Here is something I recorded Tuesday on the piano. I’m not really a piano player, but if I can make it simple enough, I do okay. I wrote this song with my friend John Martin. We got together at my house in East Nash, had some lunch, and sat down to write. I had made up the piano riff the night before, so I showed it to him and he liked it. We worked for two hours and came up with exactly nothing. Then all of the sudden he blurted out, “Love is oh so patient, love is oh so kind.”
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I’ve come to in this cabin to work, but weird stuff comes up when you remove yourself from the constant stream of distraction synonymous with participation in modern life. I haven’t talked to a single person in 4 days. I came out here to get away from the shouting world. So I could hear myself. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised a few strong feelings would arise.
An immediate perk: my phone doesn’t work. So no texting. No checking Facebook or Instagram every 4 minutes. I wake up, I do some reading, I write in my journal, and I go to work. I have so little time, I want to make the most of it. I’ll be back in Nashville in less than 3 weeks. This is a precious window.
Between the morning coffee and the evening nightcap, two things keep coming up. One is for another post, but the other is this: I’m scared. I’m scared I’m making a terrible mistake. Coming out here. Making this record this way, slow, uncertain, independent of outside opinion. I’ve made records before, produced them even, and, well historically, I’ve proven I can do it, so there’s no reason to doubt this will be any different.
But that’s not it exactly. It’s not what I’m doing that scares me. It’s what I’m not doing.
What I’m not doing is maintaining an iron grip on my business. I'm letting go a little, to make space for something else. Ever since the last record came out, I’ve spent almost all my time booking shows, updating my website, answering emails, driving. And then the book got published, and it was that all over again. My life for the last 3 years has been one long to-do list.
And I’ve been doing everything myself because, well for one, there have been no applicants in the help me department. And the other is I don’t trust anyone as much as I trust myself. I hate it when people let me down, I hate feeling disappointed or angry at someone, so if I never give them an opportunity to let me down, then I’m fine right?
It’s a strategy that works well enough as long as you are a robot. And I have been a robot this year. But I'm trying to make room for another way, and it's scaring the shit out of me.
For the last few years, I’ve been gauging my success by how productive I’ve been, by how many emails I’ve sent or answered. I see shows on my webpage, and I’m like, “Okay, you’re doing it. See there, that’s proof.”
But the thing is, it’s not working for me anymore. I don’t like the way I’m spending my time. Keeping this going is killing me, the way I’m doing it. All by myself. I spend most of my time doing things I’m bad at. I’m terrible at routing tours. It takes me forever to buy a plane ticket. I don’t even have a burning need to be on the road.
How to say this. There are a lot of things I like about being on the road - in a way, it’s just a long party and you get to see your friends and you meet new people and come on, playing music for a living is an incredible gift and anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that is an asshole.
So I’m grateful to have had this privilege, but I’ve also lived with myself the whole time it’s been happening and I’ve noticed that playing shows isn’t the One Thing that I need to do to feel okay. Playing shows is the reward.
What then is the One Thing? That part is clear. Making songs and stories is what I feel called to do.
Fine. I’ve known this for a long time. But I also have wanted to make the most of my opportunities, to honor them, so I’ve put a lot of work into booking and the organizing and the promoting. Results have been mixed, but at least I’ve been doing something. At least I haven’t been waiting for someone to do it for me.
When I moved to Nashville a decade ago, it was like starting over. Having made music my job out on the west coast for more than 10 years, I came to Nashville and made a surprising discovery. No one cared! Suddenly I couldn’t make a living playing music for people. I had to get a job. It hurt my feelings but it was really the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I valet parked cars at a hotel for four years while I figured what to do. I was depressed a lot. But I also had a ton of free time. There was no business to run. No hustle.
I was free to explore, so I wrote short stories and I learned how to shoot and edit film and I wrote songs, all of this without knowing how it fit into the world or what good it would do me. I didn’t know what else to do, so I did the thing that made me happiest.
Then when I started getting a little momentum, touring and making money playing music again, I was so grateful to not have to park cars, that I would do anything to keep it all going. Sleep in my Isuzu, play shows for 2 people, whatever it took. Anything but valet.
So yay, I put in the work. I’m not shitting on myself here. There have been some positive habits. Not being lazy is always a good choice.
But as the gigs have gone up, the creativity has gone down. I haven’t had time to take chances on making new things. I haven’t made time, because I was afraid that I might fail and then I would have to park cars again.
But if you want to make a work of art, you must be willing to take a chance.
Everyday I wake up, I have a choice: do I take the chance or not? There are only so many hours in the day. The hard thing about art is, it’s hard to quantify. Emails don’t have that problem. If I respond to twenty people, update a dozen shows on my page, create all the Facebook events, post something on my instagram to remind people I exist, I can look at the stuff and feel like, well at least you’re trying. Keeping the valet at bay.
But if I write a song, I risk a lot more. For one, I might write a bad song, or an unfinished song. Or a stupid story. God I’ve written so many bad songs and stories. Way more bad ones than good. So every day I wake up having to choose whether or not to take the risk. And often times, especially lately, I have done the countable thing.
Which would be fine if I were doing what I want to be doing. But I’m not. It's been cool, and I'm thankful to have had this incredible opportunity, but this isn’t what I want my life to look like anymore. I don’t want to spend all my time doing things I’m bad at, just so I can maintain the status quo of driving around by myself 200 days a year to keep the machine going. I want to focus on making stuff. I want to take chances.
Which is why I’m so scared right now. Making this record, this way, was deciding to break the pattern and do something different. I want to make the music I want to make. But in the meantime all the old distractions (obligations?) are still there, begging for my attention. All the emails. The empty calendar. A lot of my friends have the rest of their year already booked. I have no idea what I’m doing after June. Instead of waking up and plotting tours, I've been making new music.
I’m afraid, but I know I don’t want what I’ve had. I want something different. I want to make an album that sounds like me. And then I want to finish my next book. And I want to share my job, my career, with someone, professionally. I don't care about money, but I want to make enough to have a team. I'm happy to make other people some money, if it means I can spend time making art.
I want to throw-in with the right people but before that happens, I have to make something new, something they can believe in. Something I can believe in.
What happens if you dare to ask for what you really want?
I just walked outside after I wrote that last line. I opened the door and caught my breath. It’s twenty degrees colder today than it was yesterday. I went back inside to get a heavier shirt and then I walked down to the river. Its name is the Big Wood, and right now it's swollen with the spring runoff, brackish and rushing. The sound it made was a washing away sound. It snowed this morning but now the sun was out and I could hear little birds whose names I did not know calling out to each other in cheerful singsong. I stood on a lingering snowbank and watched the river and listened for awhile. Then I came back to the cabin and split a few rounds with an axe and carried a load of firewood inside.
I thought: but what if I crash and burn? What if everything falls apart? Well, it has before. I can always go park cars.
The important thing is to listen to your still small voice, and do what it says.