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

signals

There’s a path behind the place where I live, and a black gum tree on the path. Up against it stands some big leaf aster. I don’t know if you know what that looks like, but this tall beauty has bluish flowers, and large heart-shaped leaves. It’s just a gorgeous color.

Whenever I get to this spot where this tree stands, I get a type of … signal. I can’t explain it but I pay attention, because I know something’s going to happen; I’m going to get some words or a melody, or something.

What I love most about being a songwriter is that I stand all my life in the direct path of signals, the strangest, most beautiful alphabet in the universe. I get to translate pulsations into notes and lyrics that restore and console, reconstruct and heal.

The signals don’t always quickly reveal themselves, and when this happens it’s no use blaming the walk. No matter what, I have to stay on the trail and follow the things that motion me on. They often make no sense, and I don’t always feel like following them, but they always lead somewhere.

When I pay close attention, I see that no two walks along the path are the same. Each brings a hidden blessing; a miracle which is unique to the path on that day, and which cannot be saved for later.

If I don’t notice the aster, this bluish signal, if I don’t use this blessing today, it will be lost.

horse winter walk

simple lives

I give my songs such simple lives, they give me such beautiful tragedies. They seem to have a way of letting me know what’s going on.

Each helps me tell the truth as I see and hear it at that moment.

Two Winters is the oldest song on my little record. It’s about a heart encountering, accepting, and learning to live from its brokenness.

Please listen, share, buy.

words and music by Tony Starling Kidd

© Buffalo Spoon Records

alibi

I have wanted to write about the people who owned our old farmhouse before, but I couldn’t realize the song, which more and more seemed to want to talk about some essence of their moving on, not their past.

Reaching into the past, I am able to salvage:

The dim farmhouse, morning radio on …

Black-blue meadow stalking every step the living make  …

A whispered rush.

And that farmhouse, like an old brown photograph, suddenly fills the senses.

winterhorseredbarn

As a writer of two or three-minute songs, I’m not interested in holding on to something for very long, or walking back into the past too deep. I’m in it for the permission to be transient.

It’s like this with singing, too. The whole idea of holding a note is strange to me. Singing isn’t about that. It’s about passage, about carrying the note out of you and forward.

When I chronicle the past I’m really just connecting dots, picking the beautiful things out of it and presenting a coherent arc in a neat, little song. Of course, life in the farmhouse was much noisier than that. The past is merely an alibi for the present.

The future, well … it’s messy, but it’s better to move on to it, better to leave what’s left behind any way except a slow way, leave the fastest way you can.

As with the breakups I sing about, the staying moved on … this is the hardest thing of all.

 

strange and familiar

There’s something deeply satisfying about writing songs without being hemmed in by expectations of a specific linear form or any particular idiom of music.

Yet it isn’t as simple as “out with the old, in with the new.” Here lies the beauty, complexity and excitement of songwriting:

Making up something that bears identifiable traces of its roots yet stays unmistakably my own … writing a song that puts me deep enough in the woods, and at the same time a clearing in the forest where people recognize me.

Most people bridle at unfamiliar things. The new blasphemes, it always does. The art is in straddling the two worlds, new and old, and this takes some precarious grace.

The moment of truth is when an unplucked string is finally strummed, it calls, and a strange and familiar heart answers.

stable

 

unwanted things

There is no burden like unwanted things. Which is sad because, against all real evidence, things have feelings too. They don’t love in the human way, still:

That blue thrift shop sweater out at the elbows has a story. I try to imagine the places it has been, and who wore it before it was mine.

Those rundown cowboy boots slouched in the closet talk in accents from the Old West. I stare at them appreciating all the wrong roads they may have taken. Usually, I find a song in them.

Pale-portrait faces stored in the attic gaze sadly at each other, old, tattered books think softly to themselves in between readings, and under its yellow blanket, the whittled-down pencil dreams of writing again.

Not one of these things transcends its thingness; the artist who connects with them becomes all these things.

They become a part of my inheritance as a songwriter. Forsaken, they now take me in their arms.

winterhorsefield