voices

My voice has provided me with an exceedingly cool life.

My voice is not all there is to it, but in a lot of ways, the things I get to do begin and end with what does or doesn’t come out of my mouth or from the tips of my fingers.

Today is Constitution Day. So in celebration of the great voices who gave us such a terrific document, I’ll be making some noise with my own when I will join a cast of other loud mouths at Cooper Union’s Great Hall for a special edition of Voices of a People’s History of The United States. I’ve been so lucky to have been included in many of these events since my first one, which also happened to be in the room we’ll be in tonight, in 2008.

Thank you to my dear friend Anthony Arnove and to Howard Zinn, without whom we would not be gathering to do such a thing. I’m humbled by their work to bring the voices of those who spoke and speak the truth to our attention, and I’m reminded today to use my own for good.

Happy Monday, Y’all.

AM

intention

I think about intentions a lot. In my work, in my daily actions, when considering the overview of things — I want to be able to call them good, wholesome, unselfish, sometimes maybe even lofty. If I am honest with myself I can stand back and point out when and where they haven’t been or aren’t, and instead exist to serve my ego in some way. I hate that.

My intention yesterday was to have this posted by midnight. Despite that intention, I didn’t get it done. Though the ticking clock nagged at me all day, I didn’t live up to the deal I made with myself that I’d do this every Monday during 2018 and instead am offering it now, this Tuesday morning, I guess better late than never, but still late. I hate that.

But as in most or probably all things, what happens in my life drives a question. Why is it so important that I live up to a deadline imposed on me by me? What is this structure doing for me, my body of work, my life? Why do I do this at all? Is it simply to serve my ego or is there something else going on?

I’ve put plenty of work into the world. Sometimes I think I don’t need to do any more. I’ve written lots of songs, made a handful of records, even have a fair amount of written work floating around and, much to my delight and surprise, have an actual book coming out next year. I ask myself why a lot. Did the world ever need any of my input and does it now? Truth is, I’ve chosen to earn a living by taking what’s in my brain and heart and trying to convince the world it’s worth paying attention to and paying for. But the truth also is that I probably could’ve chosen an easier route to having money to pay for groceries and the roof that keeps my head dry. Regardless, it’s the route I’m on. And having some guardrails around it keeps me from ending up in the ditch of doing things later or not at all. Confines and deadlines keep things moving. Is it all ego driven? Probably. Is it possible to make any kind of art without ego? Probably not.

I guess I’m just trying to figure out how not to die when it gets down to it. And putting these paragraphs here is one way in which I’m trying to leave something behind, one way in which I’m trying to say, “I’m here. And after I’m gone I hope someone will remember that I was.”

I could give you a list of why I didn’t make it to these paragraphs yesterday. I could tell you about the thousand little joys and heartbreaks that forced themselves into my day and made me stop to catch my breath, my lists of tasks and my amount of overwhelm, but they don’t matter I don’t guess and I know new ones will line themselves up again today. I see them out of the corner of my eye and hear them breathing behind my back right now.

I will tell you that one of the reasons I am late with this missive is that I was lucky enough to watch John Prine receive The Troubadour Award at BMI last night. So I was out late and found myself too emotional afterwards to put any words down that would’ve made any sense. I had thought I would, but no. Yes, I love Prine’s aching songs as much as anyone does, and enjoyed hearing the performers who were chosen to sing a few of them. “The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” “Big Ole Goofy World,” “Angel from Montgomery,” and “I Want to Dance with You,” were all delightful and made me feel almost light. That was not the case, however, when Robert Earl Keen delivered, with grace and gravity, “Hello in there.” That song is so damned lonely it makes me not just cry but actually tremble every time I hear it. I get scared when I become that moved, and astonished when I feel so seen. But that’s what the best songs do, don’t they? They make us feel understood. Even though I am not Loretta just yet, I, like most of us, feel like I will be one day and sooner than I want to admit. As I always say, art is a mirror. I don’t always realize that I’m afraid I will be Loretta until I hear the proper words wrapped around the devastation of invisibility.

So I reckon my intention is to try not to be invisible. I don’t want to disappear before my own eyes, become irrelevant to those I’m supposed to be relevant to and even myself, and stare out the back door screen today or any of my tomorrows. I know I most likely, at some stage, will. I get how it usually goes. But for now I’m fighting it like the devil. For now I’m trying, like the rest of you, not to die. For now I’m saying, “I’m here.”

It may not be the best intention, but for today it’s the one I’ve got.

 

Happy Tuesday,

AM

 

dedication

Some people are born into their thing. I’ve calculated that my sister and I did our ten thousand hours of singing in the car with our Mama before we were even close to grown. 

That doesn’t make us geniuses, but it gives us a certain confidence about doing the thing that we were born into which is, without a doubt, making music. 

These past weeks I’ve immersed myself in making a record with Hayes Carll. He asked me to co-produce with Brad Jones and it’s the first time I’ve formally held the position. While I lack, sorely, any technical musical prowess, I know my way around a studio, a song, and a performance as much as it pains me to admit it (I’m female – I tend to downplay and underestimate my talents – but as a side note please let’s work on getting more women in the producing and engineering door). Lest I digress, my point in telling you all of this is to say that I saw a lot of dedication in human form come in and out of that studio while we were recording the record. There’s a reason why people travel from all over the world to make records in Nashville – the musicians who reside and work there are, across the board, simply the best that can be found. When I stand back and consider the talent I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by the past twenty-two years, and that I’ve been allowed to be a part of the music making business family as a whole, I am astonished. What a fortunate person am I to have been given a front row seat to witness mastery, sometimes on a daily basis. Some of these folks were born into their thing and came by it more easily than most could, but some of them were not and instead had their souls set on fire by something that made them want to pick up an instrument and master it. I love almost nothing more than a natural talent, but I have the utmost respect for a hard worker.

I said to someone recently that while it’s true that I do and have done a lot of different things in my professional life, I was aware of what it takes to be great and didn’t want to dilettante around at this or that, never giving myself a chance to become great at anything because I wasn’t disciplined or dedicated enough to stay the course. It took me a while to get to that way of thinking. It takes a lot of backbone and other things, such as reminders like the one I just described above, to think like that every day. Life’s too short to take halfhearted stabs. At some point, one must nail something to the wall. 

Happy Monday. 

AM

PS – Thank you Connie Chornuk for the great photograph.

trouble

I’m relatively new to podcasts. I had an awareness of the seemingly never ending sea of them, but like most television shows, I find it hard to start listening to or watching a series because I’m a bit of a completist — I don’t like to commit unless I’m 100% sure I can follow through. I’m becoming less so in this stage of my life — I now find it hard to justify sticking with something I started it if I don’t like it. Life’s too short to read a book you hate. But since I discovered the On Being podcast after reading Krista Tippett’s “Becoming Wise,” I try not to miss an episode. I guess it should go without saying that I am behind, and just this morning listened to the August 9 show with Joe Carter. It was heavy stuff for a Monday morning, but if you’re gonna get heavy, it might as well be on a Monday, yes?

 

Trouble songs. I don’t even know now why I wrote that down as I listened — I don’t remember if that was something he said or if I just heard the word and connected it to the spirituals he sang and then started my own train of thought about it, but those are the words that have been going around in my head all day.

 

I’ve been in the studio with Hayes helping him make a new record. It’s going to be a great one. He’s written his own new batch of trouble songs and they’ll soon be delivered to y’all. As the group of us huddled in that dimly lit space today, trying to make magic as we always do, my mind kept returning to the thought of trouble, and how our traditions of making noise to ease our pain are so deep. Songs are a secret doorway to peace, always have been. A wail, a cry, a release, an admission of weakness, a plea for help — trouble songs are communion, a way to join others and an invitation for others to join us in our sorrow and then, hopefully, probably, ultimately, exaltation when we have expressed our hurt. All art making is the transmission of feeling that cannot be kept inside.

 

My most recent evenings have been spent stitching the words of my own trouble song into the quilt that you see pictured. The pieces were cut out and sewn together by my paternal great-grandmother. They were discovered by my maternal grandmother in a junk-filled building we called the little house that sat on the edge of the yard of the house where my sister and I grew up. Our grandmother, many years after rescuing them from the rat pills and squirrel carcasses, sewed them onto a top that she lovingly and painstakingly picked out, matching the colors just so. The lyrics to “Blood,” are going on it now. I don’t know if my forebears held trouble in their hands as they did the work on this piece that will hold such a sweet piece of my family’s history, but I know they had their share to express.

The most amazing thing about art is it gives our trouble a place to go.

 

Happy Monday, Y’all.

AM

currency

I didn’t really know what I was going to write about this morning when I woke up. Some Mondays, I have something sort of ready — something starts to bubble up on Saturday or Sunday. But not this week. I knew my heart felt heavy, but I didn’t know where that weight would necesarily go.

I subscribe to the Words of Women newsletter. I recommend it. It too comes on Mondays, and today’s letter helped me figure out part of what has been hanging over me — the notion of time, exchanges of energy, what we do and do not allow to be done with our energy and attention, and the price tags that go on those things, figurative or real.

We just lost Aretha Franklin. When I was thinking about currency today, I began to imagine what a random promoter in a random city might’ve thought of when considering making a performance offer for The Queen of Soul. How does one put a monetary value on that? I have no idea what sort of guarantees Ms. Franklin received, but I know they could not have been close to high to enough. You can’t put dollar signs on the kind of talent she had or the kind of giving of it that she did.

Nor can you pin an appropriate number on the value of any interaction, when there is wholehearted give and take. I’ve paid as little as a few dollars or maybe no dollars at all to witness performances that stopped time for me, performances that I’ll remember and continue to be touched by forever. I’ve had honest conversations that changed my life. I’ve read books that altered my way of thinking forever. I’ve had lessons poured into me by those who are, or were at the time, smarter and more experienced than I am and I became better because of them. I’ve spent precious minutes with my son that expanded me in every direction.

Our energy, our attention, and ultimately our time are our most precious resources, not only because they require the most of us in order to give them fully, but because they are the things of which we have the least. We never know when we will have no more of ourselves to give in an earthly way. We never know when others’ time will be up, either. As mine dwindles, I realize this more and more — there are no more days to be offered up to anything that isn’t worthy. And the things that are, deserve nothing less than my all. I consider this in reverse as well — I don’t want to take up anyone else’s time unless I have a way to earn it.

The great news about getting older is that the vision is honed, the edit is edited, the focus narrows, and the magpie tendencies fall away. A svelte life becomes a requirement, because who can say how much every tick of the clock is worth? As an old friend once told me, life is minutes, and every one of them is priceless.

Happy Monday, Y’all.

AM

 

PS – This photo is a screen shot from a video I did with Coleman Saunders for “Tear Me Apart,” from my last record.

collision

There are some things that we as artists have to take on alone. When I wrote Crows,” I was almost completely solitary. But I am most often not an artist who totally keeps to herself. I like to collaborate with others, to give out what I’ve taken in and share what I’ve learned, to experience the energy exchange that comes with getting in a huddle to create something beautiful, whether it be a song, a performance, or a film.

There’s an opportunity for an electric type of magic to burst up out of voices blending, instruments getting in rhythm — one with the other — and minds leaning toward a center in search for something not necessarily higher than a lone one can find, but something that is almost always somehow more empathetic. To collaborate successfully, we have to listen to each other.

Today’s post is in honor of Steven “Flip” Lippman, who passed away yesterday. He directed, “Fly Low, Stay Close,” (thank you to The Bitter Southerner) for my sister and me just before we released our album, “Not Dark Yet.” Flip got us, and got our music. When we let him in to who we are and what we’d done, he was able to take those things and shine a light on them in a way that no one else would’ve done in quite the same way. We were blown away by the finished piece and were so thankful to Flip for seeing us, for hearing us, and for so lovingly presenting us. Our collision was a great one, and one I am (and I know she is) grateful for.

You never know what journey you will take and with whom you will take it. One of the most beautiful things about making art with others is that it indeed transports you to a land you couldn’t have traveled to alone. With this missive, I pray that Flip has been transported to peace, and I hope he’s seeing and feeling at a whole new number of frames per second. However fast or slow it’s all going, I’ll bet it’s beautiful. Thank you, brother.

Happy Monday and happy colliding,

AM

 

collision: the meeting of particles or of bodies in which each exerts a force upon the other, causing the exchange of energy or momentum.

lineage

I wasn’t expecting my weekly post inspiration to come from Beyoncé today. She is on the cover of the upcoming September issue of US Vogue, and the email I got this morning announcing that and featuring gorgeous photos of her gorgeous self caught my attention. I clicked. I then read the “as told to,” interview, and went back to this paragraph over and over until I wrote it down on a notepad to the right of my keyboard.

“I come from a lineage of broken male-female relationships, abuse of power, and mistrust. Only when I saw that clearly was I able to resolve those conflicts in my own relationship. Connecting to the past and knowing our history makes me both bruised and beautiful.”

Y’all know I am about to put this memoir of mine to bed. In fact, I am working on the edits all day every day right now. The timing, as it always is because there is poetry in the world and in every particle of dust, is perfect. Much, okay almost all, of the material involves my parents. The anniversary of their deaths is once again staring me in the face — this Sunday, August 12, will mark thirty-two years that they’ve been gone.

So as you can imagine, I’ve studied my lineage quite a lot. Not just the who, but the what. I want to know what made/makes me the way that I am. Why do I struggle with this thing and breeze through that one? What am I dragging into my days and relationships that I should’ve left behind long ago? Why is it so hard for me to leave any of it behind? Why can I detach at the same time? Who were these people that shaped me so and then left me here to deal with their creation alone? Why am I sometimes thankful they’re not here to muck it up further? How am I lucky to have had the upbringing that I did? How can I still love them so much my heart feels like it will burst? How do I forgive? How do I not? How did I survive it? How am I free from it? How am I bound?

I won’t ever stop digging through it I don’t think. And Beyoncé, queen that she is, helped me see why. I want to make it better. I want to make me better. I don’t think we as humans want to struggle as hard as we do. I think we’re always reaching for understanding whether we know it or not, whether we’re consciously working toward comprehension of such complicated matters as family and lineage or not. Those matters are within us, therefore it is within us to try to figure them out.

When I look at my Mama and Daddy as children and into their two beautiful, innocent faces, I shake my head and tear up at the very idea that their lives were cut so short and cut so short in such a horrendous way. My heart breaks for the children that they were and for the adults that had the same hearts they were born with, however battered they had become when they died. I see my sister in them, I see myself in them, and most of all I see my son in them, God bless him.

I dig into my lineage almost constantly for him, so that I can try my best not to pass on the horrific and instead give him all the good that I was given. I dig into my lineage almost constantly for those who love me, so that I can try my best to act right, not screw up constantly, so I can be smart and cool like my Daddy, and capable, creative, open-hearted, and willing like my Mama. I dig into my lineage almost constantly for myself, so that I can ease up a little more each day, and find some compassion for the beautiful, innocent face and heart I once had.

Happy digging and happy Monday, y’all.

Sending so much love to everyone today, and thank you, Beyonce.

AM

interstitial (storytelling part II)


“What have I done? Why did I do this?”

Those two thoughts were all I could think as tears fell down my face after I took off my glasses and covered my cheeks with my hands this morning. I had just finished the first read through of my editor’s suggestions to my manuscript. The manuscript is of a memoir I’ve written about my childhood which, God willing, will be released next fall.

 

It wasn’t that there was anything wrong. In fact, there was something awfully right going on. About 1,000 words away from the finish line I read a line that rattled me — and I realized I’d done my job. It isn’t a perfect job, but it is a wholehearted one.

 

You can see at the top of the page of the scribbled outline in this photo the word interstitials. Spaces in between. Throughout the manuscript I’ve included some entries that stand apart from the narrative. We (I and the mighty team that kept me going on this work) started calling them interstitials, as they serve as either bridges from one passage to the next, or as indicators of breaks in thought that could only be shared on the page as bottled lightning bolts or hammered railroad spikes.

And now, another interstitial. The space between the finishing and the letting go.

I’ve never been one to return to my work. I make a thing and then let y’all have it while I move on to the next part of the story I need to tell. There is nothing different happening here, except that the editing process of a book takes much longer than any part of the process of any record I’ve ever heard of and requires more returning. Records are not books and songs are not chapters and sentences are not verses or choruses. Yes, the two art forms share some qualities but I’ll not discuss those today within this allotted hour. What I want to say is that returning, for me, is another revelation. Returning, for me, produces yet another space, where I must hover over something I’ve already done but see it in a new way. There was the completion, then the waiting, then returning to do the “do you like it?”-ing, then more waiting, now the returning for the “do I still like it? Is this any good at all?”-ing, and there will be even more returning, even more waiting. More interstitials. There will be more rattling like there was this morning. But with every phase, I grow somehow. I learn. I appreciate. I am so thankful for the way I’ve gotten to live — and for being allowed to gather such amazing stories in the spaces between every line.

 

Happy Monday, Y’all.

AM

 

storytelling

Everyone has a story to tell. They’re all interesting in some way.

I was thinking this morning about how important it is to be able to tell our stories. And to tell them to someone. To have someone listen. To have them acknowledged. To be able to say, “This is what happened. This is what happened to me. This is what happened to my people.” Saying something out loud makes it real in a way that keeping it inside doesn’t. It’s such a relief.

I read a lot of memoir. Not only because I have worked on one for years (to be published in Fall 2019 — yay for me), but because I find personal stories so interesting and I love an original voice. And every voice, when it is speaking the truth, is original. I am always looking for a common thread, I suppose, something to make me feel like less of an outsider in this world, something that will make me feel like I am not as strange as I imagine myself to be and that I somehow belong. It’s amazing how much we find we have in common with each other when we stop to listen to each other tell our stories.

Someone said to me the other day that it must be strange to go from songwriting for so many years to prose writing. I said yes, the discipline is quite different, but I’ve been working in memoir for over twenty years. I’ve always been telling my story in some way.

It strikes me that making and relating art isn’t so much about the look at me, but about the look at us.

My heart is moved by every story in some way. We are all connected by our commonalities. We should talk and share more often.

Happy Monday, Y’all.

AM

 

blindness

I’m talking about the willful kind.

I’m fascinated by this behavior because we all so often exhibit it. Every one of us.

Human beings are ridiculously stubborn. Why do we ignore the obvious not only in order to support what we want to believe because it suits our agenda, but also to ultimately prevent having to change? We try to ignore the things that don’t scaffold our plans, and seek out only the information that does, creating a continuous confirmation bias that allows us to go forward with what we think we want. It’s an evolutionary tendency that is necessary, I suppose, we have to keep the species going, but the idea still leaves me astounded when I think of the lengths to which we’ll go to look past something that’s right under our noses.

I think of it first in terms of new love, because it’s easy to comprehend that. We’ve all been there. We meet someone who we really like and see them through a soft pink lens, ignoring the little habits that will make us crazy a year down the road or even something like the fact that they always turn their phone face down when we’re present or worse, that they hide it away in their pocket, not allowing us to see it at all. “He’s just trying to let me know he’s focusing on me.” Nope. Actually, he’s probably hiding something from you. We seek out the good feelings of security and confidence, when we should actually be looking at the evidence square on.

We also do it with politicians, friends, family members, even things like restaurants we think we’re supposed to like and rave about. It’s some sort of internal personal hype man situation. “Look at how great this is! SEE! You’re right — it’s awesome. Don’t look over there at that man behind the curtain! Nothing to see there.”

We don’t like knowing what we don’t want to know. If we know it, and we admit it to ourselves, aren’t we then required to change? And God, we hate changing. We’d rather keep things the same, comfortable and familiar and even sometimes wrong as long as its something we know. So of course we ignore what we don’t want to see.

As it applies in the law, it means keeping oneself purposefully ignorant in order to try to use, ‘I didn’t know,” as a defense. Aren’t we, and shouldn’t we be, required to know, to not turn away in an attempt to overlook the truth?

We shut down our intuition. We tune out those little voices, those little taps on our shoulders or sometimes even downright ignore the slap in the face of what’s in front of us. It’s amazing.

Then, if and when we finally wake up we always ask, “How could I have been so blind?”

That’s just been on my mind lately. I don’t think I want to choose to not know.

Happy Monday, Y’all.

AM

PS – What is that quote about a relationship being as successful as the people in it are willing to stay in the role assigned to them by the other person?