Last night I performed at a small open mic night, doing something I’ve never done before: I sang and played to a small audience without amplification. There was a PA there, but I didn’t use it.
It wasn’t planned: the battery in my guitar was flat so its pickups weren’t sending any signal to the PA system. But given the choice between trying to get a single microphone to pick up my voice and my guitar (something that never works particularly well) or just doing three songs completely unamplified, I chose the latter, scarier option and stood in the middle of the room as I played three really, really good songs really, really well.
There’s something particularly frightening about doing that. On a stage, there are props you can hide behind. The stage may be raised slightly to elevate you above the audience. There’s a physical distance between the performer and the listeners. On stage there’s a mic stand, and more than anything there’s volume. If people aren’t interested in what you’re doing, if they talk instead of greeting you with the reverential silence you want, you can just turn it up and drown them out. That’s as true in a tiny basement as it is in a big venue.
But if you step out from behind the mic, if you climb off the raised stage, you can’t rely on those things any more. Your voice and your guitar can’t drown out chat. There’s no reverb to flatter your voice. You’re not elevated or separated from the people in the room. It feels very much like those dreams where you’re standing up in front of an audience and you’re not wearing any pants.
It’s an absolute blast.
To play songs you know are good and sing them not just technically well but with all your heart and soul is always a blast, but it’s particularly so when you can see people connecting with what you’re doing.
Connection is what drives me to make music. I write songs I hope will matter to people the way other people’s songs matter to me. Those songs have helped me through some really tough times: they can be the soundtrack to your greatest moments and your best friend during the worst, and sometimes music is the only voice telling you that you’re not alone. Writing songs is one way I can fulfil the motto: be the person you needed when you were younger.
I tend to be very self-deprecating about the things I do, so when I post here about being the world’s greatest living songwriter or describing myself as “Brian Wilson with tits” I’m clearly having a laugh and sending myself up. But I’ve been writing songs for a very long time, and you don’t do that without having a certain amount of belief in your own abilities. I am a good and sometimes brilliant songwriter, and I think over the years my self-deprecation and my “sorry to bother you, here’s a song, I hope you like it, I hope I’m not annoying you” has prevented some very good songs from reaching the audience they deserve.
In the year to come, I think I’m going to be considerably more annoying.