Monday night I played a beautiful listening room called Morris Hall in the medieval town of Shrewsbury, England, the town that Charles Darwin was born in. I’m at the beginning of a seven-week tour of the UK and Europe, where I’ll be enjoying the stages of fine theatres in five different countries. It’s hard to believe that I’m the same person who used to be terrified of the stage, mortified…petrified…. The first time I played music on stage in front of an audience, a cold, clammy sweat formed on my forehead and upper lip, then spread down to my hands and fingers. My legs started shaking, and the trembling spread to my arms and the rest of my body. My saliva evaporated, and the inside of my mouth and throat became so dry I could have spit dust. My heart raced like galloping horses, pounding was all I could hear, and I came close to having a panic attack and bolting.
I was 35 years old and beginning to pursue a dream I’d had since I was a teenager, but it was a dream I’d never spoken out loud. I’d held it inside so deep that I forgot it was there, entombed and silent, covered by years of feeling of unworthy. I ignored it, buried it, and set off to do other things. It was a secret dream so dear to me that I dared not speak it—it would break my heart if it didn’t come true, so not acknowledging it was a way of trying to protect myself from disappointment. My secret? I wanted to be a songwriter.
I got sober at 28 years old, and my long buried truth started rising to the surface, asking to be reconsidered.
I carried my tangled, repressed dream onto the stage with me that first night, and it was too heavy to maneuver delicately. I buckled under the weight of it. I forgot the words, chords, and melody. I fought the impulse to run and survived my less than impressive debut, and became determined to get on stage again and do it better, but the terrors followed me, and stage fright choked me every time I got on stage. I was determined to find a way to overcome it, but over and over, I’d take the stage, plug in my guitar, and completely freak out.
It was a cold New England February night when I encountered a lesson in songwriting that helped me begin the process of breaking free from the stage fright horrors I suffered. I’d been playing songs at open mics for a year or so at this point, working hard to develop thicker skin--practicing the song I was going to play, over and over and over again. But once I left my living room for the stage, the terror always returned.
On this particular night, I was one of almost 100 people signed up to play the open mic at a venue outside of Boston called the Old Vienna Coffeehouse. Each songwriter was allowed to play one song. I drew a late number, real late. About two hours in, still waiting for my turn to play, a farmer type fellow took the stage with his guitar. He was much older than most of us, and quite heavy, in overalls and a ragged red checkered shirt buttoned up to his neck, a dilapidated straw hat with a hole in it, and dirty work boots. He was so big that it made his guitar look tiny.
No one cared when he started to play - we were waiting to play our own songs and get out of there. People tried not to groan as he stood on stage with his eyes closed, banged his guitar into the instrument mic during the first verse of his song, and sang in a shaky voice. The audience started talking loudly, ignoring him. But when he got to the words of his chorus, the entire room went silent. His words sliced through our indifference like a razor blade, we forgot our boredom, our impatience, ourselves. His honesty made us drop our judgment of his appearance and his limited musical ability. His song sucked all that scattered energy out of the room, focused us, and sang us to a sacred place. The Truth. He was singing about the loss of his wife, about how he felt now that she was gone.
“I’m gonna walk in the water 'til my hat floats away.”
All eyes were on him. Many were filled with tears. We believed him. He was telling us his truth in the way that made us feel our own. Our hearts opened, our eyes opened. And I learned…yes, finally, I got it, THIS is what my job is. Honest songs tell us what it means to be human, and it doesn’t matter who sings them, they are beautiful. From then on, to this very day, that’s what I try to do when I get on stage. Quit sweating the small stuff. Tell the truth, don’t worry about what people think about me, just be honest, and it’ll all work out.