…and Back to Obscurity

But. As soon as I got back in the car, bathed in a sheen of triumphant sweat, I knew something was wrong. I opened my mouth to sing a line.

I got back in the car after the gig, still beaming. The crowd had danced. I’d called and they’d responded. I’d not sung a bum note and my voice was clear and crystal, with a pleasing rasp at the high end. As I’d left the stage, each of my new band mates had clapped me on the back or shook my hand. “Well done, mate.” I’d finally arrived back where I thought I belonged. Accepted.

A long, whistling bark of a sound. Like the final seal of a once thriving colony dying alone on an ice floe. I drove home in silence.

In the morning, straight to the office for some vocal workouts. Up and down the scale through a range of vowel sounds. But my trusty, reliable old top note – a ringing G – was nowhere in sight. My voice collapsed like a rusty stairwell before it had even reached the E before.

A warm drink and some Strepsils and back into the breach… to nothing. “But I have a gig tonight,” I pleaded with my uvula. It shook with disdain.

I knew then what I feared: my voice cannot sustain 2 gigs and a 3 hour rehearsal a week. Not without coaching and training. But! I was booked in for 2 gigs a week from here until eternity… how could I do those gigs AND gain strength at the same time?

Maybe I could do the gigs and hope that they’d beat my voice into shape? I was reminded of a certain vintage of PE teacher who seemingly believed the same thing: “Slow runner, eh?” he would muse through his moustache. “Start running again. And keep running until you’re faster.” And off you’d trot, legs leaden, lungs heaving, returning even slower than your first lap.

No. It wouldn’t work. And I had to make a decision quickly: either abandon ship now, or risk really letting the lads down two months hence with a bunch of gigs booked and a singer with polyps or nodules decorating his throat lining.

Only once choice. Quit.

So I did.

It felt horrible that day, and it feels horrible now – because the buzz of being back on stage was immense. But if the gig schedule is too much too soon, then me and my 44 year old vocal chords are going to go down in flames – and I love singing too much to take that risk.

So again, I am singer without a band. A fork without a cutlery set. It hurts for now, but I will find the right set up. Once I’ve finished this 3000 pack of Lockets.

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.