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.
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.
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.
Love goes on / It’s the lovers who go
words and music by Tony Starling Kidd
© Buffalo Spoon Records
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.
One of the remarkable things about being a musician is that there are no rules. There’s no right way or wrong way to be one. You can experiment with every aspect of making up a song, and there’s no one way to listen to it.
But I do follow one rule: to honor the difference between an ache and a work of art.
An ache in itself is just that. It can affect you or you can ignore it.
But the art that treats the experience that made me ache is something altogether different. The aching is transformed, it’s alchemized: by a period of sensitivity, a moment of clarity, and a certain objectivity that doesn’t surrender the emotion but gives it form.
I could write a song about something that has gone wrong in my life, but it would not be a good song until it went through this alchemy. Otherwise, it’s not a song, really, it’s just complaining.
All my songwriting is an attempt to talk about the aching, whatever the cause. I never want it to ease; I don’t believe it’s meant to. I don’t care to master it. I just want to free it:
It’s up to the song to weep all my tears, and embrace everything with its ache.
What something sounds like can’t change what it is:
The sound of a drawer opening …
The north wind on the telephone lines …
A motorbike along the lane …
Lilacs crashing through old barn walls …
The key turning in the door to an empty house …
Yet sound opens sound. It taps the spot that’s inside me with a lyric or melody, and the door to music opens:
The sound of clothes being emptied from the drawer by a departing lover …
The sound of the dangling farewell …
A biker who falls and in his fall hears his bones cry out …
The young sound in an old heart …
The hollow echo of the voice inside the door …
And me, walking beside you … humming like the air.