We want to last, and for things to last … and I don’t know how to do that except through art.
I’m singing in a little town tonight, a whisper on the map. I’ll drive two hours through the countryside to get to it.
It’s the little towns I like. I can understand these places, settle in and lose myself in any one of them. They make me want something of what’s passed.
Maybe one day I’ll put the town, its lampposts undermined by twilight, half-hidden in my lines, and a song will become my history with the place. And maybe the song will give me the illusion that I never left, and the moment will last forever.
My life has been filled with longings. It’s consoling to be going tonight, on my way to another place I will miss.
Listen: those are hoofbeats on the crisp November air.
An approximately three-minute song is as fleeting as a galloping horse against infinite time.
But it can capture forever a moment that’s gone forever.
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.
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.
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.
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.