Archives for posts with tag: performance

Remember when Michael Jackson died? I sure do…it’s face-palmingly #2 in my event memory right after 9/11. You may also remember how at his memorial service Mariah Carey was criticized for a sub-par performance due to being overcome with emotion. That criticism confused me. I thought: “She’s singing a heartfelt ballad at the memorial of one of her musical heroes while his body from a tragic death lies steps away in a casket. If I were up there I’d give myself 3 seconds before losing my shit.” And that’s why I’m not doing shows before tens of thousands of fans at the Staples Center. As a professional musician, your job is to not lose your shit in such circumstances. Shit losing is not an option.

Even at the local level, I was talking to a fellow musician after his gig and he was telling me of the interpretation he was putting into the music and how we was trying to express each note in a specific fashion. I stood there dumbfounded because when I get off the stage my thoughts are typically “well, four f***-ups tonight…hey not bad!” Pros, on the other hand, rarely make mistakes. Flawless technical execution is a given for a professional. Instead, they focus on interpretation. They convey feeling. They engage. They connect.

Spot the Amateur – observe the behaviour, do a shot!

Another way I’ve found to understand what makes a musician professional is to identify their antithesis: the amateur. So…:

  • If they’re playing guitar, watch if they look down at their fretboard with that “ok I can do this” look when bar chords come up. Amateur!
  • If they’re bantering, listen if they suddenly forget they’re musicians and start doing torturous improv “comedy”. Amateur!
  • If they’re sound-checking, listen for key terms like “backline“, “hot“, “XLR” rather than “this crap I need up on stage”, “ow! my ears”, “mic plug thing with the three holes”. Amateur!

Essentially, if you see a performer on stage who just…belongs there, you’re seeing a pro. Otherwise, prepare yourself to get really drunk.

As for moi…

Am I pro material? After some soul searching my answer is…”no”. Sure, I’ve cut my stupid stage “jokes” way down and have learned a few gear-related keywords that make me seem less like a hopelessly bumbling boob to sound guys. But when it comes to the most visible part of the job, the performance, it’s just not my forté and I’m sure audiences can sense that.

The good news about being an amateur is that it’s a step to becoming a professional and I know many are on that path and will make the transition. But for me and my wrong-chord-prone left hand, I’ll just sit and wait for that call from the Staples Center. And it’ll likely go: “…don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Then I’ll lose my shit.

Blue Blue Satellite

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There’s very little that can be said about Sister Rachel that hasn’t already been said. So I’ll keep it short and on the topic of the production of the track rather than re-tread the now ponderous story of Sara Melson‘s involvement on the track, which, if you’ve spoken to me for more than 30 seconds, you’ll have heard…and have wished you had those 30 seconds back.

Being the poppiest track I’ve written, it’s ironic that it was actually the track I had a lot of trouble with in the studio. I played every part on that track and I struggled particularly on the drums. It was late, I was tired, I was getting frustrated at not being able to find my groove on the drum part. That’s especially problematic considering I don’t play drums. Still, I persevered and producer Dean guided me through it and eventually I found my second wind and started having fun with it and churned out a pretty acceptable song.

The intro synth beat is from my original Casio VL-1. It literally belongs in a museum and for the record I’m using the Rock-2 preset(the Rock-1 preset was already in use).

With dignity

Without dignity

Without dignity

LIVE VERSIONS

Sister Rachel is a tricky song to capture live without a band so I’ve had to re-invent it several times. Here are the incarnations I’ve done at shows:

Blue Blue Satellite

There are many good reasons why I am not an actor. Most revolve around the fact that I can’t act.

There are also several good reasons why I shouldn’t sing but screw those. The beauty about being a singer-songwriter is that you can do what you love with relatively little effort. To wit, I can hop on over to any open stage, sign up and get to sing an original composition in front of an audience and get applaused at. And that’s pretty much the name of the game for us singer-songwriters.

Actors have it a lot tougher. Or I assume that they do since I know few actors. The pinnacle of an actor’s career would probably be to have a juicy lead role in an Anderson(Paul or Wes) movie or Herzog or Von Trier or Scorcese or whatever other director I can’t think of right now that would lead you to believe that I watch movies beyond those whose title contain the words “Human” and “Centipede“.

But how often does that happen for an actor? How often do they have to take roles like “Middle Human Centipede Link” before a choice role may or may not come up? Even if they take the bull by the horns and write a screenplay and sweet role for themselves, you still have to produce the movie(and produce it well) and have it distributed to get some kind of return on effort.

The only difference between an open stage and “making it” for a singer-songwriter is audience size, really. If Justin Beiber tweeted me tomorrow and I blew up huge, I’d still be singing and forgetting the words to “Blues’ll Always Be the Blues“, just to a lot more screaming tweens who have no idea what an old man I am.

So I guess this is a blog post to remind myself and other struggling singer-songwriters to be happy that you can share your undiluted work with an audience. Saying you played a small bar to five drunk people in the middle of What-The-Hell-Am-I-Doing-Here, northern Ontario still has a ring of keeping-it-real coolness to it than an actor listing as a credit: “Shirtless Oil Guy” in Kung Fu and Titties.

Blue Blue Satellite

On May 15th, 2012, I played a show at Room 5 in Los Angeles. You may have heard me mention this. No offense to all of my other gigs, each of which I hold near and dear to my heart, but the L.A. gig was in a league of its own. If recording, releasing and promoting my debut CD was the ice cream, chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles…the L.A. gig was the culminated glory in being told: “…and would you like all that deep-fried?”

And like all things deep-fried, my L.A. experience touched my heart. Staying with another musician in a lovely house in a lovely neighbourhood, putting around L.A. seeing and meeting fascinating folk, sharing the bill with the extraordinary Dahls and Sara Melson and even making $20…for a few days, I was living the dream. But considering that dream has been over for two months, so where does it fit in with reality…?

Reality

I once jokingly told someone, “why would anyone bother to listen to a 30-something melancholy Chinese folk singer?” and she answered without missing a beat: “THAT’S exactly why.”

I was stunned by her optimism and strangely inspired sense-making. But in my more cynical times(i.e. all the time), I still stand by my original question. Add to that the pointless bar gigs, the inverse proportionality of audience size to gig frequency, the scores of other talented artists doing what I’m doing with more success, the scores of other talented artists doing what I’m doing with less success and Justin Bieber, getting a little down on myself is inevitable.

But having had the L.A. show affords me something I’ll always have now: the right to say, “well, at least I had the L.A. show.” And that is something important for me to remind myself of because letting the challenges of being an indie artist overshadow the epicness that was Blue Blue Satellite In Los Angeles is truly an insult to one of the most exciting 5 days of my 30-something Chinese years.

Blue Blue Satellite

For many moons now, I’ve always claimed to be a songwriter first and foremost. Not a singer, not a guitarist, not a CD pushing self-promoter, but a songwriter.

My Ottawa CD release made me realize that this is a false claim.

Almost all of the elements that made me very satisfied with the Ottawa CD release were not song-related. For example:

  • Taking the stage to a projected visual intro with an accompanying instrumental piece.
  • The uninterrupted, three-song, no banter set of songs to kick off the show
  • The un-amplified mandolin song while walking into the audience
  • Having a backing band for Thieves but having them take the stage halfway through the first chorus:

    (impatient? go to 1:26)

There were more but I can’t reveal all my performance secrets now can I(especially since most of them are stolen)? But therein lies the keyword: “performance”. It turns out that while I still consider myself a songwriter, the performer in me is just as strong. Maybe even slightly stronger. And this can be heard on the record as well. Every element, every transition, every nuance that pushes the CD or live show beyond a simple collection of 14 songs: this is performance.

So why is this important to me? I guess I’ve become very aware of my audience whether they’re at a show or reclining with headphones  on at home. As a songwriter, my job is to write a song. Ok. Check. But as a performer, my job is to give the audience a fresh experience that will resonate with them; make them come for the music but stay for the experience…which I hope I succeeded in doing at the Ottawa CD release.

I’m still very much a songwriter. But now I’m adding the performer aspect. I suppose it marks an evolution in me, but it begs the questions: what is it that I am evolving into…?

An artist.

Thieves

Thieves @ Gallery Studios

Blue Blue Satellite