bulletproof

When I go on tour, I meet a lot of interesting people. After a show near Woodstock this week, a sweet man calling himself Star Blanket handed me a mysterious bag whose contents, he said, would make me … bulletproof.bulletproof

I opened it and looked inside it, and it was white willow bark, a cage necklace, and a dark blue, patterned linen handkerchief containing a pinch of black pepper.

It made me realize that I will never fully understand the millions of bizarre ways that music brings people together.

Bulletproof … sometimes I wish I could be. Being a singer-songwriter leaves you wide open. Not bulletproof at all, in fact.

I’m amazed how critics in particular affect me. The good reviews make me feel heard, understood, even loved. The bad ones make me feel sad, misunderstood and rejected.

(I suppose a bad one is better than being ignored, right?)

Everyone says you have to have pretty thick skin to stand doing the work I do, but artists don’t have a thick skin. What good is an artist who’s bulletproof?

 

living room music

There’s a tempo they want. A sound quality they want. There are subjects they won’t air. The music industry (like any other successful industry) is about formulas and rules.

Follow them, and you will succeed in it as a songwriter and, for better or worse, likely remain a part of it for life. Incidentally, the formula looks like this:

This Brightness plus that Tempo plus this Timing and that Song Duration
multiplied by
LOUDNESS (imperative for chart-topping success this century),
divided by
such-and-such Chord Structure plus Harmonic Complexity = Chart Hit

If that’s the business you’re in, you keep doing this, because it brings you rewards. The tradeoff is that you end up with a body of contemporary hits that are cookie-cutter and calculated. Not anything meant to last.

If you’d made the choice not to follow the rules, then you have freedom to make something that could last. Like, living room music.

Before it was an industry, before Nashville, before Honky Tonk, before Rockabilly, country music truly was living room music. It had this timeless, front-porch quality to it. Much of it very dark and brooding, and depressing and tragic. And beautiful.

I aim with most every song I write to absorb some of that and evoke the past time, but at the same time make something new. Hopefully, something special and very cool to enough people.

This lofty height can only be reached from a place of autonomy. Without record companies, or radio dials, or A&R executives in the middle.

I have never made up a song with an ear or an eye for the marketplace. “Will it touch someone, and will it last?” is always what I’m up against.

I know how to make up that other kind of music. I choose not to. I choose to make quirky, alt-country songs I believe in, instead.

When a song is a hit and makes the artist famous, popular culture declares the song is great art. But of course, popular is not a measure of art. There are many things you can do to get everyone to hear and download your music that have nothing to do with whether it’s great art, just as there are many ways to sell a novel or increase your blog readership.

Do what you believe, not what’s going to make you popular.

OK, break time’s over. Back to my plain but very wonderful little studio up the stairs.

livingroommusic

 

 

messengers

Driving home from a show late at night with the windows down offers its own music if I’m paying attention:

A frozen lake breaking apart in the middle of winter …

The angular song of an unseen screech-owl …

Half-crying stars out on the interstate, semis blowing their horns below …

The sound of the highway brushing against the car window, with daylight
still miles away.

A train blazing the tightrope strung across the interstate doesn’t sing her song so much as murmur it beneath her steely breath in a whisper bordering on an ambient hum. Her words, those sparks flying off into the still dark fields, remind me that I’m held aloft on a tightrope myself, and the rest of my life is far below me. For this moment I know where I’m going, just like that train, but who knows about tomorrow?

The owl, the stars, the train: Life is filled with sweet message bearers, bringing and imparting grace. You have only to wait, they will find you. And when they do, you will keep searching for them everywhere, for years,  while right beside you, the tracks they are leaving resemble notes of a mysterious song.

messengers

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

shadows and light

If I’m in a town and there’s somebody I like who has passed away, I’ll visit their grave. Sometimes I photograph it, sometimes I lie beside them and think about their work, their special loneliness now, or bring flowers.

It’s nice to visit where people are or you believe them to be. Just because they have died, doesn’t bring the relationships to an end. I’m happy to surround myself with their ghosts.

My muses are all ghosts. To love them is easy; they’re final, perfect. It’s when I learned to make up songs that I began always to live among them.

When I’m making up a song I imagine them listening with eyes down and smiling sweetly, looking at me lovingly with their abstract sorrow, as if ready to speak kindly, though they never speak.

I look for evidence of their presence in every line I compose. I’ll sit at my writing table, under a tree or in a café, and wait for a sign. It comes in different ways: a shape moving near me like a question, a tone I can hear, but never trace, in my voice.

Sometimes it’s a vague presence that moves up ghost-like from a well of silence on a small stage somewhere and into the heart of the listener — reminding me there is another world, and it is in this one, one sustaining the other.

shadowslight

 

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