I was never a child. I think I came into the world with an Atlas-like sense of burden that only the middle-aged or heads of state should carry. In elementary school when friends talked of crushes, dances, and clothes, I internalized feelings about topics we weren’t to talk about outside my house—not that we talked about them inside my house, either. I found those my age oblivious to the weight I felt; my mind was constantly analyzing life (perhaps it’s more accurate to say it was agonizing over it) while others saw no need to dive into anything deeper than a cereal box to hunt for a free, crumb-covered toy.
I found kinship in literature and music. In literature I could be transported to a life that was not my own; in music I could be immersed in a sensory experience that made my life livable.
I don’t remember the year, but I remember the moment. Sitting on my bed comfortably propped up by my pillow, watching a James Taylor concert on PBS. He was in Boston, MA. I was in Stockton, CA. But the music seemed everywhere and in that moment it was everything to me.
I listened as much with four chambers as with two ears. I knew then that I had to learn how to use a box of wood and steel to soothe the flesh and blood. Music was a major part of my emotional life. In a childhood where I often felt unseen, singers and songwriters seemed to know where I lived. And when they spoke to me I wasn’t alone with my thoughts. I was understood by others who had traversed similar heartaches with something to say on the other side and a stage from which to say it. Somehow, in the world of chords and melodies, being vulnerable wasn’t a weakness. And within their songs I could know that others carried weight too. I’d like to think that in the making of the music and in the listening, we perhaps helped each other lighten the load.
The guitar was a natural choice for me. It fronts many bands with good reason. It’s versatile, timeless, and somehow speaks a raw yet refined language. The aesthetic is unrivaled—gorgeous grains of wood crafted into a piece of visual art that creates art of the aural kind. It’s also not inconsequential that the guitar was something I could literally hold close to me and something that could make me feel held. It absorbed whatever frustration, anxiety, or hope I gave it and transformed it into something beautiful. It transformed me into a musician, though I say that with somewhat of a wince since I’m hardly properly trained. I don’t read sheet music and I know just enough music theory to score poorly on Jeopardy.
You’d think such an experience as the one I “shared” with James Taylor would have catapulted me out of my parents’ house straight toward a music shop. That wasn’t the case. I didn’t buy my first guitar until years later (I still have the receipt that marks the occasion). I crept along the periphery of owning a guitar like a schoolgirl paces before finally deciding to risk a seat at the cool kids’ table.
Many famous guitarists are asked about their first-guitar experience. I’m not famous but have thought about the naive way I chose mine. It was Spitzer’s Music on Pacific Ave in Stockton. I wanted a black dreadnought. I thought that was cool. I didn’t want a guitar that resembled a yellow pencil like the other acoustics in my price range. It was a Fender. I associated Fender with good guitars (even though Fender is famous for their electric models, it wasn’t relevant to my brain at the time). And the sales guy didn’t demonstrate using Stairway to Heaven; he played a ditty that sounded appropriate for the rolling credits of a kung fu movie. But because he did the unexpected, and let’s face it, because the guitar was shiny black, I bought it. It served me well. I still have it. But when I finally purchased a professional-grade guitar many years later the comparison left me dumbfounded. I don’t think it’s proper to even say the two can be compared. One is a magnificent achievement and one is a starter instrument. But all I needed at the time was just that… a start.
For me, music isn’t background; it isn’t white noise. In fact, I can’t read or do anything that requires rapt attention while music moves the air. Those tiny vibrations have the strength to take you away from yourself while simultaneously revealing the innermost you. That capacity for intimacy, for connection is how music captured—and released—me.
That’s why I write songs. It’s part therapy for me (an unburdening of sorts) and part counseling service for listeners (yes, there is another who feels the weight too). Even if it’s just one fragment, one line in one song that connects with someone on the other end, the song has done its job.