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.




Subtraction is just one of those beautiful words. Beautiful, all that taking away. Because to take away is to leave something rare and visible behind; it’s addition someplace else.

When I make up a song, I subtract:


Sound. A pause can be as beautiful as the note. It can make you want the note more.

Words. I look for what not to say, not what to say. I sing, “nothing remains of love” and you, the listener, fill in the missing pieces. I invoke your imagination to reveal the fullness of how little is left. Forced rhymes, familiar metaphors, clichés: I subtract them, too, because they get in the way of making art that’s new and genuine.

Last, I empty myself from the song. I erase the flesh of me and the ghosts of experiences that inhabit me. My life is just the scaffolding for the song, something I tear down as I work through it. Small details from my life are borrowed to make something that isn’t literally true, but something new and truer. If it’s art, the song eclipses the source material.

This afternoon I begin work on a new song. By night, what will be left of me?