The most fundamental part of being a songwriter is, of course, writing the songs. But the most important part of being a performer doesn’t always have to be the source material. The performance is the important part.
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So, what are the ways that popular, successful, in-demand artists make sure to keep their live performances in top shape? Thao Nguyen to K.Flay, Ayron Jones, Emily James, Olivia Jean and more share their thoughts with American Songwriter.
“Energy and emotional connection with the audience and my fellow musicians are most important to me. I want everyone to sense that I am completely present with them, and we are in communion together, we are gathering in joy, sorrow and the gamut of release together. I want them to feel that it is a symbiotic relationship we have: that which I give to them would be impossible without that which they give to me.
“At its best, gathering and live performance can be sacred and I am more open to feeling that than ever before. I want audience members to know that I respect the time and money they’ve given up to be with me and that no matter what I will leave it all out on the field.”
“I think what’s most important outside of the songs is knowing the kind of energy you want to create, and finding novel ways to build that energy. When I want to channel wildness or catharsis, I move in an unhinged manner. I let myself inhabit a state of instinct. And then I’ll invite the crowd to join me in that feeling, maybe by screaming or jumping or throwing their hands in the air.
“When I want to channel introspection, I get smaller and quieter. I remember times when I felt ashamed or upset and I go back to those places psychologically. I believe that an audience can feel subtle changes within the performer, and so it’s my job to evoke emotional nuance throughout the show. My main focus is on dynamics, on narrative. I never want the show to feel one-dimensional or tonally consistent or predictable. I want it to feel like everything—joy and angst and energy and chaos and at the end of it all, love.”
“One of the most important things that exists outside of the technical aspect, is personality. I need to get the song to find its ‘live personality’ so I can represent the song correctly on stage. Is the piano melancholy? Is the guitar sarcastic? Does the snare make people in the audience flinch? I want to do my best to collaborate with the personality of the music, to bring the audience a true and intentional version of what this song is.”
Chris Ballew, The Presidents of the United States of America
“For me, the most important thing is the connection. Feeling connected to the crowd and the crowd feeling connected to me and letting them in enough that they feel responsible for the joy in the room just as much as I do. It’s a collaboration and when that’s working people feel elated because of the connection they feel to the other humans around them. I’ve always thought of songs as a tool to get to that state of mind rather than the end result of my creative process.”
“I think the most important part about performing is meeting the audience where they are and then bringing them up. If you step on stage and everyone is seated, or feeling lethargic or kind of sleepy, trying to come and hit them in the face with a wall of sound may not be the best strategy.
“You have to find out where they are and, song by song, bring their energy up to methodically fight for their approval. Now, there are obvious exceptions to this. Sometimes, you’ll get out there and they will already be hyped and all you have to do is deliver. But in those instances where they aren’t, you have to be emotionally aware, and it’s your job to elevate their bodies and souls.”
“If I put all of my soul into hoping people like the show, I might as well not be on stage. That’s quicksand. It’s all about remembering how I felt when I wrote the song and respecting that and not letting anyone tell me how I should ‘act’ while I’m performing it. If people like the show, I’m very glad. But in the end—the audience is in our house, and we’re giving them a look into our world.”
“I think that connecting with the audience during a live show is just as important, if not more so, than how well you perform the songs. Whenever I’m playing live, my hope is that everyone in the audience will walk away feeling like they know me a bit better, and understand my songs on a deeper level. I want to make it feel as though we’re all in the room together hanging out, and I love to tell stories and give little anecdotes about the songs before I play them.”
“Playing live is about bringing energy; giving the songs another form of life; and giving the audience something they will never forget. I always think I got 75-90 minutes to make you mine. I’m going to give you everything I got whether it’s for two people or 80,000.”
“When it comes to live shows, showmanship hands-down is the most important thing. People want to be entertained. Also, let’s keep in mind that the average person doesn’t even know what it means to have musicality and be pitch-perfect. … Live shows are meant to celebrate awesome records in person and to truly provide an escape for the audience.”
Bonnie Bloomgarden, Death Valley Girls
“The most important thing to me is making everyone in the audience feel, and know, that they are as much a part of the show as we are! The thing I missed the most when we couldn’t play during lockdown, was that we couldn’t share, combine, and rejoice in each other’s energy! It’s a magical thing that can only happen when we get together in this dynamic, to celebrate with each other—it’s so special and precious, we are so lucky.”
Eva Walker, The Black Tones
“I really like for the audience to feel engaged and part of the moment and live experience. When you’re at a show with The Black Tones, you become a part of our family. … The idea is to enjoy yourselves and have fun. I want everyone in that room to feel welcome and, of course, entertained.
“We have songs that require participation, I share stories about my family, I make them laugh, make goofy faces and sometimes let members of the crowd strum my guitar during a song. We just love to be connected to them. When the shows start, it’s not us up there and them down there, it’s everyone together in that room at a single point in time and space that won’t ever happen again, making a memory that will hopefully live forever.”
“It’s the connection with the audience [that is most important]. Without it, the energy of the show can feel lifeless and like you’re ‘painting by numbers.’ An engaged, passionate audience who’s actively involved in the show will always make the show better and even make us perform better overall in my opinion.”
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