“One more time, with feeling!” Stravinsky was known to say. He’s certainly not the only one to have barked that order: all top directors and producers want the same thing, for their artists to deliver straight from the heart.
The world’s greatest singers and songwriters have something in common: they express their authentic selves without fear. The most moving songs and performances come from bad boys, brazen bitches and fearless philanderers – passionate livers of life.
Make the connection
Any amateur can spot posturing and pretence on stage. They might not be sure exactly why a performance didn’t ring true, but they know when something is missing. A singer can hit all the right notes and still leave an audience wanting. This is a failure to connect.
Technical skill is one thing, but reaching out to an audience is a whole different ballgame. This was brought home to me many years ago when I was working in Nashville. LeAnn Rimes’ people were shopping for a deal and the legendary producer Jimmy Bowen, who, at that time, was the man in town, heard her perform. He wasn’t impressed.
Technically, LeAnn could sing well, but he didn’t believe a word that came out of her mouth. As is the case with most young singers, she was trying too hard. She hadn’t lived enough to emote heartbreak or loss convincingly.
There are exceptions, of course. Johnny Lang played with the chops of a 50-year-old blues vet from Muscle Shoals when he was just 16. But, in most cases, a seasoned sound comes with age, experience and years of practice.
For some performers, this will come as a lightbulb moment, illuminating why their careers have not flourished. For others, it will confirm why they are successful: they connect with people in an authentic way. Make the connection and fans will listen to your songs on repeat and come to your shows again and again. They will feel like they know you because you have conveyed something they recognise – their own pain.
What motivates you?
My advice to any creative person is this: do it because you love it. Let love be your driving force. Do it because you want to be the best version of yourself that you can be, whatever your craft.
When I was little, I never said, “I want to be famous” or “I want to be a star”. I just loved to sing. I held performances for my parents and neighbours just for fun. I sang because it made me feel good. Children know how to tap into innate joy. The older we get, the more we disconnect.
Sing to create an extension of yourself to share with others. Let that, and only that, be your motivation.
It’s all in your head
To succeed, you must work hard, but it doesn’t have to feel like slave labour. I am a firm believer that a large part of the work is done in the most innate, magical way – via visualisation. In other words, it’s all in your head. Visualise what the finished product will sound like, feel like and look like. Before I ever put pen to paper (or these days, fingers to keys), I usually hear a melody in my head and begin thinking of the lyrics or the hook. Sometimes, I will work on a song in my head for days before I ever start physically writing it. Think about how you use your time each day. What are you working towards? What brings you joy? Don’t allow the everyday grind to let you lose touch with your creative self.
I am a very driven person. I can be manic at times, often spinning without direction. When you have a hard time staying focused on one thing, it can stall your momentum. It’s like getting a running start just before you attempt to go up a big hill in an old, six-cylinder car that is a couple of horses shy of horse power. If someone pulls into your lane half-way up the hill, you slow down and never quite get back up to full speed again. I get sidetracked all the time but have to pull myself back into the right lane. It takes discipline.
Don’t get distracted by anyone or anything. Focus on your art first. Do what you love, love what you do, put your truest foot forward and keep the other one out of your mouth if possible. There is no need to talk yourself up, strike a pose or latch onto someone you don’t actually like just because you think they will help you climb the ladder. Don’t take that route. Know who you are, carve your own path and everything will be fine. Better than fine. Trust me.