Performers. What makes them leave their homes, spouses, and children to take turns making music over bad sound systems at 3 a.m. for a few people in Broken Pelvis, Montana while waiting for the big time? It is because they love what they do, and they play for hours on end for the sheer joy of it. They're nuts, and they're fun to be around. It doesn't make much sense to anyone but the faithful, but performing is addictive.
Performing is a temporal art, and temporal arts are risky. You don't get to see the rough draft of a novel, the sketches or false starts of a painter, or hear the out-takes of a recording session. But a live performance is there for all the world to see. A good show in New York followed by an off-night in Boston is more than hard to live with. So performers live and die by the degree to which they can be consistent.
Here's the deal. The sad truth is that as a group, solo performers can't hold a groove rhythmically, they tune sharp as they progress through the evening, and they play way too busy, trying to be the whole band. Self accompaniment, if done seriously, is a duet, and therefore a real balancing act.
In upcoming issues of The Performing Songwriter, I will cover a variety of the topics outlined below in more detail. What follows is a general list of observations that are all important to the solo performer.
Preparation: Have the music under your fingers and be ready to sing. If it is not easy, you can't do it—so do your homework.
Pitch: Audiences don't decide that you're singing sharp or flat, they just feel irritated if you go sharp, and bored or sleepy if you're flat. On the other hand, singing in tune gives the lyrics a depth achievable in no other way. It's the only reason to sing. I have a tape of vocal exercises I do religiously before shows, and it has saved my ass many times.
Guitar: Play until you get your sound. Play a lot the night before. Perform on strings that have been played and stretched a little, so your music will tend to stay in tune and your attack sound will be your own and not that brash, straight from the factory sound so often mistaken for personality. Play only half as hard as you think you need to. And for everybody's sake, take the time to get in tune. We can wait.
Rhythm: The listeners don't think "Man, he's really rushing," they just feel lethargic if you slow down, and edgy if you speed up. If your time is all over the place, then they are too. There is an undeniable integrity in a steady rhythmic structure. It's something your body takes for granted when it's right, and gives meaning to the silence and pauses in music.
Dynamics seem to be the most fragile thing in performance. Stage fright will kill it dead unless you really stay conscious. Finding the top end of your volume and intensity, and then putting the lid on it short of that limit is very important. An acting director once told me that if you stop short of showing all, the audience will assume you have so much more energy and emotion.
Desire: Sometimes I need a way to get myself involved in the music. After I warm up I work on something new or on the show if I need to, but only until I really feel like singing. Then I stop and try to hold that desire. There is nothing more sterile for me than singing when I don't want to—nothing feels more dishonest.
Audiences: They are generally 50% attentive and 90% sympathetic, and they know less about your stuff than you do. They are generally more interested in what you have to say than in who you are. Audiences really want to be involved emotionally, and they are always unpredictable.
Stage Fright: I sometimes ask my wife for some kind words before a show I'm nervous about, and without fail she says, "Have fun!", which usually pisses me off. I think that I should be feeling something more noble than "fun" about my life's work. She's right, though. A labor of love should also be child's play. But I forget. So don't take yourself so seriously. Make it an act of love or something. After all, you do have something to give, don't you?
Homework: Listen to and see yourself on tape. Criticize yourself . . . gently.
The Copycat Syndrome: There are times in the beginning of some artists' careers when they just can't keep from imitating others. There are probably a hundred Shawn Colvins currently out there. Imitation is useful and a natural way to learn. That's how we learned to speak. The thing is, of course, to move on after you've gotten what you can. Easier said, I know. Here's how I suggest you might do that and find something of yourself. When I can't see how to be in a song (even if it's mine), I kind of chip away everything that isn't an elephant, as it were. I reduce the melody, the changes, and the guitar activity to its very simplest. I play and sing it this way until it seems like it needs this little touch here, or that slight affectation there. Pretty soon it has evolved into something of my own. No jive, no vocal gymnastics, no rolled "R's", no affected "S's", no false breathiness, no stolen vocal licks and no similarities to other artists.
Until the next issue, here are just a few random thoughts to leave you with . . .
- I used to think I had control over my own taste, that I just liked what I liked. Then I started writing.
- If you have a gift and don't use it, it will turn on you.
- Experience is just making mistakes.
- To be a poet at 20 is to be 20. At 40 it's a little harder.
- One of the coolest things about music is that it goes through air.
- Have fun.
Performing Songwriter - Volume 1, Issue 3 - November/December 1993
Photo: ©C. McArthur
More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns