Music has always been a huge part of my life. Listening to music, playing music, seeing live shows, collecting live bootlegs, reading musical biographies…you name it, if it’s music-related, then I am all over it! I have been playing guitar since I was 5-years old, and over the years, I have played piano, clarinet, drums and other assorted percussion, and bass guitar. I have played in church ensembles, concert and jazz bands in school, and rock bands that graced house parties and nightclubs. But the hardest gig for me has always been as a singer-songwriter performing solo in front of intimate crowds.
As a songwriter, I had always believed that the song itself should be showcased in its purest form, without all the extra instrumentation that you get from bands. For me, a singer alone with his or her guitar or piano is the best way to convey the beauty of a song. Some of my favorite music in the world is Bob Dylan or Neil Young’s solo works, or Jerry Garcia’s solo acoustic performances. I have always preferred Dave Matthews’ acoustic shows with Tim Reynolds to The Dave Matthews Band. The lyrical beauty and musicality just shines through without all the other noise (sorry drummers).
I started my erratic and otherwise unknown music career in rock bands; Rock and Roll Bands, Jam Bands, Metal Bands, and Hard Rock Bands. I have played at The Light Rail Inn, Old Ironsides, Club Me (Cattle Club), Malarkey’s, and various other Sacramento locales. I loved playing in bands and found it easy enough to perform on stage. I almost never got stage fright, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of sharing the experience with others.
However, by 1995, I had had enough of playing nicely with others and decided that since I was the main songwriter anyway, that I did not need anyone else. In bands, I was always the bass player, since I was pretty good, and we could never find anyone else to play bass. Yet, I was always a guitarist at heart. So I decided to start off on my own as a solo performer, play and sing my songs, and show the world just how amazing I was on my own.
What I didn’t know was that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.
Apparently, doing everything on your own requires some skill and practice. I had no natural internal meter to keep a steady beat, and without a drummer, my timing was all over the place. Without a lead guitarist, I had nothing interesting going on during the instrumental breaks between verses. And how could I have known that without all the noise of amplified music and drums drowning out useless PA systems that I couldn’t sing for shit? And hearing myself loud and clear for the first time made me very self-conscious and nervous on stage. I closed my eyes, played each song in rapid succession with no interaction with the crowd, and basically tried to pretend that the crowd was not even there as I attempted to hide behind my guitar.
On top of that, my songwriting style is very different from the conventions of the era. I could never write Pop Music, and my songs could sometimes go on and on without a hook to bring the listening audience back to a familiar place. It never dawned on me that only a small portion of the human population listened to the same music as I did. My influences would only be attractive to one out of ten people, and there were usually only nine people in the crowd.
Needless to say, my first performances were awkward and shockingly bad. My family and friends were a little too supportive, and it took a long time for me to figure out that these performances were virtually unlistenable. And so I practiced. I played my songs along a metronome until I had the timing of each song clicking in my head like an army’s marching footsteps. I learned how to actually sing, even if my voice quality is still questionable. I practiced telling weird stories between songs and attempted to be funny. Finally, I arranged my songs so that they did not have long instrumental breaks…for the most part.
I gave up a few times, and tried it all again in an odd love/hate affair with performing music. I am glad that I had these experiences, however cringe-worthy they may have been. If I could go back and give advice to my younger self, it would be to own that stage the moment I walked upon it. Don’t act shy and insecure (act?), and don’t worry about any mistakes. Own the stage, and own the crowd. For the entire time that a person is on stage, all eyes are on them. Make it count! If you are up there to entertain, then you need to be entertaining.
I still have the desire to perform, just as sure as I continue to write songs and play my guitar. But live music is a young person’s game. I am 44-years old now, and I feel like I ought to be staying home instead of trying to get people interested in my songs. And that’s okay with me. There are plenty of great new songwriters out there in this overcrowded arena. I have my memories and the knowledge that I attempted something that not many others have tried.