Lately I’ve been feeling like an actual singer-songwriter, instead of just a pretend internet one.
Of course, I’ve had a lot chances to feel like a legitimate musical artist in the past year through my performances with Gina as Arcati Crisis. But, there’s a certain strength in numbers – a power of two – that makes us a minimum amount of compelling and keeps us lurching forward even from our unlikeliest (and unlikeable) moments.
I don’t have those abilities on my own, which can sometimes make playing by myself a lonely prospect. For a while at any solo appearance I spent more time noticing Gina’s absence than being present on my own. At an open mic this summer I joked to an inattentive bar crowd, “if any of you could come up here and stand just to my left I’d feel much more comfortable.”
They didn’t get it.
My few solo outings earlier this year were the first times I was playing alone to unfriendly crowds in a long time, and I was daunted on each occasion. I played the same songs over and over, heavily relying on the crutches of “Icy Cold” and my cover of “Like a Virgin.” Any other song would leave me wide open for rookie mistakes like forgotten lyrics.
I started to wonder … can I hold space and attention on my own? Are my singing and playing interesting without someone else to dress them up? And, if there isn’t any point to me playing solo, than how can I write compelling material for my band by myself?
I don’t know that I’ve answered any of those imperative questions, but as summer ripened into fall and I kept stubbornly playing on my own I started getting into a certain rhythm where I was less fearful and more adventurous. If no one is going to pay attention anyway, why play “Like a Virgin” for the fifteenth time? New originals and covers and forgotten oldies started sneaking into my sets, and I surprisingly loved some of them. And, when I played the newer songs I was reminded that I devote an uncommon amount of detail to each song that I write. That fact alone doesn’t make me better than the competition, but it definitely makes a difference.
By the time I debut a “new” song (typically a dreaded introduction to hear at any open mic) it has been through months of development. In the case of a newer song like “Not Tonight (from Monday’s Trio), I start with a core of words or melody that have been stuck in my head. I sketch the basics of them out on piano or guitar, and then I typically switch instruments for a while to flesh out the chord structure and melody before returning to the original instrument to complete my lyrics. Next I transcribe a definitive version of the lyrics into my MYSQL database, and begin chipping away at them daily – revising order and polishing lines whenever I think of it.
Afterward I tend to go through an incubation stage that mostly consists of singing the song wherever I go – sometimes deliberately missing a bus so I can sing while I walk. At that point I’m mostly making decisions about dynamics, so that by the next time I sit down with the text I’m ready to mark my vowels and breaths.
Then I actually start rehearsing.
I don’t explain all of that to brag, because it’s not anything I’m especially proud or ashamed of. It just happens to be my process at the moment, and when I enthuse about my database or (attempt to) commiserate over the difficulty of choosing the right vowels I realize that I’m different than a lot of the people I meet at open mics. A song that’s “new” to me is well-experienced to them, and my repertoire of 80 originals (out of a total of 228) is boggling.
The fact that I have a specific process – my own database and binder, an untold history for each song – makes me feel like a valid artist again. I haven’t felt that for a long time, and the last time I did it mostly came from playing fictional concerts to no one in my bedroom rather than making regular appearances at open mics. My current insanity of organization has kept me limber and nimble, to the point that I’ve completed over a dozen new songs so far this year – the most I’ve completed in one calendar year since I started dating Elise in 2002.
That’s why you’re seeing a late-stage resurgence in the stalled Trio season I began last November – I have a lot more songs to share than I did at this time last year.
That, and it’s once again National Blog Posting Month, which I have resolved to make more of a go at this year. This is one of the most interesting times in my life, both personally and publicly, and I’m sure that many years from now I’ll appreciate a running commentary about it.
(Last year, as you might recall, it intersected with being newly engaged, and I quickly found out that it was a time I wanted to spend outside of the house instead of at the computer.)
(Seventy-odd days out from the wedding and I much prefer the confines of my house, especially when I don’t have any credit cards in arm’s reach.)