carving the battle scars deep into the work itself.

As long as I’m satisfied that the song I’m writing has that character, I know that even if, in the grand scheme of things, it’s the perfect emblem of unimportance, even if it’s mortal and has provided but a moment or two of consolation or healing, it will still be a masterpiece of sorts. It will be, if only for a little while, my masterpiece.

icons

At a gallery recently I was admiring a beautiful icon of Mary the Theotokos.

treasureI asked the artist whether she thought her painting would last forever and she said, “Probably not, but who cares? Every woman in love has the face of Mary.”

What a remarkable answer.

I was struck by the humility of the artist. Her reply made me think about Art: why we need to make it, how beautiful it is to need, where Art really lives and the grace of endurance.

A few days ago all of us were reminded of its impermanence. A 1,000-year-old church can vanish in the blink of an eye.

The love of it, that is more important than forever. That is a larger That.

 

 

 

10 crayons

There’s a lot of data in the brain that informs the song sequence on a live performance set list (or LP, for that matter), but essentially it’s a “feel” process:

– Is it time for a lift of tempo?

– Have I leaned on the guitar for too many tunes? Is it time for a song with those wide piano chords I love …

– Where do I tuck the one the sounds like the “single,” at the beginning or in the middle?

– What’s the key change? Shall we change from C to G-flat … two keys that are as musically different as you can get, but it speaks differentness and wakes up the palate.

All of these pieces of information come together as part of that “feel” process. I know the tunes so well that if I have these 10 little musical crayons and I’ve chosen songs one, two and three, and I’m wondering, What wants to be four?,  it comes down to What feels like it wants to come next?

In the end, I’m listening for a beautiful flow. If one song ends and then another, and then another, and oh, the chords do work,  this whole thing works, now the chain and sequence takes shape, with choice after choice, linkage after linkage, until it’s all working and together the songs tell the story the artist is hoping for.

I have had years of being a functioning artist in this dysfunctional, one-track, pop, middle-brow, over-hyped, streaming, noisy culture … and within that I’ve tried to be an artist who cares about the full beauty of musical order and sequence, whose sound is sincere and whose love of connection is deep. That’s my crayon crusade.

10 crayons

mermaids

To compose a melody, pretty as a ladybug — this is the most important thing to me as a songwriter. And, of course, to pack a lifetime’s worth of heartache into one brief phrase.

But what astonishes a listener is the singing. Why do I sing?

Because when I sing there are mermaids in the imagination swimming up the sweet air to reach me.

*   *   *

Because to dip into a near-whisper and reach people who are listening is a deep, deep treasure for me.

*   *   *

Because I have seen old men cry when they sing. It can be winter in the body but when they sing, spring comes early and stays long enough for the wildflowers to believe it. One day I would like to be old like that.

*   *   *

Because I believe there’s a God and I feel Him when I sing.

*   *   *

Because when I’m singing, anything that has ever hurt me or could is as far as a train whistle I can’t hear or remember.

*   *   *

Because it’s impossible for me not to.

*   *   *

Because I don’t need a reason to.

mermaids

 

terrifying angel

A new song is such a terrifying angel. It appears not with honey and words, but as a spark, hair all disheveled, clothes torn.

My instinct when it arrives is to hold on for dear life. It’s too great for me, my human body almost too small to contain it.

I cannot speak, I cannot shout. How will I ever translate this invasion into definition and form, give it simplicity and emotional groundedness?

Then without warning it happens. I don’t know how or when but I begin to hear my own soul’s voice reminisce with me: about the souls, those small whispering things, of people I have known and loved, about places where I laughed and suffered, with tears and sighs. I begin to recreate passionately Ithacas I’ve lost.

The song arrives. I witness light. That maelstrom of directionless sound first unleashed to the heart is carried home.

terrifying

 

hush + hold

Sunlight comes in the window and lights up my notebook and guitar and hands as they work on a set of brand new songs.

I write for the near-whisper that is my voice, pained and torn at the edges from heartbreak and acceptance. And for the audience that is open to receive it.

So what will it be: a clear-cut tune about troubled love? Something with elusive imagery? There are some good ghosts up here in the studio.


The crux of a song, any good song, is what will hold.  What will stay, and will it hold grace and lasting ease.

Songs that find their homes beneath the skin, they hold. The ones that cost me something deeply emotional to write seem to hold. I am faithful to feeling, and emotional accuracy. These things hold.

You don’t need a big voice, you can sing quietly, like in a whisper, and the right audience will find in it and in your songs what they’re really after: a gorgeously hushed communion.