I’m at a coffeeshop. (A usual beginning.) There’s a girl singin’ and playin’ guitar. (Nothing new there, either.)
The problem (there’s always one) isn’t that she’s bad. The problem is that she’s good.
She’s a good enough singer.
She’s a good enough guitarist.
She’s a good enough looking person.
It’ll take me less than a day to forget almost everything about this girl.
Working against her is the fact that I’ve seen a ton of girls (and guys) sit down with an acoustic guitar and strum. Thousands. Over the course of that time I’ve kinda pieced together a number of personal beliefs about this particular artform.
Tell you what, let’s watch this (artist) for a bit so we can collectively address her mistakes. There are lessons to be learned.
great weird distinctive at something.*
Chances are you’re not a great singer, and/or guitarist. You’re probably pretty good at both. If you can’t be great (it takes time) you can at least be distinctive. This means sing with your real voice. The singing version of your speaking voice. It seems so many artists spend so much time Glee-ifying their singing voice to this sort of vanilla indistinguishable tone.
That show The Voice is such a head-trip, because they’re ostensibly listening for the “best voice”, but the judges… Does Adam Levine have a GREAT voice? Does Cee-Lo? Would they have made it past the auditions? You couldn’t convince me that those guys have great voices. You could convince me that those guys have TERRIBLE voices.
I would agree that they have distinctive voices.
Michael Jackson**, Bjork, Ani Difranco, Ben Harper, Bob Marley**, Jack Johnson, the guy from Cake. I love all of these singers but I don’t know if any of them could make it into a (**heavenly) choir.
This distinctiveness can extend to your outfit, your accent, or even the way you play guitar. Ben Harper, for the longest time, was the guy who played “sitting down with his guitar on his lap.” It gave people a reason to pay attention. It also gives them a hook to describe you to someone else.
*But holy crap please be better than MOST non-musicians at your instrument. It hurts when I think you could pick someone at random from the crowd and they would elevate your band’s musical ability. General rule: Count how many hours you’ve spent practicing and learning guitar. Ready? Take that # and … if you really KNOW that number you aren’t ready to perform.
#2. Memorize Your Songs
Music performance, more than most other artforms, is emotionally naked. Poetry, Film, Literature all kind of hide the ball on what they’re feeling. Music is different.
There’s something almost voyeuristic about it. “Oh my,” we think to ourselves “That person is really sad up there in front of all of us.” For people who don’t get a chance to vent their emotions, it’s a voyeuristic thrill to see someone else be so raw and unchecked.
You can’t be extremely SAD/HAPPY/ANGRY and read song lyrics at the same time. It’s confusing. This ties into
#3. Practice your songs, A LOT.
When I first heard this advice, I thought it was to prevent screwups, flubbed notes, etc. That’s not why at all, really.
Missing notes have never killed a performance. Bad performances kill performances.
Live music, at this level, isn’t a presentation. It’s an interaction. Between you and the audience. If your playin/singin isn’t so fantastic, you might not be able to just put it on a platter and expect people to love it. You’ll need to present it, and you’ll need to be present in order to do it.
The more that your brain is trying to think where your hand goes next, or what the next line is, or where the capo is supposed to be, you won’t be performing, you’ll be thinking.
It’s like the feeling you get when you’re talking to someone on the phone and they’re just…not all there. You don’t know it but they are checking their email, or doing a 3 point turn in their car, or something. There’s just something that’s distracting them a little bit and you can feel it.
An automatic-knowledge of your performance allows you to play with other things, your vocal delivery, your facial expression, your body language, whatever. That’s hard to do when you’re trying to remember ‘how the bridge goes’.
4. Covers: Rule #1
Try to surprise us. And don’t just give us the CK One Impostor version of a song, close but not quite it. If you’re a blonde girl with a pretty voice, don’t sing us a straight copy of a Jewel song, I don’t care how much more snaggled your tooth is. We’ve already heard this song a gazillion times, only under better circumstances by a better performer. What you’re saying is “You know that song you like? Here’s a slightly shittier version of it, enjoy.”
That’s a hard sell.
People are categorizers, it’s how we learn about the world, it makes it easier to deal with new information. Also, people hate new information. There’s SO MUCH information when new info comes our way we kinda just wanna “get it”, so the second we feel like we “get it” we can move on with our lives.
“Hi my name is Becky, here’s ‘Who Will Save Your Soul'” means I can work on stuff and not pay attention to you.
“Hi my name is Becky, here’s a reggae version of the song Closer by Nine Inch Nails” means Holy shit Becky I’m all ears this is going to be AMAZING one way or the other.
Here’s a train-wreck of a YouTube cover. Well, not bad. Just misguided.
Take a song and filter it through you, and the way you see (or hear) the world. Some of your favorite covers (I bet) are because someone took a song you love and showed it to you in a way you’d never thought it could sound.
5. Originals: Rule #1
Tell us it’s an original after. Not before.
YOU: This next song is an original.
MY BRAIN: OH GOD I CANT WAIT FOR THE SONG AFTER THIS.
No matter how awesome your original song is I have been conditioned over the years to think hear that phrase as: “This next song is garbage go get a drink.”
Play your song, and make me feel stupid for not knowing how good and catchy that song is, and THEN say “Does anyone know who wrote that last song? Me.”
Only do that if the crowd enjoyed it. If the crowd hated it, tell them your little sister wrote it or something. You can get your cheap “awww” and we can move on with our evening.
5a. Hahah, also if the chorus is “GHOOOST GHOOOOST GHOOOOST GHOOOOOST” as soon as it’s over don’t say “That song was called Ghost.” I’ll just laugh really loud and feel really embarrassed and have to pretend it was something else that made me laugh when really it was you and your unnecessary information.
6. Story Telling
I, personally, like it when artists tell why they are singing a song. It cuts down on the “JukeBox” factor and gives us an insight to your personality, and maybe even lets us know something about the song that we didn’t know before.
Another trick I’ve seen work to some effect is to drop some kind of trivia, where the answer is only in the song. “This song is about the murder of a very famous author, lets see if you can figure out who.” A lot of people have this horrible affliction where we can’t not want to win a trivia question, so it’ll force us to listen.
That said make sure you KNOW something about the song before you start talking about it. This girl just told me that Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah is “so pretty” and then she sincerely, rhetorically asked, “Who woulda thought that a song could get famous from a cartoon? It was in SHREK!”
She didn’t say OMG, but I felt it in my soul.
7. Eye Contact
Do it. It’s intense. Pick a person in the audience, look directly into their eyes and sing to them. Smile. They’ll fall a little in love with you. Move to the next one.
7a. If there’s someone on stage with you, look directly at them from time to time and sing to them. It just looks fun, it makes us wish we were part of your little fun-club. Your show shouldn’t look like Sartre.
7b. Please smile. At least some. Yes, it’s obvious but a lot of beginning singers either look like they are either trying to read the smallest line on the eye chart or have just reached the 13th hour of a very painful labor and this next line is the birth. I don’t want to feel bad when I’m singing at you.
8. ‘Tuning’ isn’t a song.
Stop making us listen to it so much.
9. Talk to your Fans as if you were normal and not a self-involved brat.
Jeesh this girl.
So she gets done bland-murdering a bunch of other people’s songs, and the one guy who has clearly never seen anyone play a guitar before is nice enough to walk over to her and congratulate her on her set and tell her that she did a good (enough) job.
This doesn’t sound crappy, I know. Imagine:
She said it the same way you would say it, if you’d just got done playing sold out Madison Square Gardens and you were being whisked away in a limo to go sing to the pope cause he was dying because of something YOU did — but you wanted to make sure to make a positive impression on this fan so you put on a giant smile and say THANKS because hey what can they expect of you it’s the POPE?
You aren’t famous (yet). This person probably only heard your music by total accident. That means her or his appreciation of your ability has all of the premeditation of stepping in dog-s@#t.
If a person hasn’t paid money to come see you, you aren’t famous to them. You haven’t earned that “Thanks”, and even if you have you earned it you shouldn’t use that “Thanks” it’s a terrible one.
The best way I’ve seen to deal with this situation? Be honest.
There’s a person in front of you that you know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about except that they heard you sing. Aren’t you a little bit curious about them?
Ask their name. Ask what brought them there. Ask who their favorite artist is, and when you get bored of that stuff ask random things. What’d they have for breakfast? Do they think that Batman is smarter than Superman? What’s their favorite smurf? Make it fun for you, and I promise it’ll be fun for them, and you’ll make an impression. I heard, recently, the best way to be interesting to someone is to take an interest in them.
You know who is great at this? David Sedaris. I’ve watched him talk to strangers for 3 consecutive hours, and give each person a real genuine inquisitive conversation. Hundreds of people. He doesn’t need to do this at all. You can do it for the two people you tricked into liking you at the coffee shop.
PLEASE forward this to the singer-songwriter in your life. It’ll save us all a ton of trouble.
This is about the PERFORMANCE aspect of being a singer-songwriter. It’s not meant to be comprehensive for performance even, and it was beyond the scope of this post to tackle songwriting. I’ll do that soon I promise. In the meantime for the love of all things holy stop rhyming “knees” with “please” and “magic” with “tragic.” Just RETIRE them okay?