messengers

Driving home from a show late at night with the windows down offers its own music if I’m paying attention:

A frozen lake breaking apart in the middle of winter …

The angular song of an unseen screech-owl …

Half-crying stars out on the interstate, semis blowing their horns below …

The sound of the highway brushing against the car window, with daylight
still miles away.

A train blazing the tightrope strung across the interstate doesn’t sing her song so much as murmur it beneath her steely breath in a whisper bordering on an ambient hum. Her words, those sparks flying off into the still dark fields, remind me that I’m held aloft on a tightrope myself, and the rest of my life is far below me. For this moment I know where I’m going, just like that train, but who knows about tomorrow?

The owl, the stars, the train: Life is filled with sweet message bearers, bringing and imparting grace. You have only to wait, they will find you. And when they do, you will keep searching for them everywhere, for years,  while right beside you, the tracks they are leaving resemble notes of a mysterious song.

messengers

never easy

Today the sun almost shines in the palest sky. I’m trying to get into the day and finish up the second song for a new EP. I have to.

It’s a pretty song, but not easy. The song would say, “You’re not easy, too.” We’re trying one another’s patience. And I need to be braver than that.

And so it goes with each song I make up. I have to depend on patience and persistence, and wisdom and bravery — more of each than I have — to make something that’s going to last. This is always the challenge, and it’s never easy.

But the part of songwriting that takes bravery is not that. It’s committing to whatever it is I’ve set off to make.

The only way to move past the fear of commitment is to go all in, with an open heart. There’s no other way with art.  (Or relationships. That’s for another post.) You’re never certain, and you can’t hesitate to put your art into the world because you’re just not sure.

I’m feeling brave today. And patience, it seems, isn’t different from bravery, it just takes longer.

nevereasy

warm spot

When I was 18 or 19, I decided I was going to get a gig at a famously dusty and dim, folk music club in New York City. Its purple neon beacon, hanging three feet below the century-old pressed-tin roof, blared two city blocks, a kind of downtown iconography.

It was the kind of place where you could just feel the years, the presence of all those wanderers and dreamers who took the stage there. I wanted to stand on the same small stage at the end of the long room of brick and wood as those artists. I wanted to see my name outside on the hand-drawn marquee.

I went down there every Tuesday, for months, and waited. Months turned into, well, a year.

I got to know the owner. He would listen to me sing and say, “no, not yet.” He had a few suggestions, too: “Learn how to use the microphone.” “Your original songs are better than your cover songs, so don’t bother with covers.” And I would say, “well, thank you, but when am I actually going to get a gig?” And he was, like, “no.”

After a year it occurred to me: go to a different place. Go to a different place. I was so determined up until then to sing here that it never really dawned on me to go somewhere else. Finally I did, to an indie music club a few short blocks away. The audience was different there, they were into different sounds. I began to resemble someone who wasn’t waiting anymore.

Sometimes you just have to move from over there to over here, because they keep saying no over there. As an artist you have to feel that for yourself: when you’re in the right place, or when you really have to move on, or back off, or let the flow of life take you elsewhere.

This is probably the most important thing I learned early on: figuring out when I’m in the wrong place and going onto the path where I need to be. It’s like being in the ocean, and feeling a warm spot and then feeling a cold spot. You have to be able to move to the warm spot, away from the cold one. That’s how a new anything – art, a following, anything – takes shape.

You can always change your spot. You can change your audience, too. But you, the artist, do not get to decide the truth of what they want and believe.

warmspot

 

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

two winters

part of me is here, part of me is missing / since the last time I saw you / you went, I stayed / like the frame of a stolen painting left behind / two winters, a fractured truth ago / but I can’t stay here any longer, the place knows too much / two winters, a fractured truth ago

words and music by Tony Starling Kidd

© Buffalo Spoon Records

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.