I am a big fan of travelling by motor vehicle and have always loved a good road trip. Admittedly, those long miles in the backseat were trying as a child, gazing out the window as the miles fell away. But I grew to love the road, whether travelling solo or with friends. Perhaps road trips appeal to my polar nature, as they are a near perfect mix of doing and not doing: travelling farther from home in one day than some do in a lifetime, all while sitting still, drinking truck stop coffee, and listening to music. Now that is a cool way to get somewhere.
You may already be familiar with the parable of the two wolves (a story typically attributed to the Cherokee nation), but in case you you're not, I will summarize it briefly:
In the parable of the two wolves, a grandfather is talking with his grandson and tells him that each of us have two wolves inside of us that are at war: one wolf is good, representing love; the other is bad, representing fear. Upon consideration the child asks, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” To which the wise old man replies, “The one you feed.”
Last time I discussed my somewhat unlikely entrance into yogic practice as well as my injured right shoulder and how it has been a perennial weak link for me, especially so in the past couple of years. Physical therapy did not help the situation - at least not quickly enough - and once my insurance company pulled the plug on further visits, I found myself left to my own devices. I remember that last day of therapy and how there seemed to be an elephant in the room: saying my farewells to the staff when everyone knew I was still in a lot of pain. Yet, that was somehow beside the point and we all knew it. I suppose we have come to collectively accept how business is done in the modern age … that’s just life, right?
In my last blog I mentioned taking a vacation without planning ... how I'd hit the road in a southwesterly direction largely because I felt “pulled” to do so. At the peak of my trip I found myself face down in a traditional Native American medicine wheel with three women, each one a psychic practitioner. I closed my last blog discussing a moment of lucidity I had in the midst of that experience, how I’d stopped to check in with myself and make a mental note about just how ridiculous my circumstances were in the context of my “real” life. In retracing my steps to that morning’s events I could see that I’d followed a path to that place, surely enough, but not consciously. The path was crystal clear as I gazed back at it, but it wasn’t one I could have followed in a traditional sense, it simply had to be walked. In the midst of those strange surroundings, I was overcome with the sensation of being exactly where I needed to be. It’s a feeling I’ve been growing familiar with.
If you’ve read a few of these blogs you may already be familiar with non-interference. Simply put, non-interference is a life practice (sometimes referred to as Wu Wei, Chinese for “non-doing”) that recommends letting go of the reigns, suggesting life is capable of drawing us down our highest path if only we’d get out of the way and let it. My last record, Tennessee Night, was about more than just music to me, as I'd chosen to make the entire process an experiment in living according to principles of non-interference. For my part, that entailed actively trusting circumstances, honing my deeper instincts, getting honest with myself, and stepping off a few cliffs under the assumption that a path would appear beneath my feet. I’m still walking, and I have no plans to terminate the experiment at this point ... only I no longer consider it an experiment ... now it's just how I live my life.
To blog or not to blog, that is the question? Well, the answer for the last few months has been a consistent “no”. Too many shows, too much of the day job, and a sprinkling of me growing really, really tired of the sound of my own voice (and the look of my own typed characters for that matter). It has been a quiet time, a pensive time, and a time of taking respite when and where a fellow can. None of these factors contributed much to this blog, obviously.
In my last blog I discussed coming to have a different relationship with songs, as well as having questioned the wisdom of opening up about that process and where it has led me. I talked about how my experiences of the past three years now seem to be culminating in a return of sorts, a change in perspective regarding many things, including my approach to this blog. In the end, I remembered all the stories I'd read from others on similar paths and the difference their honesty made in my own journey. And so, I continue ...
About three years ago I began to notice and pay attention to the more subtle aspects of my existence, things that had up till then eluded the lens of my observation. These are things I've hinted at from time to time in my blogs, as if the thread of these writings would soon veer into interesting -- if perhaps questionable -- personal territory. I didn’t know exactly what this would look like, but it would surely involve forsaking my usual stomping ground (blogs dealing with the intellectual/philosophical) in favor of sharing more and detailing some of the strange and surprising roads that have opened to me since I more fully immersed myself into the pursuit of music. I've found myself torn on this point, often quoting the lyrics of David Ramirez’ song Ball and Chain to myself, “... hold on to some of your stories, save just a few from the soundwaves.”
In previous blogs I’ve touched on the topic of fractals and self-similarity, or the idea that the more we’re able to observe our universe, the more we recognize set patterns of self-resembling organization at every level. Through this construction, the universe seems to unfold in a grand, yet paradoxical design, ceaselessly falling into chaos while simultaneously feeding upon that chaos in the development of progressively higher levels of organization. If there is a fundamental shortcoming in the western mindset -- and a possible source of modern depression and despair -- it may well be our failure to recognize and resonate with this pattern, and to find purpose in its unfolding. Instead we consider it our job to defeat the pattern, to overcome the natural order, and to ultimately put an end to death. Yet, would not an end to death also mean an end to the evolution of humanity? So, while I love the idea of living longer, less painful lives, I fear our obsession with overcoming death betrays a deep dis-ease within us, and serves as an indication that we are out of step with the natural order of the universe, one in which our planet appears to be but a single cell.
It seems we’re passing through an interesting time in America, a time in which one need only turn on the news to witness countrymen at each other’s throats, streets flooded with protesters, and anxieties running high. It’s quite a scene to behold, and certainly beyond anything I’ve witnessed in my life up to this point. Given how strange things are starting to look here in the United States, I can only imagine how they must appear to our fellow citizens of the world who find themselves on the outside gazing in. It’s true, Americans are something of a wacky bunch, and admittedly we’ve been making some colorful political decisions of late, many of which have resulted in worry, fear, and downright panic for people both in and out of the country.
The genetically modified organism debate has been raging in our society for a while now, and it's a complex issue, one that I’ve been struggling to make sense of for years--not actively or anything, but I read, I pay attention, and I feel concern like many other people do. Despite all assurances to the contrary there’s just something about GMOs that nags at me, and I’m far from the only one. Science seems to regard the persistence of resistance to GMOs as being rooted in a lack of education, but I don’t believe it’s that simple. I think a lot of us get it, we’re clear enough on what science is saying regarding the safety of GM crops as it pertains to direct consumption ... even so, there’s just something about GMOs.
When last I left you, I was discussing intuition and my ongoing experiment in living by non-interference, a radically altered life approach in which solid plans and strategies are set aside and events are allowed to arrive without judgement, like waves crashing on a shoreline. This has been easier said than done at times, but for the most part, I’ve held firmly to the mantra, “just keep saying yes.”
So I recently turned 45, and if asked what the 45-year-old me has that the 44-year-old version was missing, I would honestly say that in the last year, I have learned to follow -- to give myself over to the possibility that I’ve been living my life exactly backwards, that reason and rigorous planning may not be the best guide when it comes to finding peace and happiness, and certainly not when it comes to making records.
Throughout the summer I’ve been working on the process of converting an album’s worth of hard-earned new songs into an actual completed record. This is my second opportunity to pass through the somewhat rarefied experience of recording a album; there’s much more I’m learning this time around, more I'm discovering about the process and more about myself. Of course it is a shared experience, one in which a collection of deeply personal words and melodies meets the ears of artists and engineers, players and a producer, each with his or her own impressions and observations, each with his or her own ideas and gifts to contribute. It’s my impression that even under the best of circumstances this is a delicate and at times painful dance.
In our society, we tend to emphasize fundamental truths, beliefs, and answers, but recently, I heard someone suggest that there are no fundamental answers, only fundamental questions. I’d never considered this viewpoint before, and it got me thinking, wondering if I’ve been looking at it all backwards?
Art is a fundamental part of our world, and its existence contributes to the quality of our everyday experience. It’s found in the music we listen to, the shows we watch, the ways we move (well, sometimes), and perhaps even our state of mind, assuming it’s a good day. At the same time, we are surrounded by non-art: music without soul, products built in accordance with the doctrine of planned obsolescence, and aisles lined with processed food, all made without love and packaged into colorful, chemically stained boxes. So what leads us to call some things "art" while others things we do not?
Recently I wrote about my songwriting process and how, as I've grown and developed, it has taken a cyclical form. The cycle of my creative process oscillates between living fully and writing deeply, seeding and harvesting. This pattern of cycles should be familiar, because everything in our reality unfolds in this way. Beneath the love, the pain, the sun, the dark, the Earth and the sky, there likely exists only shimming vibrations.
I spent the evening with a friend and fellow songwriter recently. We've been meeting to discuss his songs, aspects of his performance, and how his sound might translate to a full album. The last time we met he told me that he felt he needed to get “out of his little box,” referring to the collection of chords and techniques he keeps within his musical repertoire. This was an interesting comment to me, especially since we’ve been looking at Ryan Adams’ guitar playing and how he's managed to a lot with a little, guitar-wise, throughout his career.
When it comes to songwriting there’s no set formula for success. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, sexes and ages, and they each have a unique approach to courting the muse, which for some may even be denial of the muse altogether and the adoption of more formulaic approaches to creativity. I’ve often wondered why some people seem to pour out songs as fast as their free-time will allow, while others only manage write a new song every year or two? Perhaps the reason is that some people are simply more gifted than others, more blessed. On the other hand, might it possible that more prolific writers have improved the quality of their relationship to the muse--and thereby the quality of their songs--by better aligning themselves with their own essential nature?
Songwriting, like all art forms, is a never ending dance in which each of us works to continuously perfect our steps. As I write new songs, my process is to make recordings of them and place those recordings in a folder on my computer. Once I've done this I walk away from them and wait to see how they feel to me with the passage of time. Invariably, there are those that stand out, begging to see the real world, and those that are destined to live out their lives in that folder, never to be played again or heard by another human being. I wonder about that folder and I wonder about those songs, the ones that don’t seem to pass the test of time. What is it that distinguishes one from the other?