The other night, I said it out loud to another human being: I’m holding my first performance in June.
Very quickly, the reality set in: I have committed to a performance in only five months. My voice is in shambles. I have no band, no equipment, no venue and no idea what the hell I’m doing. All I have is some songs I wrote.
The person I told was my teacher in my bluegrass ensemble. He looked startled, and I don’t know why.
My teacher suggested I connect with a particular songwriting teacher at the Old Town School for private lessons. Good advice, I think.
As I drove home, the details of what I’ve committed to started to wear away at me:
- How will I get a band together? Who will these people be?
- Will they like my songs? (Or when they hear them, will they snicker?)
- Can I repair the damage to my throat and restore my voice to anything like it was by then?
- What the hell have I gotten myself into? Can I ever be ready by June?
After class, I went home and pulled up my songs. As I listened to each one, a wave of embarrassment came over me as I imagined the songwriting teacher hearing them. Most of them are so simple, it’s almost laughable. The lyrics are too sappy. Many of them were written before I knew what a bridge was (a “second movement”). I’d have to add in the bridge to each song before I could have anyone hear them. It’s just too embarrassing otherwise.
“Maybe I’ll just sing covers!” I thought.
A few years back, I enrolled in a songwriting critique workshop at the Old Town School. The person leading the workshop had had some success as a singer/songwriter; plus, she had written songs that other people recorded. Her music had been used in feature films as well. That was good enough for me.
The prior year, I’d gotten some forward movement with my music, recording some rough demos in GarageBand. I had decided that to deal with the terror I felt, I would simply embark on my musical aspirations under a pseudonym. Easy solution. After some deliberation, I chose the name Gracie Blu. I set up social media accounts under Gracie’s name and began to do what I thought a person should do if she wanted to be a singer.
I was so shy about putting myself out there, I actually signed up for this workshop under Gracie’s name. I was ready with the answers to any question that would come up. (“What kind of name is Blu? What country did your ancestors come from? Oh, you know, it was shortened at Ellis Island, I’d say in response.”
The workshop involved bringing in a demo of your best song and receiving a critique. Now, I had gone to a similar workshop for screenwriters many years ago when I lived in Iowa, and all I can say is this: people can be freaking brutal when it comes to giving you feedback. Hence the Gracie registration.
My first thought during this workshop was the level of songwriting talent we have in Chicago. Some of these people were incredibly good.
My second thought was how glad I was I had showed up as Gracie. There were eight people called before me. It amazed me what different styles people choose and how many genres there are.
“Next up is … Gracie.”
For a moment, we all sat in silence. The teacher said it again, “Gracie?”
“Oh yeah, that’s me!” I thought. I got up out of my seat and brought my CD to the front of class. I popped it into the CD player with a general feeling of, “Let’s get this over with. And man, this is embarrassing because I now realize how simple my songwriting is compared to everyone else.”
She listened to the song and her first comment was, “Obviously you’ve been singing for awhile.”
Well, that was good. “She thinks I’m a good singer,” I thought. I cringed waiting for the brutal critique.
“The best part about the song is the lyrics about the baby blue eyes,” she said. “This song, though, is about an overdone theme: I want you; I don’t want someone else.” I nodded, as a part of me wanted to argue, “So … you’re saying that all the songs out there about unrequited love aren’t going to do well, which is and has always been about fifty percent of the songs every written and recorded.” But I kept my mouth shut. Or I should say, Gracie did.
“The song needs a bridge,” she said. “But overall, nice job.”
That was it. My two minutes was over. She didn’t rip my song to pieces like they had with my screenplay. She gave me some good advice. I took it all in, and some I kept and some I tossed away. And she affirmed my singing talent. That was cool.
As I listened to my songs the other night, one thing seemed to make itself clear: the best songs I’ve written as a whole are in the bluegrass (or modified bluegrass) genre. There are a few outliers, but I should probably stick with those songs. They’re not even embarrassing, now that I think about it. It’s really just the other ones that seem embarrassing or bad.
And, maybe I should stop being so embarrassed of my creations and give myself a break. After all, ten years ago all I had was a faint recurring message from my soul saying, “It might be cool to write a song someday.” So, at least I did. In fact, I wrote about twenty of them. So that’s something.
Worth a listen: Try, by Dolly Parton