Back in the Spotlight

[Record scratch]: “yep – that’s me. I suppose you’re wondering how I got here? Well…”

Truthfully, so am I. In fact a year or two ago I thought I’d never find myself on a stage again. Not properly anyway. I’ve been pootling around doing a handful of acoustic open mics here and there since I sent my last, and most beloved, band crashing into a firepit, but that’s nothing more than tinkering at the edges. It’s fulfilling up to a point – but there’s only so much you can wring out of performing Wish You Were Here for the 120th time to a room of mostly disinterested drunks and people waiting for their own 10 minute slot.

Moreover, I still live half in fear of running into some of the people I was a terrible cunt to, so the very idea of being up on stage had slowly started to recede from my mind as I worked on my home recordings (available on all good streaming services!)

But, this year has been one of great personal change. I no longer have a job as such, and I’m having something like a midlife crisis as I realise I never want to look at a website, social media marketing campaign or, indeed, anything ever again. Not for a living. So I’m casting around a bit looking for purpose.

And it prompted me to a take a plunge into the free ads and see if there was a chance of joining a band. Maybe as a rhythm guitarist and backing singer. Just to be out there, quietly doing something, with some lads, having a bit of a laugh and just being in the world again a bit.

One audition later and I am now the vocalist of a rock and indie covers band. Good solid lads. And with a hectic gig schedule of two gigs a week more or less forever, plus weekly rehearsals.

I’m still in transitioning stage, as there’s 40 songs to learn – many of which I’m completely unfamiliar with, being as they were mostly released after the 90s. There’s a bit of Blink 182… a dash of Foo Fighters… a sprinkling of Muse, even. None of these things really sit in my wheelhouse, but actually it’s stimulating to confront new challenges. I’ve arguably grown too comfortable in my own small circle, so maybe now is the time to start to challenge myself again a bit. Learn some new tricks. Listen without prejudice.

My main concern at this point is: will my voice stand up to this kind of sustained schedule? I’m 44 now, and haven’t fronted a rock band for 6 years. Even then, we were only doing gigs every 4-5 weeks, so I always had plenty of time to rest between sets meaning I developed some bad habits.

Halfway through each gig – normally when we played something raucous like Black Dog or Back in Black – I’d cut loose with a screaming vocal in my full chest register. And not to be too immodest about it, it was great. Done often enough, and it will destroy your vocal chords forever (ask Robert Plant) but if you’re only playing every so often (or have properly coached vocal technique) it’s not a huge deal. But, as it’s physically intoxicating to cut loose like that – a huge adrenalin rush – it’s a dangerous habit to get into.

Now here I am in my mid 40s. Like all the muscles in your body, your throat muscles lose flexibility and strength as you age. Damage that could be shrugged off in youth is all too easily made permanent. Very few singers have the same kind of range they had in their youth when they reach 50 and suddenly that seems all too close. I had a tentative stab at singing Black Dog a few weeks ago and suddenly realised that I’m not young any more. Belting away above a top A5 is really putting my throat in the danger zone, and really G#5 is where my range naturally ends.

So I have to start to relearn my craft as a singer. Find out where and how to pitch my voice in different ways to maintain the feel of the songs without blowing my lungs out all over the stage or rendering myself mute.

And as a songwriter my stuff is all based on melodies, and if I were to lose just a few notes from either end of my natural range it would mean I’d suddenly be unable to write in the same style as I have been doing. It doesn’t mean I’d be worse, necessarily, but it would mean changing something I’m very happy with.

So now I’m here. Vocal exercises every morning. Plenty of fluids. Playing with a band who drop their instruments down a whole tone to give me extra leeway at the top of my range. Daunting, but exciting.

I’ve only done a couple of gigs, and only sung half the set even then, but I can feel my taste for it coming back. It’s not for the audience (which, realistically, is never going to be more than a couple dozen people in a pub back room) but it is for me. The sheer physical high of being there, doing something. In the moment.

I used to think the idea of “soul” being in a musical performance was a little bit of eyewash – after all, how much soul can you inject into the 400th performance of the same song? – but there is, undeniably, an element of soul to it all. Even when it’s a song you don’t like, you’re on the line with it – trying to connect with it, and in turn make yourself connect with whatever audience you’re in front of. Singing is just talking with melody. It’s communication. The stuff of life.

I’m no great shakes as a singer, and at my age unlikely to get much better, but for now that’s what I am. A singer of songs.

She’s Left Me

The bane of modern pop songwriting is much the same as it is for penises: length. It first started happening in the 90s when a band like Oasis started to drag out the most commonplace of tunes to 4 and 5 minutes – well beyond the staying power of the track. I made a vow to myself that it was a lesson I’d heed: if the Beatles could revolutionise what pop could be in under 3 minutes (Tomorrow Never Knows, 1966) then what earthly business would Ed Sheerhan have for stretching out his anodyne, British School of Music airbrushed nonentities out over 5 minutes? Anyway, I raise this point because this song clocks in at comfortably under 2 minutes. Even if you hate it, it’s over quickly and you can move on. Much like sex with me.

Lyrics

Take me away
Somewhere far from here
Make it a dark place
That smells of sour beer
‘cos she’s left me…

Spare me the talk of other fish in the sea
I was made for her and she was made for me
Now I’m sad and alone
Because she’s left me

Put another song on the radio
Make a sad song
Play it real low
Don’t try to tell me what I’m supposed to do
When I’m feeling blue

Because she’s left me

Thoughts

No fucking about with this one is there? Surprisingly, the musical inspiration stems from the ‘lead’ guitar part (the twinkly counter melody that runs throughout). It’s a riff, of sorts, that I’ve had for many years without ever having a home for.

Last night, taking respite from Love Island, I went upstairs idly picked the riff out and half an hour later the whole thing was just there. I toyed with the idea of a second verse, but it seemed redundant: everything I wanted to express was over and done. It’s a fairly universal lyric. Although I am rarely alone as such, I spend a lot of time feeling alone, and sometimes when I’m that way out I want to compound it: get away from everything and nurture that loneliness with darkness, quiet music and alcohol. Basically: wallow in it.

The vocal part I really sweated over. Unlike Pink Floyd I don’t have a million quid studio, and my performances are always at risk of a toilet flushing in the background, a child bursting in, or an irate wife shouting up the stairs.

On something like the 15th run through, I got approximately the fragile sound I was after. I struggle to sing softly, because I’m 15 and a half stone of dumb Yorkshireman, more physically suited to a bellowing at the TV, but I eventually got something I was happy with – even if my pitching is a little recondite in places.

Anyway, that’s all about I have to say about this. Now fuck off and leave me to my brooding.