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Singing A Different Song

Mid-life musicianship

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

When I was fifty-two I decided to become a singer-songwriter. Up to the age of nineteen there was nothing I enjoyed more than strapping on an acoustic guitar and singing in front of an audience. Then one evening a waitress laughed at me as I performed in a restaurant. I suddenly became aware of my failings and stopped. As years and years passed it seemed impossible I would sing in public again; it was too embarrassing, too revealing and I was becoming too old. I didn’t give up on music entirely though: I carried on playing the guitar at home, wrote songs for other people to sing in theatre shows and made radio programmes with musicians. Yet I never stopped imagining myself strutting across the stages of the world with confidence and charisma, a human remix of Woody Guthrie and Frank Turner. Maybe this all sounds a bit like a rock star fantasy, and perhaps there was some of that, but at the heart of it was the simple desire (or perhaps need?) to stand in front of an audience and sing the songs I had written.

I searched for role models, older musicians who were writing and performing songs that equal the work of their younger years. In 2016, Leonard Cohen had released You Want It Darker, a record that sounded to me as intense as anything he had written before. He was eighty-two-years old. But Cohen was trading the currency of a long career; his audience has grown up with him. I took heart from the story of the American folk singer Malvina Reynolds who recorded her first album at the age of fifty-nine and went on to write ‘Little Boxes’, a witty critique of suburban architecture and a hit for Pete Seeger in 1963. That was a long time ago; in fact, the year after I was born. Looking for examples didn’t help as they were few and far between. Then, as I sat in my kitchen and practised my songs, I faced one of my biggest fears: that when this middle-aged man stood on a stage, he might seem to be a big joke.

There is undeniably something funny about people who thrust themselves into the spotlight when ambition exceeds ability. I used to work for the BBC World Service, in what was charmingly called the Popular Music Unit. Because my name was credited on the end of programmes, I was sent cassettes by aspiring musicians hoping for a break. I remember receiving a C-90 tape of acapella songs, accompanied by the songwriter beating out a rhythm on his knees. How we all laughed. Now, as I played my songs over and over, I wondered if I had become the guy on the cassette? But then I don’t know what happened to the knee slapper. It is possible he learnt his craft and went on to become a respected songwriter. At least his songs didn’t remain in his kitchen; he sent them out into the world and hoped for the best.

So, there I was in my house singing songs to myself and my cat. Something had to change. One day I saw the opportunity I had been looking for: the Bristol Old Vic Theatre was having its 250th birthday celebration show; they were looking for local performers to fill ten-minute slots. I filled in the application and my finger hovered over the send button for at least twenty minutes. A month later I was trembling in the wings as 500 people waited for me to walk on stage. Then I did. Although I was terrified, I knew the songs so well that the words and music came out in the right order at the right time. I got through it, people applauded and most importantly, no one laughed.

I learned something important that day. When I played to myself in my kitchen, I could believe the noise I made sounded like Bruce Springsteen. As I stood on the stage in Bristol, unable to see the audience because of the bright lights, I knew, for better or for worse, the sound was my own. It wasn’t the music of a global superstar, but I had made a start.

After my debut at Bristol Old Vic, I started to play in pubs and clubs at the bottom of the bill. There is something humbling about standing on a stage at the start of an evening when most of the audience haven’t arrived yet. Although I am by no means a well-known writer, I have been asked to appear at literary festivals, teach at universities and run writing courses in the UK, Europe and beyond. When this happens, I get paid, have my expenses covered and sometimes stay in a nice hotel. Now, as a musician, it was a different story: I remember standing in a pub garden eating a supermarket sandwich on a rainy winter’s night because the dressing room floor was covered in broken glass. There are two things to mention here. Firstly, status: I had grown used to having a certain standing and this was challenged by my new venture. Secondly, accomplishment: I was quite good at one branch of the arts, but those achievements didn’t automatically convert to another. I had to admit to myself I was a beginner, but once I did it was liberating not to carry the weight of expectation that comes with experience.

I realised that as a writer of plays, I put words into the mouths of characters who say them for me and give me something to hide behind. I once sat in my car next to a man who was listening to my play on the radio in his car; we had a conversation about it afterwards and I never told him I was the writer. Now, as I sang and looked into the eyes of my audience, I felt fragile, exposed and alone. Perhaps this is where it was hard to be older: I had spent a lifetime building defences to help me cope with the rough and tumble of life and was now standing in front of strangers, playing an acoustic guitar and singing a personal song about the aftermath of my father’s death. But the more I performed the more I realised that most of the audience didn’t care how I was feeling, or at least couldn’t see how exposed I felt. I was a tiny part of their busy lives that were already full of their favourite music.

I can’t say exactly what I wanted to happen when I started performing, but I know I wanted to be good at it and I wanted to be (and this is hard to admit) successful. But what did success mean? When I was young, it was simple: selling lots of records and being on television. But now? I played all over the country and people seemed to like my songs, but that didn’t feel like enough. When I released my first record, it was played on the radio a couple of times, then nothing. Then I began to realise just how big a journey a musician must take to find even a modest audience, just how many miles they must travel and how often they must play. I was just scratching at the surface of this new world and expected too much too quickly.

A couple of months later something interesting happened. After some modest promotion, one of my songs was featured in playlists on the streaming service Spotify. ‘Poppy Song’ (which I wrote for my daughter when she left home) has now been heard more than thirty thousand times by listeners all over the world. In the age of online music streaming, my numbers are a long way from being a hit, but I am taking it as a victory. Maybe I needed to redefine my concept of success.

It is now five years since that first show and I have performed in pubs, clubs, theatres and festivals all over the UK. I even had an exciting gig at a small bar in Berlin. I believe that I now write better songs, more interesting music and that my voice has improved. I am working on a new album and am certain there is a small audience around the world who will listen when it’s released. Looking back, I think what stopped me for so long was the idea that someone of my age should be the finished article and not a rough draft. But like everything I have ever done, it is the first draft that leads to the second and that leads on to the next until the work is ready to be shown, read or heard.

Paul Dodgson is a writer, radio producer, musician and teacher. His book, On the Road Not Taken: A Memoir About the Power of Music (Unbound 2019), tells the story of his love affair with music and becoming a singer after a thirty-year hiatus.

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