For a long time my musical adventures have been ever so very communal. I’ve sung in folk circles and churches, in my work choir and led an international singing group where a big part of the point is being with others. Nights at the folk club include some solo performances but the room comes alive when everyone joins in the refrain with improvised harmonies. The whole vision of my International group was to encourage people to share from different musical traditions and experience harmony in more ways than one. While church worship may be primarily for God’s benefit, it expresses something of being a community as we join together – the quiet and loud, confident and shy all joining in praise together.
In contrast, I’ve been spending more time recently practising guitar on my own and performing a few solo spots or as the only musician accompanying a group. I know I’ve got a long way to go to improve as a guitarist and song-writer but I’ve had some encouragement from a few people to keep at it. I love compliments as much as anyone and part of me is keen to try a few more open mic nights and see where I can go with it. Inspiring sessions from people like Martyn Joseph and Emily Baker make me think I really need to be writing a lot more songs and trying out new tunings and guitar techniques.
There’s a lot more sound you can make as an individual performer now, with artists like Steve Lawson, Nick Pynn and Ed Sheeran showcasing their talents in live looping (layering musical lines on top of each other with the aid of new-fangled technological wizardry). The Ed Sheeran clip might be the best quick introduction for the uninitiated. If I invested in some kit I could set a rhythm, play different guitar lines, sing and harmonise with myself to be a whole band without involving anyone else. Lots of the African songs I’ve learnt have multiple harmony lines and I could sing all of them (even the bass lines with a bit of artful sound manipulation), but in many ways that seems to defeat the whole point.
There are clear logistical and financial benefits of not needing a whole band or choir full of musicians, and the freedom to experiment can create some amazing soundscapes. I’d thoroughly recommend taking a tour of just what Steve Lawson can create with a bass guitar, and the multiple instrumental talents of Nick Pynn have been a frequent highlight of my trips to the Edinburgh festival. Martyn Joseph has done a bit of live looping on some of his solo shows, but I think the interaction with bass player Wal and drummer Masen in some of his recent band gigs has brought in a whole new colour to new and old songs. I love seeing members of a band spark off each other and enjoying what they can create together. Another highlight for me at gigs has been when the whole audience joins in.
I’m not trying to say that individual performers are self-obsessed (although doubtless some are…) I’ve said before how I think sharing something of yourself as a performer with an audience can be a generous and even sacrificial gift. I guess if I’m going to put more energy into song-writing and solo performing it has to be because I have something I want to share, to communicate in a way that can make a difference to somebody. To be able to perform to a standard that means people will want to listen will take a fair bit more practice and dedication, and maybe I’m trying to duck out of the hard graft and craft involved in creating musical gems. Even if my preference would be to be in a band, I’d probably have to get a lot better first. And keep writing songs that have something to say so I can connect with others one way or another.