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.
Subtraction is just one of those beautiful words. Beautiful, all that taking away. Because to take away is to leave something rare and visible behind; it’s addition someplace else.
When I make up a song, I subtract:
Sound. A pause can be as beautiful as the note. It can make you want the note more.
Words. I look for what not to say, not what to say. I sing, “nothing remains of love” and you, the listener, fill in the missing pieces. I invoke your imagination to reveal the fullness of how little is left. Forced rhymes, familiar metaphors, clichés: I subtract them, too, because they get in the way of making art that’s new and genuine.
Last, I empty myself from the song. I erase the flesh of me and the ghosts of experiences that inhabit me. My life is just the scaffolding for the song, something I tear down as I work through it. Small details from my life are borrowed to make something that isn’t literally true, but something new and truer. If it’s art, the song eclipses the source material.
This afternoon I begin work on a new song. By night, what will be left of me?
I am so blessed to have discovered this dignified, ancient, elegant thing, making up songs.
And to know that every day my heart moves in its little sideways thrust, this is the thing I will do.
Photo by Jessica
Sometimes words are just music themselves.
Like “Strawberry” is a very musical sounding word to me. “Dandelion” is another.
I like “Honeysuckle” and “Hurricane,” too. And “Hallelujah.”
Standing on the edge of the vowel forest, I also encounter:
A blossoming almond tree.
The thicket grown loud with nightingales.
Skin and heart. Bed. House. Heartbreak (and with it, the tentative hope for happiness).
And a cloud of starlings.
Sometimes I think that my main instrument is idiom, my voice is just a dialect, and my actual purpose as a songwriter is simply to report on the human heart in the most musical of observational terms.
To make the notes audible in the key of English.
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.