Though I’ve been performing as a solo musician for a few years now, I am not comfortable with any set up I have tried. Whether it was the harmonicas, drum machine, or loop pedal, nothing has felt right. The straight-up folk thing works well for some venues. Honestly, I don’t dislike that set up, but it just isn’t where I’m at anymore, let alone my songs. The drum machine setup had a momentary high that felt really good. Energized by a unique sound, I pushed it hard as an essential part of my performing identity. However, by the end of that gigging season, paying for a live recording and listening back, I realized that sound was not at all what I thought it was. This went way beyond thin and empty to my ears. The presence of the drum machine actually highlighted the absence a bass voice, making everything sound awkward and incomplete. In addition, using a drum machine that wasn’t intended for live use made the logistics of performing even more of a headache. I originally bought the loop pedal as a songwriting tool, but it didn’t take long for me to incorporate it into some live things, especially 4-hour farmer’s market gigs. But its role had been minor. On my last gig, I tried using it to fill up my sound and translate arrangements I’d done on recordings to the solo stage. Despite some major practice time, I massively choked on 2 out of the 3 songs I needed it for. I found it to be an unforgiving piece of technology that I could not reliably rely on myself to properly utilize.
As I prepare to get out there and play a few more gigs in the New Year, I struggle with how to perform my music. Before I record a new song, I make a conscious effort to ensure that they can live without the magic of the studio. But as I try and take arrangements that worked well in the recorded version and translate them back to a solo setting, it’s not quite right. It’s like using Google to translate a sentence into Spanish, then Spanish back English. You get the core of the message, but it is clearly not structured properly, the syntax is wrong, and not at all natural.
To make matters worse, a few acoustic versions of different songs were sounding way too similar. I didn’t get it. In my opinion, my recordings sound vastly different and each have a unique character. But it just wasn’t coming through. All of these things combined started to cripple my mental process. I tried and tried to push through but got increasingly frustrated.
I talked to a colleague about this the other day, asking him if he’d ever thought about making sure a solo set doesn’t sound too similar, boring, or having songs that sound like each other. He answered, “I’ve never thought about it really, but probably will now.” Whoops, didn’t mean to break someone else! Thankfully, he went on to give me better advice: “Just play the songs like the version you know and like. If there are some bare parts of the song, so be it. And if you’re playing acoustically, strumming patterns will start sounding the same because that’s just how you play acoustic guitar.”
With those words in mind, I went home and practiced some more. Starting at the top of the song list and working my way down, I set out to just play the songs like I would if I were playing along with the recording. Like magic, the songs felt more natural. The tempos started solidifying and distinguishing themselves, the strumming patterns varied, and probably most importantly, the individual character and energy of those songs started to shine through. This was a break through if there ever was one. I felt like the Kool-Aid man bursting through a wall.
The next evening, I took some time to go up to my practice space and try building on this success. As much as I wanted to simplify my set up and just use a single acoustic guitar, I wasn’t totally sold on that idea. My Christmas songs had just received some really nice recognition earlier that day, so my confidence was pretty high. I set up my telecaster and pedals (without the loop pedal) along with an A/B switch so my ukulele could plug into to my effects as well. Adding the uke was not really premeditated, but just felt like it might work in that moment.
Adding in some delay and shimmer with the ukulele, I plucked out a simple version of “Circling Sideways.” It felt really good and sonically outside of the normal palette of tonal colors I normally use. I need some practice with my ukulele, but otherwise this change gave new life to a song that has never lived up to its potential. Next, I went to my guitar and translated a slightly different arrangement of “Hold for Me” I’d been trying on acoustic to the electric with tremolo. Again, it felt so good and natural. It had good dynamics and allowed me to just play.
All of this to say that it feels good to break through a large mental barrier and give myself permission to try new things. I’ve struggled for a long time with the presentation of my music out in the world, especially in a live setting. I honestly don’t even know what my ideal situation would be, and maybe that’s part of the problem. I know I can be a tough critic on local music, so I need to present something that I would enjoy as a listener. I need to continue to try new and potentially uncomfortable ideas. I can’t keep playing it safe.