CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 3 of 3

Posted: May 24th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources | 4 Comments »

I’m pleased to present the final installment of my in-depth conversation about performance with Sugar Hill Records artist and three-time Grammy® nominee SARAH JAROSZ.  (You can read Part 1 here, where you will also find more information about Sarah in the introduction, and Part 2 is here.)

In this installment, Sarah talks about how she would describe her sensibility, what has shaped her character, and how she keeps her focus on her artistic pursuits. — VA

You play in so many different settings with so many different combinations of people, and you’re about to go to some new countries and you’ve been to other countries.  I would imagine that all of that information kind of gets in there and expands your horizons, like you talked about your experience going to music school.  Are you conscious of that expansion as it’s happening – playing with this combination at that show, or going into that thing with those people?  Do you feel like you carry a core of yourself as you navigate through all that? 

Oh, yeah, for sure.  Yeah, I definitely feel like I carry a part of myself through it all.  This is great, because what you’re saying is, for me, anyway, I’ve realized that that’s kind of the ultimate goal – to constantly be in a situation where you’re collaborating with different kinds of musicians in different settings.  A lot of my favorite musicians are finding scenarios in which they can do that, in which they’re putting themselves in these situations that are forcing them to do something different.

I think of Mike Marshall, I think of Chris Thile, I think of Béla Fleck, all of those people.  Chris has Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, and he’s playing with Brad Mehldau and Edgar Meyer, and he’s doing a solo Bach thing.  He’s carrying his spirit with him through all of those different things, but each of those things has its own unique life and its own unique spirit.  And that’s awesome.

For me, I’ve decided that that’s what I hope to do with my life, to constantly be surrounding myself with musicians that I respect and musicians that challenge me.  That’s been a really fun part of the last year, especially, getting to put myself in different settings like that.  For instance, with the Milk Carton Kids last fall, doing that collaborative tour and singing three-part harmony every night.  Normally, I’m onstage by myself singing alone the whole time, and that forced me to use my voice in this different way, to be blending with two other voices for an entire hour and a half.

And you’re working with two people who have been blending with each other for a long time, so you’re working your way into that.

Right.  So jumping in and suddenly being a third – they were having to change up their thing, too, to blend with a third voice.  Exactly.  And now the thing with Sara [Watkins] and Aoife [O'Donovan], and navigating those waters of the different combinations of our voices and instruments.  I truly think that that’s what makes a great musician – putting yourself in those different settings and learning how to bring your voice to it, while also supporting what is going on.

So when you talk about how you carry that core of yourself into all those different situations, how would you describe who that is, who that core is, that defines who you are as an artist?

That’s a tricky one. [laughs] Well, I think it’s easier, maybe, to describe it in terms of the voice, because every person’s voice is unique.  When you’re having a conversation talking to someone on the phone, it’s like, “Oh, well, that’s that person, because that’s their unique voice.”

I think it gets harder to describe when you’re talking about an instrumentalist.  In my mind, the truly great instrumental players of our time, you can recognize their playing by just hearing them play, even if you’re not looking at them or if you’re just hearing a recording of them.  And that becomes their voice.

You hear Béla, or you hear Jerry [Douglas], or you hear Mike Marshall – you know it’s them.  That’s the thing growing up that was cool – going to the Mandolin Symposium and hearing Mike Compton and David Grisman and Mike Marshall and Chris Thile, and they’re all playing the mandolin, they’re all playing the same instrument, and it could just sound exactly the same, but it doesn’t.  And you close your eyes, and I could tell you which one was which, because they’ve all instilled their soul into their playing.  It’s hard to describe exactly what that is, but I think that’s ultimately the goal – allowing that sound and that part of you, creating that part of you, to come through.  I don’t know if I totally answered the question! [laughs]

Well, it’s a weird question!  So, for instance, Mike Marshall – I always think of him as a joyful player, you know?

Yeah.

And he has that joyful sensibility, and when you talk to him, that comes through.  And other people seem to have a darker current to them.

Right.

Or other people, a sort of, I don’t know, interplanetary current?

Totally.

So, I don’t even know if you have a sense of this or could even describe it, but how would you describe your sensibility as an artist?

Well, going back to what you were saying, yeah, you listen to someone like Billie Holiday, and you can just hear all of the trials and sorrow, and awful things that she had to go through, in her voice – that really comes through.  And so for me, I feel very fortunate that I’ve had a pretty good life and haven’t had to face a lot of that adversity.  But what I would hope is that just from listening to music like that and taking little things away from it, and those things going through my individual self and my soul, that even though I haven’t necessarily faced any of that in my own life, I could hear that sorrow within someone else’s music, or hear that joy within someone else’s music, and allow it to come out of me in a way that is truly unique to me, and it’s my own original take and my own original feeling coming through.

That’s just the nature of being human beings.  Three different people could go through life experiencing exactly the same things, and they’re all going to have their own take on it.  That’s what’s so great about music.  Three musicians could go through learning exactly the same songs, exactly the same music, and it’s ultimately going to sound a little bit different.  For me, it just is a product of learning and trying to saturate myself with the music of my heroes and really studying that, and then ultimately trying to create my own music based on what I take in.

I imagine you’ve heard yourself described as an old soul…

Yeah.  [laughs]

…because of the precocity with which you started appearing on the scene, but also the sophistication of how you construct your artistic life.  I mean, there is a sense of, how is that possible in somebody so young, you know?

Yeah.

But in a way, that could feel kind of reductive.  It sort of discounts all the hard work, and all the things you’ve exposed yourself to – the working at it.

Right.

So how does it strike you when people say, “Oh, she’s an old soul…”

Right.  Well, I appreciate you saying that, because I think it is kind of hard for people to really grasp that I’ll be 24 next month, but I really started working hard on this stuff when I was 11 and 12.  I think it’s easy for people to say, “Oh, well, she’s an old soul.”  And this goes for a lot of my peers in the music scene.  I think they face some of this stuff, too.  I just started at such a young age and really worked hard, and started even playing my own live shows around 12 and 13 years old.

I think a lot of that, in terms of the way that I might carry myself, comes from, you know, I’m an only child, and for as long as I can remember, my parents would opt out of the babysitter and just take me with them everywhere they went.  For as long as I can remember, I was always surrounded by older people, and that was just a natural thing.  And so automatically I had to learn how to carry myself and interact with people that were a lot older than me.  And it’s the same for when I started going to a weekly Friday night bluegrass jam in Wimberley [Texas] – all those people were way older than me.

But I think the gift and the magic of it is that I was lucky to be around people, like I was saying earlier, that didn’t belittle me, and they treated me like an adult from the get go.  And so I think that really shaped my character and made me just feel like one of them, and made me want to work really hard to get to play with those people that I respected.

Yeah, I wonder if you had been treated more like a novelty act, if that would have changed a lot of how you felt about things.

Yeah.  People were really straightforward with me and treated me as a real musician, not just a kid musician, and I think that inspired me to want to just work really hard at it and be on their level.  It mostly says the world about a lot of the people that I’ve mentioned in this interview, for having the wherewithal to not treat me like a little kid and to really challenge me.  I’m very thankful for that.

Your career has really exploded over the last several years.  Do you find it hard to keep your focus when you’re being pulled in so many different directions, and now you’ve got your business team behind you and your label and everything.  Is it hard for you to keep it together and do what you need to do take care of yourself so that you can continue your artistic pursuit?

That’s a great question.  Toward the end of last year I did definitely start feeling that way.  And it’s kind of because, you know, for as long as I’ve been doing this whole music thing, I was also in school. [laughs]  I was in middle school, and then high school, and then college, and it was a lot.  It was a whole lot to balance.  And there were definitely times mid-way through college when I thought, “Man, I don’t know if I can do all this!  [laughs] This is a lot for one person to balance.”  But I just decided to stick with it, and I’m really glad I did.

And then from the moment that I graduated college, it was just straight out onto the road for about a year and a half.  It was really at the end of that touring behind Build Me Up From Bones [Sugar Hill Records, 2013] that I was, like, “Ok, I need to not be on the road as much in 2015 and kind of get back to my roots a little bit, and really just focus on my music and my writing.”  Because I just hadn’t had a chance to just stop and catch my breath, really, from the time that I was 12.  [laughs]  Even when I was in school, any breaks that I had in school – spring break or Christmas or over the summer – I was always touring or recording, and working on my music.

And so this year has been really great for me so far.  I moved to New York about a year and a half ago, and for the first time I feel like I really live here [laughs], because I’m at home more than a week or two at a time, and I’ve gotten to just have fun living in the city, and really get back to focus on my songwriting as a craft.  And doing this project with Sara and Aoife, it kind of came at the perfect time, because I’m not touring as much this year, and it lined up for all of our schedules in that way, which is pretty cool.  I do feel like it can be a lot to balance sometimes, but you just have to know when to say, “Ok, I need to get back to my roots a little bit, and remember what that feels like.”

I just can’t imagine juggling all you’ve juggled for all those years.  It must feel liberating to not have to go to school!

Oh, absolutely.  I mean, it was a wonderful four years, but it was a lot, for sure, and I’m very thankful for this time now.  In a way, I feel like I’m coming to know my music now in an even deeper way – to finally, for the first time, just be able to focus on it, solely, and not have the school stuff on top of it all.  It’s very liberating.

Where do you see yourself heading as far as what your priorities are for the next short while?  For instance, what do you want to get from the I’m With Her Tour?

Well, I think for me it’s kind of the first time – even with the Milk Carton Kids, we were all at the forefront of that – this is really the first time where we all feel like we’re equal parts of this.  It’s just going to be a really great opportunity for me to learn even deeper how to play alongside two other musicians in a different way, and maybe even a more supportive way.  Because night after night when it’s just me singing my songs the whole night – I feel like it’s just going to be really refreshing not to have it be my music the whole night.  I’m hoping that it’s going to allow all of us to take on the role of side musicians, in a new way, but also still be at the forefront.  I’m just learning to blend with them.

We’re all really serious about this project, and I’m really excited.  This is our first tour, and I’m excited to get past the point of just remembering the arrangements [laughs], and to work up to a place where we’re really just, like I was saying, reacting off of each other and playing and listening.  We’ve done one show, and that was a lot of new music – it was almost all new music, new covers for us.  It was just trying to get through it and remember everything that we had arranged.  So I’m excited to get past that point and really just be able to play.

Are you conscious of the role that you play in influencing girls coming up – being a strong presence and a “quintuple threat” or whatever people want to call you, being a bandleader, being a front person?  Is that something you’re aware of when you think of the little ones coming up?

Yeah, especially within the last couple of years.  It’s so special when people – and not just girls, but any young musician – coming up to say they’ve been inspired by what I do.  It sort of feels like a full circle kind of moment.  And it’s good, it’s healthy for me to see that.  This business is crazy, and it’s a lot of hours logged traveling in the van, getting from show to show, and I think those are the moments that really make it feel like it’s worth it.  I see a lot of myself in them, and I try to give to them what my heroes gave to me when I was that age.

Thank you again to Sarah Jarosz for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation about performance.  I encourage my readers to check out her beautiful albums – each one truly is a gem – and if you have the opportunity to see Sarah in concert, don’t hesitate to do it.  –VA

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 2 of 3

Posted: May 17th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources | 5 Comments »

I’m pleased to present Part 2 of my in-depth conversation about performance with Sugar Hill Records artist and three-time Grammy® nominee SARAH JAROSZ.  (You can read Part 1 here, where you will also find more information about Sarah in the introduction.)

In this installment, Sarah talks about learning from her live recordings, getting into the zone onstage, and working in the studio.

The final installment will be posted next week. –VA

I know that something a lot of artists have trouble with is when people are really effusive with the compliments and are really excited about what they’re seeing and want to share that with you.  What does that feel like to you?

When people give a bunch of compliments?

Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of other artists where sometimes it doesn’t feel like it lines up, or it’s out of proportion, like that show wasn’t so great or didn’t feel that great to them.

Yeah, that’s an interesting question, because I think I and any musician peer of mine that you talk to will struggle with that, where you get off the stage and you think, “Oh gosh, that was not my best night.”  [laughs]  And then you’re greeted by people saying that was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen.  I’ve kind of learned in those situations, even if I felt like it wasn’t my best playing, to just say thank you.  Because it almost is more of an ego trip to be, like, “Oh, no, that sucked, that was awful!”  [laughs]

Yeah, “You’re wrong!”

Because hopefully they’re being truthful, and they really experienced something that they thought was great, and I think it’s unfair to shoot that down.  So I think it’s good to sort of take it in and be aware that someone’s experience was great – but also to walk away in those settings and learn from your mistakes.  One thing that I’ve tried to get better at doing, which is very hard for me to do, is listening back to shows of mine.  It’s a dreaded thing [laughs], as most musicians, I think, would say.  But if I allow myself to do that, I wind up learning so much, and noticing things.

And this kind of goes back to the question about how it feels to be onstage.  I think this certain part of your brain does kind of go away, because you’re entertaining and you’re up on a stage in front of people.  So some things, I feel like, you can’t rationally notice the way that a person in the audience would notice them, for better or for worse, and by going back and listening I can be, like, “Oh, ok, I didn’t even notice this happening when I was up onstage.”  And a lot of times, for me, that’s maybe singing on the harder side, and when I go back and listen I can say, “Oh, I can actually back away a little bit.  In the moment, with the adrenaline, it feels like I need to sing that really hard, but maybe I don’t actually have to sing it that hard.”  So it’s just taking those compliments, and then also noticing what I would want to be better, and finding a good balance of that.

Do you watch a lot of video?

Of myself?

Yeah.

Every now and then.  I really kind of don’t like to do that [laughs], but when I do let myself, like I’m saying, I learn a lot, and I think actually it can be a very constructive thing to do.

Can you give an example of something that you’ve noticed you do physically that you’ve tried to adjust, or even that you appreciate and say, “Yeah, I’m doing the right thing there”?

Yeah, I think mostly what I notice is the vocal thing that I was saying.  Like, where in the heightened energy of being onstage, for me anyway, there’s this feeling of needing to make everything bigger.  And oftentimes, when I go back to watch a video, I’ll say, “Ok, well, that could still be big, and I wouldn’t have to push it quite as hard.”  And that just goes back to the whole trying to stay relaxed thing, and noticing moments where I could be even more relaxed and settling into a groove.

That’s kind of the ultimate goal, and I think that’s the hardest thing to do onstage – to really settle and relax into a place where you can just listen, where you can just be a reactive musician and really play based on what’s happening in the moment.  Ultimately, onstage, you settle into a lot of your habits and things that you know work night after night, but I think the best shows and the best nights are the ones where the audience is feeding off you, and you’re feeding off that, and you can be relaxed and just play music and not just kind of go through the motions.

Do you find that there are certain things that make it easier for you to get into the zone?

A lot of it has to do with sound.  I find that on nights that the sound is really great, it’s easier for me to just hear.  It’s hard when you’re battling sound issues, and there’s feedback – it’s hard to reach that point of relaxation.  Because the best times are just sitting around in a circle with folks, really playing music, and if you can try to recreate that on a stage, then that’s ultimately going to affect the music.  I try to have a really low monitor sound, because I feel like it’s just truer if I’m playing more off the room than off of a speaker that’s in front of me.  That makes my experience truer, and ultimately more enjoyable.

And, of course, having that ambient sound is going to change depending on whether you’re in a cozy room or on an outdoor festival stage.  Do you find that it’s harder to manufacture that sense of playing off of the atmosphere as opposed to the monitor?

Yeah, definitely.  And I think in that sense I go for a different vibe – it’s almost like two different shows, and two different types of energy that I would try to create, based on those two settings.  Especially in a festival setting on an outdoor stage, it does have this feeling of wanting to be bigger than life.  In a theatre, you have this limited amount of space that you’re trying to fill, and in a festival setting it’s open-air – it could just go on and on and on [laughs] into the ether, so to speak.  And that’s a daunting task to try to fill that and make it feel intimate in such a large setting.  I think it’s just trying to find that balance, in a festival.

Those are especially the times for me when I need to try to stay the most relaxed.  Because it does feel like it takes so much more adrenaline and so much more energy to put on a big show on an outdoor stage, whereas you can really kind of hone in and be really soft and quiet in a nice performing arts center.  I have grown up doing both, and they’re two things that I really enjoy doing.  I just feel like it’s a totally different show in those two settings.

How do you experience the energy coming off the audience?

I think I’m pretty sensitive to it.  I think a lot of musicians, at least a lot of my peers, would say the same thing.  It’s funny – I’m sensitive to it, but I’ve learned, if it starts really getting to me, to kind of try to shut it off.  Because there have been nights when an audience will not necessarily be super-responsive during the show, and people will talk to me afterwards and say, “Oh my god, that was just so amazing!” and you think, “Oh, well, it didn’t feel like you were being responsive to it during the show…”  [laughs]

And so it’s easy to kind of let that stuff get to you in the moment, because all of the energies are sort of uber-heightened, and you become so aware of every little thing, that sometimes it might not be truthful to how it’s actually happening.  I think it can sort of have negative effects, but it can also have really positive effects.  If you’re feeding off of a great crowd, that can really add to the energy of the show.  But then, also, in times when it might be negatively affecting me onstage, I just kind of have to say, “Ok, well, just settle in and relax into the song and focus on that tonight.”

Do it more for yourself.

More for myself, yeah.  And it’s never going to be the same – it’s different from crowd to crowd and night to night – and you just kind of have to learn to adapt.

Do you have a pre-show ritual that you do to get yourself ready to take the stage?

Not necessarily.  I feel like lately what I try to do is I actually just try to be as relaxed as possible.  I really like to actually sit down [laughs], because when you’re onstage you’re standing and you’re putting out a lot of energy, for usually an hour and a half.  I just try to really conserve my energy.  A lot of people try to get really amped up before a show, and I’ve found that the more relaxed I am, the better I am on the stage.  The more energy I try to preserve, the more energy I have to put out on a stage.  But that isn’t really anything in particular.  I think it’s definitely not having conversations before [laughs] – I really try to just relax my voice, and save that energy for the stage.

And how does your state of mind before a show compare to your state of mind when you come off the stage?

That’s a really good question.  I guess the state of mind leading up to a show is, hopefully, relaxed.  But I think inevitably, certain little anxieties – and maybe anxiety’s not the right word, but you’re about to get on a stage in front of a bunch of people.  So you try to be as relaxed as possible, but ultimately you’re thinking about the show and how it’s going to go.  And then after the show, I do feel like it is this huge energy, because you’ve just been on this adrenaline trip, basically, and you’re just at the height of that when you get off the stage.  I feel like it normally lasts for about 45 minutes to an hour – a kind of buzzing, almost, buzzing from that heightened energy – and then it slowly fades away, as you load up the van and drive away. [laughs]  So it’s trying to be really relaxed and calm leading up to a show, and then it’s really high-energy buzzing afterwards.

Do you like to rehearse a show as a show, going through a whole set to get a sense of the arc of the set?

I’ve never really done that, rehearsed all the way through – well, that’s not true.  Definitely running through the songs, but I think there’s something to be said for mostly working on the songs that really feel like they need more time and more work.  But I feel like I have a pretty good sense in my head about the energy and the feel of different songs and, when I’m writing a set list, keeping that stuff in mind and thinking, how is this going to create an arc for a show to bring people up and down on this wave of feelings.  I really appreciate that when I go to see a show, and someone takes me on this up and down journey and it’s not totally horizontal.  I really appreciate that, and so I feel like that’s what I try to do when I create the set.

But it’s cool to leave some stuff for the moment, and for mystery, and not have every little detail planned out.  That allows you to – what I was saying earlier – to listen and react in the moment.  If it’s all planned out to a T, it’s easier to just kind of not be present and rest on your laurels and that kind of thing.  And so I try to leave a little bit of space for being present in the moment.

Do you feel that music school, and in particular your Contemporary Improvisation major, changed you as a performer?

Yeah, I do.  Maybe not as a performer, so much, because that wasn’t really the focus of my time there.  It wasn’t really on performing, it was more on the nitty-gritty of the arrangements and the music.  But I think, ultimately, having my ear expanded, which was really the thing that happened most during my time at NEC [New England Conservatory], that’s actually going to affect how I carry myself onstage.  It’s mostly going to affect the music, and the music is going to affect the performance.

I think being exposed to so many different styles of music that I hadn’t really listened to before – a lot of free improvisation, a lot more jazz, listening to Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln and a lot of great female vocalists that I hadn’t been exposed to before my time at NEC – that definitely influenced me and how I approach the stage.  But mostly I feel like, since I was performing for all my life, basically, that part is still me and was there before I went to NEC, and I think it was more the music that was affected by my time there, more than the performance aspect of it.

Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing?  Do you picture what you’re singing about?

Yeah, actually.  I have this conversation with people that ask me, “How do you remember lyrics?”  [laughs] And I think a lot of it actually is mental pictures of what’s happening in the songs.  And it can be sort of abstract, like a whole verse could have a certain image with it.  Like with my song “Build Me Up From Bones”, for instance, that whole song started based on the image of a fingernail moon.  And so, really, whenever I sing that song I think about that in my mind.  And even with a song like [Bob Dylan’s] “Ring Them Bells”, each one of those verses carries an image for me, like St. Peter and St. Martha and all of those.  It’s almost like when you’re reading a book, at least for me – you have this image in your mind of what’s happening – and I do feel like that’s how it is when I’m singing songs.

So you mentioned “Build Me Up From Bones” – you were thinking visually as you were writing it?

Definitely.  I think the line that was the spark for that song – this is when I was living in Boston, actually I remember it very clearly.  I was walking down the street, I think it was actually Hemenway Street, which was where I lived during my time in Boston, and it was at night, and it was a fingernail moon.  And I think I just wrote on my phone in my Notes app: fingernail moon scratching on the back of the night.  And I had that line for probably a month before I was, like, that’s pretty cool.

It’s very cool, by the way.

And I eventually took that and made it into the song.  So that image was the initial image that stuck with me for a while with that one.

I imagine that helps you in the studio.  It’s so hard to make a three-dimensional performance with just the aural component, so I imagine that would help you with fleshing out the performance when you’re not in the live setting.

Oh, definitely.  I think some of my favorite writers and performers create a whole world within their music, and they kind of transport you there, whether you’re listening to their record or you are at a live performance.  Ultimately, I feel like that’s why a lot of people go to see live music – it’s because they want to be transported for an hour and a half away from their realities.  And if you can create a space, an image, or a world that allows people to do that, that’s pretty powerful.

And obviously, when we’re seeing a live show, we’ve got the visual information as well – what’s the performer’s face doing, what’s their body language. 

Right.

So you have to put that across in the studio, and all the things that you do with your face and body do show up in the sound, but it has to be within pretty  controlled physical parameters.  How do you feel that you do create that visual sense for the listener when you’re recording?

Yeah, that’s a good question.  This is something that I’m thinking about all the time and trying to get better at.  I was having a conversation with Sara Watkins, actually, and Aoife O’Donovan, because we were all recording on Aoife’s record recently.  And we were talking about how, if you allow yourself to be physical in the studio and move the way you normally would on a stage, then that actually comes across in the recording.  If someone’s smiling while they’re singing a lyric, I feel like I can see that – I can hear it and then see it, you know?

Yes.

Or if someone is being big with their body when they’re singing a lyric, I feel like that comes across.  But a lot of times what winds up happening, and I feel like I’ve definitely been guilty of this, is that you get into the recording studio and you get into the vocal booth, and you kind of stand still [laughs] and sing the lyric really straight, and not at all how you would normally sing it if you’re playing with people or being on a stage.

And so I think if you allow yourself to be true to your physical self in the studio – we were all saying this – that definitely comes across on recordings.  I think it’s just that some people change their whole vibe when they sit in front of a microphone in a studio, and I think if you can allow yourself to just be relaxed and play how you would normally play, then at that point it’s up to the engineer to know how to capture that physicality within the recordings.

And that gets harder when you’re actually recording it live in the studio and you’re stuck behind your instrument.

Right.  Yeah, it’s tricky, and that’s what sets a great recording apart from a not-so-great recording.  And I think that’s why sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Oh, well, I’m not crazy about the record, but I love seeing that person live…”  I think maybe that’s just a product of that, where it is hard to capture that spirit in the studio.  And I think some people are masters of that.  Some people are truly fantastic in a live setting, and might not have figured out how to capture that in a studio, and vice versa.  Some records are products, truly, of the magic of the recording studio and all the different devices and sounds that you can put to use in a studio, and then maybe they aren’t able to recreate that in a live setting.

So it works both ways.  And that’s why I feel like it’s fun to have each be their own thing, and try to bring in elements of both to each.  For me, anyway, a lot of my recordings have a lot of stuff going on that I don’t do in my live shows, and that’s fun.  I think it’s cool to see the different forms that a song can take on in different settings, and be this one thing on a record, but be this maybe more stripped-down thing in a live setting.

How has being in the studio, and doing producing duties in the studios, affected you as a performer – having the producer hat on?

I think it definitely goes back to the whole bandleader thing.  You have to be able to get outside of yourself a little bit, to be able to listen to it as a whole, and to be able to make comments and critiques based on the thing as a whole.  And I think that is actually kind of harder to do in a live setting, because you’re battling all of those other energies, like I was talking about, and so it’s easy to kind of fall into your routine and the way that you proceed through a live show.  Sometimes it can be hard to step outside all of that and see, “Oh, ok, this is the bigger picture, this is what’s going on.”

But having worked with [producer] Gary Paczosa so much, and shared those duties, he’s taught me a lot about noticing things and really taking everything into consideration.  The challenge then becomes, when you consider all the possibilities, how do you narrow it down to the ones that are really crucial to giving the song its life.  One great thing about Gary is that, from a very early age, he encouraged me to dream big and really consider all my options.  And now we’re at this point where we’re, like, “Ok, well, how do we see all the options and then become really picky about what’s really crucial and what the song really needs, and kind of strip it down to that?”  And that mindset in the studio definitely carries over to sculpting a live show as well.

[To be continued...]

In the final installment, to be posted next week, Sarah talks about how she would describe her sensibility, what has shaped her character, and how she keeps her focus on her artistic pursuits. — VA

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 1 of 3

Posted: May 10th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources | 11 Comments »

I’m pleased to present an in-depth conversation about performance with one of my very favorite musicians, Sugar Hill Records artist and three-time Grammy® nominee SARAH JAROSZ.  To give you a sense of Sarah’s prodigious accomplishments in her remarkable young career, here is an excerpt from her official bio:

“While still in her early 20’s, SARAH JAROSZ, the native of Wimberley, TX, just outside of Austin, has earned her credibility in the world where contemporary folk, Americana and roots music intersect. Her reputation is built on three fronts—she is a gifted multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, octave mandolin, guitar, and banjo), an expressive and distinctive vocalist, and an accomplished songwriter. It’s not just her peers who are taking notice—she’s appeared twice on the vaulted Austin City Limits and also on the BBC’s Transatlantic Sessions as well as A Prairie Home Companion, eTown, Acoustic Café and Mountain Stage. In 2014, she made her late night television debut on Conan, followed a day later by an appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. These two appearances happened while she was in Los Angeles to attend the Grammy awards for her two nominations for Best Folk Album (2013’s Build Me Up From Bones) and Best American Roots Song (for the title track). Her first album, Song Up In Her Head, yielded a Grammy nomination for her instrumental “Mansinneedof.” Jarosz has also been nominated for Americana Music Association Honors and Awards for New/Emerging Artist of the Year (2010), Instrumentalist of the Year (2011), Song of the Year (2012 for “Come Around” from Follow Me Down) and Album of the Year (2014).”

You can check out Sarah’s gorgeous albums here, and sample some videos here.  

This conversation will be posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Sarah discusses her early path to becoming a performer, what inspired her to take herself seriously as a musician, and how she experiences being a bandleader. –VA

What’s your earliest memory of performing, when you were conscious of performing for other people?  What did that feel like for you?

Well, for me it goes back a long way, and it kind of was just something that I always did.  I think one of the earliest documented performances of me, that I don’t personally remember, was when I was two years old, and it was a school production and I was singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, and I was actually wearing a little flag dress, if you can believe it [laughs].  I grew up in Texas, after all!  So it was always something I did.  It just was always sort of second nature – the singing part of it.

It started out in school performances, and then I did a bunch of national choirs.  My first music teacher – her name was Diana Riepe – she was very formative for me.  She taught using the Kodály method of music, which is based around solfège – you know, the hand signals representing the notes.  She was the one that encouraged me to try out for these national choirs which were run by the Kodály people.

So I did that about five years, and it was always in a different place.  So that was actually my first experience traveling for my music.  This all started maybe in the second or third grade time frame.  And I got to go to Chicago and San Francisco and Massachusetts, and it was just really special to get to travel and see the country because of my music.  And luckily my parents were really supportive of that.  I just was always doing something where I was performing, and so it always felt comfortable being onstage in front of people.

Do you remember how you felt being onstage, how you experienced the audience and how you experienced your body, when you were that age?

I’m trying to remember.  It just felt normal – I don’t know that it felt any different.  It did feel good.  I remember really enjoying it, that’s for sure, and almost getting giddy off of it, getting up onstage, and being really excited afterwards.  And for a lot of my peers, I remember they would be, like, “Oh, I’m so nervous!”  And I just never felt that.  It felt really physically natural to do.

And then when you started playing instruments, did you feel that the instruments were an extension of yourself?

Yes.  Yeah, definitely.  And it’s actually to the point now where I almost feel weird onstage if I don’t have an instrument in my hands.  Because when I started playing the mandolin, and later on the guitar and the banjo, I was always playing and singing simultaneously.  Only recently in my shows did I start just doing one song where I was only singing.  Yeah, and so it did become an extension of that, and actually something that I came to really rely on.

When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or a version of yourself, or do you feel like it’s somebody different who’s up there?

It’s a little bit of both.  I think maybe the best way to put it would be “an extended version of myself”.  There is a certain amount of taking on another persona, because people want to be entertained.  I’m afraid to use the word “acting”, because it is me, and it is not being someone that I’m not, but it is sort of larger, to a certain degree, than I might be if I’m just having a conversation with someone or sitting around in a circle playing music.  But I think what I constantly work on is, I’m trying to find that balance of being able to entertain folks and put on a show, while still being really relaxed and just playing.  I think it’s finding a balance of that that’s key, and that’s what I constantly try to work on.

I’m sure a lot of people have said this to you, but you have so much poise on the stage…

Thank you!

And you seem so relaxed, and you seem like you’re able to just plug into the groove so readily.  I remember the first time I saw you was when you did a tweener [a song between sets] at RockyGrass.  You must have been 12 or 13 – do you remember that?

Yeah, I think I was 12.

I think you did “Blue Night” or something?

“Blue Moon of Kentucky”.

Yeah.  And everybody was, like, “What was that?”  I know I was.  Because you just seemed so completely comfortable, and that’s unusual for someone that age.  And you’ve definitely matured into that, but it’s something I feel like you’ve always had, and I’m sure you’re always hearing that.  What do you think that comes from?  What do you think accounts for that?

I think it comes, largely, from what I was saying about how’s it’s just always what I’ve done – I’ve been up on a stage since I was two years old.  And I think another part of it is having parents that, from a very early age, made me believe that it could be a reality, that it could be my career and my life.  I think I might have approached the stage differently had I been the kind of person that heard, “Oh, well, this is a great hobby, but you should really think about doing something else…”

“Have a safety plan!”

Yeah, exactly.  And that was never the case.  I’m very fortunate that they were so supportive of that.  So they made me feel comfortable, in that regard.  They made me feel like I could do it.  And especially starting out this young, that played a big role.  And then, on top of that, just seeing live music for as long as I can remember, witnessing other people do it, and recognizing things that I liked about certain performances and things that I didn’t like about others, and that being normal, too.  I think a lot of my peers, at my age, their parents weren’t taking them out almost every night to see live shows in Austin [laughs].  So that was a reality to me, too, just getting to witness so many amazing performances at a very early age.

What kinds of things did you notice that made you think, well, that works for me, or that makes sense for me – not necessarily that you’re going to steal or incorporate, but that would influence your own persona onstage?  Not necessarily even performers, but aspects of performance that you took note of?

Well, I guess early on, if we’re going way back, a lot of the things I would see were the Texas singer-songwriter folks – someone like Shawn Colvin, or Guy Clark, or Bill Staines – those are some of my earliest memories of concerts.  And so that’s its own thing.  It’s more of the storyteller persona of being onstage, which I love.

But then, I think what really gave me this jolt of excitement, of wanting to do it, was seeing Nickel Creek play.  Because that was really happening at the time that I had just picked up the mandolin – I was about 10 or 11 – and seeing Chris [Thile] play, and seeing the way that he is just a rock star onstage, but still with all these acoustic instruments.  And all of them were just so great onstage.  And seeing people that were closer to my age doing this and having such a great stage presence and making it just larger than life, you know, is how it felt to watch those shows at that age.  And that’s when I thought, “Ok…I want to do this!” [laughs]

And then, of course, you eventually started hanging out with these guys, at music camps and all that.  When did you feel like you were one of their peers, performance-wise?

Well, it’s kind of a blurry line, because a lot of them just made me feel so welcome from the very beginning.  But I will say, I feel like it’s really only since I moved away from home, and went to college [New England Conservatory], and starting life on my own now, that it really feels that way.  But truly, from the get-go, one of my favorite stories is when I first met Nickel Creek.  I think I was 10, and they were playing at a festival outside of Austin called the Old Settler’s Music Festival.  And they were doing a little workshop – you know how those things go at festivals.  And I had just seen their music video on TV, and I had just gotten my first mandolin.  And I walked up to them after, and Chris kneeled down and wrote, “Let’s jam sometime!” on my program. [laughs] And that was kind of the moment when I was, like, “All right! I want to get good enough to jam with him someday…”  [laughs]

But just for him to write that – I’m just any little girl – there was always that air of kindness.  And the same goes for so many people in the scene, like you’re saying, and I just felt really welcome.  And that had a lot to do with my being inspired and being encouraged to want to get really good.  Because all of those people were, like, “Well, if you work hard enough, you can do this.”

Yeah, there is a real sense of generosity in the community, and also a sense of wanting to bring people up, you know?

Yes.  And actually Mike Marshall, I feel like, is one of the best at that.  He certainly was that for me, right from the get-go.  A real turning point truly was my first RockyGrass Academy when I was 11.  That’s where I got to meet Mike for the first time and learn from him.  I mean, how cool is it?  I’m guessing maybe at that point he was in his 40s, and someone like that doesn’t have to give an 11 year old the time of day, you know? [laughs]  I had just been playing for a year.  But he was just so generous and so encouraging.  And he treated me like an adult, and I think that was also the thing about all those people.  They never treated me like a little kid, and they approached their teaching in that way as well.  They weren’t dumbing it down – they were always really challenging me.

It’s also interesting to me that your writing is as sophisticated as anything else that you’re going to find out there.  And that must come from a sensibility of being so saturated in the sophisticated theory that happens in that music that you’re around. 

Yeah.

And you were writing before you went to music school.  When you write, are you thinking in terms of how it’s going to feel to perform those songs?

Yes and no.  I think initially no, because I was just trying to see if I could do it in the first place.  I feel like the more that I’ve done it, I might be thinking about that aspect more – how it’s going to feel to play on a stage.  But initially, I guess I first started trying to write when I was 12 or 13.  And my mom had always written songs as a hobby, and that in itself made me feel like, “Ok, this is possible, this is something that people do…”  [laughs]  And from the very early stages, a lot of it was just kind of messing around with little ideas, and I would often show her the ideas, and she would say, “Ok, well, that’s cool – what if you tried this?”  Just having that influence in the house was kind of crucial.

And then, on top of that, all the great songwriters that I was exposed to from such an early age, and trying to, initially, kind of model the songs after those people – like Gillian Welch, or Tim O’Brien, or Darrell Scott.  I think, going back to my first record [Song Up In Her Head, Sugar Hill Records, 2009], a song like “Tell Me True” was very influenced by Gillian or Tim – kind of that old-timey sound.  And a song like “Broussard’s Lament” is very influenced by someone like Darrell Scott – the “percussion-y” style of guitar.

I definitely see what you’re saying about the influences.  However, you’ve got your own “voice” on those.  I mean, that’s definitely something that develops over time, but they’ve got your sensibility on them, don’t you think?  They’re original in that sense.

Yeah, I feel – as any musician feels, I’m sure – that you’re influenced by everything that you take in, and it goes in, and you kind of process it in your own original way, and then hopefully what comes out has its own stamp with your sound.  And that’s always what I was trying to do, and that’s what I still do, and that’s what’s so great about music and art – it’s just endless.  You can always be discovering something new that you haven’t heard before, and that’s going to set off some other little trigger inside of you that you might not have known was in there before.  That’s going to release something new in your interpretation, and the way that you process that is going to be different from the next guy, and so automatically that’s going to make it have its own original stamp.

And you do such interesting things with covers.  I think you pick covers that are challenging, but also may be freeing, in that they don’t have a real lyrical standard to them – like a Tom Waits or a Bob Dylan cover that, you know, you’re definitely not going to sing it like they do it.

Exactly.  [laughs]

What inspires you to bring a cover to your act and to bring your own twist to it?  What is there in a cover that is intriguing to you?

I think a lot of it is picking songs that I feel I could do something unique and original to.  Like you’re saying, I seem to pick songs by writers that I admire greatly, but sound very different from me, even vocally, like Joanna Newsom or Tom Waits or Bob Dylan.  Those are all such distinct voices.  I guess there are differences in the choice that goes into picking a cover for a live show versus picking a cover for a recording.

I think for a recording, it has to bring something to the table that makes sense on a record, and not just, like, “Ok, this is just a collection of songs.”  It has to make sense with the other songs.  It has to bring something that fills out the feel and the story.  Like with [Dylan’s] “Simple Twist of Fate”, for instance, on my last record [Build Me Up From Bones, Sugar Hill Records, 2013], that appealed to me because it was such a sparse arrangement of that song, and I had never really recorded something that open and bare before, and that seemed like a good texture to bring in to fill out the rest of the record.  But mostly it’s just picking songs that I love to sing and feel like I can do something a little new to.

When did you feel like you could bring something to the table as a bandleader?

I guess that always kind of came naturally.  I think that sort of spawned out of writing my own songs.  I think it might have been different had I not been writing my own material.  That in itself just gives way to hearing different arrangements and saying, “How do I want this song to take life on a stage or in a studio?” and from there thinking, “Ok, well, this person would be ideal, or this person would make it really great.”

And luckily, around that same time, I started going to a lot of these music camps.  Mike [Marshall] and Dawg’s [David Grisman’s] Mandolin Symposium, for instance, was a place where I started meeting musicians my own age who were into a lot of the same music.  And I think a lot of wanting to play my own shows came out of that – you know, playing with guys like Alex [Hargreaves] and Nat [Nathaniel Smith] and seeing, “Ok, these people are doing it, too.”  But then it goes beyond that, and you meet musicians you feel really get your music and can really bring your songs to life.

You have a really calm energy around bandleading.  When I’ve seen your trio with Alex and Nat, I have been struck by how you create a bubble around the three of you that’s like a safety zone or something…

Yeah.

…and sort of, like, what’s possible within that bubble?  You’re definitely including the audience, but I feel like Alex and Nat can just sort of lay back and do what they do.  And that’s not always the case.  Sometimes you see with a bandleader that there’s a kind of jangly energy to it that seems counter-productive, you know what I mean?

Yeah, definitely.

So are you conscious of creating that?

Yeah, for sure.  Actually, the thing with Alex and Nat, it’s kind of seen its day, for now at least.  We played together for almost five years, and I was definitely excited to try out some other things.  So right now, I’ve done a few shows in another trio setting with Mark Schatz on the bass and Jedd Hughes on guitar and singing.  But I feel like this question pertains to any sort of configuration like that, and I’ve always tried to surround myself with musicians that do create that bubble and that sense of a wholeness.

Also, having played so many solo shows, it’s interesting to see the songs take form with musicians backing it up.  But I think the goal is to find those musicians that make it feel just as relaxed as if it were in a solo setting, and just as smooth and seamless.  And I feel like Nat and Alex really brought a lot to the table in terms of how that happened, and I’m excited to see other configurations and how my songs can take shape with different musicians.

[To be continued...]

In the next installment, Sarah talks about learning from her live recordings, getting into the zone onstage, and working in the studio. — VA

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HOLLY NEAR — A Q&A

Posted: July 28th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources | 7 Comments »

Singer/songwriter/actor/author/activist HOLLY NEAR has been making powerful music for over 40 years.  She is widely known as one of the original feminist musicians of the 1970s whose ranks also include such artists as Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, and Margie Adam.  In 1972, she was quite possibly the first woman ever to start an independent, artist-owned label (Redwood Records).  Through her appearances and recordings, she has worked for peace and human rights in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.  For a detailed look at her accomplishments in music, film, television, theatre, and progressive action, see this timeline on her website.  She recently appeared in the star-studded Memorial Concert for Pete and Toshi Seeger [Lincoln Center Out of Doors], and her 30th album, Peace Becomes You [Calico Tracks Music], can be purchased through her online store along with many other titles in her impressive discography.  Ms. Near graciously agreed to consider a series of performance-related questions I submitted to her.  Here are her illuminating responses, which I received from her by email. –VA

Do you consider yourself to be a natural-born performer?

­­­­­Yes.  I have been “presenting” since I was a small child, starting in the living room of our family home.

When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or do you feel like a different version of yourself?  In what ways?

I am “Holly Near” or “Her” when I am presenting.  She is different than the person offstage.  Of course there are similarities.  Still the one onstage is projecting a personality, a sound, a story, a song, a feeling.  It is, by nature, the theatrical-izing of a self.

When you were developing your music career, were you conscious of wanting to present yourself onstage differently than mainstream female singers had typically been presenting themselves?  If so, what did you want to do differently?  Was this a topic of discussion at the time among you and your peers?

As a child, I was not having this conversation with myself.  But when I became more conscious of the idea of female and woman as a result of my growing feminism, then I began to study my behavior, my performance, my ideas through that window.  I had always had a strong stance.  That did not change.  I had always had a big voice.  That did not change.  It was more in my mind, my perception, and the greatest impact was realized in the lyrics to my songs and the introductions to the songs.  All the feminist performers I worked with were thinking about how we were presenting ourselves as feminists different from how we had been presenting ourselves as women.  Again, we were mostly looking at the lyrics, the music and the way in which women related to each other and to community differently once we became self-proclaimed feminists and, in some cases, as lesbian feminists.

You’ve said that Ronnie Gilbert [of The Weavers] influenced the way you stand onstage and the way you sing out in a strong way.  [Note to readers: for context, see this clip from "The Weavers: Wasn't That A Time!", a 1982 documentary by Jim Brown.]  Have female artists of subsequent generations told you that you influenced their performing styles?  If so, in what ways?

Yes.  I used to watch people come up to Ronnie and say, “I grew up on your music.”  Now they say it to me.  I am now older than Ronnie was when she and I first worked together.  As for performers, I don’t know specifically how my work has influenced them.  But from my point of view, it may be a subtle thing that they don’t even realize and won’t until they are much older, when they come to an age of reflection.  Young people are usually so in the present and that, in my opinion, is where they should be.  But someday, they will know that each generation makes a path on which the next generation walks.  Feminist cultural activists made a large walkway for young women who now freely dance along without always knowing that it used to be a briar patch.  That pleases me.

What things you do differently now as a performer than when you were first coming up, such as how you relate to the audience, or how you introduce songs?  How is your philosophy about performance different?  How is the way you present yourself different?

I am not sure it is different.  I have been a very consistent performer.  However, I do what I set out to do with much greater ease and sophistication, with greater craft.  And that is wonderful.  I am very respectful of craft.

Do you have a sense of being in your body when you’re onstage?  Do you feel like you’re grounded?

I make a point of landing before I walk on stage.  It takes 15 seconds in the wings.  I am very much grounded.  However, there is something else that happens if I am doing my job well and that is I let the unknown be with me.  I do not have a set patter or staging.  I will often speak about something for the first time in front of an audience without having rehearsed it.  I work in new thoughts spontaneously.  But this comes with practice.  I am much better at it now than when I was starting out.  I used to sing more notes and use more words.  Now I am more concise.  I’m more relaxed.  I allow humor to flow easily.  I have a very intimate relationship with the audience, whether it is 100 or 1000, I make the work personal.

Do you get stage fright?  If you don’t, why do you think you don’t?  If you do, what do you do to combat it?

No.  I was a little nervous from time to time when I first started performing.  I would freeze up.  But after a while, that went away.  Now the only time I get nervous is if I am asked to do something I am not sure of or if I present in front of a group where I’m not sure if I am welcome.  The rest of the time, I have no fear or nerves.  Excitement sometimes, but that is different than fear.  When I do workshops and people ask about stage fright, I give them an exercise to do.  It works for some, not for others.  I ask the presenter to feel like the host rather than the guest.  Turn the power dynamic around so that one is not feeling looked at or judged but rather is looking at the audience and welcoming them as you would someone in to your home.  Mentally check to see if they feel welcome, if they are comfortable, if there is anything they need and eventually, one starts to feel comfortable with the possibility that what they might need is you.  Not you, the nervous and insecure one, but you the generous artist who prepared to share what you have to offer with grace and confidence.

Do you have a pre-show ritual or routine that helps you get ready to go onstage? If so, would you be willing to describe it?

It takes about 15 seconds.  I simply remind myself when standing in the wings what is my job.  Why am I here and what is it I am meant to do.  Then I go do it.

Do you connect to your older songs differently than you used to?  Do they mean different things to you now than they used to?  What, if anything, do you do to keep the connection to them fresh?

Every time I sing a song, I let it live in the current moment.  That is what keeps it fresh.  I often introduce a song with a different story and that influences what the song means to me and probably what it means to the audience.  A song is not static or at least it doesn’t need to be.

Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing?  If so, how do you experience that?

In my particular style of writing and presenting, each song is a story and sometimes like a little three minute play.  So the song is very visual because there are characters and location and tension and outcome.

When you think of your favorite performers, what are the qualities they possess which excite you as a member of the audience?

When they walk on stage I know that something exciting is going to happen.  Period.

How do you keep your focus during a performance, and stay in the moment?  Which conditions make this more difficult or less difficult for you?  Which conditions make it more or less likely that you’ll be able to go into “the zone” when you’re performing?

I don’t have trouble staying focused.  The moment, or “the zone” as you refer to it, is where I live.  It is the house I walk into when I walk in front of an audience.  The conditions don’t matter.  I have played in places where you can hear a pin drop and places where you can hear a bomb drop.  I take ” the zone” with me where ever I go.

You’ve traveled extensively during your career, and you’ve been exposed to many musical cultures and styles of performing.  When you’ve performed in other countries, have you noticed that you changed how you presented yourself onstage or how you interacted with the audience?

When I sing in other cultures, whether it is another country or a neighborhood that experiences their daily life differently than I do, I try to remember to take a passport.  By this, I mean I try to be sensitive always to where I am, whether it is festival in Nicaragua or a senior center in California.  And if I stay connected to that awareness, the presentation changes.  I think the hardest for me is when I am singing in English in a place where English is not spoken.  My songs are so wordy.  I have never figured out how to do that well.  Translation is very time consuming and ideas are complex.  If one is a singer of love songs, then the audience can simply relax and enjoy the sound of the voice, the musicality of the artist, the emotion of the interpretation.  But with my songs, it is not so easy.  I have yet to feel comfortable with this.  So, I do a lot of listening to others when I go to other countries.  And that works just fine.  People love to be heard.  Not so good for my ego but definitely good for international relations.

Thank you to Holly Near for taking the time to share her thoughts with us on the subject of performance.  I urge my readers to see her in concert and to check out her catalogue for purchase. –VA

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CASEY DRIESSEN: “Playing with Guts” Workshop Transcript – Part 2 of 2

Posted: May 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops | 8 Comments »

In February, I taught a live performance master class at the International Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, MO.  While I was at the conference, I attended a workshop presented by one of my all-time favorite fiddle players, Grammy®-nominated recording artist CASEY DRIESSEN.

Casey’s workshop, which he called “Playing With GUTS!”, addressed stage fright and other issues that may get in the way of having a satisfying performance experience.  I recorded the workshop, and Casey graciously gave me permission to post a transcript of his remarks here.  What follows is the second of two installments of the transcript.

You can find additional information about Casey at the beginning of Part 1.  In that installment, he discusses such topics as messing up during a performance, what makes him feel more confident, and his insights from working in the studio.  In Part 2, Casey addresses the use of substances at gigs, taking compliments from fans, and how your instrument can work for you, among other things.  –VA

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On being under the influence of substances while performing:

Substances are around – drugs, alcohol, marijuana, caffeine – you know, any number of things.  They affect everybody differently.  I think it’s important to understand for yourself how they affect you.  Some people can play great under the influence and you would never suspect that’s part of their equation.  I hope they’re conscious of how it affects them, and I know how substances affect me.

I’m generally very comfortable onstage.  I’m at peace up there.  Well, I was sitting in with a group in which all the guys in the group were pot smokers – and it’s a cloud of smoke out there in the audience.  It wasn’t my gig, I’m just sitting in.  So I thought, hey, if there’s ever a situation that’s safe – I’m going to go ahead and smoke before the show.  Then I got up there, and I was so paranoid.  I mean, like never before.  I’m usually pretty physically fluid when I play – but I could not move my feet.  I wanted to be anywhere else but playing and standing onstage right there.  It was so different than how I normally feel.  And I thought, when I got off the stage, “I am never doing this again.”  So I learned, the hard way, how my body reacted to it in a show setting.

Alcohol is another one I’m aware of.  Sometimes it can make you just a little bit more fluid.  Maybe it takes the edge off of the nervousness.  It’s just a fine line there – I have to be careful with it.  Did I have a decent dinner?  Did I eat dinner?  Is it going to hit me faster than if I ate some spaghetti or something heavy?  I enjoyed having that little edge taken off sometimes.  Right now, I don’t have a drink before my shows, because there’s a lot of technical accuracy with my whole body that I have to be in tune with – stepping on pedals at the right moment for the arrangement to happen.  I’m just not willing to take the chance that if it doesn’t go right, it was because I had a drink before the show.  So that’s a decision I’ve made for myself.  I’m learning, when is it ok and when is it not ok – for me, personally.

On the use of beta blockers for stage fright:

I’ve never tried them.  They are not necessarily “performance enhancing drugs” – they’re anxiety and stress relieving drugs.  And they do something with your hormones and the way your body reacts with adrenaline.  I hear that a lot of classical musicians take them before big performances. They’re supposed to kind of help you not be shaky or nervous or sweaty – your fight/flight type of responses.  They’re generally prescribed, though I was just reading a study saying twenty-five percent of orchestral people use them, however seventy percent of those that use them get them from their friends.  So, I don’t have any experience with them, but I know that lots of people do.

On what helps him feel more confident:

Preparation.  Practicing.  I get uptight for a gig a week out, even though I know I’ve got a week to work on this material – thinking, “[gasp] It’s a week out!  I’ve got to practice for this stuff!” Fear and worry are motivators for me to say, “Ok, it’s time to do some work on it.”  If there’s a specific performance which you know you’ve got material that is difficult for you, spend time on it.  If it doesn’t go well, you did the best that you could.  At least you spent time on it – that I can be ok with.  But if it doesn’t go well and I was not working on it, that is a situation that’s not acceptable, because I didn’t do anything to try and help myself for it.

Understanding the musical situation.  Are you nervous at jams?  Or are you nervous in gigs?  Is it worth being nervous?  Are you one of a bunch of people in which they’re not scrutinizing what you’re playing, where you’re just part of this fabric – is it worth getting uptight about?  Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.  But understanding the musical situation – what are the expectations of the other musicians?  What are the expectations of the audience?  Is it a wedding gig?  Are they there to dance?  Are they going to be drinking and just having a good time if the beat is there?  In that sort of situation, you might have a little bit more freedom to be a little more loose.  If it’s a sit-down concert and you’ve got a big solo section, that’s much different than playing a wallpaper gig.  So what’s worth your stress time?  You can’t stress about all the gigs, you know – but hopefully not.

The more that you put yourself in difficult situations, the easier those situations are going to get.  It’s usually the first one that is the toughest.  Maybe the first five of this new music you’re working on, or this new group that you’re playing with.  But it’s going to be ok, you know?  This is not the ER – we’re just playing some music here for people.

This one jazz pianist, he was addressing this type of situation.  You know, you’ve got your solo, and you think, “Oh, I just fucked up my solo…”  Ok, wait a minute here, let’s think about this.  It feels really important, because people are at this club to see you, and maybe there’s eighty people there, maybe there’s two thousand – whatever.  So you just “screwed” up this solo.  Ok, well, let’s back up for a second.  Let’s zoom out.  You are one guy in this city in which there’s all these other musical things going on.  Back up again, ok, now you are in a city within a state full of other cities.  Back up again, you’re in this country full of states full of cities full of people.  Back up again – I mean, it’s like, really?  Is that one solo is going to make or break anybody?  Hey, so it didn’t go.  You can’t win ‘em all.  But it’s really not worth stressing about.

On taking a compliment:

I’ve played for people who got really stressed out after gigs.  This stuff really affected them – you know, whether performances went well or not.  People would compliment after the show, and the performer would say something like, “Oh, that was not a good show.”

I mention this because I think you have to be really careful in these situations, because the audience is paying you a compliment.  You did something for them.  You connected.  And by responding, “No, this was not a good show,” you’re effectively saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Or like, “Your feelings right now are invalid, and you just liked something that totally sucked.”  You just shot down a compliment from somebody.  Suck it up, if you can!  Or remove yourself from the situation.  But I think you have to be careful about letting the frustration that you might feel be poured out to the people that actually did have a good time.  So ok, even though it wasn’t ideal for me, there must be something going on here – I’ll take this compliment.

On making your instrument work for you:

There are a lot of things that you can do to your instrument that are going to make you feel better about the way you play.  You can apply this to whatever instruments you have, but keeping your instrument maintained – I know it costs money, but it’s going to make it easier for you to play.  And there’s enough hard stuff about playing any instruments – they’ve all got their difficulties – why make it any harder?

For me, one thing is string action.  How high are your strings off the fingerboard?  That makes a big difference.  How hard do you have to press here in order to get the notes out?  There’s a range – too low, too high – but there’s a nice middle ground that also affects the tone.  Not only how it feels, but, a little higher action, a little bit louder, a little bit brighter.  And so if you need something to kind of cut through a little bit more – cutting through can equate with confidence – maybe experiment with the action on your instrument.

For guitars and fretted instruments – frets.  Frets get grooves in them from playing which affects the intonation and the way that you can slide on the strings.  Get your frets dressed.  With bowed instruments, you get ruts in your fingerboard.  You’ve got to get your fingerboard planed.  When I get it planed, I think, “Oh, it’s so much easier and more in tune!”

Putting on new strings – that makes a huge difference for intonation and tone.  These things don’t stretch evenly as a whole.  Sometimes I feel like, “I just can’t seem to play in tune, but I used to be able to.  What is going on?  The instrument’s in tune…”  Well, the strings have stretched a little bit differently.  And when I put on a new set of strings, I realize, “Oh, right.  I don’t suck as much as I thought.  It was the strings.  Maintain my instrument!”

Fresh hair on the bow – it helps grip a little bit better.  It gives you a wider range that you can play with dynamically.  It makes you more articulate.

How heavy your pick is – if it’s really light, it might be easier to play, but it might not produce as much sound.  And you might feel like you’re having to work harder to get it out.  Try some different pick gauges and shapes to see what happens.

We experiment with these mechanical details on our instruments to find this nice middle ground that allows us to be expressive and not hinder our instruments physically.  It’s important to get your instrument maintained once in a while.  I go into music shops and I say, “Hey, you’re an expert at making an instrument sound better.  What can I do to make my instrument sound better?”  Because things gradually change over time, you may not have noticed a slow degradation.

I had a luthier tell me, “Oh, you know what would be better for you?  Your instrument would sound better if you used a different shoulder rest.”  And I thought, “What?  The shoulder rest makes a difference in the sound of my fiddle?”  He said, “Hold on a sec.  Let me show you something.”  So he went and got this shoulder rest which is light, stiff, made of wood, and it doesn’t really clamp far onto the instrument.  I had a heavier one, and I was clamping it way down the body.  He said, “Just put it on there just as much as you need to, to make it stay.”  And my instrument was more lively.  I heard a difference!  And as a result, I felt better when I was playing.  “Cool, my instrument’s sounding good!”  You feel good, and then you’re happier to be playing.

I would have never thought of that myself.  I had to go in and have somebody who is an expert to look at these things and say, “I think this might help the sound of your instrument.”  It will help build your own confidence because you’ll be happy to play your instrument, as opposed to, “I’m just not getting enough back from my instrument, I just don’t want to play it.”

On what he’s learned from playing with Tim O’Brien:

Tim is one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever been around.  He’s such a relaxed singer and player, too.  He seems to open his mouth, and he has this range and delivery that seems to go wherever he wants.  I’ve come to believe that whatever kind of person you are is reflected in the way that you play your music.  So, Tim has such nice loose hands.  They’re not loose as in sloppy and all over the place – it’s just this really fluid sound to everything he does.  And he’s a relaxed guy.

I believe you have to evaluate yourself, too, and understand that your instrument is an extension of your personality.  When you’re nervous, somehow that’s going to come out.  Your playing exudes that a little bit.  Whatever you can do to calm yourself down – if you want to be more calm – give it a try.  But if you want to be more aggressive with what you’re playing, maybe you need to read some bad news or something like that – really get pissed off!  Whatever you feel, whoever you are, you exude.

In conclusion:

You’re not alone in wanting to play more confidently, with more guts – I’m right there with you.  So have fun, and don’t be afraid to put yourself in some uncomfortable situations and enjoy them!

Thanks again to Casey for sharing his thoughts in his workshop, and for giving me permission to publish them on this blog.  I definitely recommend to my readers that they see Casey live if they have a chance.  His “Singularity” show, in particular, is practically a high-wire act, and his musicality and virtuosity are inspiring.  –VA

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CASEY DRIESSEN: “Playing with Guts” Workshop Transcript – Part 1 of 2

Posted: May 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops | 10 Comments »

In February, I taught a live performance master class at the International Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, MO.  While I was at the conference, I attended a workshop presented by one of my all-time favorite fiddle players, Grammy®-nominated recording artist CASEY DRIESSEN.  

Casey’s workshop, which he called “Playing With GUTS!”, addressed stage fright and other issues that may get in the way of having a satisfying performance experience.  I recorded the workshop, and Casey graciously gave me permission to post a transcript of his remarks here.

A highly sought-after touring musician, session player, educator, and producer, Casey is known for his fiery, percussive playing style and his way of stretching musical boundaries.  He has performed with such artists as Béla Fleck, Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, Jim Lauderdale, Lee Ann Womack, and Chris Thile.  The artists he has recorded with include Darol Anger, John Mayer, Jerry Douglas, Jamey Haddad, and Blue Merle.  He also played on the soundtrack for the Johnny Cash biography film Walk the Line

Casey’s latest album, The Singularity (Red Shoe Records), showcases his inventive live-looping/pedalboard technique which he regularly utilizes in his concerts.  You can watch this video of Casey’s TEDx talk to see his demonstration of this technique.

This transcript will be posted in two weekly installments.  –VA

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[Casey began the workshop by singing “Country Blues” while accompanying himself on the fiddle.  When the song was finished, he talked about what he experienced while playing it.]

Well, I started to think about this class, and then I immediately forgot the lyrics that I was supposed to sing.  And then I started thinking about how I forgot the lyrics, and then I skipped a set of verses.  And then I started thinking about being able to focus when you’re playing – losing track of that focus, it ends up being a detriment to me.

On distractions:

I’m trying to do my best to focus on the music, and I end up closing my eyes when I play because I’m so visually distracted.  I see movement here, I recognize somebody in the audience that I haven’t seen for a long time, and then I just start thinking about other items as opposed to what I’m really supposed to be doing.  And so I’ve found that, for me, closing my eyes helps me focus my ears on the musical situation. It’s a way to cut out some of that distraction.

And then I go through this thing where I think, well, if I’m closing my eyes, am I putting up a barrier between me and the people that I’m playing music for?  Because I think, well, what if I’m watching and somebody’s playing and they’re closing their eyes?  And I’m figuring, yeah, there might be a small bit of a barrier there.  But I’ve determined that I’m ok with that, because I feel like I’m going to make better music if I’m closing my eyes.  And it’s not that I’m hiding from anything – I can actually give more of myself to the music and to the people that are listening if my eyes are closed.  So that’s sort of the trade-off.  Hopefully, the music then translates, as opposed to just the eye contact translating and myself being less satisfied with what I’m playing.

On stage fright:

I started to think about stage fright – and how things affect my playing when I’m at gigs – a few years back.  And I realized that I don’t feel like musicians talk about this subject very much among themselves.  We’re supposed to be solid and strong and confident all the time, and we don’t really discuss this.  But I was curious – if I’m feeling this, certainly other musicians must be feeling similarly.

I’ve been playing the fiddle for 30 years, and I’ve been performing since I was 13, and I still have these situations where I get anxiety about a performance or a recording session.  So with that amount of experience behind me, if I’m feeling this way, certainly other people are feeling this way, too.  And my goal in this workshop is to help you realize that you’re not alone in this and share my experiences – things that have actually happened, that I’ve learned from.

There are two different categories of confidence, I believe.  There’s an emotional or mental confidence towards playing.  But then there’s also physically being more confident in your playing.  They’re tied together, for me, each affecting the sound that comes out of your instrument, and what you hear, and how you perceive your sound.

On audience reactions to a show:

So I thought I would start here by mentioning when I began to evaluate this subject for myself.  A great show, in my mind, where I’m super-satisfied with the performance, is that I nailed everything, flawlessly.  I was in tune, I was in time, I played the parts when I was supposed to, I was completely inside the music.  I mean, this rarely happens, but when it does, there’s this music happening and I’m just kind of floating on top of it and riding it – like there’s this effortless time.  And occasionally that does happen, but it’s few and far between.  There’s not a show, really, that doesn’t go by which I wish that something had gone differently.

Then there are shows in which a number of things didn’t go the way I wanted them to.  And I noticed that those were the shows that people seemed to react the most positively to.  The show that I was the least happy with, strangely everybody was, “That was great!”  “Oh, I really loved tonight.”  “Tonight was so…”  “That was one of the best shows that I ever…”, or, you know, whatever it is that they’re saying.  And here I’m thinking, “Oh, jeez, why does it have to be this show that they’re taking away with them?”

Meanwhile, the shows that are effortless, when that does happen, nobody seems to say anything.  What is going on here?  Why is this happening?

So my thought is that people react to emotion more than they react to technical wizardry. As an instrumentalist, a guy that practices as much as I can, I want to technically master this instrument and bring that execution to the musical situation.  But if it’s all lining up, you don’t hear anything kind of popping out.  If there’s a wrong note, or a scrape, or you forget something and so, God forbid, you rest for two seconds and then you come back in – it feels like an eternity to you because you forgot something and saying “[gasp] Oh shit, what am I going to do?” – well, my theory is that you’ve given the listener something that they can grab on to.

Tim O’Brien would joke about his tuning on stage and say, “I always thought if I played out of tune, people could hear me better.”  Well, there’s kind of something to that!  But the audience doesn’t necessarily hear these things as “out of tune” or “out of time” so much.  I think they can hear it as little things popping out above the bed of whatever the music is.  And for me, all of sudden when I’m struggling on something, and I might be bearing down because I’m frustrated, they see emotion, and they hear emotion, coming through the music.  Whereas when it’s effortless, there’s emotion there, but there’s this “sailing” thing that I don’t think rises above, and percolates in and out of, the bed of music that’s happening. That’s why when the show doesn’t go great for me, they’re seeing emotion, and emotion is being translated through the music.

I feel like there’s a threshold where if you improve technically beyond this threshold, the main people that are going to hear it, really – maybe, if they hear it – are going to be other musicians.  The non-musically inclined population – once you hit this certain point and you get better, more in tune, faster, whatever – I don’t think it affects them to the same extent.

On messing up during a performance:

It adds an element of humanity.  We are all human.  I would love to be a machine, but try as I might, I am not a machine.  It’s just not possible.

I do a solo show now which includes effects pedals and live looping.  It all happens live – nothing’s pre-recorded.  I’m playing, trying to play it well, because once I record and loop it, I’ve got to hear it over and over.  I hear the good stuff, I hear the bad stuff.  In the beginning when I’m working on a new tune, and even sometimes on one that I’ve been playing for a long time, I will make a mistake in it. Then, depending on the severity of the mistake, I have to erase the loop that I was working on and start over – and when I first started this solo concept, I was bummed by the thought of having to stop and start over.  It was like, “Wow, I just screwed that up, and now I’ve got to stop.”  All of a sudden I’m showing my human face to everybody.

I realized that after those shows, I’d be beating myself up, but people would say, “That was great how you had to restart, because I actually couldn’t tell what you were doing, that it was happening right now.”  It helped people understand what was going on, just because I had to stop and start over.  Unexpectedly, it ended up being a good thing – it helped the show out.  So I thought, well, jeez, now should I plan a screw-up in there?  But I thought, that’s playing with fire – then I’m going to screw up the screw-up!

We’re so focused on ourselves. It’s important to remember nobody hears you more than you hear yourself.  Really.  Nobody knows what you intended to play.

This is one idea I like to remind myself of.  If I made a mistake, tell me I made a mistake.  How does anyone know what I was intending to play?  They’re not inside my head.  Maybe I wanted it to sound like that!  Nobody really knows.  And that’s why I think lots of times these things, these mistakes, feel like they last forever for musicians, because we know what we wanted to come out.  We know what we were going for.  We didn’t hit it, we’re bummed out, but it was probably just fine.  I’ll listen back to shows, remembering things that I just didn’t feel sounded great, and find myself thinking, “What was I…I don’t really hear…yeah, maybe that was it?  But that’s fine…”

On keeping a things fresh and exciting:

I think you have to keep doing things that are challenging – as humans, but certainly as musicians.  You want to improve, you want to get better, and you have to do new material in order to do that.  Whenever I have to do a new looping song – oh boy, it messes with me because if I don’t press the pedals in this right order, then it throws the whole arrangement off.  But you get better with repetition.  And it keeps you on your toes, literally!  I like that.  I need that.  It might not be easy the first time around, but it gets better.

Just like you’ve been doing your tunes forever – they get better over time.  However, you might need to say, “I’m tired of this arrangement on this song.  I’m sort of bored.”  Well, maybe you need to switch an arrangement around on it, you know?  Find something new to do with the same tune.  And then in early performances, you might end up with half the band going to the old arrangement while half do the new arrangement, and then you’re going to have to figure out what’s going on!  But what might feel like a train wreck to us, generally I don’t think feels like a train wreck to the audience, for the most part.  And even if it does – the element of humanity, you know?  You’re the ones onstage.  You’re the ones performing.  People are not coming to, really, judge you – they’re coming to support and to hang out with you.

On what makes him nervous:

I get the most nervous whenever I have family and friends in the audience.  In reality, who should have my back the most?  Who should be on my side the most but my family and my friends?  And they are, and I know that.  But still, those are the shows that I find myself getting worked up about.  “Oh, my mom’s here.  Oh, my ex-girlfriend is here.  I’ve got to be really good for this one!”

Another situation I get nervous for are small shows.  I’ve done shows where it’s me and you guys.  That’s interesting, because I think the audience also has a little bit of nervousness about their own presence in the room.  Like, “If I clap too loud, or if I holler ‘Wooo!’ because I liked something, everyone knows that just came from me!”  But when you’re in this massive crowd like at a festival, you can sort of be invisible, right?  If this was the club that I played in Grand Junction where it was me playing for the opening band, the staff, and one drunk heckler – they’re probably uncomfortable for me, I’m uncomfortable for them because I know they’re uncomfortable – I don’t know what to do about it other than just think, “You’re going to have to go through some of these situations and just play.”  Maybe then it’s good to close my eyes so I’m just thinking about playing my music.

On getting into the right space for a recording session:

Recording sessions are interesting, because it really is a different situation than playing live.  With live, a lot of things are excused by listeners because of the added visual stimulus.  If they’re watching a performer, they’re seeing somebody move to the music, they’re watching the drummer, they’re dancing, whatever – they’re not just focused solely on the music that’s happening.  So you can get away with a lot, really.  With the recording session, that’s all that’s there.  The audio is the sole focus.

For recording sessions you have to make sure you can hear yourself well, perhaps more than in live playing, while still hearing the other musicians well enough that you feel like you’re part of the musical situation.

I tend to be, maybe, a little bit more careful.  Some people are a lot more careful with how they play – taking less risks.  You know when you’re taking a risk, stretching for something.  You have to evaluate, do we have time to sit here and work on something if I am screwing up, if I’m playing a difficult part?  Am I just overdubbing, or am I tracking live with the band?  Is there isolation to allow me to replay my part?  It’s really a case-by-case type of situation, but I would tend to be a little less risky with my choices if there’s a time constraint in the studio.  And lots of times there is, because it’s costing money the longer that you’re at the studio.

On input from the producer in a recording session:

Sometimes you have to let people work through ideas and challenging spots for a bit.  And even if you think you have an answer that will help them right away, it might not be the best thing to just tell them what to do, because then you run the risk of shutting somebody’s creative juices down.  I’ve been shut down before, but usually you get a chance to try something out.  If improvising is not your strong suit, work out some notes that really sound good.  And don’t be afraid to rest, either – that’s one thing we often forget, we don’t have to play all the time.  It makes your content more meaningful when you actually do play something if you’ve taken time to rest.  It can be more tasteful.

I make notes in producing situations, notes about something that I want to come back to, that I don’t want to forget, but when now’s not quite the right time to mention it.  I want to give the musicians a couple more chances to get the part, because who knows, they may surprise me with something I was not expecting, and that’s great.  As long as there’s some sort of constructive contribution – not, “Don’t do that.”  But, instead, “Hey, I don’t think that note is working, try this one instead.”  You know?  As long as you have some sort of solution, as opposed to, “That’s not working.  I don’t know what to tell you.  You’ve got to figure it out.”

Having somebody produce is really helpful, because it’s so hard to evaluate yourself within a musical situation.  Sometimes when producing I need to say, “Ok, let’s take a break, everybody come in and let’s listen to the last three takes.  Let’s talk about them and let’s see what actually is happening.”  That way everybody can re-evaluate what they were playing, and listen without instruments in hand.

You might realize, “Oh, you know what?  I thought that was working…”  Maybe you were just really proud of the cool thing you were doing, but it didn’t actually work with the rest of the group.  “Something’s not right there, it’s not working.  Ok, so I need to not do that.  Okay, I’ll pat myself on the back for doing something cool, but it’s really about this whole musical situation, so I’ll need to make a change.”  You have to step back from it in order to really evaluate.  That’s what a producer can help you do.  And producers, lots of times, are listening for emotion, too.

I think we just get focused on ourselves.  We’re so concerned.  But, when you listen to the other people that are around you, maybe you don’t need to play as much.  Conveniently, you’re removing one element of difficulty for yourself.  And when you’re listening to the other musicians, you’re also getting inspiration from them, too – you’re getting ideas.  So it’s really important to hear other people, and remember that it’s about everybody playing together.  There might be a solo in it, but it’s ultimately about the music that you’re making as a group.

[To be continued...]

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Julia Sweeney – Part 3 of 3

Posted: September 18th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews | 6 Comments »

I am very pleased to present Part 3 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.  

Julia is probably most identified with her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live (most famously playing the gender-indeterminate character “Pat”), as well as her one-woman shows, the best known of which are God Said, “Ha!” and Letting Go of God.  Julia’s lengthy filmography includes Pulp Fiction and the recently released Monsters University, as well as such television shows as Frasier and Sex and the City, and she has also written for several TV shows including Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.  Her latest book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, was published by Simon & Schuster and is widely available.  Julia’s current project is a tour of “The Jill and Julia Show”, which teams her with singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in an evening of songs and monologues.  
This interview is being  posted in three weekly installments.  In Part 1, Julia discussed her development as a performer.  In Part 2, she talked about “the zone”, how she experiences the audience, and how Letting Go of God has affected her career.  In Part 3, Julia reveals what she’ll be up to after she completes her current tour. –VA

Are you going to keep doing voice work?

Julia Sweeney:  I love doing voice work.  Actually, that would be a very good happy ending for me.  Like Laraine Newman, who was also on SNL – she works all the time in voiceover.  I can’t believe how much she works in voiceover.  And what a great life that is.

It’s the best.

JS:  I’m telling you, it’s the best.  Do you do voiceover?

I’ve done a little.

JS:  I love it.

And I think because you have so much live experience, you have a live feel in your voice work.  And that is really hard to do.

JS:  Wow, thank you.  I never thought about that.  That’s just made my day!

Oh, I’m so glad.  Do you have a sense of that when you’re doing it?  Do you have a sense of going for the live experience, or is it just how it happens for you?

JS:  No, I don’t, it’s just how it comes out.

Well, you’re very dynamic, anyway, just in the way you are in the world.

JS:  Wow, you’re making me feel so good!  I don’t know, I guess I can kind of see that.  It’s really just the same way – now we’re getting back to, “I’m sure that you put on something…” or things that I do not really do.  No, that’s really me.  [laughs]  That’s it.  There I am.  I’m naked.  Not different later, just the same.

Well, not everybody can say that.  Even monologists and people doing their own material.  A lot of times people feel that they have to invent a character in order to do it safely.

JS:  Well, you know what, that reminds me.  When I first started, I actually took a stand-up class.  This is so funny, this is before I did The Groundlings – I guess I was kind of thinking about it enough to take the class.  But anyway, in the class, he taught us – now, this is thirty years ago – that you had to make for yourself a character, and then when you went onstage you were in that character.  So I did make a character for myself of a really shy person who didn’t want to be onstage.  [laughs]  That was my character.  And it really was a character.  And it was very useful.  I mean, I could see teaching that.

Well, I use that technique with people when they’re doing self-confessional material, as musicians, and a lot of times they feel like they just can’t do it safely.  And we’ll talk about, ok, let’s remove it one step.  You know what you need to know because you wrote this, you experienced it.  But let’s remove it one step, and let’s come up with a character who has a similar experience and come up with their own story.  And then they can use enough of what they know from their own experience to inform that character, but they can do it as that character and they’re not completely vulnerable.

JS:  Yeah.  I did it a little bit as myself.  It’s not so much a character if I think, “I want to be the version of me that is just as authentically me as any other version of me, that loves to be onstage and can’t wait to see all those people and can’t wait to tell my stories to them.”  And I kind of imagine myself like my best self in that manifestation.  And then I just can do that.

Yeah, that makes sense.  And then you can keep revisiting that if you’re getting unfocused?

JS:  Yeah, I do think that.  Especially when we were on the road, and if I stopped to think about how much I didn’t want to do the shows, I couldn’t even go there.  [laughs]  I just had to say, “I’m going to do it, and I’m going to have fun, and we’re going to be in a van for eight hours, and then have trouble parking in Manhattan, and it’s going to be fun!  We’re going to find out what’s fun about it.  And we’re going to go into the club, and the guy’s going to tell us how we haven’t sold enough tickets, and that’s going to be ok!”  I mean, it sounds like an insane person.  I think if you did it too long, you really would be insane.  But I think for short bursts, you can do that.  [laughs]

I know, I talk to a lot of nationally, and internationally, touring musicians, and they say, “Basically, I travel for a living.  And then when I actually get onstage and do the show, that’s the extra part, that’s just the recreational part.  The rest of it’s just traveling for a living.”

JS:  I know it, that’s the thing I’ve kind of hit the wall with.  It’s really many things.  One is, weirdly, I feel like I’m having an inverse parenthood, where as my daughter gets older and is about to go to high school I want to be home more, so while most mothers take off the first five years, I want to take off the last five years.

So to me, being on the road is a huge cost, because it means I’m not here and I really want to be here.  And it’s terrible for my health, because I don’t work out and I don’t eat right.  And I know there are people that do.  I’ve been with musicians like Jonathan Richman, who gets up every morning and does a hundred pushups and drives all over town so he can get the perfect nut mixture.  And I just don’t do that.  If I’m on the road I’m just eating cupcakes and having lattes all day.

And who knows what they’re going to have in the green room, if there even is a green room.

JS:  And then I get so high from the show – Jill and I both say this, we both want to eat a thousand calories after the show, we’re so hungry.  And it doesn’t matter how much we ate before the show.  There’s just something about that experience that just makes you ravenous.  I think it’s because you’ve given and you’ve given, and now you want to get back, or something, I don’t know whatever it is.  But it’s just not good if you’re trying to not be a million pounds. [laughs]

And I thought I was going to get better at it, and in fact I got worse.  Because I think as I got older and it didn’t really matter that much how thin I was, it was really “just for health”.  It wasn’t like I was trying to be the hot babe onstage – that ship had sailed many years before.  [laughs]  So it was really just about me, and it’s just a high cost.  I do a lot of shows in a month, and it takes me a month at home to just get back into the routines.  And I just don’t want to do that anymore.

And now my whole thing is how I don’t want to do performance – this is terrible! [laughs]

Yeah, do you mind if we put that out there into the universe?

JS:  No, it’s so funny, because I was just thinking of our producer, Heather [Schmucker], who’s producing our shows, Jill and I.  She just had sent me an email saying, “Don’t you think that we should make an announcement that this is it?”  And I had said this to Jill, and I said this to the booker, that I didn’t want to book more shows than we had.  But then I didn’t want to – well, because first of all I’ve said this before, and then I changed my mind, so I have zero credibility about it.  And then I didn’t know.  But, actually, now I do know.  Now it’s been several months, and I really do know.  And I’m so excited!  I’ve already planning my whole next year and how no travel there’s going to be in it.

Good for you!

JS:  So anyway, I was just thinking this is a useful conversation for me to have, because now I have to write this blog entry where I say that.  But I’m trying to say it in a way that doesn’t make it like, [self-importantly] “I’m making an announcement!”  “Aaaand, who cares about your announcement?”  [laughs]  But I also feel like I want to articulate it.  Anyway, so this has been helpful – thank you!

Glad I could help.  Anything I can do to help you put a brake on your career.

JS:  Yes, help me!

So, are you thinking you might write for TV shows anymore?

JS:  Well, I can’t really, because I’m living in Chicago – well, I’m not even living in Chicago, I’m living in Wilmette.  You know, I don’t even want to write on TV shows.  I’ve done that so much.  I have a novel that I’m going to try to write – that I am writing – and then I want to write a screenplay based on it, and then I’m going to see if I can direct a version of it.  That’s what I want to do.

That sounds fabulous!

JS:  It’s a three-year thing.  And then in the meantime I’m hoping I can just drum up enough voiceover work, because I do that here and there, to keep me making enough money to make it ok.  But it’s a hard thing for me – that’s the other hard thing, to keep me on my deadlines when I don’t have any external deadlines.  So I put some things in place that are going to keep me honest about how far I’m making it each week.

Boy, that’s rough.

JS:  I know, it’s really hard.  But I really want to do it.  I really want to.  And I’m going to.

And you know, I think if you really lobby yourself, you’ll probably get the movie rights from yourself.

JS:  I know!  [laughs]  Actually my book agent was, like, “Well, that’s not the way you make money.  You write the book and then you sell the movie rights.”  I go, “I know…but I don’t want to do that! “

“I want the movie rights.”

JS: “I’m selling them to myself right now!”

“And I’ve heard I can get ‘em real cheap.”

JS:  I know, exactly!  Oh my god, I made such a good deal with myself, I can’t believe it.

–Thanks to Julia Sweeney for taking the time to have an in-depth conversation about performance with me.  This truly was one of the most delightful interviews I’ve ever experienced.  I encourage my readers to go to Julia’s website to find out about her films and books. — VA

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Julia Sweeney – Part 2 of 3

Posted: September 11th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews | 5 Comments »

I am very pleased to present Part 2 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.  

Julia is probably most identified with her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live (most famously playing the gender-indeterminate character “Pat”), as well as her one-woman shows, the best known of which are God Said, “Ha!” and Letting Go of God.  Julia’s lengthy filmography includes Pulp Fiction and the recently released Monsters University, as well as such television shows as Frasier and Sex and the City, and she has also written for several TV shows including Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.  Her latest book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, was published by Simon & Schuster and is widely available.  Julia’s current project is a tour of “The Jill and Julia Show”, which teams her with singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in an evening of songs and monologues.  
This interview is being  posted in three weekly installments.  In Part 1, Julia discussed her development as a performer.  In Part 2, Julia talks about “the zone”, how she experiences the audience, and how Letting Go of God has affected her career.  –VA

I’m sure you can get into situations where things just become transcendent.

Julia Sweeney:  Oh, yeah!

People talk about the zone, and I’m sure you get into that.  How do you experience the zone?  What kinds of conditions contribute to that for you?

JS:  First of all, really, I realized that improvisation is so much a young person’s game.  I swear, I’m not just making excuses for me not being so good at it!  But knowing what I’m going to do, knowing how the story goes and which parts to tell, and being on top of it, is really important.  Although I think there are definitely times when I get onstage and I’ll start talking about something that literally just happened to me in the dressing room and it will work great.  It feels very high and fantastic and the audience is laughing and responding, and they’ll often say, “Oh, that moment was so great.”  But it’s hard for me to even know if that’s the zone or not, or if that’s just this one great accident that happened.  I don’t even know about that.  I can’t articulate that in my mind.

But I know when I think of my favorite moments performing, I basically think of two of the monologues I did, “God Said Ha!” and “Letting Go of God”, when the run had been going for long enough that people were trying to get in – I was selling out, so that always feels good – and I really knew the show, but I hadn’t been doing it so long that I was now so sick of the show.  And I’d have moments where I felt like I was completely engaged with everything I said and I just had the audience in the palm of my hand, and I could control the silences.  To me, that’s a sign of the zone, not so much controlling the laughs but controlling the silences.  That’s another way to control the audience.  And it felt like, oh my god, it’s the greatest feeling you could ever have.  Even though I am now saying, “And I’ve had it! I’ve had that feeling.  Now let’s have some other feelings.”  [laughs]

Do you feel like you have mastery over your craft in terms of what you’ve been doing so far?

JS: [laughs]  No!  I feel like I have a lot of experience, and I kind of haphazardly put it together, and sometimes it’s great, and mostly it’s good.  And sometimes it’s horrible, and that it feels very herky-jerky in my mind.  Like I feel like I’m not [actress] Anna Deavere Smith.  Like I’m like, [awkwardly] “And now, I take a step to the right…”  Her control is incredible.  I don’t feel that way.  I feel like, [shakily] “I’ve got a paintbrush, and I’ve got some paint, and I kinda know what the colors are, I kinda know what I’m painting…”  [laughs]

I would assume that you’ve changed as a performer over the years in terms of your confidence in your skill set and knowing what works?

JS:  Well, I think just being calm.  I think, actually, from the audience’s point of view, the audience really can sense when somebody’s nervous onstage.  And so I think just doing it a lot makes me really comfortable getting onstage, and so that really makes a big difference.  I mean, I definitely think you can get to that – you can get confident by just doing it a lot.  And also feeling like you know what you’re going to do.  You’re going to give them a show.  They’ve paid, and now you’re giving them a show.  And that calmness, I definitely learned.  At the beginning, I wasn’t calm, not for many years, and then I learned how to be calm onstage.

Yeah, I definitely see that.  There’s a centeredness, a groundedness.

JS:  Yeah, and you can feel an audience knows if people are too nervous.  And then they get nervous, and that’s just a killer for laughs.  So then you’re only getting nervous laughs, or sympathy laughs.  You want people to feel like they’re in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing.

Yeah, I talk to the people I work with about that all the time.  It’s like, you’ve got to take the audience by the hand and say, “This is where we’re going, and I’m going to take care of you , and it’s going to be ok.”

JS:  Right.

How do you experience the audience? And has that changed over the years, how you experience the energy coming from the audience?

JS:  Well, I don’t know if this is related, but this has just occurred to me that I have been waiting to tell someone this, so I’ll tell you.  [laughs]

Good!

JS:  It’s about experiencing the audience, really in an individual way.  Ok, so the lights are on and you see the audience, you can see a few faces in the front two or three rows, and you can’t see anyone after that because of the lights.  And I like that.  In fact, to me, I wish I couldn’t see anyone, because then I’d just imagine everyone loving me.  [laughs]  If you can see people and they’ve got a scowl on their face, it’s sometimes hard – and sometimes it’s not even a scowl, it’s only just their resting face is not a pleasant look.  And it can be just, you know, disquieting.

Anyway, this is really neither here nor there, but it’s just talking about experiencing the audience.  Sometimes I’ll see someone in the audience that reminds me of someone that I loved.  And so I saw this guy in the audience, an older guy, that looked like my dad, and my dad’s been dead ten years.  And he didn’t even look exactly like my dad, but he just had a way about him that was like my dad.  Like he was sort of balding, and he had these kind of cool glasses, you could tell that he was smart, but he was kind of slight, and he had this smile.   And it wasn’t like it was as creepy as I pretended that was my dad, but I guess my thought was, “Oh yeah, if my dad didn’t know me, and he had come to this show, he would have liked me in this show.”  I guess that’s what I was kind of thinking.  And that was really a dance in my head at that particular performance, you know – like he was there.

And this happens, I think – it’s not just a dad thing, but there’s other, like, aunts, or friends.  I can see people’s faces and I imagine their personalities, and then I want to please them, I’m glad to please them with my stories.  Like, they really get me, or they really get this, what I’m saying, and I don’t even have to explain it very much to this person, because they get it already.

Anyway, so this guy – I was just, like, “Oh, I’m just a revelation to him!”  You know, whatever compliment I’m giving myself to keep myself in this positive state while I’m doing the show.  [laughs]  And then at the end, the guy came up with a friend, because they were buying something, and the guy not only didn’t even speak any English, but there was something wrong with him.  He obviously didn’t get anything about my show.  There was nothing that I had fantasized about with his look that was true in any way.  It was so, like, “Oh my god, oh my god!  We just had a relationship, and you were not in it!”  [laughs]

Well, whatever works for you!

JS:  It’s true!  But anyway, whatever!

When you’re in an audience, what excites you or inspires you when you see a good performance?  What are the characteristics of it?

JS:  Well, I like things to be smart.  I like things to be witty and insightful.  And I really like a combination of irony and compassion.  There’s a way certain people – and I hope I’m like this, because I really do feel this way, but I can really see it especially amongst comedians, people who have it or don’t – where you can describe other people, because a lot of times in comedy you’re really making fun of other people, but you’re laughing, I wouldn’t say it as simply as “with them rather than at them”, but they’re funny but you have compassion for them.  They’re not being ridiculed, there’s like a more ironic compassion.  And I like that – I like that quality.  And immediately, if people have that, I like whatever they’re doing more.  And I think it’s one of the things that I liked about Jill.  I responded to her lyrics so strongly because I felt that was in there.  They were funny, but they weren’t superior.

I mean, I definitely can rant about things I hate in politics and stuff like that.  It’s not like I’m so approving of everyone – believe me, I’m not!  But, in general, I would say I try to have compassion.  There’s just so much funny stuff that you can laugh at but also have compassion for.  I think that some people are too derisive, even though I think there’s room for that, too, and there’s some people that do that who I like.  It’s not taking the edge off, either, and plus I think it can even be more poignant, and pointed, when you have compassion for them.  But it isn’t just making fun of other people, which is a simple way to say it, I guess.

Well, it sort of helps bring everyone into the universal truths of the human condition.

JS:  Yeah, I think so!  And even, sometimes, we do political stuff of people that I really think are doing harm to our country.  So that’s hard.  But I still try to keep an edge to it.  I’m like, [compassionately] “Oh, they don’t know.  They don’t know that global warming is not a hoax.  [laughs]  And I’m going to try really hard not to think of how they’re in charge of laws that can affect other people…”  Or something like that.  And to me there’s something funny about trying to have compassion for people like that.  There’s comedy there, too.

I think that’s what’s so moving about your show Letting Go of God, because you are earnestly on this journey of discovery, you’re not just writing everything off on a whim.  You go to enormous effort…

JS:  Right.

…you travel the world, and read all these thinkers, not just the Bible, and you’re really, truly, sincerely wrestling with this issue.  And you’re not saying that people who believe this stuff are fools, either.

JS:  Right.

And I think what resonates is that it really is based in this loving place.

JS:  Well, I do like to feel that mostly that’s eighty percent true – there’s twenty percent of me that hates everyone.  [laughs]  And I like that in other people, too.  So that’s my particular thing – I like that.

Did you ever worry about the repercussions of “coming out” as an atheist?

JS:  You know, it’s so funny, because everyone asks me that, and I always think, oh, well, first of all, if anything, people in L.A. were more horrified that I was religious at one time.  That was the part that was like, “Really?  You really…?  No way!”  [laughs]  So if I was endangering anything in L.A. when I first opened that show, it was that I let people know that at one time I was religious.  And that probably cost me some work.  [laughs]

But now that it’s been years, it’s interesting – I like to say that when I was doing that show, that was before the “atheist craze”.  [laughs]  And now I feel like in some ways I’ve been dismissed as “one of those people” – not by conservatives, who would always dismiss those people, and I don’t even care about them – but by what they consider to be an “open-minded, post-modern, modern thinker”, of being too rigidly dismissing religion.  And I really totally am not dismissing religion.  And I still have a lot of compassion for it, and I really understand why people like it.  And I feel I do get grouped with that and kind of put in a category with that.  And I feel that’s unfair, but the only way people would know that is if they watched my whole show, and most people don’t.  Most people are just going to know one or two things about you that is the headlines – they’re not going to read the things.  So I definitely get put into that category, and, I don’t know, I can’t do anything about it.

And I’ve been, on and off, writing a more expanded version of that as a book, and on some days I really think I’m going to finish it, and other days I’m just so tired of the topic.  But I don’t know if that will be rectified.  I mean, sometimes I feel like, “Oh, I should be out there more as the face of atheism because I’m not like those other people” – even though I’m still an atheist.  But, some part of me thinks, “I think all people will see is “Julia Sweeney, Atheist” [laughs] – and then they have their own preconceived notions of what that means.

Or “Julia Sweeney, Pat-slash-Atheist”.

JS:  You know, I had a friend who used to tease me and say, “First you were Pat, then you were Cancer Girl, then you were Atheist Lady!”  And I’d go, “That completely sums up my entire professional life.”  [laughs] I don’t know, I’m still coming to terms with what I think, but I think especially in this culture and the way the media is right now – and maybe it’s always been this way and I’ve gotten older, or maybe it’s just newly this way because of media outlets being so numerous and new – but it seems like people can’t know anything about you but one headline thing.  And I am just done with that.  Hence, the way that I will manifest that is by writing fiction.  [laughs]

I do have certain things that I talk about, like cancer, or religion, but I can’t seem to be big enough with it.  And frankly, I don’t even know if I want to, because I know what that would take, that people would understand the nuances of it in the popular culture.  I’m not talking about people who’ve actually taken the time to watch those shows.  I’m just talking about the zeitgeist of the popular culture – insofar as anyone even knows who I am anymore, by the way.  Which is fine, it’s just that they only know this one thing – “Oh, you’re an atheist.”  And they’re not going to take the time to know more, and I’m not even saying they should.  It’s just, you’re going to enter the popular culture, and you’re only going to get two words to say that are ever going to be attached to your name.  [laughs]  What are those two words?  And make sure you want those two words to be the right two words.  And if you don’t like it, don’t even go there!

It is too bad, because you’ve done so many different things.

JS:  Well, I’m not trying to seem complaining.  You know, actually, I just worked on this new website, and doing it was really therapeutic for me because I was, like, oh, this is what I’ve done.  Ok, so this is what I’ve done!  Wow, it’s so clear!  And, I’m satisfied with it.  I’m happy with what I did, and I’m happy that it still exists, that we live times when the media and the technology can make it still there.  But I also feel, like, in a transition phase, either transitioning to doing nothing [laughs] – I’m not sure yet – or transitioning to writing something different.

Clearly this is good timing for this interview about performance…

JS:  Yes, I know, I know!  But I do have a lot of experience performing.  Yeah, well, what are you gonna do?  [laughs]

[To be continued...]

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Julia Sweeney – Part 1 of 3

Posted: September 4th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews | 12 Comments »

I am very pleased to present Part 1 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.  

Julia is probably most identified with her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live (most famously playing the gender-indeterminate character “Pat”), as well as her one-woman shows, the best known of which are God Said, “Ha!” and Letting Go of God.  Julia’s lengthy filmography includes Pulp Fiction and the recently released Monsters University, as well as such television shows as Frasier and Sex and the City, and she has also written for several TV shows including Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.  Her latest book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, was published by Simon & Schuster and is widely available.  Julia’s current project is a tour of “The Jill and Julia Show”, which teams her with singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in an evening of songs and monologues.  
This interview will be posted in three weekly installments.  In Part 1, Julia discusses her development as a performer.  –VA

When did you feel you first wanted to be a performer?  What precipitated that for you?

Julia Sweeney:  It’s funny, because I have been thinking lately – I don’t know if I’m articulating this right – about the difference between an actor and a performer.

I didn’t think of a profession as a performer – that wasn’t in the list of professions that seemed possible when I was growing up.  You kind of were a lawyer or a teacher.  I guess a teacher would be the closest to being a performer.  But my dad was a trial attorney, so there was kind of a performance aspect to his work.  And so I wanted to be a lawyer.

I was always funny.  Like I was voted funniest girl, second grade through eighth grade at my school.  [laughs]  I didn’t think of that as performance, I just thought of that as being funny.  But I obviously loved getting the laughs, and I learned how to get better laughs.  So I think I just unconsciously gravitated to that because of the high that you get when people laugh at what you say.  It never occurred to me to be a stand-up, even though we did like certain stand-ups in our family – it just didn’t occur to me.  And then when I was in college I thought maybe I’d want to be an actress, and then I auditioned for the Goodman Theatre in my sophomore year and didn’t get in, and just gave that up.

Then I decided to be an accountant.  I guess it was lurking there, in the back, but I decided to be an accountant, in show business.  That’s what I wanted to be, a specific type of accountant – an accountant in show business.  So I moved to L.A. and got a job as an accountant at Columbia Pictures, where I worked for five years, and during that time I realized that I wanted to be onstage.  But not as myself – I wanted to be an actress.  So I started taking improv classes, and I guess that is a performer.  I guess let’s just say an actress is a performer.  [laughs]

But, you know, in some ways it really is different.  Like, I know people who are actors who never get onstage.  They only act before a camera where it’s really alone, and it seems qualitatively different than getting on a stage in front of people – being a person who impersonates somebody in front of a camera where not necessarily an audience is nearby.  So that is a very different thing.  And I guess I didn’t know that much about show business then, so I didn’t really understand what I wanted to do.  But I did like the idea of playing characters.  I didn’t really think of being myself onstage until even after Saturday Night Live.  So it was a gradual thing for me to be myself as a performer onstage.

So what did you learn about yourself when you started with The Groundlings and then when you got onto Saturday Night Live?  What did you find out about yourself when you got in front of an audience?

JS:  I did learn a lot at The Groundlings.  Literally, you learn techniques – improv techniques.  But I learned that I had a humorous point of view that I could convey – that was the biggest thing.  And I could convey it sometimes as a character, and sometimes as myself.  But that was this thing that I had – I was funny, I guess.

How did you discover that?

JS:  I don’t even know when that started.  I’m just learning about it myself, actually. [laughs]  I don’t really know when it started.  I know that I made people laugh, always.  But I learned to kind of control that galloping horse by going to classes at The Groundlings Theatre.  So you might have these comedic instincts – like you might have a natural ability to shoot baskets, but if you don’t learn how to make the baskets and drill yourself in it, you’re never going to be good.

So I really feel like it was The Groundlings, and then I guess Saturday Night Live, that kind of showed me how to funnel that natural comedy into something that could be useable as a character or something.  And then it wasn’t really until after I was on Saturday Night Live that my friend Kathy Griffin kept encouraging me to get onstage and tell stories, that I started to tell stories onstage.  But I still never thought of myself as a stand-up – I just thought of myself as a person who told stories.

Then I started doing these monologues, so then I wasn’t really considered a stand-up, but I felt like my monologues were funny.  And sometimes I would feel almost self-righteous about it, like, “My monologues are as funny as anybody’s stand-up, but I’m talking about a serious subject, and I’ve gone to the trouble of making up a story that has acts in it, and it goes somewhere.”  But I think a lot of stand-ups wouldn’t think that was true, like I was more of a dramatic monologist than I was a comedienne.  And I don’t really know what’s right or true.

Anyway, then I met Jill [Sobule], and I literally would sit onstage and think of something, while she sang a song, that related to my life, and I would tell that.

So you weren’t preparing that material?  You didn’t know what you were going to be talking about?

JS:  Not at first – it was really, just, “Oh, that song reminded me of this…”  But then, as we started doing shows more and more together, of course, we started to notice which songs went better with what stories, and we kind of tried to have a little bit of an arc, we tried to have little themes.  Like we had kind of this boyfriend theme that paid off when I told the story of how I met my husband.  And it kind of gravitated, very loosely, towards a structure.

Do you think musically?

JS:  No, but I’ve always loved musicians.  And I did this before with Jonathan Richman, another musician.  We met when I was on Saturday Night Live and I interviewed him for SPIN Magazine, and then we became friends.  And I started doing that with him, where I would go out to his concerts – we never made it “The Jonathan and Julia Show”, it was Jonathan’s show that I would get up for a period of time during his show and tell stories that somewhat related to his songs.  So I guess I always kind of liked that.

See, I just am always so jealous of musicians, because, first of all, it’s not all relying on the story – they get the music.  So they have the lyrics, and they have the music.  And then their lyrics don’t even have to make sense! [laughs]  I mean, they have to make sense and be resonant, if they’re good, but they don’t have to conform to normal storytelling rules.  And I just feel constantly frustrated by having to, one, tell the truth – which I’m just sick to death of – and, secondly, having to make it build to a payoff.  I really am tired of doing that, and I’m trying to stop, frankly.  I’m so sick of it!  [laughs]

That’s so interesting, because that’s been your trajectory for quite some time, and you’ve found so much success with it!

JS:  I know it, except that I’m telling you – I feel like this is another topic – like I have these shows with Jill but then we’re stopping, and even though I love Jill and I’ve loved doing it – we’ve done it for seven years – but I just have had it with the storytelling about my life.  I’m just done.  I can’t do it anymore.  I mean, obviously I can do it 16 more times, which is the number of shows we have left [laughs] but this is going to be the end of it.

I really love it, but I have hit the edge of what I can do anymore.  I don’t have a turbulent love life; my daughter [Mulan] is becoming a person who you can’t just constantly tell stories about onstage without truly violating her privacy; [laughs] and it’s too hard, the travel and stuff.  And actually being on the stage is an emotional roller coaster for me that I just have to take a break from.  Or maybe a break for the rest of my life.  [laughs]  “I’m taking a break from performing…for the rest of my life.”

Well, I actually wanted to ask you about that.  Because you present this intimate material, and I wonder how you protect yourself, yet leave yourself accessible to the experience and also let the audience in.  Do you feel like you’re doing a version of yourself, or a character that’s based on yourself, or is it truly directly wired to yourself?

JS:  No, it is myself!  That’s just it.  People come up and say this to me all the time: “I feel like I really know you from your monologues and books, but I know that you’re really more than that.”  And I say, “No, I’m not.  That is me, and in fact you do know me.” [laughs]

So when you’re doing this, do you ever get anxious, or stage fright, in terms of, “Here I am about to unzip my protective coating again…”

JS:  No, that’s the interesting thing.  I don’t have that fear, and I even have that desire, but it has costs, but not until later.

How?

JS:  Because in the moment, I want to be a performer, and the people have paid, and the machine is going, and the car’s in gear, and you gotta goooo!  [laughs]  And then, you know, most of the time I do get laughs, and that’s totally the payment for it – I get really high from that.  Then it isn’t until two months later where I’m going, “Oh my god, why did I say that?  That’s a terrible thing to say!”  And then I’m up in the middle of the night thinking, it’s really a horrendous roller coaster that I’ve been on, really since I was about 33 – and I’m 53, by the way.  Twenty years! [laughs]

So now I feel like, can we just do fiction again?  Like, when I was on SNL, I wasn’t myself, I played characters!  So now, after this year ends, after we do all of our shows through November, I’m going to stop.  Because I’m writing fiction now, and I’m really enjoying it, and I just feel like I want to write fiction.  That’s all I can say – that’s what I want to do.  I feel just over-naked with the telling personal stories.  And I love it in other people.  And I think I’ve done well.  I think I’ve been honest, and I’m proud of what I’ve done.  But I’m also completely embarrassed by it.  [laughs]

And maybe Mulan is a little bit, too…

JS:  Yes, it’s true!  And I just, I don’t know, I talk of entering the convent.  [laughs]  I’m in The Trouble With Angels, and I’m saying, “Ok, and now I’m done, I’m entering the convent.”

Do you have a pre-show ritual, or a way of getting yourself psyched up so you can go out there and do what you need to do?  Do you and Jill do something?

JS:  Well, we make our show order, which changes all the time.  It’s just the weirdest thing with stories, you know?  Like say I’ll have ten stories that I know work.  Then I’ll do a new story.  “Oh my god, here’s another one to go in the pantheon!  This will work every time!”  Then I do it two more times, and then all of a sudden that story’s dead.  I can’t find my way back into how that story was funny, and no one’s laughing!  So our show order’s always changing, mostly because of me thinking, “Ok, that story didn’t work.”  And then we change that up.

And, you know, Jill – see, this is the thing about singers, they do their vocal exercises, so Jill is always walking around going, [singing] “Doo doo doo doo DOOOO doo doo doo doo…”  and all this stuff.  And I don’t have anything like that.  [laughs]  I’m just sitting there going, “Wow.  You sure do a lot of vocal exercises.”

Also, for whatever way I’m wired, for whatever reason, my blood pressure goes down when I get onstage.  I just don’t get nervous.  As soon as I walk onstage, I feel calm and focused.  I don’t know why that is.  I mean, part of it is definitely just doing it a lot.  Because always people say, “How do you become a performer?”  I go, “You get onstage every time you can for about ten years.  [laughs] And make it, like, three times a week at the least.  And then you’ll start to think, ‘Oh, I know what this feels like.’  You’ll have had enough terrible things happen that you’ll have a general idea of what to do when things go wrong.”  [laughs]

Do you ever feel like you’re on autopilot and you’re kind of sightseeing when you’re up there?  Or do you pretty much always feel fully engaged?

JS:  Well, I don’t know if I’d say autopilot.  Definitely not with Jill, because one of the great things about doing things with Jill is it’s interactive.  When I have done monologues, it definitely could slip into that.  Because even though I felt like I was giving a really good performance – and people said I was giving a good performance, so I think I was – different times when I would start a show and then half an hour would go by and it was like you drove to work and you don’t remember anything about getting there.  I wouldn’t really have any sense of having done thirty minutes of a show.  Like I’d go, “Oh my god, where am I?  Did the show just start?  Am I finishing the show?” [laughs] 

And there was actually some really scary moments, some of the scariest moments of my whole life.  You know, like being on Broadway, and coughing, and looking up and not knowing if the show was starting or ending.  You know, terrifying!  Like you’re standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and your toes are hanging off the edge – that sort of sensation?  [laughs]

But with Jill I don’t feel like that, because we’re so with each other.  I definitely feel more engaged in some shows than others, but it’s more like the sensation of really being super-engaged is what I remember than not being engaged.  Or maybe that’s just denial about when I’m not engaged!  [laughs]

For example, Jill and I just did eight shows in the Northeast in July.  And it was so funny, because there was this one show where we didn’t know why our booker booked us in to it.  I think he just booked us there because it was in between two other dates.  And we were only getting a percentage of the door, and they had, like, twenty people.

Oh no!

JS:  So considering that we were driving and staying in a hotel and we had our producer along with us, basically we were paying to do the show.  But the people were so nice at this theater!  Everyone there was a volunteer, and they really let us know that, [laughs] and they were so sweet.  And also, they didn’t have air conditioning and it was, like, a hundred degrees and it was in the attic of something – it was terrible!  It was terrible in so many ways that it started to be great.  Because it was just so terrible – this is, like, as bad as it gets.  It’s a hundred degrees in the theater, there’s only twenty people, and there’s two hundred chairs. [laughs]  It was so terrible!  And, actually, that was my best show of all the shows.  Because I was up there, like, “Oh my god, this is such a special situation!  I am gonna give the best show I can!”  [laughs]

See, now, that’s a real professional!

JS:  Well, I don’t know, because maybe sometimes when there’s lot’s of people I kind of start disengaging, but whatever!  Anyway, that was just a funny thing.  And so, one of the things I remember about this trip was that moment – feeling like, man, I’m just going for it.  [laughs]

[To be continued...]

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters – Part 3 of 3

Posted: March 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews, Musician Resources | 5 Comments »

The following is Part 3 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Sugar Hill recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters.  I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado on July 25, 2010.  More recently, the Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nominationin the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of Magic #9″ from their latest album, Things That Fly.

This interview has been posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Travis discusses how he experiences other people’s performances . — VA

Do you get stage fright?

Travis Book:  Not anymore.

Why do you think that is?

TB:  Well, I’ve never really had stage fright – I used to have pre-gig anxiety.  But I don’t know why I don’t get it anymore.  I think it’s just that I know what I do is good.  And it’s not for everybody, and I’m sure that people can be very critical of what I do.  But I really like my music, and I trust the people that I play with, and I feel good about it.  So, you know, again, if people aren’t into it, that’s totally cool.  I’m less identified with the music that I play now – I think that may be a big part of it for me, personally, too.  I feel less identified with it – it’s not who I am.  It’s just a part of what I experience in the world.  And if it doesn’t go well, that’s ok.  If people don’t like it, then that’s fine, too.  Because I think it’s all going to work out the way it’s supposed to.

Do you guys have a pre-show ritual that you do?

TB:  We developed one lately.  We’ll put our fists together and do a little, “Yeahh!”  We all just try to get together and get on the same page.  That’s about it – we don’t really do anything specifically.  We have been trying to get everybody to get in a circle together and look at each other, and just tie our energy together real briefly before we go on.  But that’s sort of recent – the last six or eight months, we started doing that.  A recent development.

How did that start?

TB:  I don’t know.  Someone just did it at one show, and it was really fun.  It just felt good to bump our fists – you know, like a bunch of guys, “We’re going onstage, we’re going to do this together. “ You know, you can’t go up there and do it alone, it takes every single person.  So it’s like, “Put in the fists, look at all the hands.” You know?  “See all your brothers around you.  We’re all going to do this, let’s go do this.”  And then we walk up onstage and we do it.

What gets you excited when you see what you consider to be a great performance?

TB:   It’s just people who are totally original and genuine, just being themselves, playing music that’s true to their experience.  And people that feel comfortable, because any time anybody’s at all uncomfortable onstage, it makes me uncomfortable.  And it’s like a direct correlation:  as uncomfortable as they are, is about as uncomfortable as I am watching them.  And I also can’t watch people that don’t like each other, and I can tell – you can’t hide that.  You can fake it all you want, but I see right through that.  So I just want people to just be themselves, and do something original, and enjoy themselves, and be comfortable.

You must get to see a lot of music.

TB:  I do, I see quite a bit of music, but I don’t see as much as I should.  You know, I don’t really pass a lot of judgment anymore on music, because being a professional musician ruined my experience for a long time.  I couldn’t just watch things and enjoy them for what they were.  I was always trying to figure out what was going on, or learn something from it, and a lot of times, also, in bluegrass scene, I was being judgmental.  And that’s because I was insecure, you know?  I was watching other bass players and being like, “Hey, I can’t do that.”  Or, “This is cool.”  Or, “This is not good.”  Or whatever.  I was trying to identify it.

I think the shows that I like the best are the shows that I see that are my friends playing, people I have personal relationships with, because I have a real attachment to it.  Just in general, it’s fun to watch people have a good time, but I’m getting better at just allowing music to wash over me, and not thinking as much about whether it’s “good” or “bad”.  I tend to just watch people experience their own music.  And that’s been really liberating.

But I don’t know, I don’t get as excited about music as I used to, because I kind of am into all of it.  Like, I’m so psyched that people are out here picking, and I don’t really want to sit around and listen to a bunch of people play beginner banjo, but I also love it for a few seconds because it’s so cool to hear people figuring it out, because I understand the beginner mind.  And I also understand what it’s like to be a professional musician – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, there’s no magic there.  We’re all human, and there’s only a few of us that are just absolute geniuses.  So I like to watch people and, like, “Ok, cool, I like that music”, and then I go for a hike or do all the other things that interest me a lot.

Do you watch much video of yourself?

TB:  No.

On purpose?

TB:  Yeah, I’m just not interested.  I guess I should probably watch – it would probably help my performance, for sure, to watch myself.  And I tell my students to listen to themselves and watch themselves.  I’ll listen to myself sometimes, but I don’t really watch myself.  Because I’m conscious of becoming sort of like an “actor” – I try not to act.  I’ve done some of that onstage.  Like, I had a philosophy at one point of, even if I’m not having a good time, I’m going to act like it.  And that was part of my path to learning how to just have a good time all the time, but it was really uncomfortable for me to be faking it – it felt sort of unreal.  So I don’t really watch myself anymore – I don’t think about it.  I don’t consciously try to perform like anything, I just try to pay really close attention.  And it always makes me so happy, it makes me smile to watch people enjoy it.  And listening to my bros absolutely rip – because they’re so good, you know? – that makes me happy enough, and that’s the performance, just me being present.

You do look very happy to be there, and you have a really comfortable manner.  You’re very grounded, but you’re not stuck or static or closed, you know?  You’re grounded but you’re flowing.  Do you experience that?  Do you feel like energy’s flowing through you?

TB:  Absolutely.

Do you consciously notice that, or is that just how it is for you?

TB:  Yeah, I think I notice that sometimes.  But it’s also just how it is, I think.

Has it always been that way for you?

TB:  No.

What do you think accounts for that coming to be?

TB:  Life experience.  Self-evaluation.  Learning to move through the world.  Increased understanding, or an interest in understanding how this all works, how best for me to move through the world, what I’m called to do – all those things, all that sort of self-evaluation that everybody’s got to do at some point, you know?

Some people never do.

TB:  Yeah, some people never do, and that’s probably too bad.  But I think that playing music, and the experience of being onstage, and life, have really sort of joined – it’s all sort of the same thing.  You know, teaching people how to play bass has taught me a lot about the interconnectivity of everything.  The mind is such a tricky thing – you’re mind’s got a mind of it’s own, and it does whatever it wants.  I’m treating it like it’s a tool, sort of like my bass is a tool and it’s something that allows me to play music.  I’m not necessarily “Bass Player”, that doesn’t define me, it’s just something that I do to express music.  And ideally, my brain is just something that I use to function and to create things and to do things, but I don’t need it all the time.  Getting it to turn off and be able to just kind of accept that when you label things as good and bad, it just raises problems and you set up a dichotomy, and then you have to decide which side of the fence you’re on or whatever.  It’s sort of like, there’s no reason to have a good or bad show, you just go have a show and let it be what it is.  And learning that about life has taught me that about music.

And also, I went through some really hard times where I had really bad shows, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t having a good time, and it was mostly just sort of a lack of perspective and presence – I wasn’t really paying attention.  I sort of had my mind somewhere else.  I was thinking about things – thinking about how nice it would be to be at home, or thinking about the guy who’s asleep in the front row of the bluegrass festival, or whatever it was – little things that would take me away from what was the easiest thing to be tuned into, which was just what was going on.  And not being concerned about what’s coming – just sort of go up there and do your thing.

How do you get that to happen for you in the studio?

TB:  I don’t play well in the studio.  I don’t know, the problem with that is it’s all so permanent – there’s people listening, there’s so much pressure.  Even though live shows are recorded, I still feel like I’m going to play it and it’ll be over, and it’ll just be sort of gone.  I don’t get a lot of session work, partly because I’m just like a dude, I’m not like a crazy-good bass player.  The studio isn’t my favorite place in the world.

Is there anything you want to improve in yourself as a performer?

TB:  Yeah, I want to improve as a bass player.  I’d like to be able to sing a little bit more consistently, too.  But as far as the way I feel onstage, the things I say, stage presence – all the stuff that’s performing that’s not musical – I want to continue to grow as musician, but I haven’t had a bad show in, like, six months, because I have an awesome time.  And it seems like the audience is pretty much right there with me.  So I think what I’ve got going now, I’m satisfied with it.  It’ll change.  It’s an ongoing experience to practice – being onstage and being comfortable and playing music is an ongoing practice.  So I’m sure it’ll evolve, but I’m not trying to do anything different at this point.  And that’s because I feel so comfortable doing what I do, that I don’t want to change it necessarily.

It shows.

TB:  Cool.  Mission accomplished!

Thanks again to Travis for taking the time for this in-depth conversation about performance.  I highly recommend to my readers that they experience a Stringdusters show.  Please also visit the Stringdusters’ web store or your local independent music store to check out the Stringdusters’ band and solo recording projects.  – VA

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