Personal Essays

Library of Congress

Singing It Over Again

When you’re used to regular doses of applause, giving up the stage for a 9-to-5 gig can produce acute withdrawal. Reclaiming past glories by singing backup.

Danny Trejo, a former bank robber and all-around thug who has since acted in 183 films, was recently quoted as saying, “There’s no adrenaline rush like [crime]. The only adrenaline rush I ever felt like that was when I heard [the director] yell, ‘Action!’ I just totally got hooked.”

My crime history doesn’t extend much beyond stealing a pair of bowling shoes in high school, but I can relate to what he’s saying about performing. It’s always made me feel like I just walked out of a bank carting a wheelbarrow full of gold Krugerrands.

Growing up, I dreamt of becoming a professional singer (or a Solid Gold dancer). I performed non-stop as a kid, then went on to get a bachelor’s degree in drama. After school, I became a radio host who sang backup in a rock band.

A decade or so later, radio has more or less run its course, at least for now, and I’m no longer in the band. (One day, the front man just called to tell me he was “feeling it like a trio” instead of a quartet.)

Here’s the thing. I was used to regular doses of applause. I took it for granted that every so often I’d watch from the stage as an audience rose to its feet cheering, decibel levels like standing on an airport runway. Even in radio, where you sit in a room alone, you know that people, lots of people, are hearing you. Don’t believe anyone who tells you there’s no withdrawal from giving that up.

The lifestyle, though, I’m OK without. I like sleeping at night instead of all day, and I like having my success at work be based primarily on skill and emotional IQ instead of the fickle politics of the entertainment industry. But I still have lingering dreams. I’m sure most of us do. A woman who grew up wanting to be an astronaut, for example, must not be able to hear stories about them wearing diapers while trying to kill each other without thinking, “Man, I would be so much better at it than they are.”

Craving the rush and the joy of performing, I sometimes momentarily forget why I decided I’d do something else. Recently, it occurred to me that a little reminder would do me good.

Even in radio, where you sit in a room alone, you know that lots of people are hearing you. Don’t believe anyone who tells you there’s no withdrawal from giving that up.I contacted an old friend of mine who produces most of Ryan Adams’s albums. Dude’s good. Really good. I told him my plan to try to sing a little backup again and see how over the performance bug I really was. He connected me with Brian Keenan of the Brooklyn band Proud Simon. Before I emailed Brian, I took a listen to the tracks on the band’s site. Rich indie rock infused with a hopeful melancholy. It was the kind of stuff I tend to like. Moreover, according to my friend, Proud Simon had recently laid down some tracks in a professional studio and was looking to pepper in a few more backup vocals to complete the mix, so the timing was good.

The three weeks it took to schedule the recording session were, on their own, nearly enough to make me decide I was done with the whole thing. When we first got in touch, Brian was extremely responsive, eager to have me record, happy to have me write about it. But then when I’d suggest a time to meet, he’d go dark. It was the kind of thing I’d encountered with artists so many times before. Not wishing to stereotype, but they often score high on enthusiasm and low on logistical follow-through.

I started thinking I was over performing just because the logistics were such a drag. You could train for a marathon or write a book with the same amount of energy it takes to just meet up with someone for a couple hours.

But then there’s that truism about only regretting the things you don’t do. So I kept at it and eventually we had a plan to meet at Brian’s home studio to lay down some tracks.

When I arrived at his place in a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its mix of hipsters and old Polish immigrants, Brian greeted me with a cup of tea and such calm warmth that I felt like of a jerk for having been annoyed about scheduling. Brian’s apartment had a mint-colored typewriter sitting out on display, a disco ball resting on a high shelf, and a pastel print featuring carousel horses hanging on the wall. Despite these hipster tropes, the place felt cozy. I liked it.

We sat down on Brian’s vintage sofa. On the coffee table in front of us was his Macbook Pro with the editing software open. Bars darted horizontally across the screen, with sound waves representing each of the parts that had already been recorded in the studio. The laptop was wired to a giant, quality speaker system as well as a top-of-the-line microphone. I had fantasies of slipping it under my shirt and escaping with it by claiming to have become suddenly huge with child.

After some brief, polite chitchat, Brian got to playing me Proud Simon’s new songs off the laptop. They were tight and evocative. Without sounding derivative, it was as though Red House Painters and Death Cab for Cutie had had a musical baby. I had an immediate emotional reaction, which doesn’t happen often anymore after years of cynicism built up by seeing bands that all sound adequate but not very distinguishable. And the mix my old friend had done was spot-on. Perfect balance. All the right lines popped.

Brian already had some female backup vocals on most of the songs, so we thought we’d add me in where he needed a third line of harmony or where there weren’t any harmonies laid down yet.

We started with “Wanderer,” a sweet-sounding and melancholic ballad. Brian’s backup singer, Hope, was prominently featured throughout the song, but there were a few spots where he wanted some more backup. Rather than have Hope and me alternating throughout the piece, he decided to record me singing all the harmonies. I had a moment of relief when he told me Hope was about to move to L.A. If I were her, I might not like some writer swooping in and blowing out my tracks, even if only on one tune.

We played the song on Brian’s speakers and he sang to me the lines he wanted me to record over his vocals. Getting ready to sing them myself, I worried I’d sound cruddy. But after coming out with the first note, I felt a noticeable surge of adrenaline. I’ve never been a user of illegal drugs, but I can’t imagine there’s much to match the natural high of performing. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve felt like Master of the Universe. And the rush I got from singing in someone’s living room studio gave me the most microcosmic taste of what performing in a packed stadium would do to my synapses.

After a couple of turns practicing, Brian said, “Nice, that’s it.” He’d decided to record. “Yaaay,” I said, “I’ll probably blow a few of those notes, but we can use the magic of editing.”

I put the headphones on and Brian started recording. I could hear the rest of the mix, and when it was time for me to add my part, I did what would have made my mom proud: my best. That said, I flubbed one particular line every time it came up.

I’ve never been a user of illegal drugs, but I can’t imagine there’s much to match the natural high of performing.Brian was cool about my screw-up, saying we could just record that part separately. I wanted to get everything right in one take, but from an editing standpoint, it’s relatively easy to just start recording right before the section you want to do over. Logistics: simple. Pride: slightly wilted. But the way Brian put it to me, I didn’t feel like too much of a tool. If he weren’t already an art director for a website and a band’s front man, he’d make a good teacher.

He asked me to record the part I knew two more times so he could use all three at once in the mix. Tripling, it’s called. It’s a cool effect. You sing a part the same each time, but there are always subtle distinctions in each track. Using all the takes at once, it comes out as three of the same person singing in unison, a chorus of one. The sound is lush and haunting.

When we were done tracking the third take, I asked, “Anything you need different?”

“No,” Brian said, “I thought it was actually really cool. I think your voice has a good character for this song.” I was elated.

As we continued, we got interrupted once by a crying baby in the distance, and another time when the fridge started to hum loudly. Simple fixes: shutting the window and unplugging the refrigerator. Brian told me that sometimes when he does the latter he forgets to plug it back in and ruins all the food.

After some patient coaching, I learned the section of the song I had been messing up earlier and we tracked that. Before I knew it, we were done.

Brian asked me if I’d like to do another song and, despite my not having had a chance to eat in way too many hours, I eagerly agreed. He told me he thought my voice was better for slower-tempo tunes and chose one called “Sleepwalker.” I really liked the song. Happily married, I no longer swoon over musicians, but I did swoon a bit over the song and its lyrics: We’re gonna go out sleepwalking / We’re gonna go with eyes painted on our eyelids.

This time, rather than losing any of the work Brian and Hope did in the studio, we added my voice as another harmony part over the lines they’d already recorded.

Since I was using the only set of headphones, a couple of times Brian asked me if it was pretty or if the timing was right or if my voice sounded good. When I said yes, he didn’t question it. A few minutes later when we listened to just my track, I thought I sounded flat and asked him if he agreed. “Only in one part,” he said. “Let’s see how it sounds in the mix.” It turned out that with the other voices and instruments, my part sounded totally right.

It’s always easier to trust someone when you have evidence they’re telling you the truth. If he’d said, “No, no, no, you’re right on pitch,” I’d have thought he was musically challenged or placating me.

We finished tracking the song quickly. Afterward, Brian said, “You’re definitely gonna be on the album. It sounds beautiful.” Joy! Joy! Joy!

I would happily sing again and again in a living room studio or on stage, just for the thrill of it. But the truth is, it was nice to walk out of there not wondering where it was all going to lead, not thinking about how I was going to leverage that experience into the next one. That’s how it had always been for me before, and the low-grade anxiety of it sapped energy I didn’t notice was missing until it came back. Pursuing a career in entertainment was like how I imagine pursuing a marriage with a rock star would be: exhilarating at times, but also stressful and not infrequently punishing.

But to get the exhilaration of performing and then walk away comfortably—completely happy to do it again if the opportunity presents itself, but OK if it doesn’t—that was something to savor.

You can hear my performance on “Wanderer” here and “Sleepwalking” here. Proud Simon’s new album, Today This Year, is due out in the fall.