So last week, I spent a lot of time watching live music performances, which was pretty awesome. If you are not a Barenaked Ladies fan already, watching Ed Robertson perform solo would make you one. He was the most compelling performer of any of the ones I saw, because he had the fundamentals (great guitar player, very good singer, clever songwriter) plus he was engaging onstage, open to his audiences, generous in his praise of fellow musicians, and just generally seeming to have a great time. I watched him perform three times over three days and wasn’t bored even once. Indigo Girls, on the other hand – who I love by the way and have loved for decades now and will continue to love as long as they continue to produce smart acoustically-oriented folky music – well, after seeing them a second time in two days, I was about ready to move on.
Wonderful new talents that I was exposed during the week include David Ryan Harris, Vienna Teng, and Brandi Carlile. I guess Brandi has quite a following but I had never heard of her before. She’s got a huge voice and is a pretty kick-ass performer besides. The lovely Mrs. and I had the somewhat surreal experience of ending up in line to clear customs with Ed Robertson and his family on one side of us and Brandi Carlile and her entourage on the other. In a celebrity-obsessed world where you often wonder if strangers you pass by are “somebody,” being on a boat where everybody is “somebody” is a little mind-blowing.
Anyway, one of the things that I found interesting seeing all of these acts over several days was the appreciation of the musician “persona.” From what I’ve seen, musicians are not generally “actors,” unless they’re doing some kind of early Bowie or Kiss schtick. But there is definitely the development and/or projection of a persona, which generally seems to be an exaggerated or accentuated version of the performer him/herself. I saw this most distinctly with Lyle Lovett, a talented and extremely entertaining performer who has a certain low-key, homespun, almost absent-minded professorish persona onstage. There was also a woman named Mindy Smith who projected a somewhat ditsy, cute-as-a-button personality that I eventually found really annoying.
Many aspects of this fascinate me. I’m curious how self-conscious of a process the development of such a persona is. Does it just happen organically for most musicians? Do they seek input or does their management encourage them down one path or another? I also wonder how divergent these personas are from the performer's off-stage personalities. There is no way Ed Robertson, for instance, could be as open, engaging and funny all the time in person as he is on stage (and based on seeing him in line with his family, such is the case; a perfectly nice man but also not telling jokes to passersby…)
It also makes me reflect on aspects of life for higher-profile musicians. For instance, is one of the reasons Britney is so f-ed up in her life because she was (is) encouraged to develop this sultry, sex-kitten persona when in real life she’s something so completely different (like for instance the somewhat dimbulbish, small-town girl she seems in some interviews)? Does that kind of dramatic divergence help cause such dysfunction? Also, do musicians generally not have great success crossing over to movies and TV because they confuse projecting a persona with inhabiting a real character? What do you think?