All my life I’ve wanted to be part of a band.
I grew up with a father who was in a handful of groups with little local claims to fame, claims which as a child I build up to Zeppellin-esque proportions in my head (perhaps with a little help from my pops). And so, thanks to him I grew up around music. I basically was birthed into his bands. All the “Old Fogies” as he called them would come over on weeknights and we would jam until the wee hours when it was imminent I go to bed for at least a few winks before school. Because of them I learned the classics and because of my dad I learned the fundamentals: rounds, harmonies, timing. He would test me over and over again on harmonies for his songs until I got them just right. And then, we would do them a few more times for good measure.
There was a recording studio in my house where I would watch my Dad splice tape to create tracks and eventually albums (old school, pre-digital). I grew up with musical instruments galore and albums upon albums of the greats. There was a wealth of information and opportunity in front of me but I never took it. I was the singer and I sang the songs they told me to sing. I didn’t branch out. I didn’t pick up the guitar and try it, someone else who was better could do that and my Dad was very particular about his things. I wasn’t allowed to even be in the studio alone until I was almost an adult. I didn’t look at my Dad’s albums and explore. Someone else knew the music better and could pick songs I “would like” and I “might break” the record and so it was best to keep it in the sleeve, even as I got older.
Looking back with adult understanding I get it. My Dad was cautious of his things and would rather streamline the effort than stop to teach me how. The band only had one day per week to play. They were all once working musicians and they didn’t want to wait around for a little lady to plunk her way through a song. They wanted to play. They deemed me to have the best voice out of the lot and they wanted me to sing and they wanted me to sing what they wanted to play and so we did. I was only 6 or so when these jam session invitations came about and I wasn’t about to rock the boat. Singing made me feel weightless and forget about whatever my little self was worry-warting about. We played with mics and amps even when we practiced and it all felt so official that little me felt small in comparison. As I got older I would give up requests and sometimes suggestions for how to start or end a song but for the most part, I knew their music and they didn’t know mine and so we played theirs how they wanted it played.
And in so many ways, I’m grateful for that. I had a schooling in their form of give and take of playing in a group, in the ways of music and communication on stage.
However, I didn’t find my autonomy. I went along with the flow, feeling joyous to be playing music, yet unfulfilled by my lack of participation and choice. I felt pressure to like songs my dad would write and play for me, even if I didn’t like them. I lost a bit of myself in my efforts to please.
As I grew older I continued that fashion, choosing songs for performances that I could tell my music teachers wanted me to sing but that I didn’t really resonate with. I got very good at pleasing others with my voice but also very good at dissociating from my wants. I was letting myself be shaped solely by others instead of shaping myself.
At 17 I was given my first guitar by my family. It was beautiful. I picked it up to play and immediately my dad and brother alerted me that it was upside down.
The guitar was right-handed.
I am left-handed.
It’s not that they weren’t thoughtful or that they didn’t know my handedness, they did and it was a very thoughtful gift. The thing was, I hadn’t played enough in my life to know that, in fact I played the guitar left-handed. My dad was a lefty and he played right-handed and so, it was assumed that I did too. I flipped the guitar and gave it a shot as a righty and went with the flow.
I still can’t play the guitar.
And so, throughout my life I’ve gone along with the musical flow. I’ve done recordings on everything from meditation to rap albums. I’ve performed with cover bands and “Old Fogies” and rappers alike and while I’ve loved it all simply because I was able to get out there and sing, I felt disconnected and at times a bit embarrassed by the repertoire.
And then, something shifted as I inadvertently moved three thousand miles away from home.
I arrived in Alaska and within 4 days I was invited to play with the local band. It didn’t hurt that my girlfriend dated the lead singer and so as we were all having dinner one night and the guitar came out and my voice came with it, I was invited to play with them. Just like that.
They told me to pick songs I liked.
This was out of habit for me. I was used to just going along with the flow.
They gave me the set list and told me to choose the songs I’d like to play.
No, you can just pick the ones you need help with.
We played together a handful of times and finally, at the end of the year, right before I left for California, I played my first show with them at the local watering hole.
I was walking on air.
My girlfriend’s dog, upon hearing me start to sing, pushed his way into the bar and curled up at my feet on stage. I love that dog. He was my comfort in my discomfort on that stage. I felt strong and happy afterwards, like a weight had been lifted and a change was coming. But I wasn’t totally there. After that the band told me to think of songs for next Summer and they would learn anything I wanted to play. That’s a pretty awesome offer coming from a band that I just walked into.
So did I?
I arrived at the beginning of Summer with no more of a set list than I left with last Summer (which were all songs they had known from before). There was something in me resisting. I worried that it would seem like disinterest to them. It wasn’t. I’m not even entirely sure what it was. The breaking of old bad habits or the shedding of a new vulnerable skin. Either way, I clung to it with a love hate grip.
It took me half the Summer to start making suggestions but I finally did. They jumped on them. It took me half the Summer to say that I didn’t want to sing certain songs and to ask if I could have others. Something shifted and suddenly, I wasn’t just reacting anymore.
It’s been a back and forth. Sometimes I still revert back to my reactionary self but I’m on the other side now and there’s no going fully back to singing show tunes for smiles unless ya know, that’s what’s on my menu suddenly (though I doubt it).
This past weekend we played a show for the Festivus at the restaurant I work for. Basically, it’s an ending of the season party, a sort of “thank you” to locals for their business and a chance to all be together before people start the slow procession out of town for the year. Last year I watched the band played and wished so badly that someday I could be on stage with them too (they had invited me to play with them that night but I had deemed myself unprepared).
I had been able to practice once with them since our last show early this Summer. Recipe for disaster? One might think but it went really well. They had been practicing together and sounded amazing. I had chosen songs I love and I gave them my all, even cracking my voice a few times from belting them out but I didn’t care. I was finally starting to let go. I even took the mic off the stand (this sounds trivial but stage presence is a major issue for me. I feel awkward. But I did my best to push through it, to talk to the crowd, to dance and move and truly try not to think so much).
There’s still a lot of progress to be made but the hardest part has come:
I have a band.
I have always wanted a band and finally I have one. We have one. And hey, all I had to do was completely drop my entire life in California and move to the wilds of Alaska. I couldn’t have thought that one up in my wildest dreams and if I had I would probably have been too scared to chase it.
Thank you Alaska, you sneaky thing, for pulling me in and breaking me down so that I could build back up again. Thank you for my friends who make me feel loved and confident even when I’m nervous and for my band mates for all of their support and excitement. And thank you for a man who encourages me and pushes me when I need it every step of the way. A man whom, when I look out to him from the stage, has his eyes closed and his head back and a smile on his face reaching ear to ear as he listens to me sing.
I am eternally grateful.