I did a crazy thing last week. I released my debut album, The Heart is the Hunter. I am an actor, mostly stage. Much classical. And I, an actor, have now birthed into the world a — what I like to call — indie folk pop record.
It’s a crazy thing to do — put oneself out like this. As actors, as theatre practitioners, as artists of all kinds; it’s nuts. It is so ungodly vulnerable, and yet we do it, over and over. It seems to be our calling, our passion, our church. But our chosen form of vulnerability can become comfortable. And the inner artist self begs to stretch…
This need to stretch came in the form of a still, small, melodic voice, and she wanted to be heard. It was not the voice I had grown accustomed to, the Actor in me. This one came from the same well of creativity as the other, but was different, and had been whispering to me for a long while. I began to feel fractured, as if some part of me was not being fully realized. I knew if I weren’t acknowledging my full self, I could not be doing my best work on stage.
Yet, I feared that to listen to this voice, to give her an outlet, might be like cheating on my acting career — I mean, that alone takes energy enough. I feared that I might totally and utterly fail at this journey on which she wanted to take me. (Though I assure you, learning lines while listening to final album mixes in Actor Housing and drinking plenty of rosé was quite fulfilling.)
The saying “we are only as strong as our weakest link” comes to mind, but in a more positive light. I needed to shine light on this small voice. I needed to strengthen her, because I knew that if I did, she could and would strengthen the creative team at work inside me (Think Inside Out meets a summer arts school camp replete with art materials, black boxes, Mod Podge, etc.)…
Until this moment, my musician life and my actor life have remained pretty separate and on rather different paths. I have done musicals, mostly plays with music, that affectionate title we “actors who sing” like to tout. I am not a voice Olympian like my MT compatriots of the stage . But I do love to sing. (I have since I was a kid when I sang and yes, rapped, to the radio while recording onto my trusty tapes -with some artfully applied tape over the top tab – my very own bootleg mash-ups.)
Looking back on it, I believe singing was my first form of acting. It was the first place I learned to story-tell: to take a listener through great emotions, wind them through a story while revealing character, and ultimately being the conduit along the path of beginning, middle, and end, all while breaking your heart or making it swell with love/lust/fire/rage/consumption. When I sing, I FEEL it. But that voice in me needed to stay silent and private for sometime. My Actor voice developed through years of training and I learned to let that voice shine, let it ring out on small, medium, and sometimes very large stages, let it bellow, exclaim, mew, and whisper. But she, the other voice, got quieter; I had a harder time hearing her while this part of me became like a muscle so well-flexed. And yet…
Every time I stepped in front of the mic (or my bathroom mirror, or the closet mirror, or that empty stairway in the back of the theater when I thought no one was listening) something, some fire was lit within. That fire wanted to blaze on. I should tell you, my father is a musician; I grew up around band practices and home studios and mic setups. I love recording. I have done it since I was about 4, singing back up and helping produce albums, but that came later. When my father proposed my own album, I balked, blushed, and then said yes. Because I knew it was time. Scared as I was, I knew this voice needed to be heard, or rather used. I knew she needed to meet the other voice, the Actor. And that they might just get along smashingly and throw a freaking dance party. Or indie folk alt-country pop dance party, you get the point… But they needed to meet.
You know that moment when you are running lines in the comfort of your own home, maybe with your beloved or best friend or by yourself, and the synapses are all firing at once and you wish — you know — THIS is the performance you can give? Because you completely let go, you forget anyone is watching and you soar? That is how recording feels.
I pretend it’s just me, the mic, and my imagination. Something takes over; the power of the lyric or the soaring of a guitar lick. I become transported and a conduit for the song. It feels like the muse flows right through me. It’s that same feeling that I get when, on the best of nights onstage, you don’t even know what is quite happening, the play is simply happening to you, because you now know it like the back of your hand, (like your favorite smoothie recipe, like the smell of his hair, like that play you devoured) and you also know you have the reins. There is no editing or self-judgement in those moments; just artistic cohesion. They really are quite similar.
My album developed over the course of a few years; it grew, and then edited itself down. And though many snags were hit, all made me stronger, all emboldened the voice. It wasn’t until I went to Nashville to mix with Neilson Hubbard, that I called on this voice and asked for all her might. She needed to step out of the privacy of the recording booth, listen to herself, and then defend the shit out of herself. Make her better, hold her. love her, advocate for her, edit her, cut her, and champion her. I was terrified; I didn’t know definitively how I would handle those sessions. Would I explain myself well? Would I sound like I knew what I was talking about? Were my ideas cool? Did my hair look good? I knew it was a huge step for me — to take my craft and hone it, shine it, and treat it like my art. And I did. I was pretty stunned how fast I took over in the driver’s seat (the one in front of all those crazy beautiful machines) and listened. And asked for what I needed, what I WANTED. Sometimes demand what I wanted, sometimes compromise, and many times find that beautiful Neverland in the town of Collaboration.
All this is to say, we each have many voices. We may go through training of some kind to hone one or more of them, but ultimately what makes us good artists is our multitude of interests, desires, voices we have to share. I needed to make this album, to realize that though one of my Voices is strong and well-used, it doesn’t mean I can’t use the other(s). Those Voices, be they behind a camera, pen to paper, social justice, fashion, horticulture, (who knows?) make us who we are. And I have a hunch that once these voices start talking amongst themselves, that’s when our most authentic artistic identities will emerge. The more we continue to listen, the more they will flourish. And that’s where the magic will happen. And that’s why we do what we do.
I leave you with this: What if we listened to these little voices? The ones that want to be heard but we fear might fail us if we do. What if we dared to be our most authentic selves, on stage and off? What are all the parts of you, the many voices, that you want to explore?