You make playing music in Washington in your twenties sound like so much fun. Did you ever want to give up?
All the time. One night I was playing at a bar in Glover Park. It was called Ireland 32, after the 32 counties of Ireland. In those days, I’d park my car and haul my sound system and play for maybe three people a night, and it was just hard work. But that bar had a sound system, so I hadn’t unloaded mine—I left it in my car. And someone stole it and smashed up my car, and I was thinking: How am I ever going to afford to replace this?
You question your sanity when night after night you’re playing for one person.
What kept you going?
You have to be happy doing it, and for the most part I was. I have moments of doubt even now. Wherever you are in life, you have those moments. It’s a constant process of reevaluation—the dark nights of the soul. You question everything in your life. That’s what my current album is about.
Was the questioning part of recovering from the pulmonary embolism?
Yes. The physical things I had to do were pretty straightforward, but I think recovery is far more emotional and spiritual.
The embolism happened right before a tour, and it sort of torpedoed everything. I’d never been at home for such a long time. I looked at my life, and there’s not a whole lot I threw out. But it made me grateful for what I have—not that I wasn’t grateful before, but newly grateful. It brought things into sharper focus. Anytime there’s a health scare or a life-altering change, unless you’re made of stone it’s going to change you. I think I’m still processing it.
You suddenly had a lot of unplanned time on your hands. What did you do with it?
I taught myself to cook. Before, I was a serviceable cook who could read a recipe, but I really became enamored with cooking. I’d find myself watching the Food Network. Now I love to cook and have dinner parties.
After six months, I started writing songs again. I think what we do is tied up very closely with how we feel about ourselves, and I didn’t know if I’d ever write songs again. But six months later, there I was. It was an act of faith.
What do you take with you out on the road?
I take my pillow and one of my pillowcases. It just feels like home, and it smells like it. I like the idea of something familiar underneath my head.
I take a lot of books. I’m never going to be one of these people who take a Kindle or whatever—when I finish a book, I want to put it on my shelf. And I haven’t been on tour for a few years, so this is new: I can go hurtling up the highways with high-speed Internet.
It’s crazy—I don’t have high-speed Internet here at the farm. Yesterday I was reading in the New York Times about wi-fi at 35,000 feet, and I updated my Facecrap [Facebook] page to say, ‘Yes, folks, but I still can’t get it at my house.’ People say they’re going to send me a file and I’m like, no, please—it will tie up my Internet for days. But on the bus I can stay up and watch YouTube without it constantly buffering.
I read that you write songs only in pencil. Is that still true?
I do only use pencil. To me it’s ritualistic: a yellow legal pad and a pencil with an eraser. I have friends who use pen who are either far more courageous or far more sure of themselves. And I’ll edit myself endlessly.
How do you know a song is done?
Not to be a smart aleck, but you know it’s done when you’ve gotten to the end—when you feel it’s done. I’ve coined the “overnight test” now. A night seems to be enough time to look at it the next morning with fresh eyes and say, “Ugh, not this.” But when it’s a keeper, it’s fairly obvious.
When I was writing songs for the new album, I started thinking about how it all comes about—when I’m in that work mode. I work during the day. I live a half hour from town, so if I’m going to engage with civilization I’ll go to town, go to the gym, go to the market and get groceries. And then I’ll come home and work. My favorite thing is to get in bed early with a book that takes me very far away from the songwriting I’m doing.