October 24, 2022

Writing Songs That Few People Will Ever Hear


This is a picture of the outside of my studio. It’s about 60 steps from my backdoor. But when I walk it before the sun comes up and Venus is still bright in the Eastern sky, that’s enough to remind me that I love this world. It’s very quiet where I live. And particularly in this fine month of October (could it be the best month?), there is a smell in the air (of last night’s piñon fires, of the coming of winter, of rain–at least this year) that is powerful. I also love the smell in my studio. I’m not sure what makes it. A year or two ago I burned some sage in there. I often make coffee. Once in a while I’ll oil my fretboard with linseed oil. I have several old guitars hung on the walls. I have a lot of books on the shelves and several unopened boxes of my books. That all combines with the cold air into a really pleasant bouquet.

I stumble in here real early, often with a guitar in hand and sometimes with a mug, and I grope across the dark floor for past a rarely used drum set to the light, which casts a golden glow across my desk. Sometimes Mali (also pictured above) runs after me. Amazingly, she has never entered my space, despite basically having full reign of all our rooms and furniture everywhere else in our house. She respects that this space is sacred to me. I love her for that. And then I try to get to work. Sometimes I’m working on something for Son of Town Hall or a song for a future record of mine. But this past week or two, I’ve been working on a private song for someone who was hoping to use to propose to her fiancé. It’s something I do periodically, (enough so that I have a page on this here site in case you would like one).

I finished the song two days ago and sent it off. And then I didn’t hear anything for a couple of days, which was very unlike her typical response time. I’ll admit that even after having written a lot of these songs, I still get a nervous that what I write won’t be what the person wanted. Is the melody sweet enough? Is the feel too slow? Too fast? Are there any details that are off? Do any words or phrases or images stick out? Is it over the top? When someone commissions a piece, I first try to solicit as much as I can via email or phone about that person’s feelings and story. This can feel a little like therapy sometimes. Some people are very open with their emotions. Others require more encouragement. I collect these details, and I live with them. I look at photos if they’ve sent any. I think about their joys and struggles. I try to internalize them. And I recognize the gravity of it all and the trust they are putting in me to express their most private of emotions. And the truth is that I come to love the people I write for, and so I want the songs to be perfect. It’s like commissioning a portrait. You want the resemblance to be flattering (as opposed to some of the Spanish royals pictured in The Prado).

Anyway, this morning, after arriving in London, I got a note back. Part of it read, “It’s more perfect than I could have dreamed and to be able to hear myself and my heart in the song so purely is magical.”

Phew. Big relief. I wanted to share this for two reasons. One is that even after writing songs for over two decades, I am okay admitting, as I wrote above, that I still worry about what people will think. And two, for a long time I’ve been wondering about whether it makes a difference if just two or two thousand people are moved by a song. Many friends go into writing rooms with other musicians in Nashville or LA or London to collaborate and hopefully write hits. I often go into the above hut in the early morning alone to write songs that very few people will ever hear. These commissioned pieces will never appear on my records. In fact, they probably only get heard by the close family and a few friends of whomever I’ve written the song for. I don’t often play them for Sarah even, and that says a lot. But despite the very limited size of their audience (0 Spotify spins), they are really important–to the people who commission them and, ultimately, to me. And so it speaks it gets me thinking again about how to value art. Audience isn’t irrelevant. We do make pieces so they can be perceived. But I’ve never felt art should be quantified in numbers. This is obviously not the trend these days. People often look up someone’s Spotify count before they make any sort of judgment on the quality of their music. Our society leans so heavily on statistics in making any sort of determination. But something is missed in the numbers.

In case you’re out there writing songs that might not be featured on NPR or painting paintings that won’t be hung on any crowded gallery wall in the near future or writing philosophic memoirs that few people may read…or even if you’re just writing reflections in your journal. Art never was meant to be a numbers game. And often the best work is not the most popular. I at least work to believe that moving one person with an expression of something real is of unquantifiable value and, therefore, is neither greater or lesser than moving a lot of people. Try to be honest. Try to be observant. Try to work a little every day. Try to keep your voice your own. I believe that matters no matter how many people see or hear it.