What is it about Singer–Songwriters?

In terms of the live music experience I have recently been asking myself ‘what exactly is it about singer-songwriters that captivates me’; the solo performer on stage armed only with a guitar, more often than not an acoustic guitar, sometimes fortified with various sound effects and loop pedals, but nonetheless, a singular person up there alone. Sometimes there are thousands in the audience, sometimes it’s only a handful of people in a tiny room. However it comes it fascinates me and I am always amazed that people are able to do it, never mind enjoy doing it.

Perhaps it is something about the fragility of the solo performer, often being so honest and heartfelt it touches something deep inside. Songs delivered in a political context, songs about love and love-lost, songs so cryptic its hard to tell what they are about but there is something that always draws me in – that uncertainty, the notion that something could go awry at any moment, a forgotten line, a snapped guitar string, a cough or a sneeze or an off-putting comment from someone in the audience. The solo performer has to deal with it all – sans band.

Something else interests me too; it is the psychology of the solo musician; this desire to be watched, to be listened to, to be understood and in some cases to be adored. It started in the mid 90’s in a North London pub where I witnessed a striking looking American guy playing guitar and singing to a half interested crowd. I liked what he was doing, he seemed to me to be pushing at some kind of musical boundary, taking chances and seeing where it would take him. We spoke after the gig and later became friends and later still I tried to help him on his way – booking gigs, distributing flyers, organising mail-outs and whatnot. I remember once asking him what he wanted to achieve, he said ‘I want to take my music to as wide an audience as possible.’

Reflecting on that statement, I suspect a lot of musicians would answer that question in a similar way, perhaps with the ultimate dream of performing on the main stage at Glastonbury or some such. What I discovered, partly through my work with the American guy, is that in reality reaching as wide an audience as possible might not necessarily culminate in a sizeable social-media following, playing the big festivals and getting millions of hits on YouTube. It might mean your audience amounts to a few passing strangers in your local café and your online presence may mean the occasional like or follow on Facebook.

Many, many musicians have become disaffected by the business of music and I have studied one or two well-known examples – Nick Drake being one of them. His backstory bears scrutiny, not just because like many artists his work became widely celebrated after his death but because in hindsight, despite his dissatisfaction he had already achieved what a lot of singer-songwriters strive for – label backing and the opportunity to record with excellent production support. His reluctance (most likely due to his shyness) to perform live, or be interviewed, certainly contributed to his lack of commercial success. He had the time to develop and build on the three albums he had released between 1969 and 1972 but sadly his depression enveloped him and it was not to be. He was only 26 years old when he died in1974.

It is well documented that one of the reasons Drake became disillusioned was that he believed his music was under-appreciated – I guess he thought he wasn’t reaching as wide as audience as possible: but when does a musician satisfy himself or herself they have reached that point? It’s a bit like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ I have witnessed those feelings of disillusionment manifest themselves in others too, perhaps not to the extent of Nick Drake but still bad enough to have a negative impact on a musician’s mental health. I have listened, sympathised and encouraged musicians to enjoy the experience of playing and recording music and to focus on their achievements rather than their dreams that have not, or may never come true.

Lets face it, it is a very crowded field and some will rise to the top for reasons other than pure talent. Like Nick Drake, when a person experiences feelings of rejection this can culminate in feelings of despondency and hopelessness. On the other hand, some musicians I have worked with have limited their expectations of what their reach or appeal will ultimately be and find their niche, happy enough to enjoy the process of developing and building their audience.

In terms of live music promotion I have my own visions and related demons too – I have no answers either. I acknowledge there will always be disappointments in life along with never ending questions. It is not possible to stop a person from dreaming of success, and who would want to? I can only say, from a personal point of view – that of a ‘music fan’ – being up close and personal in an intimate venue listening to someone that hardly anyone has heard of represents a very special connection, a rich experience that transcends anything I have ever experienced in a stadium with a musician that has somehow managed to take their music to an exceptionally wide audience.

2 thoughts on “What is it about Singer–Songwriters?

  1. Nice thoughtful article. From a solo performer’s point of view I’m always buoyed up and thankful when I make a connection with an audience or part thereof. Some of my best gigs have been to only a handful of people, but it’s more about whether someone listens rather than screams and shouts. Keep up the good work, John.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words John and same back to you – keep on playing live, even if at times you are reaching a small number of people with your music, it matters. Music/musicians changed my life so I know it can happen to others too.


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