PHOTO: I.E CRAZY — CREDIT: PICTVRE
In part one of this series we checked in with local musicians to explore their “bad” experiences surrounding live performance. Here, we lift the veil further. The build up, the aftermath, the cost and reward of a show, the glory and shame. The reality of a working musician, on stage and off.
PART TWO: BEHIND THE CURTAIN
I think the perspective of it being “just a show” relates to the way people value live music as an art form – which is to say, it typically isn’t valued very highly. You’re the soundtrack to someone’s night out, typically. The OST to their narrative. In a way, they’re totally right, and I feel a comfort knowing I’m not the main character in the room. But that said, someone saying “it’s just a show” as a way of trying to assuage post-performance despair when an artist feels they haven’t lived up to expectations is missing the point – the show is your job, your purpose, your conviction, your communion. It’s the worst. It’s an athlete losing a race, it’s some corporate blowing a deal. It makes you want to scream, to disappear, and is often followed by a long reckoning with the reasons why you do / did this at all.
ERNY BELLE — PHOTO BY JOSEPH McALPINE
You know when you’re in a plane and the turbulence is terrible and there’s lightning hitting the wings and you start praying to god and you really fucking mean it? That’s what it feels like before I go on stage. I’m insecure at the same time of knowing I’m very capable, so there’s something in the thrill of surprising myself and winning that battle. It’s something I’d like to become great at it. I think if I had experience touring the world, I would have a different answer.
The day to day reality of touring is HARD WORK. The late nights, early mornings, poor food options, long travel days with a show at the end, intense social experiences, uncomfortable media interactions, booze and other substances…all of these things contribute to emotional dysregulation. When you’re performing onstage you enter a state of tapu: this spiritual vulnerability is integral to bringing forth the magic, but if you’re physically and mentally unprepared for the event, it will make you an enemy of yourself. And this can have no intrinsic relation to the performance itself whatsoever. I’ve come off stage after a standing ovation in a beautiful theatre in some incredible European village, my band all joyful and merry, while I try to obscure the fact that I’m in a full state of catastrophe. And I know they’ve all been through the same. This itself can start a vicious cycle of guilt and self-loathing.
In a very real sense, to be a live performer is to be democratically elected. Every time someone buys a ticket or an album or just spends some time with your work, they put a “vote” in your cultural ballot box. And when you are out of grace with yourself and your own work, feelings of shame and ingratitude for your audience compound and further alienate you.
ZOE MOON — PHOTO BY TOMMIE LOVE
I feel a particular pressure when I’m put into the position of having to advocate for the basics. There’s a lot of misogynoir in this industry, in this world — manifesting often as rudeness — or micro-aggressive behaviour, which honestly I would call unprofessionalism. It inflames and echoes the generational trauma of so many black women before me who have been undervalued, undersupported, and used as resources often to shine their light on others rather than respected as agents and pioneers of this industry. Over time the absorption of micro-aggressions from the booking process through to unprofessionalism on site can make me wonder why I’m there.
I end up asking myself questions around belonging in the bigger picture of my presence here. What is possible for me to achieve in this industry on this soil? There’s a lot of rooms and spaces where I’m the only black woman there. It's an isolating occupational hazard. Especially as many of the nuances of my experiences just won’t be accounted for. So I end up practicing a lot of hyper-independence in some venues as a trauma response. I’m conscious that I have a small window before being considered difficult. I care deeply about everyone and everything that goes into a show so when things go wrong of course it’s upsetting- but if I appear upset it’s very quick for me to be called “difficult” “intense” or be treated with a gruff condescension.. in those situations a stage becomes a lonely place. The same space that has the alchemy to transform and embrace everything that I am can suddenly feel like a zoo enclosure.
That affects my desire to be a part of these spaces - my sense of safety in these spaces - my hope for a future in these spaces. The weight of the world on something that is meant to be fun. It’s certainly taxed as if it's all fun and games. In my brain things amass cyclically when stress and cortisol levels peak. It's never just a racist or condescending comment. It's often a passive aggressive expression of unchecked internalised racism and sexism and isms and schisms. And at this stage in my life I don't have time for it.
It is such an intimate thing, it is like a kiss or a friendship - only you don't build trust with an audience over time before you give yourself away , you just go out and give it all up. Sometimes they aren't trustworthy, sometimes you aren't ready, there are no sick days when your name is on a poster. I think about how hard it can be to speak a truth or a vulnerability to one person we love and trust and that it's absolutely unhinged to somehow attempt to do that with 5 people and then 1000? I don't know what it is like for other people, but when I play music live, that's probably the most I'm in my body and as "me" as I can be. So if that isn't received or held gently there is destruction in that.
BEN LEMI (DAWN DIVER) — PHOTO BY LILY PARIS WEST
BEN LEMI (DAWN DIVER)
I've worked hard to be in a position where I can share space and energy with other artists and people that I love, and to express feelings and ideas through music from the stage. Putting in the work has helped me to find these opportunities which I'm very thankful for. I like to acknowledge that the exchange of energy between performer and audience is a beautiful thing in itself. Everyone has different ideas around success and happiness. Also the attitudes around success and happiness that we cultivate sometimes get away from us and turn into naughty poo-qual thoughts that likely have no business in anyone's business.
Mostly, musicians are very sensitive, astute people, and the burning of a career through exhaustion and the ramifications of that, is possibly tip-toeing into a territory many of us have faced, within ourselves, our employers, our partners, our children, our future prospects. Most people outside the industry of independent music creation, don't have any idea exactly what it has taken to say; put on a tour. Financially, physically and emotionally. The deadlines, the lining things up, the epic amount of planning, the terror of the actual amount of financial outlay pre-tour, the hours of rehearsal, bringing busy people with different personalities together, the lack of any normal routine, the way people behave under pressure to not only perform but be organized, and often cater to the needs of the group. As a front-person, I took a few hard knocks and experienced a deep conflict between creation and performance.....the performance seemed a high cost. But then the show comes, and if it's good, you fly and drive and concede and do it again and again.
LUDUS — PHOTO BY NICHOLAS KERR
There are so many visceral emotions connected to performing, including the journey leading to a performance and the reflections afterwards. The build-up is so mentally occupying for sometimes weeks prior to a gig. I'm not naturally someone who would ever volunteer to be in front of people, especially by myself, so how I've managed to do so, so many times without combusting, sort of baffles me.
It is simply, quite literally, the fervent love of the music and the people. At my core I am a creator more than a performer, so the fact I also get to share creations by way of performance is, at the end of the day, a huge privilege that makes the intense journey of emotions worthwhile.
Five nervous shits and a blood oath to never perform again, and before you know it it's time to begin my set.
NIAMH PRITCHARD (BIG SUR)
I play music and I’m also a mental health nurse working in youth mental health services.
One of the most applicable skills for musicians from what I teach people in therapy, is what we call "acting opposite". When I'm working with clients who experience quite intense feelings of shame and embarrassment, what we workout is whether an emotion is justified or unjustified.
When you go through life and you feel embarrassment about something that's happened or that you've done, it can be really difficult to move through that emotion. You feel ashamed about maybe how you acted or how other people perceived you. From there, because the emotion is so intense, you end up catastrophizing everything. That's where your ideas are that you're a “bad musician” or that you're not actually good at what you do.
When it comes to feeling ashamed because you performed badly or you stuffed something up, you have to ask yourself, is it a justified emotion to feel ashamed for making a mistake? No, not really. It's not justified. It is what it is. I haven't done anything horrible. I forgot to tune my guitar or messed up my solo, but I'm not a horrible person, right? So then once we understand that an emotion like shame is not justified, we do what we call "acting opposite".
The urge of the emotion of shame is often to avoid people. You see this when musicians come off stage and they're a bit like, “that performance was kind of shit, I'll go straight to the bar and have as many beers as possible.” So acting opposite to that urge, is actually reaching out to people. Talking to people about how you feel. That gives you that opportunity to resolve that emotion.
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