Wednesday, May 25, 2011
On Sunday I performed for the first time in several years. I could be forgetting something -- I do that -- but I'm pretty sure the last time I sang and played in front of an audience was in 2004 when I was living in San Francisco finishing Life in a Box and a friend invited me to perform in a popular cabaret-type variety show hosted by a drag queen comic. I sang 2 songs, as I remember.
So. Sunday, I took part in a songwriters circle that my old friend Monica Passin hosts at Banjo Jim's in the East Village. It came about because J was going to be here visiting and we were going to sing together in sort of a reunion -- J and I did lots of shows with Monica when we were Y'all and we were all part of the New York alt-country scene in the 90s that was centered around Rodeo Bar. In fact, Monica was instrumental in the development of Y'all in those early years. I happened to take a guitar class at The New School around the time J and I met and started writing songs. Monica taught the class; she was my first teacher -- before that I was self-taught. After the class ended, I took private lessons with her. She was already performing a lot and had a following as Li'L Mo and the Monicats. Through her we discovered that scene and they us.
Anyway, J was coming to New York for a couple weeks and we were going to sing together in this show. Monica asked J and J asked me if I was into it. I've been trying to find ways to get in front of an audience again -- I'm started to write a solo theater piece, with my new songs and stories about my love and sex life since J and I separated -- so this was a perfect, low-pressure situation where I could get my feet wet. As the date got closer, I think J got a little scared. Monica emailed asking for a bio and photo which I think -- it did for me, for sure -- brought back a flood of anxious memories about our old performing career, and J told me he almost wanted to back out but he would be okay just singing harmony with me, not billing ourselves as a duo.
Two days before he was supposed to fly here, J passed out while he was peeing, tore open the back of his head, and spent 3 days in the hospital. He has a congenital heart defect which was causing his blood pressure to fluctuate wildly. He had to cancel his trip. So I was on my own.
I have a batch of what I call my new songs though some of them were written several years ago and the newest of them is 4 or 5 years old. I haven't performed them much if at all, so they feel fresh to me. They are not shaped, the performance of them is not shaped, by interaction with an audience. Not yet.
I'd never been so nervous about performing as I was on Sunday. To be honest, I was feeling a little out of control. I can count on one hand the number of times I've sung and played completely by myself. In the end, I like it best. I love the freedom, the control over everything, the simplicity of the relationship with the audience. But I was nervous as holy fuck all day. I broke out in a sweat before the show, kept telling myself to keep breathing. The venue is a little dive bar on 9th and C, and there were only a couple dozen people there at most. It was most definitely not a big deal.
After the first song I was calmer. The audience was quiet, attentive, and my voice felt strong. They liked the song, the applause was reassuring. The second song I did has a fast finger-picking part that sometimes trips me up, and I stumbled a few times but never fell apart. (It's the song in the video clip which is an excerpt from Life in a Box.) After that I was cool and confident.
I'm energized and inspired to get moving on this new solo work. I sort of have all the material already, I just have to wrangle it. I may write a new song or two, but maybe not. And the stories are not written down but they're in my head and in some cases they're here in this blog and only need to be reconfigured. I thought that I would work with an accompanist or co-writer to create piano arrangements of the songs so I wouldn't have to play. But after Sunday I'm sort of thinking maybe I can do it. My guitar playing is rudimentary, remedial, but it might be fine in this context. The simplicity is seductive, not just in terms of the performance but rehearsals, booking, sound, everything is easier if it's just me and my guitar. I'll give it some more thought.
My left arm was sore all last week. I assume it's from my job. A lot of my work is data entry that involves a lot of scrolling with the mouse, and I can feel the stiff soreness in my forearm after a few hours of it. Sunday it was really sore which pissed me off because I needed all the strength I could muster in that hand after not playing guitar for so many years. But I noticed Sunday night after the show that the soreness had completely disappeared, and it hasn't come back all week. I guess it was psychosomatic.