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.
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?
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.
There is no burden like unwanted things. Which is sad because, against all real evidence, things have feelings too. They don’t love in the human way, still:
That blue thrift shop sweater out at the elbows has a story. I try to imagine the places it has been, and who wore it before it was mine.
Those rundown cowboy boots slouched in the closet talk in accents from the Old West. I stare at them appreciating all the wrong roads they may have taken. Usually, I find a song in them.
Pale-portrait faces stored in the attic gaze sadly at each other, old, tattered books think softly to themselves in between readings, and under its yellow blanket, the whittled-down pencil dreams of writing again.
Not one of these things transcends its thingness; the artist who connects with them becomes all these things.
They become a part of my inheritance as a songwriter. Forsaken, they now take me in their arms.
Some days I’m certain those who don’t have faith know one thing more than me. Most days, one thing less.
Faith is the way to get where you’re going as an artist. Without faith, the leap to greater art never works.
I don’t pretend to know how a new song comes into my life out of nowhere. I don’t want to know. I have complete faith that the song will come.
Because when I do, another one comes, and then another. Sometimes it pays to just have a little faith.
I am convinced my soul was constructed to belong entirely to a life of making up songs, just as the cowboy’s was to rope calves and the sun was made to lay its palm over the window in my studio this late afternoon.
I spent time this week with two lawyers and someone from A&R. All of them pushing papers with big words and lots of numbers to keep the conversation going.
I have to confess there’s something about being with the fine people who work at these jobs that leaves me feeling alone. I’m the only one of my kind when I’m with them: an outlier, not easy to lasso into their carefully scripted conversations. I stand at the crescent of my hoofs at these meetings, head jerking away from the halter, ears searching for the stablegirl’s caress.
It’s different when I’m among my own kind, musicians and other artists, or when I’m home doing all my comfortable alone things: making up songs, tuning an instrument, reading, or just looking the day away in a pasture empty of everything but wildflowers and witchgrass.
At these times, I feel peaceful and occupied with all the things I know I’m meant to do.
* The title of a book by the amazing Nathalie Handal
Love goes on / It’s the lovers who go
words and music by Tony Starling Kidd
© Buffalo Spoon Records
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.
I wanted all the horses / Somehow let you go
words and music by Tony Starling Kidd
© Buffalo Spoon Records