threads

My latest song was inspired by a lovers’ spat I witnessed outside the movie theater here in town. It’s about a terrible, terrible betrayal, and the possibility of moving from the brokenness to happiness, if only for a few moments.

When you’re a songwriter living in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people —

Those two parting angrily on the street, leaving their love affair hanging by a thread …

The grammar school teacher who retires after 36 years … the heartworn glow of the movie marquee that says, “Thanks Mrs. R for everything” …

Old timers settling world affairs at the donut shop, their opinions steeled with stubbornness and age …

Young girls, beautiful as warm countries, cheering on the school basketball team on a Friday night, living life as it is, thread by thread.

So many of the songs I make up are tapestries of other people’s threads. Nothing but the musical strand that binds them is my own.

Sometimes I think I need a large city. But you see so little of the world there: we slip easily into our private lives, drift into minorities. In the little towns there just aren’t enough folks for that.

In the city, I would only have read about things in the paper. I wouldn’t have picked up all the threads.

threads

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.

shadowslight

 

signals

There’s a path behind the place where I live, and a black gum tree on the path. Up against it stands some big leaf aster. I don’t know if you know what that looks like, but this tall beauty has bluish flowers, and large heart-shaped leaves. It’s just a gorgeous color.

Whenever I get to this spot where this tree stands, I get a type of … signal. I can’t explain it but I pay attention, because I know something’s going to happen; I’m going to get some words or a melody, or something.

What I love most about being a songwriter is that I stand all my life in the direct path of signals, the strangest, most beautiful alphabet in the universe. I get to translate pulsations into notes and lyrics that restore and console, reconstruct and heal.

The signals don’t always quickly reveal themselves, and when this happens it’s no use blaming the walk. No matter what, I have to stay on the trail and follow the things that motion me on. They often make no sense, and I don’t always feel like following them, but they always lead somewhere.

When I pay close attention, I see that no two walks along the path are the same. Each brings a hidden blessing; a miracle which is unique to the path on that day, and which cannot be saved for later.

If I don’t notice the aster, this bluish signal, if I don’t use this blessing today, it will be lost.

horse winter walk

dream job

Sometimes I wish I had become a newspaper delivery boy. Or a milkman. Or a bridge toll-taker … do people still do that for a living?

I love the routine of those jobs.

Or maybe, the clown wielding the wide broom who follows the elephants in the circus.

Or a carpenter … yes, a singing carpenter who dresses the plank in the floor with his singing nails.

Better still, I wish I could say that I’d been a kite maker. I can’t think of a more aesthetic machine than the kite. I can’t think of an aircraft that’s better for the world or the soul. Everyone loves a kite.

Some days I wish I could say I’d been one of those things. Then again … no.

Songwriting isn’t routine. It isn’t easy, or certain. It’s not a dream job, and it doesn’t come with a guarantee. You know when songwriters say things in interviews like, “I just channel the muse … the songs just flow out of me”? No, they don’t. It’s work. Each time you take up your guitar and sit by a blank page, you start from scratch.  It’s a struggle. And for most, there’s very little reward in it (outside of the big prize, touching an audience).

It’s not easy … and still:

For me, the worst day as a songwriter is still better than the best day as something else. It’s the work that’s worth doing.

Now, in the studio, second cup of chamomile tea cooling, guitar in its stand, melody waiting patiently for words to be finished.

dreamjob

simple lives

I give my songs such simple lives, they give me such beautiful tragedies. They seem to have a way of letting me know what’s going on.

Each helps me tell the truth as I see and hear it at that moment.

Two Winters is the oldest song on my little record. It’s about a heart encountering, accepting, and learning to live from its brokenness.

Please listen, share, buy.

words and music by Tony Starling Kidd

© Buffalo Spoon Records

alibi

I have wanted to write about the people who owned our old farmhouse before, but I couldn’t realize the song, which more and more seemed to want to talk about some essence of their moving on, not their past.

Reaching into the past, I am able to salvage:

The dim farmhouse, morning radio on …

Black-blue meadow stalking every step the living make  …

A whispered rush.

And that farmhouse, like an old brown photograph, suddenly fills the senses.

winterhorseredbarn

As a writer of two or three-minute songs, I’m not interested in holding on to something for very long, or walking back into the past too deep. I’m in it for the permission to be transient.

It’s like this with singing, too. The whole idea of holding a note is strange to me. Singing isn’t about that. It’s about passage, about carrying the note out of you and forward.

When I chronicle the past I’m really just connecting dots, picking the beautiful things out of it and presenting a coherent arc in a neat, little song. Of course, life in the farmhouse was much noisier than that. The past is merely an alibi for the present.

The future, well … it’s messy, but it’s better to move on to it, better to leave what’s left behind any way except a slow way, leave the fastest way you can.

As with the breakups I sing about, the staying moved on … this is the hardest thing of all.

 

strange and familiar

There’s something deeply satisfying about writing songs without being hemmed in by expectations of a specific linear form or any particular idiom of music.

Yet it isn’t as simple as “out with the old, in with the new.” Here lies the beauty, complexity and excitement of songwriting:

Making up something that bears identifiable traces of its roots yet stays unmistakably my own … writing a song that puts me deep enough in the woods, and at the same time a clearing in the forest where people recognize me.

Most people bridle at unfamiliar things. The new blasphemes, it always does. The art is in straddling the two worlds, new and old, and this takes some precarious grace.

The moment of truth is when an unplucked string is finally strummed, it calls, and a strange and familiar heart answers.

stable