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Saturday, February 04, 2006

finding truth through stage personas

Some of the best bands on record (meaning album) are not great live. Some bands get signed because of a great demo, but haven't had enough experience nor begun to explore the dynamics between the musicians. Developing an "act" is more than just putting a good CD together. It's about the way the musicians play (live), the clothes they wear on stage, the way they relate to the audience, how they stand on stage, the patter in between songs,.. the whole "live stage persona".
For most of my performing life I have felt that if you can be a little "over the top" with your performance, then you can grab people's attention quickly. I learned that early, playing in smoky pubs in Australia with people who really didn't care at all about the performer. They just wanted to drink beer and if there was a song they liked, they sung along. But to get any attention, you had to be an over the top entertainer. The stage persona became the most important thing for me.
It took me along time to not take myself so seriously as an artist. I remember the early days in Sydney when I would go into a deep sweat preparing for a show. I had to get the right clothes, have the right makeup, have the right hair do or color. I have had every hair color imaginable! Brown, blonde, red, white, mahogany, purple, even blue, and so many styles, from short punky to long and frizzy. In the early nineties I thought I needed to be a little bohemian, a little hippy, a little punk and a lot of attitude. I always wanted to show off my midriff, wear big loop earrings and fancy shoes. Black was in.
I was still learning the art of performance though. When I first started out performing my original songs live, I was very shy. It's funny because I was also, at the same time, performing in cover bands and I was very dynamic, on the contrary. In cover bands I could play a part, and imagine what the original artist, like Donna Summer, did on stage. I could imitate the original artist.
But with my original material I was shy and very uncomfortable playing the piano and singing at the same time. I found it a really difficult thing, to think about my lyrics, play the chords, sing in tune, and remember there was an audience in front of me that needed attention. I closed my eyes a lot.
When I got to the States, I learned to let go. For starters, I was able to be whoever I wanted to be, from scratch; reinvent myself, so to speak. So I decided to be brave, and be a little "out there". It worked.  I wore spandex dresses, four inch wedge heels, silver and glitter somewhere on my body (and especially as glitter cream on my cheeks and shoulders), and even wore wings throughout the temperamental angel album tour (2000-2001). Being "in persona" I was able to take flight as an artist. Always a diamond in the rough, my music, songwriting and voice got stronger, but at least I got attention. When I was signed to Tribe Records I even dressed up as a man for a year on stage. That was fun. We had developed a band called Jessica Christ, which pushed the envelope with gender issues: actually we wanted the audience to remove the gender association with songs, and promote the lyrics, the words, to be the most important elements, so I changed my stage gender for kicks, a direct idea from the Label in order for us to get some media attention (which came). I'd start off in plaid trousers and a jacket buttoned up, short cropped blue hair and a Salvador Dali curly mustache on my face, singing sweet love songs, and full on rock and roll too. Half way through the second song I'd literally strip and reveal a short body hugging dress, always keeping my black high boots on. 
Jessica Christ was a real breakthrough for my stage persona, and for releasing my inhibitions. There is something to be said about going "over the top" on stage. You really confront all your fears and learn to let go. As soon as you let go of any fears or nerves, which can be disguised behind costumes as we become a different persona, the more your inner natural self can exude. I remember doing a gig at The Gig on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood and it was packed: girls and guys upfront, with lighters swaying in the air. Girls looked on with awe and felt the power of a woman doing what I was doing on stage. It gave them strength. Guys were curious about my sexuality, but they felt the sensuousness. They were all in love, and it didn't matter. The crowd started hooting and hollering when I'd change attire, never missing a beat on the song. It was an electrifying feeling. I really let loose and didn't care what people thought. My sexuality is tied into my expressing myself through music. When I perform, sexuality naturally exudes. For me, it was all about entertainment, and through my image development over the years, my musicianship and vocals got tighter.
June 2000 diary entry: "We've (the Jessica Christ band) been playing the traps around L.A to great crowds and not so great crowds (you have to take the good with the band), sometimes rude club managers and sometimes great promoters. Playing live in L.A is somewhat challenging because you never really know who's going to come and see you on any given night. We had all of 15 people at The Mint on Pico, but a couple of weeks earlier the club was packed with 150 at the Gig. I've been battling with the ideas flowing in my head about my music. I have had so many deep and emotional events that have taken place over the past year... the new songs are all very autobiographical.. like you will hear the beginning, middle and end of the relationship in one sitting. The edge is interesting. No more miss nice girl. I'm coming alive!"
Following the Jessica Christ era was my "temperamental" phase, promoting my first U.S release on my own label Warrior Girl Music. The album "temperamental angel" conjured up a lot of imagery and ideas as to how to present myself on stage. For me it was about being a rebel and and an angel, in the way I sung, performed and how I sounded. I wanted to bring out different personalities, as we all are complex individuals with many personalities and masks. I had a song called "Naked" which was very sensuous, and the title track really spoke about my multi-personalities, being the angel and the devil (or at least dealing with those different parts of us).
March 2001 diary entry: "I spent last Sunday trotting down old train tracks downtown l.a in a sticky black plastic dress with dark sunglasses, my 'don't mess with me' boots, and white wings, while a train came by. We were filming the rest of the footage of the "Temperamental Angel" music video.  They then had me wrapped in saran wrap, naked, in the living room. I love getting naked! Just got home from The Gig, Hollywood where Jeff, Gordie, Ric and I played at Mike Galaxy's Industry Showcase. I felt it went really well and we sold quite a few CDs plus accumulated new fans. Both Jeff and I wore our wings and Ric adorned my pink feather bower by the 6th song. I love "doing Hollywood" because you can wear whatever you want on stage and in fact so do the people in the audience. Tonight for me it was simply freaky colored hair and my angel wings. The blue warriors, the honest, hunky and adorable band who funk and groove with or without gilli moon, are knocking the socks off everyone and that makes gilli a proud mother goose. The Whisky a Go Go never saw anything like it last Thursday even though they've had, well, just about everybody there. But we have paint flying - and Gordie our guitarist enjoyed that on is body, dress swaying (that's mine), heads nodding, boots kicking, a voice warbling, and music well, will take you away to the MOON. It's quite funny that where once gilli moon was so sweet and a "piano ballad" gal, she has turned almost heavy metal in her black boots but still so calm and sultry when "Naked" comes on. The Press seem to enjoy the controversy.
When I came out with the "Woman" album, I was all about the "warrior girl" - wearing combat attire (before it was popular!), with green army camouflage pants, boots, and a cool, spunky tank top. It gave me room to run around on stage. I also was painting a lot on stage, what I call "SensuArt". I'd erect a large clear piece of Perspex (plastic) on stage and get my brushes and paint out. I'd stand behind the clear canvas painting lots of female nudes and faces, while the band would solo and jam. I have painted my band members many times too. It was a lot of fun.
I've run the gamut of stage personas. It helps develop the artist's story and removes the fear. Every gig should be special. They have all been for me.
My "live image' changed when I started touring. I began seriously touring across the United States in '02, promoting the "temperamental angel" album. To keep it affordable, I went solo, without the band. This meant that that I was responsible for everything: getting to the venue, organizing my music, playing the keyboards (my fingers certainly got a lot stronger), entertaining a strange crowd, selling CDs (although have always had help on this from fans and friends), and packing up. At a certain point it got too tiring to "put on the big show" with the costumes and any theatrics. I started out on my first tour with a small color wheel light that revolved and changed lights as I performed. But I sold it for $50 in Phoenix Arizona into the second week.
I ended up just taking my shoes off, and just singing my songs on the keyboard. This was the beginning of finding my true self on stage.
I no longer wore the outfits, frizzed my hair up, or even put on any over the top makeup. Over a few years of being on the road consistently, traveling every state in the country, I became less and less concerned about my costuming or stage persona. I didn't have time and I was too tired. I became more concerned about my songs, my vocal and music performance, and being authentic.
Authenticy is the ultimate goal as a live performer. If the audience doesn't feel your truth, then they can't relate to you. Being on the road was a huge awakening. I don't have a problem with any band going for the "glam rock" or over the top image. I feel every band has to go through that process, and it has many positives, especially when developing and you want to learn to "let go" on stage. And if you are all about "image" and that's what people relate to, then all the power to you. But I have grown accustomed with the notion that it doesn't matter how you look: it's how you act. It's who you are inside.
I've seen the worst bands all dressed up, with the full stage presence - lights, costumes, props,... the works, and then be left unimpressed with their talent. Then I've seen the most humble of artists get up in jeans and a t-shirt, no makeup or frills, and truly grab my attention.
The more grass roots I've become, more laid back and real, the more positive feedback I've received on my show and my music. Of course, this is a ten year overnight success story here. I'm no spring chicken. I've learned a lot. One has to get their chops up on stage for a long time to make it look natural!
These days, especially after the fourth album, "extraOrdinary life", I've really tuned in to my songs and writing, and I remember the story around them whenever I sing them. I go back in time, every time and live that emotion, and the audience feels that. Being able to touch souls is so magnificent, and it doesn't matter what you wear. But it does matter how you exude your passion. It does matter how you deliver. Eye contact is important. Contact in general, with your audience, is important. Humility is important. Not taking yourself so seriously is VERY IMPORTANT.
I remember seeing Celine Dion in concert in Sydney. Whether you like her music or not, I encourage anyone to see her live or check out her live videos. There must have been 20,000 people at this concert, and she had every one of us eating out of the palm of her hand. We were silent and riveted. She spoke to me like I was the only person in the room, and sung my stories in her songs. She has a fabulous sense of humor (she knows what to say between songs), and never ends a song until she's ready. If you notice, she'll finish the song on a note, maybe an arm outstretched, maybe her eyes closed; and the band will stop, so will she - and everything is silent. We hang in the suspense. When she finally drops her arm (it could be even 5 or 10 seconds after that final note), we then applaud. She decides when the song is over. Until then, we are her audience slaves. It's superb.
 I have loved my stage persona journey. I'm sure there is more to come with how I will express myself live. I have always admired Madonna's finesse in reinventing her image every album she makes. I like that idea because I love making concept albums. Each album tells a story. It has a theme, a plot, a journey to take the audience on. So too should the live performance, matching the essence of the album. Madonna is great at that, and never afraid to push the envelope.
Stage costumes can be a great ice breaker, to bring across your artist story and concept. Developing an image is crucial, of course. But with or without costumes, if you can touch people's hearts, then you're on the right path. There is much controversy about developing an artist's image in the music business. The media love to grab on to a story of some kind, and the business doesn't like to have to guess who you are. They like to see it in your music and how you look. They want to be able to market something. It's the same for independent artists too. Image around your album concept, your website, your live performance persona, even your character in the general public, all tie in to who you are as an artist. I believe that your persona as an artist is crucial to telling your story and creating a buzz.
But in all of that... always remain authentic to your true self. Keep changing, evolving, and tap in to your passionate self. TRUTH and PASSION is everything. This, my friends, will make the difference between you being a quick, fly-by-night fashion trend, versus being an eternal, lifelong, rock star.

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