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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

I'm moving!

Hi there,
Thank you for being a reader of my Blog. I'm going to be writing many more but I'm moving to a new neighbourhood. My Blog will now live at I hope to see you there!
All the best,
Amanda Easton
(Forever a PopTart)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The smaller the audience, the harder it is

Hi there,

At first glance this might look like a blog bemoaning lack of audiences at live music nowadays. Fear not! That is a well-worn whinge and I'm going somewhere else. 

I've been lucky enough from time-to time, to perform in front of big audiences. I think the largest was an Australia Day show in front of Parliament House in Canberra, which had an estimated live crowd of 30,000 as well as a television audience of who-knows-how-many. And I'm sure that's a drop in the ocean compared to the regular gigs performed by the Beyonces of the world.  People often ask performers how we cope with nerves on such a big stage. But the weird thing is, I think it's way more nerve-wracking to have a small audience! 

The Swell Sisters
I have a show called 'The Swell Sisters' which is a retro-style girl group act. Recently we were hired for a big birthday party interstate and the birthday boy went all out with a proper stage and professional lighting rig and sound set up in his football-field sized backyard. Trouble is, in a fit of pique from the weather gods - rare in that particular part of the country - it rained. I'll cut short the long story (which includes being plied with copious amounts of expensive champagne while waiting for said weather gods to stick their heads in) but we ended up performing inside, stage-less. In fact, we performed in his lounge room. Of course the number in the audience was the same as it would have been, but the whole thing was just so much...smaller. Instead of seeing the tops of heads and silhouettes of waving arms in front of the stage, we could see the whites of everyone's eyes and there was no getting away with any holes in our fishnets. In fact I think that is the difference, when you're up close and personal, you need to be 'authentic' and you can't get away with the broad strokes that distance allows. There's no escaping someone snarling at you with their arms crossed, or deciding Facebook on their phone is more interesting than you, or worse still, just leaving. And you can probably hear the discussion with their friend about your ugly shoes (yes this has happened to me).

Well the Swell Sisters' birthday performance went great - but we felt we had to work so much harder than usual and we all wondered how we would have coped if this had been in the early days of our careers. Experience is everything. Interestingly, we met someone at that party who managed very large entertainment events and he was interested in booking us. Only thing, he said, is that he was concerned we wouldn't be able to handle working on 'a large stage'. He took some convincing but we managed it in the end. Watch this space for an announcement on that very exciting Swell Sisters show which will be interstate towards the end of this year.

So next time you see an artist in a small space with a small audience, particular if it's in cabaret mode (ie people are actually watching and listening intently) don't underestimate the skills and nerves of steel they have had to acquire to be able to put themselves on display at such close range. And please pretend you haven't noticed the hole in their stockings. 

PS The Swell Sisters will be performing in front of a pretty large (and scarily, music industry-based) audience at this years ACE Awards in April, so maybe see you there?


Monday, November 27, 2017

Stevie Nicks - Shut Up and Sing?

Hi there,

Sadly I didn't get to see Stevie Nicks' solo tour recently but she has been widely criticised for talking too much between the songs. I remember being mid-chat on stage once and an audience member yelling out (affectionately, I think!) 'Shut up and sing!' It didn't offend me - I'm pretty happy when anyone wants to hear me sing! But I could very happily sit for hours listening to Stevie Nicks talk about her life and her music - it would be absolutely fascinating. But maybe it's those there primarily to hear 'Dreams' and 'Landslide' who disagree.

For me, listening to an artist speaking on stage is a big part of why I want to see them live and I feel short changed if an artist barely says a word. When I fall for an artist's music, I'm intrigued by the person behind the songs. Music is a universal language for sure, but it's a stylistic, mysterious language. The spontaneous 'chat' is a window into the personality beyond the experiences that an artist pours into their music. 

Adele is widely praised for her down-to-earth chatter between songs - I feel like she gets the balance right. One of my favourite bands in the world is Goldfrapp and the first time I saw them, in the US, lead singer Alison seemed to be having a rough night with her stage sound and the only speaking we heard her do was frustrated instructions to the sound engineer all night. The music performance itself was sublime but honestly, she didn't come across as very likeable because she never engaged with the audience beyond the music itself. The same kind of thing happened when I saw them at the Sydney Opera House. I'm a card carrying Goldfrapp tragic, so these experiences didn't deter me but they did take the sheen off my fandom for a while. Thankfully, at their recent performance at Vivid this year, Alison was in fine form and spoke at least 100 words - friendly and upbeat ones too! Of course I hung on to every one of them and my devotion was fully restored. 

It can be about expectations. In a theatre I think discourse is expected and accepted, especially with a seated audience. In a band situation, engagement with the audience is a must for me - sometimes an audience feels like they need permission to get up and dance for example. But spontanaeity is the key and you wouldn't want a lengthy monologue breaking up the flow of the music. 

What do you think? And I know some Stevie Nicks fans are reading this blog, so what's the verdict - more singing, less speaking? Or can she do no wrong?

See you next time,

Thursday, October 12, 2017

You're an Artist, not a grey flannel suit!

Hi there,

I see lots of posts on Facebook saying: 'hey come and play at our venue!' 'And please bring the sound system! Oh, and the audience too!' We're not talking only newbie bands here either - there is a certain expectation, particularly in the original music scene, that a venue simply provides a space and everything else is up to you as the performer. 

Somebody I just met, when finding out that I was a singer, asked, 'so what do you during the day?' Working musos are well aware that the time we spend on stage is a fraction of the time we need to put in, in order to get up on that stage. It means ongoing practice and rehearsal, as well as the admin all small businesses deal with. But alongside being experts in our fields, apparently we must create the audience if we actually want to be paid for our expertise. Isn't that tantamount to a chef in a restaurant having to bring their own oven and pots and pans, and the diners as well? A chef is hired for their expertise after years of training and experience.  Just like us. As original artists we have the same workload as the gigging cover muso with the added task of actually creating the material we are performing as well! So all of this and then you can add the hours of promotion it requires to get the bums on seats in order to display the art and that expertise? Isn't this all really unfair? 

Well, yes! It is also a reality of the career we have chosen and I think it's important to understand our responsibilities. We can choose not to work with the venues who give artists absolutely no support or even better, try to work with them to educate them on how we can make it work better together. But even then, we have to think of marketing as a joint responsibility, whether we like it or not. 

I've co-produced and performed in a couple of shows at the Sydney Opera House and their internal marketing is excellent. They do email, online and printed marketing campaigns to an extensive database. They do onsite video, poster and flier promotion - all of which you have access to as long as you are not afraid of being just a little bit pushy. By the way, even though all this is offered, you still have to provide them with the actual promotional materials. But still, surely all that is enough to sell out a show? Unfortunately no. Even a show at the premier cultural venue in the country relies on the show itself to do their own extensive marketing. In most cases there is no budget for a promoter, so this means the artists must do it. 

And of course not every venue is the Opera House. And I'm certainly not saying that artists should put up with shitty deals and work their butts off at venues that don't pull their own weight. We should be choosy and support those who support us! But we also have to educate ourselves in the realities of doing shows. A Facebook post promoting your show here and there helps but that on its own will simply not cut it. Contacting local print, online media and community radio should be the bare minimum. Gig listings and constant and engaging social media work really helps. Phone calls, flyers and old fashioned mail still works. Email is very effective, particularly if it's personalised. There's plenty of marketing advice to be found via Google and personally I'm over that enduring attitude of: 'I'm an artist, I don't do business'. Business and marketing can be very creative. Let's harness those powers to fill up our venues again! Instead of just bitching about the state of the scene, let's get proactive and help it grow!

On that note, a great bunch of artists I know ;) are doing a show at The Basement in Sydney on Friday week, October 20. It will feature a slew of local pop, electronic, soul and swing artists and all to raise money for a great cause: A Billion Beats for the McGrath Foundation.

See you there!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What Singers Need to Know about Surgery

Hi there,

I'm sure everyone knows that surgery under a general anaesthetic is not something to be undertaken lightly. But did you know there is an additional concern when you're a singer? A singer friend told me years ago that his vocal cords got badly damaged when knocked by the breathing tube given to him during surgery under a 'general'. While he and his voice are back to normal now, it cost him months and months of extra work, vocal therapy and emotional turmoil. Is there information someone could have told him that may have prevented it?

I had the misfortune to need fairly major surgery recently and so I recounted my singer friend's story to my surgeon. He explained that in some cases there are different options that may help a singer protect their most valuable asset. He told me it is always worth asking your doctor whether using a mask, instead of a breathing tube, for the anaesthetic is possible. In my case apparently, as with most longer and more complex surgeries, unfortunately there was no choice. Oh well, I filed that away as good knowledge to have for the future. Knowledge that probably would never have been offered up unless I had prompted it. Reminds me of what we are always striving to teach the 7 year old: 'If you don't ask, you don't get'. A more religious person might say: 'Ask and you shall receive'.

So it's the day before surgery, I'm at the Pre-admission Clinic and one of the forms I need to fill out actually asks the question: 'Do you have any concerns about the general anaesthetic?' So of course I state here that I am worried, as a singer, that the use of a breathing tube could damage my voice. Judging by the look on the face of the Clinic Anaesthetist, she hadn't come across this response before. I recounted the experience of my singer friend. She gave me a very direct look and said something like: 'that kind of thing would be pretty rare. It's our primary concern as anaesthetists to keep you alive during surgery, whether that means you can sing or not.' I couldn't argue with her there but also couldn't help thinking she may have underestimated how much my ability to sing is caught up in my personal definition of 'alive'.

Now it's time for the actual surgery. I'm prepared and wheeled in by the nurses. I'm introduced to the anaesthetist who is looking after me for the surgery. After the usual questions about allergies and medical history she asks me, in what seems like a throwaway conversational question, what I do for a living. When I tell her I am a professional singer, she looks again at my chart and back at me sternly. 'You should have said something!' She calls in one of the nurses and says: 'this woman is a professional singer - we need to change the gauge of the breathing tube we're using!' She then speaks to the surgeon and asks him if he is aware of my occupation and tells him that they should take every precaution when it comes to working near my vocal cords. I explain weakly that I had told the pre-admission doctor. Obviously that doctor didn't think it important enough to note on my paperwork. This doctor leans over me so that her face is right next to mine and says quietly: 'every time you go under general anaesthetic there is a risk of your voice changing or being damaged temporarily or permanently. You need to know that and you need to make sure that whatever can be done to limit the risks, is being done'.

All's well that ends well and my voice seems to be as it was before. I have a great deal of respect for medical folk - the study, the hours, the dedication. But they're often pushed to their limits, especially in the public system. And even with every caution, let's face it, we need to be the number one person to care for ourselves. While there are times we may literally have to place our lives into the hands of medical experts, we can try not relinquishing absolute control where possible. I don't pretend that a few anecdotes and a surfing expedition with Google puts me in any position to know more than a doctor, but I do think any extra knowledge that I can bring to the table before I get laid out on one, can only be a good thing!


Thursday, March 23, 2017

How One Fan Stole my Voice

Hi there,

Let me say firstly that I'm sorry this isn't going to be a tale of some crazed stalker pinching my recordings or anything as equally intriguing, as my title may suggest. But it is about something more insidious for performers like me.

I did a gig recently where I completely lost my confidence. It was a new gig for me and I had a lot of new songs jostling for real estate inside my head so perhaps I wasn't as self possessed as I might have been with a more familiar repertoire. But really, I have been doing this a long time and I am often thrown into brand new situations, so what was so different?

It started almost as soon as the show began. A few times during the beginning of the first set, I opened my mouth and absolutely no sound came out.  I didn't have a cold,  my voice felt warmed up and in good shape before I hit the stage, so what was going on?  Eventually I spied in the corner of my eye, side of stage, a portable pedestal fan, aimed directly and going at full bore at my face. It was obviously meant to help the performers keep cool and combat the incredible humidity that hung in the air that night. The venue folk weren't to know that blasts of air like these were my Kryptonite.

Voices are as individual as the singers who possess them so not everyone would have had the same reaction I did, although it is fairly common. This fan was quite literally stealing my voice away by drying my mouth out. Anyway, I angled the fan away from me and that fixed the problem quick smart. Well one of the problems. I had my voice back but what to do about my desire to have the stage swallow me up because I was ashamed of my singing? It took the rest of the set to regain my equilibrium and I know my overall performance suffered as a result. Apparently I managed to summon enough superficial bravado to convince the audience that all was right with my world, and the momentary blips in my singing were barely noticed. But inside I was really struggling. And unfortunately, while I may be getting better and better at covering it up, this wasn't the first time I've let something like that throw me. It really reinforces the fact that singing and performing really are psychological games. Preparation, practice, skill - all vital, but sometimes confidence is everything.

Got any tips on how you handle your inner anxious dude?

All the best,

Monday, January 9, 2017

Now if I were Mariah Carey...

Hi there and happy new year!

Did you hear about Mariah's NYE show? She is blaming the production team for sabotaging her set in Times Square when her in-ear monitoring failed to work. Whether the lack of foldback was intentional or not, I know for sure that the quality of sound a singer receives on stage is an absolute maker or breaker of a performance. Audiences hear something quite different to our sound so sometimes it is hard to get their sympathy but I really feel for Mariah.  We know that not being able to hear properly can potentially make us sing off key and usher in such insecurity that a great singer becomes a terrible one. But as Mariah said herself in this particular show's aftermath, 'shit happens'. The trick is to pull yourself out of it smelling like roses. While we may not all possess her vocal gymnastic ability or star power, I actually think we gigging singers have one thing over Mariah Carey. One of the benefits of not being a multi million dollar megastar is the multitude of less-than-perfect gig conditions you get to experience! Being thrown into difficult situations over and over again tends to prepare you to jump just about any hurdle and still land on your feet.

I was in a kids show where we three girls performed to an audio visual track that, at one particular venue with an outdated system, started to skip noticeably and eventually froze. So we girls created acapella singalongs and dance competitions on the spot. While it was very obvious to the audience we were suffering fairly major technical issues, we kept them involved and onside and noone complained. If anything, we got extra credit for handling ourselves well under pressure.

I once did a nationally televised Christmas gig that had a huge live audience as well. I was one of two backing singers for a band that was to support some well known Aussie artists and celebrities. About 20 minutes before the show started, we were told we would be leading the live audience in singing Christmas carols during the commercial breaks of the live telecast. We were to follow the autocue. My fellow backing vocalist warned me she was not hugely familiar with carols and we had zero time to prepare. But the idea was we two girls would sing with the band and the crowd would sing along following the booklets of lyrics they had all received. I think someone forget to tell the audience because when the band played the first carol, we were the lone voices. That wouldn't be so bad except the keys of the songs were completely female unfriendly and so, in front of 30,000 people, we were jumping up and down octaves and throwing in harmonies on the spot to make the songs sound decent. We were doing OK with the first couple of well known tunes when the next song showed up: 'Good King Wenceslas'. At its appearance on our autocue, my fellow backing singer gave me a look of panic. Ok, so I was on my own for this one.

Now I love my Christmas songs but I wouldn't put the Good King at the top of my list and was only vaguely aware of its work. But all was going fine until the end of the first verse when the autocue froze completely. So in front of 30,000 people I winged the rest of the song, largely repeating the first verse over and over again! I don't think many people were any the wiser although I'm sure no one would have blamed me for shutting up completely if they had known the situation. But as performers, we are more than just singers, and I think we have a contract with our audience to entertain them the best way we can, in any situation.

I'd love to hear what you would have done in Mariah's position. What I wouldn't have done is walk off stage mid performance, however tempting that might have been. That kind of thing only punishes your audience and hurts your own reputation. I would have let the audience know what was happening, to make them really feel involved. I would have told the production guy - over the mic - to turn off the backing track because my audience and I were going to sing in the new year together. Then I would have led them in an acapella version of the songs. I think it would be pretty cool to say that you rang in 2017 singing along with Mariah Carey, don't you?

I'd love to hear some of your gig horror stories...

All the best,