First of all, thanks for your messages and for subscribing to my new youtube music-video: Your Car’s Too Big If you haven’t seen it go now! Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzx7kbfSkAU
Apparently, some of you found it so catchy you were forced to immerse your ears in a sound-bath of Metallica and Megadeath to stop the endlessly looping Möbius strip of joy from going round in your brain.
Actually, that first sentence should say, “our new video” because it obviously features two people: myself and a fellow called Chris McShane. I’ll tell you more about Chris in a future edition, but for now, in case you are contemplating embarking on a musical partnership, I’m going to focus on the things that can make or break your creative combo. But first I’ll set the scene:
You are in the audience and onstage is a fabulous double-act. Being a musician yourself you can appreciate their skill and versatility as they play instruments and sing harmonies. Their sound is full and exciting – more like four people than two.
And they look like they are having so much fun. The music is tight and interesting and, when each song ends, they bounce off one another with infectious patter and hilarious one-liners. Occasionally, when one of them needs to retune or leave the stage, the other guy keeps the show going. It’s all so seamless.
You can’t help feeling a pang of jealousy. As a solo act it’s you who does all the heavy lifting – and for less reward. Deep down you know that you too could achieve a similar level of performance – if only you could find the right person…
But what would it truly be like working in a musical partnership? Let’s assume you’ve found someone to start your duo with:
It’s Not Just About the Music
How well do you get on? Probably quite well, that’s why you came together in the first place, right? Even those double acts famous for hating one another were best friends until success changed them.
An easy-going communication style is a must because you’ll be working through a lot of things together and tyranny doesn’t go down well.
A similar sense of humour is very helpful. If you make each other laugh and enjoy the process together then at least the journey will be a fun one.
Fostering a deep appreciation of each other’s strengths in relation to your own weaknesses maintains a bond of mutual respect. Many successful duos have personalities like chalk and cheese yet their timing and communication is as tight as acrobats on a flying trapeze.
Find Someone at Your Level
If you’ve ever played chess, against a superior player, you’ll know how an imbalance of ability sucks all the enjoyment out of the game – for both of you.
Musical partners don’t need to have identical skills (it’s better if they don’t) but they do need to offer similar amounts of musicality, stagecraft and mutual support otherwise there will be a constant battle to keep the rowing boat of entertainment from going round in circles.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
You’ll discover a million points of disagreement that are both musical and non-musical. My philosophy has always been that the show is king and every decision is made to serve the show. It doesn’t matter if the idea comes from me, you or Timbuktu, if it improves the show the idea is in and if it doesn’t it is out and all discussion is directed towards figuring out which is which.
You need to be honest, free to speak your mind and willing to let go of concepts that are dear to you.
Before you speak, think about what you’re going to say:
1) Does it need to be said?
2) Is it true?
3) Is it kind?
A clear sense of what your act is offering will inform everything from song choices to how you dress onstage. Unifying everything from your show to your stationary in order to project easy recognition and familiarity for your audience is called branding.
Are you: country, classical, punk, covers, dance, comedy, folk, musical-theatre…? What kind of gigs do you aim to get?
Knowing your brand helps enormously when deciding if a new song or look fits in with your existing show or if it comes across as jarring and out of place.
Don’t worry if you’re not yet sure what your “brand” is – trial and error is a perfectly acceptable way to get to where you’re going.
What Do You Want from Your Project?
Be clear about your mutual goals. If one of you is aiming to hit the bright lights, rhinestones and big time while the other is happy just having a few laughs on the weekend then sooner or later this is going to be an issue.
More is Not Always Better
A bass player and I once performed several dates at a festival. One day the bass player didn’t make it so I did the show by myself. It was the sound guy who broke the news to me that the act had noticeably more energy without the bass player – who, I might add, I was paying to join me. This was an important lesson that has stayed with me.
In a perfect partnership of equals you’ll know the magic is happening when the duo becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
Don’t be a Drag
Being in a partnership does not mean you can take things easy. I’ve often heard people say that they only perform with other people so they can screw up without being noticed. I am not saying you should never screw up – because you will – but that shouldn’t be your reason for performing with others.
My attitude is to prepare for the eventuality that, if my partner falls apart, I can still carry the show by myself if need be. And, conversely, I have trust in my partner to do the same for me. We’re like two Hollywood, swashbuckling, pirates standing back-to-back as we joyfully dispatch the opposition while protecting one another from harm.
Commitment – What are you willing to give up?
In the early 1990s I was in a trio that did music for families. We had a great sound and were popular with everyone who heard us but eventually we realized that to make a go of it we needed to commit more time. For me there was no question that I would drop everything for a chance at a career in entertainment but my friends searched their hearts and were unwilling to leave their careers to gamble on a salary-less, pension-less life as an entertainer. Our band folded not long after.
In our dreams we imagine giving up our day job when the lucrative new performing career comes our way but the reality is that it usually goes the other way round: you’ll need to give up some or all of your career in order to have the time to devote to what it is you’re trying to achieve. And I admit, it’s a tough call for most people. (I never had to throw away my full-time job because I never had one in the first place.)
I once worked part-time as a Blacksmith in a 1920’s heritage museum and I well remember telling my boss that I wouldn’t be in for work the next day because I had an audition. His reaction surprised me: he insisted that I couldn’t have time off because I was already on the schedule.
And? So what? For the life of me I could not comprehend how he could imagine that I would give priority to doing his job when I had a life-changing audition to go to. There we were in the public cafeteria with both our voices rising as I continued to insist he was going to have to change his schedule because I certainly wasn’t going to be there.
I won the day however: I didn’t get the part and I lost the job. And I never regretted it for a moment. It became clear there and then that I could never be a slave to a schedule and that’s how my life has stayed.
If one member of your duo is willing to give up everything for entertainment while the other sees performance as a spare-time occupation then that is something to figure out and come to terms with.
Thanks to internet communication the means for remote collaboration are endless. We can record whole albums and never meet face to face. This saves time and money and makes it possible to work with someone an entire continent away. Which is exactly what I did with Joel Eckhaus back in 2009. We’d done some performances at the Portland Ukulele Festival and, despite being on opposite sides of the American continent, we worked out a tour of Inkspots-centric music and travelled the east coast from Florida to Baltimore calling ourselves The Whiteouts. However –
Nothing beats being in the same room. Many are the times that Chris McShane and I have got together to rehearse and soon we are completely off-track, coming up with ideas and writing a whole new song. This fiery crucible of creation does not occur during our Zoom meetings.
The Best Thing
After years of being a mostly solo act, the thing I love most about working with a partner is having someone to witness and share in the highs and lows of the work.
Going home as a solo act your analysis of the gig is all done inside your head and, whether a roaring success or a dismal failure, it is so much easier on the soul if you can divide the gold and enjoy the spoils with a fellow pirate.
Keep Strumming and Smiling
© Ralph Shaw Music 2021