Words. They are powerful and emotional. They are loving and hurtful. They are ever present and often elusive and, for me, they can be easily forgotten. Not an enviable attribute for a musician.
I played my first three shows in over 18 years just last week. This is what happened:
Thursday April 24 was my first true gig with produced songs and just me in front of a mic. I woke up with butterflies in my stomach that day and they continued to beat my insides on and off for the remaining 12 hours until I got on stage, but even then they refused to abate completely. The venue was small: a little bar that is usually a quaint coffee shop and lounge and the owners only recently decided to start hosting live music. The stage was minute, allowing me only a step in either direction. The lighting was somewhat non existent and my audience was in full view for my entire performance. It was an ominous start – I was stuffed up and the decongestants I took, while helpful, created a sparkly halo around everything. It was distracting to say the least. The sound board didn’t work to our satisfaction and Drew, my DJ and Joel, my manager, had to run back to the studio to grab theirs. I started 20 minutes late to a crowd of 4 – my husband and his 3 guests. Now, I feel I should mention at this point that we in no way advertised for this show. No one knew that I would be playing there as part of the Root 40 music festival. I wasn’t expecting many people, but I wasn’t expecting none. My face was flushed as I took the stage. My hands shaking as the music began for my meager audience. My goal is to connect with the songs. And remember the words. I think I failed both those goals that night. It’s very disconcerting to have someone staring right at you as you attempt to look natural while bearing your soul. It is equally disconcerting for them to be perusing Facebook on their phone. I’m not sure which I prefer. Well. I sang. I sang 11 songs straight without so much as a sip of water (I couldn’t remember where I put it (it was right beside me)). I had had a rehearsal that morning. I sang through the set once, about 35 minutes. Then I went home and practiced another couple of hours just to be sure I had everything down. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when on the last chorus of Numb, my big finale song, my voice…just…stopped. It crapped out. I was mortified. By this point my crowd had grown to 14. I’m sorry you had to hear that. It wasn’t cool.
Friday and my second show. Totally different feel. I am playing at a fundraiser for my kids school. All the parents and teachers will be there. I know many of them well and they know me well too. Of course I have the previous nights failure full in my head. The humiliation like a weight on my shoulders: the questioning that I can actually do this. Maybe I’ve been deluding myself and I can write songs but will never be able to satisfactorily perform them? Maybe I’m too awkward, too old, too late to the game, too unprepared? So I did what any person would do when faced with this overwhelming pressure. I took a hot bath and ordered The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug off pay per view. It was 160 minutes in which I didn’t have to think or worry or talk. That was the key. I didn’t say anything to anyone for 7 hours. I read and reread the words to my songs and I tried my best to relax. I think that night went so much better as a result. There were 140 people there and they were all interested in talking to each other. Almost no one was actually just watching me. It was so liberating. I sang in two sets that night of 5 songs each. Much easier on my voice too. When I sang Numb, my final song of the night, several of my friends jumped onto the dance floor and danced while I sang. It felt amazing to have feedback to my music and see people enjoying themselves. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a great night.
This was the BIG show. The one that I had pre-sold tickets to. The one where I was the opening, opening, opening act, yes, but I was on the flyer. My name, there with Lines, Electric Thinking Machine, and Adrienne O. We had been advertising for a full month and when the night came I had pre-sold 37 tickets and had sold 10 more online. People from my gym were there, my husband, Keith’s co-workers and personal friends filled the tables of The Walnut Room a full 30 minutes before I went on. Again I had the crazy butterflies, I’ve been doing this a full 48 hours and already I’ve had a terrible low and a wonderful high. Which way was this going to go? Hour 72. The deciding hour. My producer Glenn had written this awesome intro that sounded a low bass thump and sustained sounds with the occasional horn blare creating a feel of suspense as I walked from the back of the room to the stage. The lights were low as I stood in front of the mic and the music for my first song, Signs, started. What were the words again? They landed on my tongue moments before they needed to be uttered. My mind was full of words. Which ones and in what order was like a stew of consonants and vowels swimming in my head. I’m pretty sure those came out alright and the next song too. But then – oh shit – utter failure of my taxed brain. I completely and totally blanked on The Way I Want You. Nothing. Nada. Not a single syllable came to mind. My mind was so empty that I may have attained enlightenment for that one brief moment. But then I wanted to implode, just fold into myself and disappear. Unfortunately the laws of physics were in place at The Walnut Room that night and my wish of oblivion proved impossible. It certainly wasn’t for lack of wanting. Suddenly, like a curtain flapping in the breeze allowing glimpses into the world beyond, the words began to flicker back into my brain. I sang them as soon as they were in my head and by the end of the song I was back on track but of course it left me rattled. The next song was my acoustic song Play For Me. I sat down at the piano, breathed deep and began to play the song I had played (I kid you not) 60 times in the past 5 days. I can play it flawlessly at home with only my dog as an audience but this was the first time I’d be playing it for real people. (Implying that Daisy is just a fake person). As I started, the room went silent. No one was talking, and every eye was on me. Mercifully I couldn’t see everyone nor was I looking. I sang and sang. My hands were shaking so badly that I hit the odd wrong note but all the words were there. Thank god. The rest of the set progressed OK. My closer Numb was strong and I remembered the words. In the right order. At the right time. So that was cool. I spent the next 30 minutes after my descent from the stage making the rounds and talking to all my friends who attended. I confessed to each and every one of them that I forgot the words as if in the hopes of alleviating their fears that I might not have realized it. Ugh. Not cool. Next time MUST be different. I have to be on the ball. People have paid to see ME. What right do I have to take their money and Saturday night and all I give them in return is a subpar performance? Never again. I will deliver a show. I will deliver something worthy of spending your Saturday night on. I did it at the fundraiser. I can do it again. I just need practice. Anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first. I’d like to think I’m coming to the end of the “at first”.
And so ended three days in a row of performing. More will come and they will no doubt be accompanied by their liberal doses of butterflies and self doubt. I need to remember the high and not focus on the low and most of all remember that I’m there for my audience and I owe it to them to give them the best I have. That’s all I can do.