I was on my way to a solo show in Sheffield and I was nervous. No exasperated tweets about wailing infants on buses, no smug commentary about the shuffling mania of fellow passengers, no intermittent dozing, no music in the headphones, no novel on my lap. I watched the scenery go by and wondered what on earth I was doing.
Nervousness is not typically in my repertoire. I haven’t been nervous before a show for at least five years. Before going onstage I am usually just quiet (maybe because I’m saving my energy for all the imminent jumping about). This time, however, I was dreading it. In fact I’d even lost sleep over it the night before.
So why this sudden change?
I’d just got rid of what many people called “my trademark” – well, to be exact, I’d mercilessly shaved it off. Suddenly I was overcome with doubts about my abilities as a performer. And, as every performer knows, doubting yourself can be like the first nudge in a line of dominoes.
For readers who have stumbled upon this article from links unknown, a quick introduction: More than the songs I write or the shows I play, I am mostly known for having a very big beard. The songs and shows take a lot of work, the beard took a lot of no work. Skewed logic at its finest.
Those that already know me may not, however, know this:
In 2009, while we were recording “Mother” (the song – and later video – that helped hoist my little Manchester folk/swing band to a more international level of obscurity) I suffered from a severe slump in morale, the kind where you sit staring into the middle distance for days not talking to anyone. I finally got dragged out of it by my friend Dan (Bedlam Six bass player – one of the best and most dependable people on the planet) and we got on with mixing the new record. I wrote the song “Deep Enough” a week later, it’s about how one can never really prepare for when ugly thoughts/doubts/emotions pounce out of the shadows and start gnawing away at us. Like most of my songs it is filtered through a theatrical persona where tongue is wedged violently in cheek (my songs tend to have a kernel of reality at their core despite being somewhat cartoony by the time they reach the public).
As soon as I wrote “Deep Enough” I had an idea for the video – a forlorn looking man staring into a mirror shaving off a big beard. This is not a particularly new idea – Scorsese has done it (twice), so has Wes Anderson, even Demi Moore did it in GI Jane (well, not a beard but the effect was the same) – but a potent visual nonetheless. So after completing the shoot for the “Mother” promo I let my moustache grow out into a full beard and bided my time until we recorded a full band arrangement of the song.
What I hadn’t factored into my plans was the reaction to this change in my physical identity. Human beings need to connect with each other (as E. M. Forster famously said: “Only Connect”) and this yearning eats away at us if we do not indulge it from time to time. Yet the British build so many walls up around their character that we tend to live our entire lives in miserable little bubbles of social etiquette. Despite being manic onstage, off it I’m as socially frigid as the next man, to the point where if someone sparks up a conversation with me in a bus stop I assume they are mentally subnormal. Having a big beard, however, is the same as wearing a sign on your forehead with the words “I am the exception… I am not an entity that exists in the world of fashion or sex… I am timeless… I am not a threat… I am OTHER.” To be a bearded man is to be public property. To walk down the street with footlong hair on your chin is to wordlessly invite a deluge of questions and unwelcome petting. One time I was in a bar with a friend who had just broken up with his long-term partner when someone from the next table interrupted him in mid sentence and said to me “Could you settle a bet for us? I think it took two years to grow that but my wife thinks it took four.” They hadn’t even noticed that my friend had tears in his eyes.
But as a singer-songwriter the beard is my certificate of merit. It is my curriculum vitae. It is proof that I’m not a part-timer or have-a-go chancer. There is no way I have a “proper” job. No serious employer would consider me, I look like a nineteenth century gold prospector (or a “fisherman’s ghost on acid” as Kirsty Almeida once described me). I’m unemployable and have a considerable gap in my CV to prove it. No, if I’ve invested that long into such a growth, funded only by the songs I write and the shows I play then I must be worth taking seriously. And that’s the hardest thing for an emerging artist to achieve – being taken seriously.
And now the beard is gone. All I have left is my songs and the excellent musicianship of my colleagues. And I worry it is not enough because people keep bandying around this stupid word “trademark” as if anyone really gives a damn about my shaving habits.
We may like to think image is secondary to content but it only takes one glance at the adverts on a typical high street to realise image is everything in our society. Music may be an aural experience but, like perfume, it’s marketed in a mostly visual way. Sinatra wouldn’t have got as far he did if he wore jeans and a t-shirt (and as Danny Ocean he wouldn’t have been admitted into half those casinos let alone get a chance to rob them). Can you imagine Jools Holland gushing over Seasick Steve if the man was wearing a shell-suit instead of dungarees? Image may not be everything but perception certainly is.
Furthermore, in Britain at least, we don’t always go into an unknown situation with an open mind. If we are watching an unfamiliar musician strut about on stage there is a certain unprovoked malign quality that says “So this guy thinks he’s going to entertain me does he? Well we’ll see about that!” As a performer I fear the “Who does he think he is?” sentiment almost as much as I’m ashamed to admit harboring it myself. I work in one of the only sectors of our society where people not only expect everyone to pay attention to what they do but also applaud it when they’ve finished. We have seen generations of snarling young men parading up and down in front of the music-loving public, demanding its devotion as well as its money. I share stages not only with the latest crop of hopefuls but also with that formidable legacy. But bounding up to a microphone with a large shaggy beard and barking like a dog is a lot easier than sidling up to it in a pair of tight trousers and saying “desire me”. Unlike my rock peers I am not perceived as a sexual proposition, I am not cool, I am in no way a competition or threat to anything or anyone. I am a clown and it is a role I am very happy with (if you want to know something of my life philosophy I refer you to Donald O’Connor’s words of wisdom in Singin’ In The Rain). Is losing my beard the folk equivalent of losing my red nose…?
And then my thought process about identity and perception was interrupted as we pulled into the Sheffield bus depot. I retrieved my guitar from the belly of the coach and trudged up the hill towards the venue, my chin and neck a lot colder than the last time I made the journey.
Yes, that whole middle section was a dream sequence. Any independent musician will tell you that occasionally one can’t help getting swept up in a way of thinking that makes no sense at all. In our weakest moments we get distracted by all those old industry fairy tales and forget why we started writing and performing in the first place. Then we attend music conferences and networking events and online seminars and (heaven forbid) other people’s concerts only to end up in some stupid conversation with a self-styled marketing expert telling us what it is they think we are. And they go on and on about your brand. Brand? Give me strength! The joy of being an independent musician is that you get to decide what you are, not some clueless executive. You get to be that thing for as long as you like and you also get to change your mind whenever you feel like it and if there are people in your audience that go elsewhere as a result that’s fine because they are just as free as you are to do what ever they like. You are the architect of your success and it doesn’t have to resemble anyone else’s. I take my cue from audiences, from collaborators and from myself, not from people second-guessing an imaginary version of the music market. Who is the music market anyway? I am. Well, I’m a bit of it. I may be socially awkward if a stranger approaches me on a bus but at one of my own concerts I am available to anyone who wants to talk to me, in fact that’s the best part of being a performer – one is physically present and thus able to endlessly expand one’s web of association.
I played that show in Sheffield with my bald head and my bald chin and it went fine. Of course it went fine. Because people who take an active interest in the arts aren’t fickle and they aren’t stupid. Artist and audience are two elements of the same piece of theatre, both writing it as we go along.
And occasionally we shave bits off the narrative.
First published in May 2012