1996. i am in my bedroom. fifteen years old, and i have lit a gardenia-scented candle. loose-leaf notebook paper, some of it scrawled on in my semi-illegible handwriting, is spread out on the floor. i’m curled cross-legged on the floor too, a black epiphone everly brothers acoustic guitar resting over one thigh. it was a gift from my dad, who didn’t say much when i expressed what he must have assumed was a fleeting teenage interest in ‘learning the guitar’, though looking back he must have been thrilled i’d taken an interest in one of his passions. i loved that guitar mainly because it had stars inlaid down the fretboard.
i wanted to learn guitar because i had a crush on josh jones, and he played guitar in the school worship band. i wanted to be the sort of cool, mysterious girl that played guitar and wrote angsty songs. the main problem was that i didn’t play guitar. or write songs. but i knew what angst was and music at least seemed to be in my blood – the child of musicians, from a family of musicians, i grew up surrounded by a host of americana instruments. i pushed back against the musical rapids that flowed through my young life. torturous saturdays as a kid were wanting a lift to the mall, but having to wait till my dad was done with his living room jam session.
when we are small, we resist the seeds our parents plant next to us in the hopes they will take root. but they do, and then later you are asking your dad for a guitar and he is buying you a chord book and telling you the four chords you need to learn to play any song in the world. this must have been one of the best days of my dad’s life so far, if i had to guess. seeing your kid embrace a passion and knowing ‘that’s me, that’s my contribution to human existence and it is perfect.’
you start by learning a D chord. it’s the easiest. your fingers don’t have to stretch that far. it hurts. next comes G and your fingers do have to stretch. the tips of your fingers sting. you keep pushing down in a vain effort to keep the strings from buzzing. they still buzz. surely the fingers are bleeding now. no? really? no blood at all? fuck this hurts.
you, if you are me, have to keep going because you have to be good at everything and you want josh jones to notice you and you want to be the cool, mysterious chick with the guitar. but it fucking hurts, and you throw the guitar down and it makes a noise like it might have broken and you are scared you broke it because really you love it and your dad spent money on it and it’s making you into something that you’re not sure what yet.
then magic starts to happen. you can play a song. badly, but you can. suddenly from pain, music is coming out of you, and you start to sing and even though your voice sounds like shit at first, you don’t care, because you are playing a D chord and then a G and then an A and it is giving you life and it is spiritual. the most spiritual you get aged 15. (or 36, spoiler).
i am the least talented of the musical people in my family. but what i lack in talent, i like to think i make up for in verve. my voice isn’t the best. it’s pitchy and i hit bad notes and i absolutely cannot harmonise to save my life. i was in the choir in high school for one day when i realised i would have to sight-read sheet music and learn to use my diaphragm, i quit and went straight back to speech & debate. i have always gravitated toward ‘bad’ singers and people with quirky voices. don’t get me wrong, i wanted to sing with the angelic clarity of alison krauss and sarah mclachlan and sinead o’connor. but julie miller and tom waits gave me hope that it was ok for me not to sing classically. i still can’t.
the first song i ever learned to play and sing at the same time was ‘april showers’ by caedmon’s call, a band whose music and its members, particularly derek webb, have had an unquantifiable impact on the person i have become, and there has been some synchronicity with me and that band and this year and the release of derek’s latest album, ‘fingers crossed’ last week. i have not yet wrapped my head around what any of it means.
2017. i am in my apartment. thirty-six years old and i have lit an orchid and sweet coconut-scented candle. annabel, my teal-green ibanez thin-body acoustic guitar (bought aged 16 and named for my favourite-at-the-time edgar allan poe poem) slung over one thigh, and the loose-leaf notebook paper has been replaced by the steady glow of a macbook screen. my fingers fucking hurt because i don’t play enough and my voice wavers and cracks and falls flat and i feel that teenage wish to throw the guitar again. julie miller and tom waits have been replaced by lawrence from felt, whose bizarre voice has basically soundtracked the last two years of my life. clumsily, i strum out a few chords from ‘she lives by the castle’ and try to play it cool for no one, because i feel spectacularly uncool and wonder if i will ever be good at music.
it turns out in my case that if you were a nerd, you’ll always be a nerd, and a cool air of mystery is not something you can curate. plus 2017 me would like to let 1996 me know that nerdy is hot in your 30s.
isn’t music about how you feel when no one else is looking. the freedom of emotional outpouring when you are doing it or listening to it, whether guitar-throwing rage or unadulterated joy or life-altering love from another universe.
isn’t it about that very ultra-rare connection with another human that you, if lucky, experience through it?
and isn’t it about holding up the thing that your dad gave you, because he gave it to you. that is the beautiful thing.
post-script: i never did use my guitar to impress josh jones into dating me, but we got to be friends going to gigs and have remained friends to this day, and he (unlike me) has made a real career out of playing music. that is beautiful.