“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do”
From the song: One – By Harry Nilsson
“One” is a song written by Harry Nilsson and made famous by Three Dog Night whose recording reached number five on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 1969 and number four in Canada. Nilsson said he wrote the song after calling someone and getting a busy signal. He stayed on the line listening to the “beep, beep, beep, beep…” tone, writing the song. The busy signal became the opening notes of the song.
I probably remember this song so well because it was everywhere my senior year in high school (1969-70). Honestly, it was not my favorite song but I strongly associate it with that time of my life. Regardless, it seems the appropriate song to accompany this month’s subject; playing music as a solo artist.
I have been a solo artist almost exclusively for the past 20 years. I had one short stint with a trio a few years ago and I tour occasionally with another writer as a duo. I love that experience but for 95% of the dates I play, it is just me. Let me tell you why I like the solo artist path.
As a band member, there are others helping hold you up and covering your behind when you slip up. There is also the amazing camaraderie of sharing the performance experience with others and the magic that can occur when it all comes together. I have had moments (too few) when every hair on my body stood on end and the group of individuals I was on stage with suddenly became one entity. I will admit, in my experience, it is rare, but when it happens it is transcendent. Many years ago I actually had an out of body experience while playing with a band. And no chemicals were involved! There can be something magic about a group of individuals performing music. But too often it is just a collection of individuals, each going their own ways and serving their own egos, rather than the music. But enough about that, I am here to talk about playing solo.
As a solo artist you get the quite sobering and sometimes terrifying experience of performing without a net. There is no one to catch you when you fall, and sooner or later you will fall. You are responsible for creating an experience for the audience with just your voice, an instrument and a few songs. It is up to you alone to create an engaging and entertaining moment for a group of people who are paying to see you at your very best. Even when you may not be at your best.
So, why would an artist choose to perform solo if it is such a daunting task? For me there are several reasons. The first being simplicity. Booking and travel become much easier when you are only taking care of yourself. There is no one else’s schedule, likes/dislikes or quirks to deal with. You are truly the master of your own destiny. Less equipment to carry and no other egos to satisfy. The ease of performing solo from a logistical perspective is unrivaled.
The second reason is freedom. The freedom to change the set list midstream without consulting anyone and to move a performance forward spontaneously without the need to consult with others who may or may not agree. The freedom to change the key of a song if your voice is giving you fits or to change the tempo if it suits you. You can judge the audience response and do whatever you feel is necessary to provide the best experience for them.
The third reason is expense. As a solo artist you get the benefit of
of all the profit or, if you chose, you can play for less if you think it will benefit you t in the long run. That is a big deal, especially in today’s musical world. Sometimes I choose to play as an opener for another artist for a much lower rate than I would normally accept, in hopes of engaging the audience and being asked back as the headliner. This is especially true when traveling to parts of the country where you have not toured before. I may lose money on that trip but that investment can pay big dividends in the long run. Not such an easy choice when others have to agree with that decision.
The fourth and final reason is the most important to me: control. Yes, I will admit to being a control freak about my music. But with control, there is no need to compromise my musical vision. In a band context, it is possible to be dictatorial and control every note and aspect of a performance. But finding others who will stand for that is difficult and in my opinion belittling to the players. Whenever I perform I really try to focus on transferring the emotions of the song to the audience. Most often that involves tempo changes, pauses and other things that I can’t always predict. I tend to feel my way though a performance, reading the audience as best as I can while taking them on a journey. That journey can be different each time and that isn’t conducive to ensemble playing.
I will admit that playing in a group can be exciting, enlightening, surprising and totally fulfilling in a way that playing solo is not. But for now at least, I will continue my one man band performances. One is the loneliest number but it is also the number with the most options in a musical context. If you have never tried it, you should. On a great night it can be an exquisitely beautiful experience. But, be forewarned, it can also be terrifying or even both terrifying and wonderful on the same night. It is truly working without a net. However scary, it is certainly one of the most rewarding feelings to bask in the applause of an audience you have moved to tears or laughter with only your voice and your instrument. That is a magical experience!
So until next month…
Randy Lewis Brown may be an over-the-hill, baby boomer and cranky old coot, but he is also an award-winning Northeast Texas-based singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed “performing philosopher”. Despite his years, and an early bedtime, he remains steadfast in attempting to decipher the intersection of spirit, faith, science and the human condition, always trying to maintain a sense of wonder and whimsy in his occasionally clever folk-Americana songs and stories.