I’m terrified, but somehow, I am about to play my first ever solo gig
About four years ago, on my old website, I began writing a series of blog posts called “My Gigging Journey”. I figured it might help me to work out how on earth I would ever perform my songs to an audience. I also thought readers of my blog might find it interesting to follow my progress from bedroom to gig. Honestly, I didn’t know if I would ever make it. It felt like a distant dream that I would be years away from being able to achieve.
It’s hard for me to convey how much performing means to me. Since I was a child, it has been my world. It has been the thing that makes me feel like a superhero. The one thing that makes me feel like a proper human being that I understand and accept. My past decade has been spent trying to fight through things that have happened to me to try and maintain that world. To restore that feeling inside of me, despite everything, that existed before life got a bit weird.
There are so many artists who are either too scared to perform live yet, or feel sick with fear before every gig. Perhaps they can’t pinpoint the reason why. I can’t, exactly. But I do know that no one becomes ‘shy’ for no reason. I am not a shy person inside. I am ambitious, imaginative and excitable. But there are some situations when I become a shaking mess and those qualities sink down to the bottom of my feet.
Up until my teenage years, I would volunteer to perform on virtually any stage at any time. The school choir? Sign me up. A solo in the school play? Hell yeah, i’m auditioning! Talent contest? My fave. I didn’t even know what anxiety was, and in any case I didn’t feel much of it at all. I felt excitement. I couldn’t wait to show everyone what i’d been working so hard on practising. To show them what I enjoyed doing.
But somewhere along the line, I became a young woman who didn’t feel very able to leave the house. The internet, as it is for so many with chronic illnesses, was my solace. Here, we can be equal with everyone else. We can be ourselves. We can still experience the world and explore new opportunities and learn new things without needing to be well.
As time went on, I made huge progress. I got a job and made new friends. But I still struggled enormously with my self-esteem (in fact, I wrote about that recently here) and the mere thought of performing my songs to an audience filled me with dread. But showing them to the world online, for some reason, didn’t. Sometimes anxiety doesn’t have any logic. So I created a SoundCloud, and I began to build it up. Over time, other musicians would begin to send me messages asking if I had any gigs coming up so they could come along. I would always say no, and explain that it wasn’t something I felt ready to do yet. Some people would ask me if I wanted to appear on the bill at various gigs, and I would also say no. One of these people was a man called Simon Waldram, who is now one of my best friends. He asked me several times for different gigs over a period of a few months. It would have been easy to give up on me after the first few times I declined, but he never did. He told me that he believed in my music. He helped me to perform with him at a David Bowie tribute concert in 2016. I felt like my whole body was shaking. But I did it. And we organised another gig. And another. And another. Until I started, through the anxiety, to enjoy performing again. At least a little bit, anyway. Sometimes.
We agreed that our pairing would be temporary. Although I’ve made acoustic music in the past, and I enjoy performing acoustically, most of my songs are created on logic using VSTs and a tonne of plugins and electronic pop music is my natural home. Plus, Simon is a talented musician in his own right, and I felt he should be free to perform more and showcase his own material. The songs that he meticulously crafts and obsesses over. He deserved more than just being a backing guitarist.
We didn’t have a time frame for when the big transition would happen. I tried out adding an MPC loaded with some samples to our set at Dot to Dot festival, but there were issues with the sound and I paused my set to declare a speaker was on fire. It was a smoke machine.
I guess I began to use Simon as a comfort blanket. Although my whole body was no longer shaking at gigs, I still felt fundamentally inadequate. As though I wasn’t talented or polished enough to appear alongside other amazing musicians, and that I didn’t deserve to get invited to all of these gigs. But it was ok, because we were in it together. It wasn’t emzae on that stage pouring her heart out and opening herself up to ridicule, it was emzae and Simon. And he could protect me.
I haven’t approached many venues or promoters over the past few months, so when I got asked to play Hockley Hustle it was a surprise. I accepted, because I feel grateful and excited to get these offers, but then I started to feel the familiar sensations of anxiety. Especially when I realised that Simon was also playing the festival as a solo artist and our sets clashed. For some crazy reason, after much reflection, I decided that this was a sign. It was my chance to fight my fears and play solo for the first time.
And so, for the past several weeks, i’ve been working on my 30 minute set. It will be me, a tonne of samples on my MPC live, a synth, an acoustic guitar on one track and my vocals. You’d think, considering how many times I’ve had the chance to practise, that I would be feeling ok about it all. But i’m not. For the past few nights, i’ve been finding it difficult to go to sleep. Difficult to breathe. Difficult to find an appetite.
I’ve begun to realise what a big deal this is for me, and what a milestone this is for my journey. It will be me. Just me. My body. My voice. My songs that I wrote about my life and my characters and produced in my bedroom on Logic and programmed into my MPC and practised every day. In front of a room full of people.
I know that no matter how scared I am, and no matter how it goes down, I have to continue to do it. For my younger self, and for the person inside me beneath the anxiety. But it is damn hard to even think about walking into the venue at the moment. That said, I will be there, and I will give it everything that my body allows me to give on that day for those forty minutes. I can’t promise a perfect set, or even that I’ll feel able to talk to the audience. But I promise i’ll do it, and it will be an achievement no matter what. I am lucky to have been able to come so far.
There’s also another big reason why this journey means so much to me and why I try and keep going. I know there are so many people like me, playing songs in their bedroom with no idea how to start gigging and the anxiety of doing anything in front of a group of people crippling. But I figured if I can do this — and believe me when I say that no matter how I look on the outside this weekend, I will be utterly, utterly bricking it on the inside — then maybe one day I could try and use whatever it is I learn to try and help other people overcome their fears surrounding live performance. That’s partly the reason for this blog — to let you, random anxious artist, know that despite what you may think, not everyone is super sure of themselves at these events and experienced old hands. It’s ok if you don’t know what you’re doing, or you’re doing something for the first time, or if you’re shaking. At least that’s what I keep trying to tell myself.
I guess this blog post was also a cathartic opportunity to express some of the feelings i’ve been having. To make sense of the thoughts going round and round in my head about something which is completely insignificant to most people, and will certainly be irrelevant to those in the bar playing ping pong as I sing in a corner somewhere, but means everything to me. And to try and ease that pesky anxiety.