Twelve months ago, I hadn’t played a gig or written a new song in ten years. Since then, I’ve taken a bunch of auditions, landed a steady gig, written some tunes, and recorded an album’s worth of original material. In this series of columns, I’m going to tell the story of how that all happened.
Which means telling the story of how I ended up as a working musician, and then as a not-working musician.
Music was never not a thing for me. I’m the youngest of six kids, with two brothers who played guitar, and there were always instruments around the house. I drifted in and out of teenage combos and church music groups — singing, playing keyboards (badly) or bass (somewhat less so) — but never anything steady, never anything that made it out of the practice room, until my brother Dan tapped me to expand his wedding-band trio into a quartet.
We didn’t play all that many gigs as a wedding band, but it was my music school. We would play three or four sets of tunes we had no business covering for crowds too drunk to care: Motown, rockabilly, the Beatles, half-assed jazz, surf instrumentals, eighties radio hits, anything and everything we could think of to fill time. There are probably still cassette tapes of those gigs in storage somewhere, but I wouldn’t listen to them now for a million dollars. We were terrible, but we were young (me in my late teens, Dan still only in his mid-twenties), and we were learning so much — not just the repertoire, but the things you can’t learn from a book: how to read and hold a crowd, how and when to bluff, and — most of all — how to be fearless.
Dan and I continued to play together sporadically over the next fifteen years or so. He moved on to front a six-piece R&B bar band, for which I would occasionally run the sound board. Once in a while we would play together as an acoustic duo, doing an eclectic mix of covers. But mostly I worked on my guitar playing and songwriting. I began writing songs seriously in college, and continued to make crude home recordings throughout my twenties, sometimes crafting band arrangements with a MIDI sequencer.
Through most of the 1990s, I worked at a college with a well-equipped digital music department; I spent many a lunch hour recording little compositions like this one.
I briefly fell in with a very good band, a folk-punk outfit called We Saw the Wolf. I played with them on a handful of live dates and a studio session, and even started working up new material with the singer-songwriter — but the experience was ultimately a disappointment for me; what seemed like a promising artistic partnership was torpedoed by conflicting expectations and communication breakdowns.
I led a church choir for a while, and I auditioned with a couple of bands, but nothing ever came of it. I didn’t really mind; for the most part I was content to work in my little bubble, writing and recording naïve pop tunes and synthy soundscapes and playing the occasional solo show.
In my mid-thirties, I moved to a new city with my family and started gigging seriously, retooling my solo act and moving in new musical directions. I felt revitalized.
And then I didn’t play another show for ten years.
Next month: Gear