I love the West Side of Manhattan, pretty much all the way down the island. I love the Upper West Side, starting at Fort Tyron Park and the Cloisters, the George Washington Bridge, the view of the Hudson River, the Natural History Museum and the romance of Columbia University, the Public Library, the Dakota, Chelsea, Washington Square, the West Village. Especially at this time of the year, I feel some heartbreak missing the lost future that I expected for myself. I really thought I would end up a little old lady living on the Upper West Side.
It’s hot in San Francisco today when it should be Autumn. I have a change-of-the-seasons cold that I got when I was on the East Coast last week and the weather made sense. I used to weep for Fall the first few years I lived here. Oh well. The Bay Area fog will be along in a few days to remind me why I love it here.
My first show playing drums was on the West Side of Manhattan. It was in a little neighborhood that I don’t know the name of anymore, between Chelsea and the West Village, a block from the West Side Highway. I remember walking around the block before the show in a state of terror with my friend Elizabeth, saying, what the hell am I doing? I was never going to be a musician!
I guess that was the last time I had stage fright playing drums. The great thing about starting an instrument later than everyone you play with is that you lose all sense of competition. I figured, well, I will always be the most inexperienced drummer on any bill, so might as well just do what I do and not worry about it. It was very freeing. How can you compete with someone who started playing the instrument when they were 10? I started at 27. So I got to just go for it and be humble and joyful.
After that first show, I never got scared before I got on stage again. I was always a ham as a kid, and performed at every opportunity. Behind the drums, I get to be even more comfortable. There is a bunch of wood and metal and other people between me and the audience. Maybe I get a little more focused when I play very big places, because I realize that over say the Warfield Theater sound system any kick drum errors are going to be really amplified, but it’s not fear. More like a challenge. When I am behind the drum kit, I feel more confident and comfortable than almost anywhere else. I take it as a sign that I found my instrument.
About 10 years ago, in a stressful time of my life, I started writing again. I was sitting in a hospital room with my wonderful mother and an album of songs poured out of me. (She got all better.) Zepparella recorded those songs and Anna Kristina, our singer at the time, sang them. It was spectacular to have such an amazing singer sing my words.
After that record came out though it started to press down on me: I think I need to sing my lyrics. I wrote more songs. Took lots of voice lessons. Wrote a record and figured out how to create sounds and arrangements in the computer. Recorded the record. Put a band together. Booked a show.
Enter fear. Here I was, in the same place I had been 15 years before, walking around the block shaking, trying to make sense of finding myself on a detour when I didn’t remember turning off the road. I was never going to be a singer! All the baggage of a lifetime of unsuccessful singing performances, all the uneven confidence, all the uncertainty, the judgment and public opinion: welcome to the front of stage. Suddenly, I found myself pushed into a dark stage fright. Before I would get up there my body would shake uncontrollably. I would start to panic and look to my writing partner, Justin Caucutt, and take comfort in his wry smile and his, “You’re going to be fine!”
On stage, I’d sort of black out. When I would think later of the things I had said between the songs, I would be completely humiliated. I announced to the audience that I felt the whole experience was brutal. I would do silly things like hold a water bottle during the entire heartfelt ballad. For some reason, I just could not get a hold of myself. For some reason, I wanted to keep doing it.
I love to sing. I love to tell a story in lyric. I love to perform a song and experience that place where the listeners connect and there is a still silent attention that bonds us all in the moment. I love that I can now say I have something to say.
I’m not nearly as stressed out about it as I was at the beginning. I figured out that a lot of stage fright is about not feeling prepared enough, so I just work hard on singing and on freeing myself from constricting insecurities. When I get on stage I think, well, I’ll just do what I do. It’s that same mindset I relied on when I started performing on drums. I aim for that freedom and at the same time to be present and connected to the audience the way a front person should be.
There is another thing I’ve been working on in my daily life that is translating to the way I’m approaching singing. There is a kind of deep listening that is developing, a way of paying attention from the center of myself so I can truly hear what is being said. It’s interesting to experiment with listening without ego. You hear someone speak and you don’t insert yourself into their narrative, but simply hear them.
Then it occurred to me, maybe my stress about singing on stage has to do with being completely wrapped up in my ego, in my mind. Maybe what I’ve been listening to this whole time is my own voice and not the song. Maybe what I’ve been hearing as I stand on stage and sing is the voice in my head, and all the voices in the river of thought that pull me out of the moment. What would happen if I listened to the whole song as it’s being played, and just sing what I would most want to hear? What if I separate my ego from the voice, and just let it sing? What if the song sings me?
Well, that exploration will be a long process, but it has been animating a lot of what I’ve been working on lately, in conversation, in meditation, in playing drums, and in standing at the front of the stage, fronting a band.
It also makes me think. Maybe when I was changing course mid-stream all those years ago, what I was doing was a kind of deep listening, unknowingly with an ear to that voice underneath the fear, underneath the questioning, the voice that knew all along what the right path would be, finding me writing on a rare hot day in San Francisco looking forward to the change of season and the detours that lie ahead.