Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Singing for Songwriters.

So, I was manning camera 3 last night at Kulak's for the Monday Night Open Mic. Lisa Turner was doing her usual thing, doling out the rules for the night -- no song over 4 minutes, exit downstage (or down-rug) left, no tuning up on stage, etc. -- when it was time to draw names from the buckets. (There's a two hour time limit on the night and names are chosen randomly, one from the bucket of people buying a DVD of their performance and one from people just wanting to play.)

I was drawing the names and showing them to her, and she wrote them down in order and said them out loud. Usually, we can get about 34 people into those 2 hours, and I was number 7. The 34th person was a woman holding a guitar in the front row. Sitting next to her was a woman who looked like her mother. Grandma, who was holding a baby said, "Well, we can stay as long as the baby lasts."

Being the saintly martyr, I, of course, immediately said that I'd exchange places. (Right when mama started playing, though, baby started crying. God bless mothers.)

I managed to stand on camera 3 for 90 minutes. I was going for the full 2 hours, but about 9 or 9:15, I was starting to wear out, so I switched with Dennis. (Camera 2 operator sits.)

I wasn't sure what song to sing. I've been singing a different one each week, rarely repeating, and I kept flipping through my mind which one I would choose. So far, I've done all my "standards." Connected, Going It Alone, Lazarus Come Out, My Thanksgiving Prayer, Gabi's Song, William's Song, etc.

By the time it got to me, the room had mostly cleared of the dilatantes and newbies. Left in the room were the ones who are more than serious about their craft and art. I had, before the broadcast, just had a long conversation with Joe Hamilton, who has an almost magical feel in his virtuosic fingering when he plays guitar, about songwriting.

The others in the room, D. Whitney Quinn (who writes these dark songs with a razor's edge of suicidal humor), Dave Morrison (whose songs are like a tour of people on the buses and streets of L.A.), Lisa Turner (whose angelic voice stills the air and stops your heart), Marc Platt (who has more hooky guitar riffs in him than Chuck Berry), Julie Chadwick, Michael Mishaw, Siobhan, Paul McCarty, and so many more. Just naming them does a disservice to the others because each one has a unique quality but this paragraph would go on forever.

But it suddenly felt very warm in that room. We all listen to each other and talk about our songs. Being the last guy of the night, with all these other songwriters watching me, I wanted to sing something that was real "songwritery." Something they hadn't heard. So, I thought to myself, what song do I really love, but is so specialized that it doesn't work in every situation.

My first thought was "The Sad Lady," which is a true song about a woman who cuts herself and lives on the brink of suicide. But I knew I'd get in the middle of it and forget the words. It's been too long. Must brush up on that one. Whitney will go crazy for it. (We've already decided we want to write a show called "The Depressing Songs Ever Written" -- but only if we could also make it hilarious.)

So, I thought I'd bring out a song that I really have mostly performed as a part of Big Voice, though I think I sang it the night I was protested by the "God hates fags" offshoot in Kentucky (a moment which became another song, "Sower and Scarecrow.")

It's actually Ernie's favorite song of mine, "James Robertson." (He likes the early demo I made which sounds like it was produced by Brian Eno -- he calls is the "Heroes" mix -- "Heroes" as in David Bowie's album, "Heroes").

"James Robertson" is not a sing-along. It's a tightly constructed narrative with no consistent song structure -- I guess it's my "Begin The Beguine," Cole Porter's longform song.

The first part alternates in 3/4 and 4/4. I'm proud of the JR, but I'm also scared of it. I worry that when I play it, people won't know what the hell I'm singing about. Evangelists? Football fields? Limos? Theology?

Taking the bull by the horns, though, I went for it and I have to tell you, having a room full of songwriters focusing on every word you're singing is one of the great feelings a writer can have. I felt like I was a contestant on Top Chef, and I was serving my most proud meal to a panel of gourmands and chefs.

But being the insecure artist, it's also scary. I knew they were with me, and relaxed, when they giggled the second time I sang the name "James Robertson" and then were laughing louder each successive time. That's only happened a few times in the past. And they laughed at little things like "tiny speck from the cheapest seats."

When I got to the end, I actually heard gasping as the lyric circled back around to, "I discovered I didn't need..." I think I could have stopped the song and lifted my hands and conducted a sing-along. They were right there with me for the final two words, "James Robertson."

Ah, man. That felt good. Ego orgasm complete.

But now that throws me into a quandary about Friday night's show. I only have 30 minutes. Even with short introductions, that's maybe 6 songs tops. I wasn't planning on singing "James Robertson."

I hate making decisions. But I do love re-introducing my songs back into concert format. It feels good to know that, as powerful as I feel they are in the narrative structure of our musicals, they can stand alone outside the show.

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