There’s a misguided belief that just because you play an acoustic guitar and sing in a near-whisper close to the microphone, it makes you more honest than singer-songwriters who attempt to create an experience of truth in some other way.
Here’s the truth: Some songs are meant to calm you down. Some are meant to stir you up.
Some are transcendental, and some are just really dumb.
The religious hymn, praise to the king … songs filled with the sorrows of a dissolving marriage, or an inventory of lovers … they all have a place.
The dark, brave, thoughtful and serenely startling songs … tracks we can dance to, anthems we revolt to, beats we bounce to and sounds we make love to … they all have a place.
We may crawl out of a song feeling more in love, or younger, or angrier, or wiser, clutching a secret message of small meaning or nothing, nothing. We might seem lost. We might seem happy. There are a hundred different states of human yearning, and people need to feel them all.
What matters is that when a songwriter comes along with a pure heart and something to say, we listen.
Playing notes is the basic idea of music, but it’s an impression, and a shallow one. It’s not enough to play the notes.
What I really have to do as a musician is everything that is not in the notation.
The same way I need time with my instruments to interpret notes, I need time with people, to understand and interpret them.
It’s the things I notice when I’m not with my guitar or at the piano that I find so interesting and want to explore later through the soundboard, the strings, bridges, keys and petals.
Playing music is mostly about this: listening to the human heart as it encounters, accepts, and learns to live from whatever rubs up against it.
I got myself a new guitar today. Well, not really new: an old Gibson J 45, rich and deep on the low E and A strings, with round shoulders, a wine-red finish and tortoise teardrop pickguard.
She’s a rescue from a city pawn shop. There she stood, so beautifully abandoned, in reverent silence. I imagined her maker reclaimed wood from an old church pew in order to create her.
She came with an exile’s suitcase, and a belly filled with songs.
The music just lives in these old guitars. If you really want to write a song, if you have no ideas and can’t go thinking or don’t want to, go to a pawn shop. Go ask a guitar. Buy one used, because she has music in her.
Think of her as your grandfather’s cane, take her on a walk. She will talk to you. She’ll tell you about places she has known, the wrong turns she’s made and who she’s seen. About the café chairs she’s rested on, and baggage carousels she’s ridden, her wild ways. How one night in a downtown club, she found grace. And why her strings are sad and full of regrets. Could be the one who played her before had no heart.
Tune her up and, warbling out the old, she will begin anew. Tell her to find you a B minor, A major song. Maybe the next day suddenly you’ll have something.
People will turn to see where the beautiful notes came from. They’ll feel transfigured. Those that heard will say the holy spirit spoke to them as from an eternal tree. Anyway, that’s what my new song will say.
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.