My songs are unapologetically intimate and unfailingly hushed. To me, quiet, sparse and unadorned just feels right. My recordings and live performances, too, a ritual of simplicity. I want you, the listener, to feel each heartbeat in the wake of every heartache. It’s what I’m about.
That margin has always been mine, and I have never let what’s happening in the mainstream shame me out of it.
I could work in the center, and make up something everyone might like, but it would wreck my art. It’s the edges that are impenetrable.
God, please don’t deprive me of the edges. It’s where I belong. I have nowhere else to go.
I am so flawed as an artist. My songs are imperfectly performed. My wispy voice is sometimes shaky about pitch.
My recordings are a set of first-takes, a thoroughly homemade affair. Nothing feels mastered. Listen closely, and you might hear barn swallows, the sound of wood scraping on a floor, probably a chair.
I don’t have many true fans. Is it because everyone else hears my flaws? I could deceive myself into thinking that. Or, that it’s because I don’t fall neatly into a category of music … I’m not exactly country, or folk, or anything else.
But categories don’t matter. Most important work is done by people who don’t easily fit in. No great piece of art is flawless. And no great artist is universally liked or understood.
I’m happy to have a few true fans who don’t hear first-takes, but jewels, and who can’t wait to hear what I make up next.
Who are tuned in to me, flaws and all.
There are days when everything is gut, and the song I’m making up seems to know exactly where it wants to go.
On those days, the heart begs the mind to stay away.
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.
I am so blessed to have discovered this dignified, ancient, elegant thing, making up songs.
And to know that every day my heart moves in its little sideways thrust, this is the thing I will do.
Photo by Jessica
Sometimes words are just music themselves.
Like “Strawberry” is a very musical sounding word to me. “Dandelion” is another.
I like “Honeysuckle” and “Hurricane,” too. And “Hallelujah.”
Standing on the edge of the vowel forest, I also encounter:
A blossoming almond tree.
The thicket grown loud with nightingales.
Skin and heart. Bed. House. Heartbreak (and with it, the tentative hope for happiness).
And a cloud of starlings.
Sometimes I think that my main instrument is idiom, my voice is just a dialect, and my actual purpose as a songwriter is simply to report on the human heart in the most musical of observational terms.
To make the notes audible in the key of English.
What something sounds like can’t change what it is:
The sound of a drawer opening …
The north wind on the telephone lines …
A motorbike along the lane …
Lilacs crashing through old barn walls …
The key turning in the door to an empty house …
Yet sound opens sound. It taps the spot that’s inside me with a lyric or melody, and the door to music opens:
The sound of clothes being emptied from the drawer by a departing lover …
The sound of the dangling farewell …
A biker who falls and in his fall hears his bones cry out …
The young sound in an old heart …
The hollow echo of the voice inside the door …
And me, walking beside you … humming like the air.