I’m a singer-songwriter … I think
by Gretchen Lieberum
Not too long ago, as I was cleaning Cheerios off of the living room rug with a mini-vac (as a mother of two, this activity takes up approximately 63% of my time), my husband came home from a dinner party and told me about a conversation a few of the guests were having regarding an old acquaintance. They were discussing a singer-songwriter in her thirties who had never “made it,” and could now be seen singing and selling her self-produced CDs on a street corner on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The dinner guests apparently felt sorry for her. How pathetic, they exclaimed. When would she finally get it and give up the ghost, they wondered?
My husband felt that the other dinner guests were being rather judgmental and cynical (I agreed) and found the exchange disturbing … and so did I. In truth, I’ve found myself thinking of it often ever since.
Here’s a question … what must you achieve in life in order to earn the right to declare yourself a “successful” artist? If you write screenplays, brilliant, evocative, entertaining screenplays, but none of them have ever been bought or produced, can you call yourself a screenwriter? Or is the act of having worked your ass off and produced the work in and of itself a success? I’m going to put down my mini-vac and loudly declare that yes, yes it is.
I’m a singer-songwriter … I think. I mean, I’ve written songs. And I’ve sung these songs that I’ve written in front of an audience. I’ve also recorded the songs that I’ve written … four albums worth to be exact. Two of these albums were bought and distributed by independent record labels. There was even a two week period when, if you’d walked into the Virgin Megastore on the Sunset Strip, you’d have seen a big ol’ picture of yours truly smiling back at you. However, this was a long time ago (last I heard, there are no longer Virgin Megastores). The last album I executive produced myself was not picked up by a label, and, due to the fact that I didn’t have the fight in me to heavily self-promote while simultaneously caring for two young kids, said album is currently languishing in boxes under my bed. “Mommy has lots and lots of her music under our bed!” my daughter used to loudly exclaim.
So, what have I been doing lately? As I mentioned earlier, I made a couple of babies. Then, I took care of these babies. I’ve also performed here and there. I’ve written songs and recorded demos, but haven’t made a full length album out of them as of yet. And recently, I’ve been sidetracked by a different, rather unusual project.
I’m in a Prince cover band with Maya Rudolph. Yes, you read that correctly. We’ve played on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and, most recently, at Carnegie Hall for a Prince tribute with the likes of Elvis Costello and D’Angelo. And best of all, I even got to meet the Purple Man himself.
So, am I what you’d consider a success, or a failure? I’ve felt both, depending on my mood. If I look at all I’ve done over the course of my life, I guess there’s enough fodder to hold up the title of “working artist.” But still, a little voice nags at me … what have you done lately, kid? Is it enough? And if it is enough, is it even any good?
It was this same voice of doubt that made me reluctant to perform a few songs at my daughter’s school as a part of their “Career Day.” Did I really have what one could consider a career? Would the kids ask me if my music was on the radio? (Nope.) Would they ask if I was making money? (Very little as of late, if any. My filmmaker husband does the majority of bread-winning in our household.) It’s funny, I sang at Carnegie Hall with little to no butterflies in my belly, but the thought of performing a couple of my songs in front of grade school kids was giving me anxiety.
Eventually I acquiesced, mostly because I didn’t want to let my daughter down. I braced myself for the inevitable questions from the kids that would make me feel like a failure. But the thing is, they never came. The kids were wonderful. They clapped along to the music joyfully. They asked questions, but wacky and wonderful ones … “How do you pull a song out of your brain?” “When did you first know you wanted to sing?” “Why is that guitar so tiny?” (They were referring to my accompanist’s ukulele). I walked out of that classroom feeling proud, like I had accomplished some real stuff in life, you know? Stuff that a bunch of little kids think is cool. But best of all, I could tell that my daughter was proud of me, too.
I don’t know the whole story of that singer-songwriter singing on the street in Santa Monica. Who knows what she has or hasn’t accomplished in life, or how she feels about where she’s at. But I don’t think she should be pitied. She should be admired for being brave enough and having the gumption to put herself out there in the world, doing what she loves. And to quote Mr.T, “I pity the fool who doesn’t get that.” Now if you’ll excuse me … these Cheerios ain’t gonna vacuum themselves.Tags: Entertainment industry, Gretchen Lieberum, Hollywood, Life-work balance, Maya Rudolph, Music, Prince, Singer songwriter, Success v failure, What is success