Songwriters worry a lot about finding their voice. We all find our voice, though. By the time you’re ten or more years into your craft, you find it.
But that’s not the trouble. The trouble is getting rid of it.
Of course the song idea in my head has been done before. The question I have to answer is, “have I done this before?”
A mere cut and paste from something I shared before would be pointless.
Bringing my true self to my work, every time … shaping my sound until my own two ears say, “yes, that’s great, this surprises us.” That’s what I’m after.
Passionately pursuing a new song my whole life … that’s everything.
You left to run horses / We both had reasons to run / I hear only hooves now / No rider comes / Oh, runaway heart / Again, I’ve lost you / There you are, gone, the last holdout / And I’m holding on to things gone missing / Lover, you left so much
words and music by Tony Starling Kidd
© Buffalo Spoon Records
When I’m making up a song, I keep an ear to the ground for what people cast off.
An overheard remark in a train station, the half-sentences of friends workshopping love’s particulars in the local coffee shop: They’re the finder’s reward.
I listen in like an ecclesiastic to the human heart as it bares its splendor and its brokenness.
I listen, and write. And as I write, I polish what I’ve found, and as I craft it into a tune hopefully expose a genuine, consoling truth in the brokenness.
I pick up things others don’t ordinarily notice, like the flowers that thrive by the roadside as we pass on our way somewhere else. Sometimes it’s the only way to encounter the truth.
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.
This morning, I sit in my little studio and write with a view of the birch-lined road and the light let loose in the garden.
I’ll work until 4:00 or 4:30, then pick up the children at the bus stop, and finally … head back home.
We fled to this faraway town a few years ago and never looked back. Some people here know I write lines that don’t quite make it to the edge of the page. But mostly I keep quiet about it, and keep making up songs.
It occurs to me there are artists who make their work beautiful in a way that they can never make their lives beautiful. One night they can have the world at their feet, and they can be all alone the next morning trying to find someone to have a cup of coffee with.
I believe you can stand for something beautiful and high without surrendering completely, without forsaking the simple, beautiful things that make a life.
I’ve always seen my songs as the evidence of my life, rather than the life itself. Life for me revolves around my wife, our children, the place where we live, those birches: the unrepeatable everyday beautiful, identical to all days.
When someone is missing, their possessions start to take on meaning.
Where I run into these things – a lover’s shirt, her hairbrush, the empty dresser – I begin to make up songs. In a way, a song is just a long, loving look at whatever remains.
Outside the song, does an outside exist? The world and everything in it, every place and event spins and spins, then one day it will all slow down because nothing can spin forever. The world is just that way.
But inside the song, the world is a certain way. Inside of it, every molecule of everyone and every place, moment and thing swells with life, and is safe and sound forever.