music

[travelogue] Coming Out of My Cage (And It Feels Just Fine)

A/N: Submitted this as an entry to World Nomads’ travel scholarship competition. I didn’t win, but it felt like a piece of travel writing worth sharing.

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It’s June.  The night is humid, glowing amber in the lights of Armenian Street.  I’m twenty-three, and girls much younger than me have done this before—wandered off at night in search of adventure—but I’d always been the “tame” one.  At home, they call me tita (aunty), lola (grandma). The girl whose idea of partying is having tea in bed after work.

Certainly not the girl who’d be rounding the corner of a graffiti-covered alley at half-ten at night, the remnants of a sangria buzzing in her blood.  But it was my last day in Singapore, and I’d found myself wanting to live a little.

Emphasis on a little.  There would be no shared drinks with strangers.  Instead, I was looking for new music, and Timbre at The Substation was supposedly the best place to find it.

Back home in Manila, I balanced a responsible, serious job as an agency strat planner with a self-proclaimed “career”—profitability be hanged—as a singer/songwriter for a rock band.  When my bandmates heard I was traveling to Singapore, they’d filled my head with stories of underground gigs with inspiring acts.  It was this promise that got me to wander a foreign city at the oddest hours of night.  I’d tried to find it in Clarke Quay, but the bands there sounded professional when I was looking for raw.  A quick Google search for “indie music gigs Singapore” pointed me in the direction of Timbre.  

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Several attempts at a cab ride later, I’m elbowing my way into the dark, open-air club, dodging a bunch of finance-looking bros nursing beers.  I grab a stool near the bar and, just as I catch my balance, there’s that familiar screech of an electric guitar being sound-checked.  Then, the mics crackle to life as a raspy mezzo-soprano (just like me) launches into the familiar first line of The Killers’ hit, Mr. Brightside.

Soon, it’s midnight. Though the sangria’s worn off, I might as well be drunk. I’m dancing in my seat, shout-singing along with those finance bros through a series of pop-rock hits. Later, I’ll notice my phone battery is dead.  Later, I’ll catch my first ever bus.  Later, I’ll huddle, scared, at a deserted taxi stand in a different part of town (How did I get here?!) until an off-duty cab takes pity on me and brings me back to my hotel.  

Later, I’ll wonder what possessed me to wander around at night, in an unfamiliar city. But, with rock music blasting from crackling amplifiers, later hardly matters.

For the first time, I’m coming out of my cage, and right now, it feels fine.

~aRT~

 

Searching for “Wow.”

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My Facebook page has become one long trigger warning for a quarter-life existential crisis. My college schoolmates are speaking at TEDx or traveling the world. My high school batchmates/schoolmates are setting up businesses, becoming bloggers, getting engaged, and/or auditioning for reality TV shows.

I amsick. With yet another cough and cold.

A few days ago, I started learning guitar again. The last time I picked up Elinor for any extended stretch of time, I was in college, hefting her on my back from class to class, stealing practice time between reviewing for finals and crunching out the beginnings of my thesis.  I would play and sing everywhere, puzzling over tabs and timing, discovering a world of music made outside of my body, a method that physically challenged my idea of control.  It was exciting, then–every new song was a small victory against a nagging feeling of being “lost” that I’d had since leaving my college theater org.

Now, I’m only just re-learning what it means to be excited, what it feels like to have a world of music that’s really only mine (or, well, as “only mine” as you can get when you’re born with the urge to constantly be documenting things for posterity).  See, that feeling I had back in college–of being lost, set adrift, having to start over–is back and in full force, tugging away at the last constant I have: my music.  Or, specifically, my dreams of music.

It’s taken me a while to admit this, because it feels like a character flaw, but I am a natural performer. I like to “wow.” On that stage, in front of a crowd, you are both able to connect with so many, and remain at a safe distance, where none of those people can hurt you, like friendship without the risk of familiarity (and, ergo, contempt).  That moment of approval feels so much like being liked, the amazement and/or curiosity silencing self-doubt, even for a moment.  For a girl with a lot of very loud self-doubt, those moments can be intoxicating, and the constant quest for them all-consuming, because isn’t it elemental human instinct to run for safety?

That “wow”–and the things I’ve done to get it–have been my safety for years, to the point that I’ve come to define myself as what–or, rather, the very many whats–I do.  Except, now, things are changing. It’s harder to juggle all the hats I’ve chosen to wear. Music, arguably my “number one life priority,” has now become my biggest struggle: it’s hard enough to steal time from your thesis, but reaching for guitar after work, when your body is screaming for mindless TV and sleep? Nigh-impossible. I’ve had to watch my slow stagnation, standing still in stark contrast to my bandmates who improve in leaps and bounds, threatening to render me obsolete. They have side-lines and gigs and a future.  I have…Keynote.  That, and a nagging sense that my chance at “wow” is getting farther and farther away, possibly too far away to ever reach.

It all came to a head when I lost my voice.  Jian–bandmate, remember? I mention him a lot, so you should.–is probably going to kill me for admitting this, but I got extremely sick recently and had to be forced into vocal rest. I say forced because I only called time after pushing through with a gig I had no capacity to sing, my bullheaded determination to “be professional” and not back out at the last minute causing a vocal catastrophe.  We took a break for two weeks, which became a month, and now, six weeks after my vocapocollapse (see what I did there?) my bandmates are back refreshed, ready, brimming with ideas and new experiences…while I am struggling to find my footing, afraid I’m being left behind.

For the first time, at twenty-three, I am having to look in the eye the chance that this glittering dream of a music career may dissolve in the murky reality that is a corporate nine-to-five, with its “adulting” and financial responsibilities and reality checks.  I never saw myself becoming just another working millennial, but ironically the truth is I might have to trade security of identity for security of a more terrestrial, pragmatic kind.

A girl has bills to pay.

Am I scared? Very. Watching the highlights reel that is my newsfeed, with everyone on it doing something new and big and different, it’s hard not to start fearing obscurity. The promise of having a stage and leaving a mark have become such constants in my life that having to face the very real possibility of those things never happening again has left me more than a little shaken. What do you do when the destiny you spent all this time preparing yourself for turns out to not be your destiny at all?  How do you start over, take back the years you feel you wasted building a dream that was made to fall apart anyway?

If there are easy answers for these questions, I don’t have them. But I have my guitar. And my iPhone camera. A few days ago, when I decided–or, rather, was half-encouraged, half-coerced–to try learning guitar again, I turned on Facebook Live and started recording a video of what it looked like to start from zero–a throwback to the first days of Elinor and I, those private video diaries that showed me fumbling with painful steel strings and dreaded chord shifts. I took a while to ramble, talking about my bandmates’ advice and my new guitar set-up and the song I was about to do. Then, I started to play.

The first time, I screwed up, and had to start over. That happened again a second time. And a third. Over and over, I missed notes or hit wrong ones, laughing nervously as I noticed the numbers of live audience rise and fall.

Frustrated, I stopped looking at the screen and instead stared at my fingers, picking slowly through the pattern until…I got it.  And again. And again. The notes were clean and sharp in a way they hadn’t been in ages.  I tried to sing along, but the timing failed me, and my playing fell apart again, so I kept quiet and watched as my fingers plucked at the strings faster and faster until the tempo nearly matched the original.

When I looked up, no one was watching. But, oddly enough, that didn’t matter. I’d done something I thought I couldn’t, and that was exciting. That was new, and different, and doing it felt like something slotting back into place, an anchor finding its mooring. Perhaps no one would ever know what I could do, but I did.  I did, and the “wow” that resulted from discovering that perhaps it was still possible to grow and reach and try and be myself–a self that I liked–without those big dreams to propel me…

…in that moment, it was enough.

~a Roaming Tsinay~

LINER NOTES: I wrote this as part of an assignment for an office writing workshop where we were asked to write a short essay based on a random word we’d drawn from a hat. For the curious, my word was, well, “wow.”

Also, this post is partially inspired by the work of a fellow MGC New Life alum. If you’re recovering from dreams of athletic (versus musical) stardom, I recommend you check out this blog by Johansen Aguilar.  

…I can’t believe I just plugged an HS classmate. What is the world coming to?

We Are Like Young Volcanoes, or, Fall Out Boy Saved My Rock and Roll

Over a year ago, I published “Patrick Stump Knows What Songs I Sing In The Dark,” a blog openly admitting the absolute terror I felt while “living the dream” that is Stories Told, set to the soundtrack of Fall Out Boy‘s “comeback” album, Save Rock and Roll.  That year, FOB was on my Spotify “Year In Music, and I looped Young Volcanoes endlessly, clinging to the desperate, hard-won optimism in Stump’s voice like a life-raft in a sea I hadn’t yet learned to navigate.

A lot’s happened since then.  For one thing–and ST‘s none to shy about admitting this to international press–the band nearly broke up. We hit a rough patch near the one year mark of the band, a point when I think all of us weren’t satisfied with the sound we had–“prog-rock fusion” we called it, but honestly it was sort of that cliché loud guitar-driven madness you hear everywhere–but were sort of stubborn and trying to stick with it while not being honest about what we really enjoyed (especially me, as I was reluctant to make waves and risk losing my dream).  By that point, I’d sunk into a deep depression, with Stories Told feeling more like a job than a genuine expression of myself artistically.  I started dabbling in side projects, frantically trying to build for myself the same network ST had so I could work up the courage to cut myself loose from the band and go off on my own.

As fate would have it, none of those efforts panned out, and Jian preempted my “resignation speech” by admitting what I’d felt all along–the band had lost its center, and needed to regroup.  So we did. We made the executive decision to ditch nearly all the songs we’d written that year–except for Surprise Me–then took a break over the holidays, intending to start fresh in 2015.  In January, we took on two new members–alternate bassist Yogi, and rhythm guitarist Aned–managed to crack the code of Surprise Me, and resumed operations with a bang by taking on the battle of the bands circuit.  Somewhere in between, we’d managed to find our sound: a mix of mine and Aned’s shared emocore/pop-punk roots with my Broadway/Bareilles vocals (and confessional poetry), wrapped in Jian and Jedd’s slick decade-spanning pop-rock influence.  It’s not a stretch to say we emerged a completely different band from where we started, and while it wasn’t the band any of us had said we wanted, it was the sort of compromise that left everyone feeling extremely excited instead of upset.

Fast forward to now.  We’ve signed with Amplify, released two singles, shot a music video, and have an EP launch scheduled for January 2016.  The trajectory at which we’d managed to go from struggling posers to something resembling an actual band has surprised us all, and no one more than me.

Back then, as the face of a band whose genre I did not even listen to outside of band rehearsals, I was constantly afraid of being unmasked as a farce–a singer for hire made to play the part of frontwoman. I went through the motions, aping the bravado–sometimes outright arrogance–that Jian, Jedd, and Dan seemed to exude as they chugged away at their instruments, but deep inside I felt compelled to hide behind the mic instead of own it. It all felt wrong, and I knew it felt wrong precisely because of Fall Out Boy.

 

To help me with my stage fright, Jian had given me the “assignment” of watching other frontmen take the stage, so I could learn by example.  After running through his list of suggestions, I’d landed on Live in London video of Patrick joyfully sing-howling the opening to “Young Volcanoes,” and stayed there, “like a moth getting trapped in the light by fixation.”

(Sorry, the opportunity was Irresistible.)

(Okay, okay, I’ll stop.)

I couldn’t help it. As I said in my blog last year, they looked so happy.

As I looped the video over and over and over had only one thought: this is exactly how being in the band should feel like.  I wanted to crawl into the screen and jump and and stomp and clap and spin and shout along with the sweaty masses in front of the stage, as Patrick and Pete and Andy and Joe led us through that reckless, beautiful cry of  “We are wild!  We are like young volcanoes!” It didn’t look like a performance–it looked like a party, like a present, like a bunch of people swept up together in a wave of relief and euphoria and joy that “We’ve already won.”

All of that was a far cry from what performances looked looked and felt for me–nervous posturing around a mic stand that always seemed to be in some form of disrepair, microphone cord wound too tightly around a microphone that always felt awkward and heavy in my hand.  What Live in London looked like was a bunch of guys who no longer cared if they looked “right” or “cool”–all that mattered was that they were in this adventure together, a single unit revelling in the experience, the joy of declaring “In poisoned places, we’re antivenom!

Try as I might, though, I could not bring myself to stop caring.  Not then, at least.  But the seed was planted. Every time I doubted myself I turned to it to remind me of what right would feel like: raw giving, without self-consciousness.  We are stupid and young and taking a trust fall into the music.

It took more gigs singing songs I probably had no business doing (and, honestly, should have admitted instead of powering through, too proud and too scared to be honest about my limitations), tons of passive-aggressive SMS/FB message battles, and one dramatic band confrontation that turned out to be our best decision ever before I could take that trust fall, but in the end, we made it out alive.  And part of the reason is because of that song, that feeling that remains burned into my brain as THE GOAL.  I won’t pretend I’m there yet–my band’s pretty close, but I’ve always been a little ways behind them–but together we’re closer.  When I’m standing on that stage I don’t feel like an antelope facing a pride of lions–I know, can physically feel, that I’m part of a unit and we’re in this together.  And that makes me less afraid, more willing to play.  I dance onstage when I want to.  I run around Aned to try to force a reaction out of him.  One time, during a battle of the bands, my wireless mic cut out (which is probably why Jian still favors wired ones), and I didn’t feel panic.  Instead, backed by nods from my bandmates, I marched into the crowd (it was a small venue) and sang at the top of my lungs–recalling every single choir director who’d screamed at me to “PROJECT!”–until someone finally handed me a working microphone.

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I’ve also learned how to bury bodies. The boys don’t exactly know how to feel about that.  (Photo (c) Jemimah Hope)

These were things I would never have managed to do before, if not for the lessons I picked up from that one live recording, a year and eternity ago:  You don’t need to care if they liked you better fat or thin.  You don’t need to worry if you’re cool or not.  Give what you’ve come to give, then let yourself go.  The music, if you’ve learned to trust it, will catch you.  And never forget that you’re in this together.

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Last night, our office had our annual Christmas party.  The theme this year was AMAs, so obviously we were all asked to dress up as musicians and perform.  After looping Carly Rae Jepsen‘s E•MO•TION (a vastly underrated pop album, IMHO) four or five thousand times, I’d resolved to go as the Run Away With Me singer.  But, at the last minute, I changed my mind.  Instead, I nipped out, bought a fedora and some light-brown hairspray-paint, threw on some hipster glasses and a leather jacket, and with my very best chest voice belted out the official national anthem of every millennial raised on the very best pop-punk/emocore: Sugar We’re Going Down.  I hit about a gazillion wrong notes–headbanging while trying to keep all your hair stuffed into your hat on can do that–and possibly looked like I was having an epileptic episode, but I didn’t care. I closed my eyes, pretend it was ST behind me, and let go.  And, for a few glorious minutes, it felt like I was living that Live In London video.

I went to bed thinking of one thing: I can’t wait until the EP launch gig.

~ARoamingTsinay~