In the beginning you’re afraid of making mistakes in front of people. It’s just awkward. You giggle, you stumble, and everyone loves you anyway. Because at that point it’s your family, your dog, your pastor, maybe your stuffed animals even. Then you keep playing, you keep singing and you can’t help it. You’re a musician.
The stage calls and it teaches quickly that anything can happen. Every stage is different. Every performance will never be repeated. It doesn’t matter which level a songwriter is on; all the world is a stage and it’s a blank canvas every time if we let it be so. I sang in a ten-piece acid jazz group called SUMO in Chicago for eight years…every Sunday at the Elbo Room. We made it all up every week. Of course, there was the very occasional train wreck, but the true beauty was taking that risk together all of those times and laughing it off, recovering the groove, then keeping the train on the tracks while no one knew it was improv.
When the fear leaves the stage and the flow of sound can just be, something happens that allows mistakes to become unexpected, creative moments of genius. It’s the guitar riff that got away and getting it back was a brilliant run that couldn’t be replicated. It’s the vocal melody that missed a note but led to new way of singing the line. It’s the accidental stop when the drummer forgot where he was or not knowing how a song will end, but yet executing it perfectly.
In the studio, it’s even weirder. No matter how prepared you are, gremlins can still get in there. They make weird noises, cause broken strings, scratchy voices, and out-of-tune drum heads. They can even make the clock move faster! But the angels…the studio angels can inspire epic vocal takes and sonic brilliance, emotional releases, and revelations. While the recording is the finished canvas, there’s always opportunity for surprise in the musical journey, because the performance is almost never guaranteed.
My favorite musical happy accident happened in a studio that I managed in Santa Fe, New Mexico called Stepbridge Studios. We’d recorded a cool, edgy track called “All I Got” for my Battling the Sun EP. After we’d recorded all the instruments and were mixing it, there was a sound coming through the mixing board that we couldn’t find or control. We spent half a day scratching our heads and trying to figure it out. Finally, we decided to just leave it in and it absolutely dictated the unique sound of the final version of the song.
We learn a lot along the way about how to improvise through mistakes and natural blunders. Some of it is funny little things no one tells you about: like what to do if you need to burp while you’re singing or if a fight breaks out in the bar or you break a string in the middle of a song, you can’t hear yourself in the monitors, you have a wardrobe malfunction, or whatever. The answer is usually, just keep playing!! We hope we get to that point where we are so comfortable in our musical skin that nothing can phase us. I think that’s where those brilliant, happy accidents hang out waiting for us to stumble upon them with humility and grace.