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.
Some days I’m certain those who don’t have faith know one thing more than me. Most days, one thing less.
Faith is the way to get where you’re going as an artist. Without faith, the leap to greater art never works.
I don’t pretend to know how a new song comes into my life out of nowhere. I don’t want to know. I have complete faith that the song will come.
Because when I do, another one comes, and then another. Sometimes it pays to just have a little faith.
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