All in Music

It was the hardest assignment I’ve ever been given. It had to be a certain length. It had to work musically with the tone of the visuals. It had to comment on what was going on onscreen without describing it, so it had to add subtext. I loved the challenge, and I’m still really happy with the final product. Auden claimed to have written a poem in every meter style that had ever existed. And if someone came up with one he hadn’t heard of before, he’d write it down and try to create a new poem in that meter. Pure craft, right?

Don’t be surprised if you’re making bad art. Don’t be discouraged. And whatever you do, don’t stop. Keep making bad art. Not because you’re wrong about your self-evaluation — you might be producing some really awful stuff. But just because the thing you’re working on is a ripe mess doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to stop working. On the contrary, that might be both the worst time and reason to quit. I think you need to make bad art in order to make anything better. I know that’s been the case for me. 

As much as motherhood has taken away — time to write, the ability to practice the piano without little hands taking over the keyboard ("Scooch, Mama”), the mental acuity to use polysyllabic words (or, some days, to finish sentences) — it has given me more. I have not lost myself in motherhood, as I had feared, but discovered myself. I don't just mean I've realized the beauty and joy of being a mother, but in and through motherhood I've grasped new ways of being creative. I learn creativity from my children, who are infinitely the same as and different from me; I learn creativity through my desire to create for them; I learn creativity simply by opening myself up to being something else.

I used to desire, more than anything, to be useful to God. To be a good Christian. To change the world for Christ. To burn with the prophetic fire that lit Rich Mullins. But when my good works turned to ashes in my hands, I learned for the first time how precious it was to be wanted by God, apart from any usefulness I might have. Rich fought hard to grasp this lesson, and maybe if I’d been listening better I could have learned it from him while he was alive, but I doubt it: I had to fight for it on my own.

It was a few weeks into the class that I suddenly felt as though I was in the ocean, treading water with seasoned and well-equipped scuba divers. The language was the water surrounding me, warm and inviting, salty and buoyant but dark below. It was the darkness that drew me. As much as I tried to get in touch with the text, with the loss of Eden, I felt drawn to the darkness below and I swam in that.

Becoming a Songwriter, Part 3

Whether you believe you have a soul, a personality, or that you are a random blip in a succession of universes, within your person is the very you of you. I’m describing the you that is only you and no one else on the planet. You know you’re not me or your sister or brother. You are you. You have a mind and emotions that feel, think, and imagine. You have a body that has mobility and senses. You have a gender. You’re able to communicate in a number of ways — non-verbally through expressions, with language, with your whole body, and of course with music. Creativity, and specifically songwriting, ought to be the natural outworking of the whole person simply being what he or she is, human.

Becoming a Songwriter, Part 2

The power of place cannot be underestimated. This is why artists leave one place and move to another. The new place likely comes with a story—a story that tells the artist, “If you want to be a songwriter, this is the place to do it. This is the place that others have done the very thing you want to do. This is a place rich in stories — it’s a history-making place.” When young songwriters tell me they are moving to Nashville, it’s not because of the Tennessee Titans or our famous meat and three cuisine. 

Places, and the people that inhabit places, are never neutral in what they give birth to. People and place are meaning makers.

Becoming a Songwriter, Part 1

I think this is the way it must be. Every musical child born into the music of a people and place must also hear and see music done by others outside your immediate circle. There must be some heroic figure (and hopefully several) that inspire the young musical person to imagine himself or herself doing that thing, or something similar — essentially, making something. Saying in your energized imagination and will, “I want to make that. I will make that.”

Now, certainly I am grateful for the cheerful mechanic who diagnosed and replaced my broken alternator last Christmas Eve. And I owe a great deal to the tailor who salvaged the almost-brand new red leather shoes I’d spilled jojoba oil on. But that does not diminish my own satisfaction from improvising an oil plug gasket by sewing together part of a leftover ring from a battery-cleaning kit. Nor does it dim the delight of successfully building a new pad for a seatless chair frame I found on the street.
Music and writing seem to be flip sides of the same coin. I view my musical life and my writing life through very different lenses, but both have taken on the patina of parenthood. At least it’s a familiar feeling, like coming home. Home to a small oasis in a sea of dishevelment teeming with maple-syrup-encrusted children, a supportive spouse, and really excellent coffee.
Listening to a record is a physical process. I don't type a name in a search box; I kneel and flip through record sleeves. I stand, and lift the lid, and place the needle just right. The music requires attention, and after a few songs, I move to turn the record over. The records, and the player, take up physical space in my life — a rooted kind of space. They require a physical response, and like the prayers at church, they are repeated. Place and posture, roots and response, attention and repetition: these not only signal that what I'm doing means something, but that it is creating meaning as well.
So, in order for me to think justly about my world, I have to know my world the way my Creator does — namely, that I belong to my world and it belongs to me. And I belong more immediately and vitally to my immediate surroundings. As it relates to people, justice is rooted in God’s desire for people. In my opinion, that desire is never general and statistical but always particular and personal. So if I am to live more justly and foster truth, goodness, and beauty, I must localize. I must know, personally and particularly, the place and the people to whom I’ve been given.
I slipped into the venue and climbed up to the balcony where I planned to observe the show from a distance. But so help me, by the middle of the second song I found myself headed for the stairs to stand among the crowd right in front of the stage. Why? Because my favorite band from high school was putting on an amazing live show. They were great! They moved me from being a distant observer to being a part of the experience.
The best chefs take risks and strive to surprise. A music mixer aiming to succeed needs to do the same. Whether by addition or omission, we need to catch the ear of our clients and listeners by creating an element of surprise. The dish needs to appeal, but it needs to stand apart from what others offer.

Of course all of this is open to interpretation. You may not like cashew chicken or banjos. Sometimes in your eyes or mine, I fail.
To love another beyond purpose or reason — to love them for who they are, not because they take away one kind of loneliness or fill some hole in my life — that is what I strive for, what I hope for in my better moments. It is the kind of life I desire to lead.

Interview Series: MAKING — A Conversation with Carey Wallace

Art in all its forms is intimately connected with every aspect of all lives. We sing when people die. We dance when they get married. Even sports events and video games incorporate music, dance images, theater. The things I make are only my participation in that constant, unstoppable swirl of creation. This world is already beautiful and good. It’s just a question of where we choose to look.

Academy of the Observant Life

The irony of conversing with a stranger is that your individual lives always look very different and personal, but then you strip away the nuances to find a common likeness buried inside of diversity. Take away money and geography and we’re all just flesh and blood and soul. We’re all dealing with sin and forgiveness, love and hate, glory and shame. The big ideas remain. Life creates another day of history and the babies keep on coming. People dream their dreams. The young grasp at reinventing the wheel and the maturing masses learn to let go of such reinventions one breath at a time.

Preamble to an Odyssey

Too often when you reach the top of anything, a mountain or a career, you find yourself standing alone or with very few others. Attrition travels the length of the ascent. It may be that only the highly skilled and the very wounded make it to the top. The highly skilled arrive because they’re more prepared for success than anyone else in the world. The skilled-but-deeply-wounded arrive not because they’re so majestically prepared for success but because they cannot stop moving. Even the peak does not stop them. Space is their next frontier. Final frontier? Hardly.

I train my eyes to rest on these beautiful things during work days, reminiscent of the time I discovered an open E chord on my guitar and played it for a solid half hour in as many ways I could, with my ear resting on the body of the instrument to soak up the resonance. There’s a stability I’m finding here that is good and right, that reminds me of the growing stability of my hands mastering those first basic chord shapes and transitions.