Most people have a “first concert” experience – ya know, the first time your parents let you stay out past curfew to see your favorite band. For me, it was actually two very, very different concerts that had a profound impact on my life.
I was sixteen years old. It was a weird age: stuck between the whimsy of childhood and the seriousness of adulthood, I was swirling around in the crazy hormonal whirlpool of adolescence, not knowing really where I was going or what I wanted to do with my life. Beyond school exams, fleeting high school romances, and weekly ballet class, I had no ambitions. I sang in my school choir and I had started playing guitar, but a music career seemed impossible for a white bread suburban girl like me.
Then Lilith Fair happened…and it changed everything.
Lilith Fair was an all-female summer concert series founded by Sarah McLachlan, who named the series after Lilith, who, according to ancient Jewish mythology, was made of the same earth as Adam in the Garden of Eden. Lilith refused to be subservient to Adam, and left the Garden. Afterwards, Eve was made from Adam’s rib, and agreed to bow to the will of her male mate.
That mythological idea rocked my little Lutheran-reared, Catholic school-taught world. My white picket fence reality split open, and out poured a vast universe of music, art, poetry, fashion, dancing, sexuality, and bliss. On that hot summer day at the Merriweather Post Pavilion just outside of Washington D.C., I drank it all in – the smell of patchouli and generator exhaust, the taste of iced green tea and raspberry dark chocolate cupcakes, the echoes of drums and amps being sound-checked on the main stage.
I heard the angsty overdrive of Liz Phair’s guitar, the buttery harmonies of the Indigo Girls, the guttural twang of the Dixie Chicks, and the many addictive radio hits of Sheryl Crow.
And then, there was Sarah McLachlan.
I had all of her albums, I knew all of her songs on guitar, and I had even cut my hair down to a pixie style so it looked like hers. Now, here I was, seeing her live for the first time.
Seeing Sarah perform was an other-worldly, existential moment. You probably remember your first concert as a similarly religious experience. Seeing her on stage pouring her heart out to thousands of screaming fans, I realized I had found my true calling – to become a singer/songwriter….but how?
The cliché is that if you want to become an artist, you move to L.A. or New York to try and “make it.” But I knew that was a crap shoot. Was I prepared to survive on just ramen noodles for years, like Madonna had? Would I be able to take living in a cockroach-infested one-bedroom studio like Shawn Colvin did? How long would I have to wait tables until someone else “discovered” me and miraculously handed me a record deal?
I left Lilith Fair feeling hopeful, disillusioned, determined, and sad all at once. I finally knew my path, but the odds of success were incredibly slim. The whole idea seemed impossible….
Fast forward six months, to my second life-changing concert experience…
I finally had my driver’s license, so a couple of my friends and I went out to do what teenagers do – hang out, shop, and stare at cute college boys. My friend wanted a latte, so we stopped at the nearest café, and as we opened the door, I heard the most amazing voice coming from the back of the coffee shop. It was there I heard Jenny Bostick for the first time.
Sporting long brown hair and dark maroon lipstick, she attacked her acoustic guitar and cut through the room with a voice so strong that I didn’t understand how it was coming out of such a tiny girl. I sat in the front row and listened longingly to every heart-wrenching, honest word she sang, and after she was done, I bought her CD, which she signed for me with a big heart. I still have that CD to this day, and it remains one of my favorites.
Now it may sound weird, but before I saw Jenny perform, it never dawned on me that there was such a thing as an “independent” singer/songwriter. I had never actually seen a singer in a coffee shop before that day. Maybe my naiveté stemmed from my suburban upbringing (we had no coffee shops or venues within walking distance of my house), or from the fact that all the media I consumed on a daily basis – television and radio – never bothered to play independent artists. I just assumed that any musician worth listening to must be famous and getting airplay – because if they weren’t famous, they must not be any good, right?
But seeing Jenny changed my perception. Here was an amazing singer, booking all of her own shows and funding her own albums, and she didn’t have a record deal, manager, or agent. She wasn’t famous, but she could have been. She should have been, with a voice like that! But she wasn’t waiting around for anyone to help her. She wasn’t waiting for anyone else to come along and deem her worthy of her own art or her own fate. She took matters into her own hands and just went for it.
Maybe I would never reach the same level of fame as Sarah McLachlan, but hell, Jenny was making music from the corner of a coffee shop. She had found a lifelong fan in me without being famous at all. I realized that I could do the same, and I didn’t need to wait around for someone else to hand me to record deal in order to do it.
Fifteen years later, with seven albums, 150,000 tour miles, opening slots for Sister Hazel, Spin Doctors, and Three Dog Night, and a million other musical moments along the way, I look back at those two defining, and very different, concert experiences, and I am grateful for what they taught me – that you are only guaranteed to fail if you don’t try at all, and to not wait around for someone else to believe in your art or your talent.
Working and living as an independent musician is fulfilling, tiring, demoralizing, inspiring, and insane all at once. It’s playing in the pouring rain to a crowd of zero, only to have some teenage fans come up to you and give you flowers with a note saying “You guys were awesome! Love, Your Wettest Fans.”
It’s dropping all of your instruments mid-song to tie down the sides of the giant marquee tent amidst an F1 tornado (yeah, that really happened.)
It’s stopping to pee at 1 A.M. while on tour, only to come back outside and realize your band mates had accidentally locked the keys in the car—with the engine running—in the middle of nowhere.
But perhaps even more importantly, it’s YOU, the listener, who makes all of the insanity worthwhile.
I look forward to continuing down this road to make a difference to others the way Sarah and Jenny made a difference in my life. I hope you will join me on this crazy journey.
Thank you for listening. xoxoxo ~ Melissa