I strongly believe that performers should try to ‘please’ their audience. That could mean inspiring them to dance, taking them on a nostalgia trip or moving them in some other way. When someone comes to a show, I want them to get their money’s worth and more. Part of that is choosing the ‘right’ songs for the right setting.
As a songwriter of course I write my own songs and I have to hope for the best that when I’m performing my own stuff that the audience is happy to come along with me on a sometimes unfamiliar ride.
But I am also in 12 different shows where I perform other people’s music, ie covers. In those situations, I think it’s important not to be too self-indulgent. If I’m performing a tribute to a particular artist, I’m not going to leave out their biggest hits in favour of the unreleased and largely unloved b-sides the audience is unlikely to know or like. (I went to see Sinead O’Connor recently and she did just that – my blog about it is here.)
One of my shows is a cabaret show I perform at lunch events to older audiences – mostly retirees. For those shows I try to pick songs that reflect my experiences and personality (that’s what cabaret is all about, right?) but I think they need to be songs that they will also know and love. Well…recently I fell completely in love with a song called ‘White Rabbit’ – a piece of psychedelic rock craziness that I had to learn for a different show (Monterey Pop) It is the last kind of song you’d expect to hear in this kind of setting. It’s not a well-known song and it is weird and melodramatic. But then I thought, well that’s exactly what I am, a little strange around the edges and I definitely live for the dramatic! So a little voice kept telling me: ‘do it, do it!’ and I decided to include this tune in my daytime cabaret show.
During the ‘talk through’ with the band on the day I decided to air my unconventional choice, two of the musos (both whose opinions I hugely respect) told me repeatedly that I shouldn’t do that song with this audience. I decided to do it anyway.
I put the song towards the end of my spot, when I felt the audience were already on side. Just before I sang it, I asked their permission to do a song that they probably would not know or potentially even like. I told them that smart people had told me not to sing it. I took a deep breath, stood strong in my circle of light and gave it full commitment so that if I went down in flames, they would be spectacular ones. I’m not going to tell you I received a standing ovation or that I converted an entire audience to spaced-out pyschedelic rock, but I did get a great reaction and when I went out to chat to the audience after the show, everyone I spoke to wanted to talk about that song.
It is so easy to choose the songs that you know are going to ‘work’ with an audience and as important as that is, I didn’t become a singer to be a jukebox or to make safe choices. I appreciate singers who show artistry, not just technical ability and I trusted that my audience would be the same.
Here’s the song, by Jefferson Airplane, 1967: