I’d been told my entire life that I couldn’t sing. Not just that I couldn’t belt out a show tune; even joining in on “Happy Birthday” would get me funny looks. I grew up in Jersey in the 1960s, and at primary school our music lessons began with the class standing up; each pupil could take their chair only after successfully singing a scale. I went through a whole term without ever sitting down.
I live in New York now and over the past year I’ve found my voice – literally and metaphorically – in a way I never dreamt possible. It started with picking up my guitar after a decade-long hiatus. (I’d noodled around on and off since my teens, and played in a couple of bands, with less than earth-shattering results.) I realised I was a much better player at 50 than I had been as a young man, partly because I was focused on it like never before: I’d come home from my Manhattan media job and play for hours every night.
I found a teacher, who told me the best way to remember the structure of a song was to sing the words. I laughed and explained that exposing anyone to my vocals was probably a breach of the Geneva Convention. Nonsense, he insisted: anyone can learn to carry a tune.
So that’s where it started. I warbled out a quavery version of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, and was off to the races. Every step since then has upped the ante, and felt like another layer of lifelong inhibition being peeled away.
I played the same song for two not very impressed friends and former bandmates (“Wow, Beatles – setting the bar pretty high, dude”); I got up in front of 20 people at a friend’s birthday and played her favourite ballad, complete with a new last verse I’d written (she was moved to tears, possibly of embarrassment); I played “Feel Like Makin’ Love” for a crowd of mostly senior citizens at my music school’s talent night (said one elderly wag: “You should make that into a Viagra commercial”); I wrote a song of my own and debuted it, quaking with terror, in front of an extremely swanky crowd at a 100-person dinner in a Venice palazzo (I got a standing ovation); I busked in a square in Lisbon (maximum audience one man and one dog); I braved an open mic session in an Irish bar on Second Avenue (not a SINGLE PERSON clapped); I played at a private party attended by one of my musical heroes, David Byrne (he grinned throughout and applauded); and I landed my first club gig in Brooklyn (I was drowned out by a birthday party going on right in front of the stage).
And then, last month, not long after a packed-out show at a club called Fontana’s on the Lower East Side, I did the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I quit my job to devote myself to writing and performing my own material. I sealed the process by deciding to perform under the stage name of “Hello I’m Jamie”. Straight and to the point, like the new me.
I realise I can never make a living doing this (I may be crazy but I’m not that crazy). I know I’ll have to hunt for employment again at some stage. But I’d become consumed with music; waking up every day with ideas for melodies, or lyrics, or riffs running through my head. And I’d reached a juncture where not to let this thing run its course would have seemed kind of criminal.
I have a song called “Pray for Rain”, where the chorus goes “Every day/I prayed for rain to come my way/every prayer/was thrown away.” Then at the end it turns around, and there’s a last line – “until today”. So it switches from blocked and resigned to joyful and optimistic. And that’s how I feel: my whole life turned around in the space of a year, and something I’d been longing for, without quite knowing what it was, just bloomed inside me. My prayers have been answered – at least until my savings run out.