Facing the Music: Life as a Born Again Musician

Owen Clark

My small but growing NY-style home studio

When I was twenty-eight I had a third-life crisis. Well, let’s be honest, my whole twenties were a series of quarter to third-life crises, but for whatever reason, this one stuck. I’ve always been prone to obsessions. Some on the fairly bizarre end of the spectrum—collecting pipes and cigars when I was nine years old; some more pragmatic—lifting weights or riding motorcycles. But it’s always the same story, my life becomes transformed, consumed with an intense singular focus, dedicated to achieving some lofty goal. During the early stages of a new hobby, nothing else matters. The problem is, they never last. My friend calls them my ‘kicks’. In the midst of a kick I can convince myself that I’ve a puncher’s chance of attaining Ryan Reynolds-like abs, or hauling a bike around a race track quicker than Valentino Rossi. Then, after the euphoric excitement subsides, I realize that I’m destined to be just another puny guy getting buried under a 175lb barbell; or that the legends of Moto GP that I idolize started racing bikes when they were three years old, and possess a near psychopathic lack of fear, whereas I’m afraid to walk past groups of teenagers on the street. Then a depression/hopelessness follows, then onto a new hobby! Rinse and repeat. It’s a timeless formula that’s served me well on my path to becoming a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

Music has been a recurring theme with these kicks. When I was fourteen I saw the movie Desperado. A mid-nineties hit starring Antonio Banderas as the ultra-slick, mysterious Mariachi man making his way through the violent drug towns of the Mexican desert to avenge the murder of his lover, and the maiming of his fretting hand by a local cartel leader, aided by a guitar case laden with firearms. I’m not exactly sure what triggered my obsession, perhaps the scene in which El Mariachi uses his guitar headstock to render a man holding a woman up at knifepoint unconscious (mid performance), but I became utterly hooked, watching it over and over again, isolating the exquisite Spanish guitar licks amongst scenes of gun-slinging bloodbaths. I, of course, immediately purchased a classical guitar, insisting that it come with a hard case should I ever need to carry a small arsenal to wage war on the drug dealers of Sheffield, England. I would later find out that one of my current guitar heroes, John Mayer, was inspired to play after seeing Michael J. Fox in the movie Back to the Future. I may lack his fame or virtuosic skills, but I feel my inspiration was slightly cooler.

In the coming weeks I would play several hours a day, diligently teaching myself, listening to my dad’s John Williams records in awe, dreaming of lightning fast fingers and an eventual mastery of the instrument. Not soon after, on my fifteenth birthday, I got an electric guitar, which I covered in electrical tape in an attempt to emulate my new hero, Eddie Van Halen. I still maintained focus over the next couple of years, eventually fronting a band, but despite my guitar teacher cutting me loose following his declaration that he’d taught me all I needed to know, I never felt like I truly understood the instrument. I took up the saxophone, which became my new primary focus (amongst other things), and while I never stopped playing guitar, as you might have guessed the obsession became a distant memory in the years to come.

Cut to twenty-eight, I finally said enough is enough. That late-twenties malaise, in which the impending doom of your thirties encourages you to take life by the scruff of the neck, had gotten a hold of me good. Figuring I’d safely made it past twenty-seven, the age that had tragically consumed several of my musical heroes, including Jimi Hendrix himself, it was time to become the next sensation. I started teaching myself guitar theory, diatonic intervals, the five patterns, dyads, triads, extensions, alterations: all that jazz (pun intended). I’ll spare the boring details, but after a few months of this utterly painstaking, slow and laborious process, it all started to click. This coincided with my coming home for Christmas, dusting off my gorgeous made in America Fender Stratocaster, criminally neglected under my bed for several years. I forgot how fun it was to just noodle around on an electric guitar (I had been teaching myself on an acoustic, fingerpicking style, slightly trickier/duller), sliding through my newly learnt scale and arpeggio patterns, bending strings; I remembered what I used to love about playing, and felt like all the good stuff was still to come.

When I returned to a desolate New York January, I purchased a worn-brown American made Gibson Les Paul. In case you’re not familiar, in conveniently simplistic terms guitarists often tend to think in terms of Les Paul or Stratocaster, and being a life-long Strat guy it was time for a new beginning. Switching to electric and armed with my newly acquired theory, playing no longer became a chore. I went from an hour a day to between three and four. On weekends I would spend entire days transcribing Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. I felt like I had learnt a new language, since I was able to understand exactly what these gods were doing, and exactly why it worked, rather than just learning by rote memorization as I’d done in the past. The guitar is a funny old instrument, due to the numbering of the strings and frets, you can learn music from tablature (a six line notation system where each line represents a string and notes are represented by fret numbers) and thus never really understand what you’re playing.

During the next few months I applied a renewed focus to becoming fully proficient at playing the blues, rock and jazz on electric, and fingerpicking style folk, pop and blues on acoustic. This leads me to another intriguing aspect of the guitar, its extremely multifaceted nature. There are several ways to skin a cat, and even more ways to play a guitar. Fingerpicking Spanish guitar requires a very, very different skillset from hair-metal style shredding; as does playing bottleneck slide blues; as does improvising over fast chord changes on a jazz chart. But to progress from that intermediate stage where so many of us tend to reside, to that elusive advanced stage, you’re kind of expected to know how to do it all. You also want to do it all. I find the majority of music I hear on guitar as fascinating as it is pleasing to the ear, and setting your sights on new genres can be as satisfying as juggling them is frustrating, one of my many love/hate relationships with the instrument.

Nothing seems to draw me to the guitar like the blues. Clapton put it best with “If you hand me a guitar, I’ll play the blues. That’s the place I automatically go.” There’s just something so deeply satisfying about sliding and bending through the same old blues licks that were born out of all that pain and suffering on the Mississippi Delta. Pondering how extreme adversity engendered such soul-stirring music. With that in mind, I set my first major goal of playing in Big Ed’s Blues Jam at The Red Lion on Bleecker Street, a stage that’s frequented by exceptionally talented professional musicians including the resident grouchy blues master himself, Ed Sullivan (and coincidentally shares the same name as the Sheffield pub where I used to hone my jazz-sax chops at jam sessions as a teen). Leaving my guitar at home, I set out for a little primer one Monday night in April, surveying the talent and thinking about how I’d shape up, having only been playing chord-based blues improvisation for a couple of months at this point. Obviously I was hoping to see a bunch of mediocre musicians fumbling their way around a few tunes, my people. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and I was instead awe-struck at the level of talent on display. Basically the best blues I had ever seen live, and I was somehow supposed to rock up to the stage and hold my own. Seemed like a tall task. I went back home and spent the next few weeks practicing like hell in a seemingly futile attempt to play without making a fool of myself by the end of May.

Eventually I ponied up the courage to walk on stage, guitar in hand. A lot of people I speak with are amazed that these jam sessions work at all. After all, you have a group of musicians that have never seen each other before in their lives, getting on stage to play a number together perfectly in sync and in tune, with about fifteen seconds to confer. It’s not quite as difficult as it sounds; thankfully the blues is fairly simple and generally revolves around one well-known chord-progression, with the chords being referred to by numbers relative to the root of the key you’re playing in. But still having not set foot on a stage since I was eighteen, only having a vague idea of what I was expected to play definitely added to the nausea sweeping through my body. Once the song started and I dropped in with some rhythm chords, I realized just how different performance is to bedroom rock starring. My hands were shaking to the point that I could barely fret chords. When it came time for my guitar solo (customarily everyone on a lead instrument gets a solo, indicated with a nod from the bandleader) it was genuinely like that classic scene in the movie Old School, where Will Ferrell reels off a long-winded answer to a complex question in a debate competition then asks, “What happened? I blacked out.” As I was walking to the subway, complaining about how badly I choked, my girlfriend started playing a clip on her phone of a guitar solo, to which I said ‘that sounds alright, who was that?’, then grabbing the phone I see my miserable looking mug, sternly concentrating on hitting notes I had no recollection of playing. Not that I was Muddy Waters of course, but I think I just about held my own.

Over the next few weeks I attended a few more times, getting slightly more comfortable on stage and eventually doing a few tunes as the band leader, singing and playing. However, becoming dissatisfied with sitting around for several hours on a Monday night to play two songs (it’s like they don’t even appreciate that some of us have bedtimes), I started a new chapter: writing my own music to perform as a soloist. I gravitated towards singer/songwriter style acoustic music (I just have a lot of feelings!). I let fly with my hands every Sunday afternoon, and managed to pen down a few semi-interesting progressions and riffs, scribbling down accompanying lyrics and forming a few rough songs to work with.

This has probably been the most challenging and interesting aspect of my musical journey. You don’t really think about it until you do it, but coming up with a completely original sound from scratch, when the sole creative burden lies on you, is actually pretty darn difficult. There are all sorts of decisions you have to contend with, and none of them came easy to me. Even something seemingly simple like singing in your natural voice is really an open-ended question. A lot of Englishmen like myself emulate American accents when we sing; others honor their native tongue (proudly representing my hometown, Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys is pretty far on this end of the spectrum). Lyrics are another particularly tricky subject to contend with. Some choose the direct literal approach; others favor a more abstract poetic tone. Both can be exceptionally effective at delivering a poignant message; both can be exceptionally effective at making a vocalist look lame as hell, where the line is drawn is completely in the eye of the beholder, adding to the complexity of the task at hand. It’s also very, very unnerving sharing your deepest darkest feelings with anyone that happens to be listening. I still struggle with this, and choose to essentially code my lyrics, steeping in metaphor to the point where the subject matter is semi-unrecognizable. Perhaps an unwise choice, but the alternative truly offends my closed-off English sensibilities. As one of my favorite artists Banks says, “sharing music is like giving away your children.” Lastly the music itself, again probably hard to appreciate until you try, but there’s such an incredibly fine line between one sound and another that you can find yourself switching between reggae and emo while you’re trying to write jazz. You’re striving for an original sound while building off of your influences; trying to keep it simple while delving into the complex; toeing the line between standing out in the crowd or being that guy. Essentially, it’s a minefield.

I set forth one steamy August night to perform my songs at a local open mic night, at The Graham Bar in East Williamsburg. It was a nervy walk, intensified by the constant appearance of ginormous rats scurrying from hot stinking piles of trash. My roommate and I coined it ‘rat city’, where stars are born. The venue itself was equally inauspicious, a hot shabby back room in a fairly deserted bar. But just like my earlier forays into the blues, I was once again amazed at the level of talent on display. I performed my allotted three songs as best as I could, attained a pretty good reception from the audience, and made some unquestionably hilarious wisecracks (honestly). All in all, a success.

I’ve played several times since that night, but I’ve never quite matched the sense of satisfaction I felt walking home that evening. In relative terms I’m of course still a newbie, but it seems to me like it never gets easy. When I hear the nasality of my voice on the mic or recording; hit a bum note on guitar; or follow a vocalist with pipes like a steam train; that sense of imposter syndrome really forces you to constantly question what you’re doing there. I suspect it’s an issue that plagues the creative community in general, especially here in the naked city, where inescapable talent surrounds us. Music is a particularly curious character, there’s no obvious formula for success. Some have talent coming out the wazoo, only to be scoffed at as ostentatious bores; some possess little in the sense of objective skill or creativity, but seem to strike a chord with their listeners that can’t be argued with. I find myself constantly analyzing anything that falls on my ears, picking apart composition, melody, harmony, rhythm—and while I’ve got a pretty good handle on how the music’s made, there’s always a faint whiff of pixie dust that makes it truly work, hooking us in time and time again, toying with our emotions like only music can.

And what of my obsession now? When I think back to last year, the flames have unquestionably died down, but the embers still glow. I no longer harbor hopes of becoming the next Jeff Buckley, Gary Clark Jr., or John Mayer; moving to Nashville to find work as a session guitarist; or attending Julliard as a precocious thirty-year-old man. I’m painfully aware of the fact that there are countless people out there, far, far more talented than I could ever hope to be, and far hungrier for a taste of the limelight. But I persevere. I still play every day—jazz, blues and rock before work in the morning; original acoustic material, repertoire and transcription after work, until ten, every night. My social life suffers, but it’s a sacrifice I feel inclined to make—though thankfully I only have one or two friends at the best of times. When it all comes together I feel like I’m channelling Jimi; but mostly, I feel like Ross Geller. Not a day goes by where I don’t stress about some aspect of my playing or my music. I experience bouts of elation on the odd occasions when I’m satisfied, but they’re increasingly fleeting, without fail extinguished either through the joylessness of repetition or the despair of inadequacy relative to the legends I so worship. Some days my guitar feels like a burden that I’ll forever carry, some days it feels like a blessing that can deliver a state of joy like no other. But whatever it brings me, I’m still along for the ride.

 

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