musician

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?

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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~

Patrick Stump knows what songs I sing in the dark, or, the brutally-honest blog from the unlikely frontwoman.

So Stories Told had its first eight-song set bar-gig yesterday, and it was…not horrible.  Which is to say, it was pretty good, considering it had the makings of a potential mini-disaster that would not be of Hindenburg proportions in the slightest but, let’s face it, for a girl who has a hard time getting over things, would have come pretty close.  I won’t dwell heavy on the multiple layers of the whys–because a lot of those should remain behind metaphorical tour bus doors–but suffice it to say, there were four reasons why last night should not have gone as well as it did:

  1. My twin vampire-brother, Dan, suddenly couldn’t make it.
  2. Our “replacement” bassist, Kyle (of in-your-face-punk band Crowd Control and occasional acoustic collaboration Lost in Thought), had a grand total of four hours to learn eight songs, including three originals (two of which we actually performed).
  3. Our set included The Calling‘s Wherever You Will Go which, while an aggressively popular song, was one I did not know all the lyrics to.
  4. I was so nervous.  And anyone who knows Frankie Torres knows that nothing good can happen when Frankie freaks out.

In spite of all those reasons–and maybe because of them, I don’t know?–last night at Café Huh was okay.  Well, okay, was okay.  The band was–always is (in my opinion), really, despite the last-minute bassist substitution–great, as bands can be when they’re not counting mistakes and trying to chug past them with rock-and-roll bravado, in the face of neuroses developed after years of solo performing and dreading belt notes and sweat-through-my-shirt musical auditions (sudden mental flash of my quavery rendition of On My Own for my heartbreaking Éponine tryout).  Because–one more thing you need to know–things tend to go horribly wrong when I want something very badly.

And, to be absolutely naked with you all (metaphorically), I really want this.

Really.

Stories Told is a bolt-from-the-blue lucky strike for me, because as I mentioned in my last post I am not a rock singer–I’ve only always wanted to be one since I was thirteen.  I’ve been the frontwoman for imaginary rock band after imaginary rock band, performing in the arenas of my room, my mum’s room, or my bathroom (great for reviewing my best arch-your-back, scream-like-you-mean-it moments), but vocally speaking I’m a pop kid.  Maybe blue-eyed-soul, on a good day (though I’ll never have blue eyes).  The songs in heavy rotation on my iPod skew to acoustic-rock, acoustic-pop, or else the EDM-infused pop-rock everyone listens to these days.  I’m no hipster; I’m aggressively chart, with some indie thrown in.  And nine times out of ten when Jian or Jedd mentions a band that’s supposed to be rock “legends,” I know nothing about them except the name (par exemple, “Rage Against The Machine”).

At twenty-one, I am the awkward, redheaded stepchild of rock-and-roll turned awkward, redheaded frontwoman of a technically-amazing band, wherein I am forced to face the fact that, despite probably having more years (aggregated) in training for my instrument (that is, voice) than any of my musical “brothers,” I am the least prepared for this life…and my stupid ego, which remembers all those aggregated years under esteemed teachers (Celia Yu-Ong, Jai Sabas-Aracama, Kitchy Molina…to name just a few), won’t let me drive that reality into my thick skull.

The thing is, I have the most fun, and learn the most, and maybe–maybe, I wouldn’t know–perform the best when I can admit I’m a bloody idiot and just have a go at things.  Case in point: my university life, Repertory Summer Workshop, my intern life, my thesis.  I can be incredible when I admit I am incredibly stupid.  Only I’m a little bit afraid of doing that when Stories Told is concerned because I have a little demon whispering in the back of my head going “Are you sure you can afford to be stupid right here, right now?”

The sudden bassist metacrisis of last Saturday drove home that really, none of my manic orchestra is expendable.  No one sounds quite like Dan (which is not to say Kyle isn’t freaking amazing in his own right–eight songs in four hours, people!  Including three songs with Jian’s mad scientist bass arrangements!), and to be very honest getting someone to step in for him was very nearly a lost cause.  When Jian got sick before what was supposed to be our first major gig, *poof!*, major gig opportunity disappeared (though, TBH, I was more concerned with my boss and friend getting out alive than anything else).  Likewise if Jedd was suddenly incapacitated–not only would we lose the legions of fangirls who would be drawn to our show by his youthful good looks (if you’re reading this, Jedd, no I am not hitting on you; I am old enough to be your mother), but we would lose an amazing drummer and musical arranger.

In short, if Dan, or Jian, or Jedd disappear for good, Stories Told essentially reaches “The End,” or, at least, an extended, Mettalica-esque hiatus.  But if their lead singer stops being up to snuff…

…well, how many contestants did “The Voice of The Philippines” have again?

These days I’m flip-flopping between reckless euphoria (I’m in a rock band!) and sheer terror, which is a crazy place to be for a lead singer and an even crazier place to be for a female lead singer in an otherwise all-male band (Who will rub my back and give me chocolates while I cry?).  Jian, as the band’s de facto manager, has done his best on numerous occasions (Jian, you’re a hero.) to calm his shuddering, stuttering, emotionally shaky wildcard pick (and, I am loath to admit, occasional diva), but there are only so many times the “musical theater demon seesaw ride” (see this link for the reference) can be referenced before it gets eye-rollingly cliché, and I personally think I reached that limit five rehearsals ago.

I’m nervous.  I’m scared.  I’m not even on-stage anymore but I’m still exhausted (too exhausted to think BAP, really) by the residue of stage fright (which, in all my years as an actress, I can honestly say I have never experienced).

(I’m also cringing a little bit, because there is now a video of me singing “You Wanted More” out there and I will be very, very honest: that was not my best singing ever.)

About the only thing that makes sense at this point–12:50am on May 5th when I should be decking my BAP presentation–is listening to the three tracks I’ve bought off of Save Rock and Roll, the amazing comeback album that catapulted the one-time Kings of Emo-Rock, Fall Out Boy, back into the public eye as the band-who-lived.  The story of these unlikely emo-kids/punk-rockers from Illinois is one that I both can’t relate to and can, especially the nervous stutter-start of their once-pudgy, now crushworthily-svelte frontman, Patrick Stump.  When Jian gave me the assignment to watch other frontmen “come alive” onstage, so I could learn to, I ended up watching the Live in London video of Patrick joyfully sing-howling the opening to “Young Volcanoes” to the madding crowd, marveling all the while at how happy one band could look.

(There is no other word I can use to describe these long-ago guyliner advocates as they tear through “We are wild!  We are like young volcanoes!”  Happy just about fits the bill.)

Not that I’m out to remake myself as a Fall Out Boy-clone versus the more popular Paramore one (because I’m not, though I borrow heavily from Save Rock and Roll’s vocal marriage of RnB and hard rock for one of our more foot-stomping originals), but there’s something about the honesty of Patrick Stump, in those half-light, half-dark years between Folie à Deux and Save Rock and Roll, the years of “We liked you better fat!” (Don’t listen, Patrick–I like you better now.) and the grossly-underappreciated Soul Punk, that makes me want to crawl into the blog posts and Rolling Stone articles and Wikipedia pages and endless, reckless, beautiful cry of “We are like young volcanoes!” and live there until 19 East on May 11.  Because by rights, Patrick Stump should be more neurotic than I–he was (nearly) a has-been at 27, whereas I am a (maybe) wannabe at 21–riding on the too-good-to-be-true-but-really-it-is-because-your-album-is-that-good success of Save Rock and Roll while simultaneously being faced with the digital paper-trail of Soul Punk and Folie à Deux‘s “failures” and the gut-wrenching tell-all blog left in its wake (deleted by Stump, but preserved here).  And maybe he is, because what happens behind Fall Out Boy’s (literal versus metaphorical) tour bus doors is a mystery, but onstage, in the floodlights, when he sings about being the lions free from the Coliseum (a lyric that will make you root for the Lannisters from the sheer beauty of the melody behind it), you can’t tell because he looks so happy.

So very, very, very happy.

I would give anything to be that happy, really.  And I think what keeps me from it is that, unlike Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz–who have very publicly admitted to Folie à Deux‘s “wreckage” and the band hiatus that came after it being results of their inflating egos–I’ve still got the ego, and I don’t think they do, anymore.  No one can have that much fun onstage and still have an ego.  That’s raw giving out there, without self-consciousness, and that only comes after years and years and years of getting your pride ground into a fine powder until all that’s left is confidence and a desire to give, even if it comes back to you as a tomato thrown at your face.

In my bathroom mirror, lip-syncing Young Volcanoes, my Lannister-gold nails throwing the horns up while another hand clutches an invisible (versus hairbrush) mic, I feel like I’m nearly there, that I am stupid and young and in poisoned places, we’re antivenom and nothing matters but the adventure, the experience, the joy of the music.  But in reality the microphone cord’s wound too tightly around the microphone (is that why pro artists use wireless?) and I can’t work the stand and each time I hit a wrong note I flinch.

I want so desperately to be worth the wild-card, but there are many times when my horrible, masochistic imagination cooks up visions, while I am mid-song, of record execs or club owners or simply indie-rock fans going “This band would be so good…if not for the lead singer.”

(Some may argue I might just be too sober.  Those who do need to understand that I can’t not be sober.)

I guess this really long ramble boils down to this: I wish I was as brave as Fall Out Boy–as Patrick Stump–to take the risk, to dive in and believe and commit to the songs, the stories, and maybe not not care but at least bother to care after all the work is done.  But I’m guilty of killing my darlings before I’ve started, of asking and asking and asking Am I good enough for this?  And no matter how many people answer that question with “good job,” I can’t find it in myself to believe them yet.

Ironically, I figure the moment I will believe is when I have that moment of pure bliss onstage when I’m not thinking of how bad a frontwoman I am but simply being a bad (pardon the self-deprecation and blame my BAP-drained, emotional state) frontwoman, unapologetically, and enjoying it.  The thing that stands in my way is because I haven’t had it yet, but to have it I have to get rid of of the thing (the doubt) that stands in my way.

The doubt and one more thing, really: that I want this band so badly.  That it’s my thirteen-year-old dreams come to life, with the possibility of them becoming more than true…and that terrifies me.  This dream gets bigger by the day, and for a girl who hates getting her hopes up, I’ve gotten my hopes up to the point that I’m afraid I can’t live up to them.

Is there a solution to all of this?  Sleep, maybe, after I crank out enough BAP slides to not feel guilty about having some.  But really, I think this whole spiel must come to an anticlimactic denouement: “This is what goes on in the mind of a music super-fangirl turned musician”–the madness of false humility mixed with insecurity mixed with an ego the size of China mixed with a desire to get rid of all that, get out of my own head, and just do.

I can’t just do, so I’ll have to do the next best thing (sorry, Master Yoda)–I’ll try.  In the meantime, I’ll have Young Volcanoes on loop, mouthing it alone in my laptop-lit half-dark, imagining the floodlights and the joy.

~A(Rock and-)RoamingTsinay~