“Don’t sing Neil, it’s terrible”, stressed my mum, as a 12 year old me hollered out the final chorus of R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts. “You take after your mother’s side of the family when it comes to singing. We just can’t.”
For a wee Scottish boy who, since seeing the Beach Boys in concert 5 years earlier, wanted nothing more than to be a singer in a band, this was devastating news. I didn’t believe her. I wanted to prove her wrong. I would try. I found my dad’s cassette recorder with a microphone attached, played the R.E.M. tape as loud as I could then recorded my pitch-perfect voice singing along. Well, wouldn’t you know. It was hideous. I’ll never forget that moment. I was the dictionary definition of crestfallen. The dream was over. A couple of years later, and with the knowledge that I couldn’t sing still ringing in my ears, I decided to pick up the guitar for the first time and an oft underachieving musical adventure was begun.
For reasons I won’t dwell on, I had recently picked up the guitar again after a few years of concentrating solely on piano and in doing so, I had begun to sing along to some songs by heroes of mine such as Bernard Butler, Neil Young and Robert Johnson among others. Of course, the many years I’ve been playing music have taught me that to some degree or other, everyone can sing. Some people just need a little more practice than others and not everyone is going to have a classically accepted voice – the aforementioned Neil Young and Bob Dylan are just two examples.
A few weeks ago, I was asked if I’d like to play my first show here in Warsaw and as I’d been learning these songs for a while I decided to agree and do a short covers set, just to dip my toe in the water again. Of course given my now decades old complex on me singing I wasn’t overly optimistic of the feedback I’d get from the audience so avoided telling many of my friends about the show in the hope that when I did tell them it would be too late for them to change their plans.
On the evening of the show, I had a Couchsurfer from Minsk, Alena, coming to stay for a couple of days and she arrived some time before I left for the venue so she came with me to the show, which was exciting. I arrived early for soundcheck and after a little waiting around I mic-ed up the guitar and sang my way through Neil Young’s Mr. Soul. As I finished, I noticed some people had already arrived in the venue and to my dismay there were some friends out there. Still, at least I had stayed in tune during soundcheck – the first real test singing in front of the other bands.
After half an hour or so of introducing friends to other friends and hanging out, I got up on stage and began my set to a small but attentive audience of friends and fans of the other bands. Starting with the song I was most comfortable, Mr. Soul, was a good choice and it gave me the confidence to attempt the more difficult songs to sing like Bernard Butler’s Not Alone or Stay. Before I knew it, the set had come to an end and I was improvising an impromptu “encore” of the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles for my friend Ewa.
I left the stage to a lovely applause but wasn’t too sure if it was for me or for the final song’s call and response vocals. I didn’t have long to wait to find out though, my friends and others came to talk to me and to tell me how impressed they were. I was both surprised and humbled but also overawed and delighted by the reaction. So much so I wanted more of it and resolved to get it. So every day since then, in addition to my piano practice, I’ve been playing guitar and practicing singing and this year, barring any disasters, there will be some more guitar-heavy output from me both in terms of live shows and records.
The moral of this story though is a simple one. And it’s not “don’t listen to my mother”. In fact, had I lived by that little edict, I would not have achieved half of the things I have in my life; my parents having often told me to follow my dreams. The moral of this story is that anyone can sing. And I truly believe that. I mean seriously, if Ian Brown can get away with some of the vocal performances he’s famous for then anyone can.
Here’s a wee video of me performing Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done…