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10 Musicians & Comedians Recall Their First Performances

March 4, 2013  |  10:01am
10 Musicians & Comedians Recall Their First Performances

Most of us have dreamed of taking the stage in front of thousands of enamored, ecstatic fans. Selling out shows, being admired, respected, beloved. Hearing thousands of people singing our words or laughing at our jokes.

We don’t dream of performing in front of six people. But, as the old saying goes, “Everybody starts somewhere.” And nobody starts in Madison Square Garden. People start in dive bars and little clubs, in living rooms, on sidewalks. In open mics and talent shows. The dream is an audience of 10,000 people; the reality is an audience of 10. We hear and see a lot about the former, not so much about the latter.

So we’ve gathered a group of quick interviews with notable musicians and comedians, in which they share experiences of the first times they performed in public. The common themes: They were terrified, and the experience wasn’t exactly transcendent. We also requested some advice for those who wish to perform but have never done it before.

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Photo by Jayme Thorton

1. Amanda Palmer

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
This could have so many answers. My first group performances were in the church choir and in ridiculous school musicals. But my first full-length solo performance of my own songs was in college. I’d booked the show myself. There was an old, big room in the university I went to that had classical performances. And I just asked if I could use it for a night of songs and someone said “Yes.” I had about two or three months to get ready, and I was scared shitless.

What do you remember most about that first performance?
I’d flyered the campus and invited the few people I knew. I was an angsty, isolated college freshman and didn’t have many friends. All told I think about 20 people came. They sat down and I awkwardly assaulted them with about 12 songs, a few of which were actually good enough to make it onto the first Dresden Dolls record, seven years later. I barely remember anything about the performance—I was so terrified. From the recording (Yes! I recorded it straight onto my four track! I’ll release it when I’m dead! It’s totally humiliating! I sing with a fake British accent half the time!), it wasn’t actually awful. But the two things I remember most? One: A girl I was passing acquaintances with took me aside after the show and said “Wow. Are you okay? Not, like, right now, but in general. Are you…alright?” and Two: The next night, when I was doing the graveyard shift at the radio station, a guy who’d seen the show came to the station door at 4 a.m. with a Twinkie that he’d stuck a candle in. He told me he liked my music. From that night on, he was my boyfriend. So there was that.

What advice can you give people who want to perform but have never done it before?
Don’t be afraid to fake it. I’m a real believer in the “Fake it til you make it” philosophy of performance. Sometimes acting confident and acting relaxed is enough to give you space and permission to actually become those things. So try that: Experiment. It can work. The other thing is: Remember that nobody out there cares about our music as much as you do. When people seem loud or bored or uninterested—truly try not to take it personally. That can feel impossible. But that’s also why being in a band, or at least having one other partner on stage, can make such a huge difference. All of a sudden you’re a gang, and if you’re being ignored, at least you’re not alone. Oh and one more thing: Shit gigs make you better. Shit audiences make you better. Play like you give no fuck and play from your heart and play for the one person out there listening even if it’s your housemate. And if there isn’t even one person, close your eyes and imagine them into existence. The only alternative is to give up and get depressed—and that’s a hard hole to come back from. I know—I’ve gone there.

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2. John Michael (MyNameIsJohnMichael)

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
I was 15 and I got caught smoking pot by my parents. The way they grounded me was sending me to father’s office; my father’s a lawyer in New Orleans. His secretary at the time, whose name was Filipina, and I became good friends. I was grabbing files from shelves, like a runner. So instead of sitting home and smoking pot, I was doing that.

It turns out she was, and is, the sister-in-law of George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic. So she got George to send me a signed t-shirt, and then George and them came to play at Tipitina’s in New Orleans in September. Basically, she said, “George wants you to play to come play guitar with the guys during soundcheck. He thinks it’ll be fun.”

So I played with them during soundcheck, and they were like, “Yeah, you’re gonna play a couple tunes with us tonight. You’re gonna play ‘Red Hot Mama’ and ‘Cosmic Slop.’ They’re in E and F-sharp, respectively. You’ll figure it out.”

And I was like, “Oh my god, I’m 15 years old…” So that was the first time I ever played a proper show. I got to meet and hang out with some of those guys, and they’re the sweetest people. They taught me a lot.

What did you feel during that first performance?
Being scared out of my mind. It was a sold-out Tipitina’s show, like a thousand people. And being a little white kid playing guitar was kinda weird… Backstage, I was just thinking “OK, it’s in D. This one’s in D.” You have to figure out by listening, so just listen, just listen, just listen. It was just like “Use your ears, use your ears, use your ears.” That was my mantra. Granted, it was 12 years ago, but I think I remember that part.

What advice would you give for others who’d like to perform for the first time but have never done it?
Just do it. Just go play in front of people. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. If it’s a stage fright thing, just do it. Keep doing it. If it’s playing in front of your girlfriend or your aunt. Play in front of your girlfriend, then your best friend, then 10 people, then a hundred. Just doing it’s the way to break in.

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3. Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon)

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
My first public performance was playing Christmas music at Rose Lane nursing home, in Massillon, Ohio, when I was in seventh grade. I have no memory of how the gig got booked. But I do remember visiting my grandfather there, years earlier.

What did you feel during that first performance?
I played a ‘70s Les Paul, which I still own, and my neighborhood friend, Polly, accompanied me on flute. You can barely see her there [in the picture] next to me, stage right. We weren’t very tight, but the old folks didn’t seem to mind.

What advice would you give for others who’d like to perform for the first time but have never done it?
My advice to anyone getting started is to practice your instrument, a lot. If you get to a point where people gather around you at a music store, to watch you play, then you’re headed in the right direction.

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