I’ve always been a person of many passions. Music, writing, photography, travel – so many interests, so little time, eh? Interests I was never okay with relegating as just “hobbies” or Saturday morning projects – they’re all things I could see myself pursuing as a viable career. But with so many doors in front of you, how do you know which one to knock on? How do you know which one will open – if any? And hardest still, how do you make peace with a closed door? How do you bring yourself to accept the fact that as much as you may love something, that’s not what you’re meant to do?
From the moment I performed my first original song in a coffeehouse during high school, I felt pulled in opposite directions. On one hand, I loved “school,” academia, being an English major, engaging in critical analyses and debating over themes and plot development. But on the other hand, what was I to do with my passion for music, my love for songwriting and putting together setlists and performing as a band? The first crucial moment of decision came during my third year of uni when I performed in a songwriting competition judged by – no pressure, now – the manager of the Dave Matthews Band. As nervous as I had been about how to approach him, he took care of it, coming up to me at intermission, asking to meet with me to discuss my music. Really? Seriously? “Well sure, Bruce, let me just check my calendar…” In his office – when I wasn’t distracted by the plethora of platinum records literally strewn across his walls – he told me to apply for an internship with a record label in New York City that summer and that if I didn’t get it on my own, he would – you gotta love this – “make it happen.” Um, okay?
But for some reason, I didn’t. That other part of me – that OCD, punctual, academic side of me – won out for the summer. I decided to go in a different direction, landing an English editorial internship with a textbook publishing company in Boston. I don’t know what made me do it, other than some subconscious need to know if whether or not the editing life was for me. It wasn’t, of course, but at least that door was closed.
The second major decision came on the brink of graduation from university. I think I went through all of fourth year with the desire to pursue music, in whatever capacity it may be, outweighing all other options. Even when I was a good little English major and looked into teaching positions, I kept narrowing in on the Nashville area with the hopes of moving there. And with one of my closest friends choosing to attend graduate school in Music City, it seemed like a realistic move to make. But when no teaching jobs opened up and all the office/admin jobs I looked into offered a mere one week of vacation a year, that’s when the panic set in. Sitting in a computer lab one day, fear of the “real world” in full swing, all I could think was, “How will I ever see Europe on one week a year?” Or in other words, I would never see Europe with that kind of holiday scheme.
So, Life Choice #2 – London. As much as I wanted to see where songwriting could take me in Nashville, the desire to see the world itself won out this time. As much as I would regret not pursuing songwriting, something in me made me believe I would regret not traveling even more. And so I went – and so music was laid to rest. Even with the occasional chance to play a friend’s guitar or the even more occasional twelve-pounds-an-hour visit to a piano practice room in London, the presence of music in my life decreased dramatically. I had all but stopped writing, hadn’t performed in months – the best word to describe music in my life was dormant.
But I was okay with that – I had made the decision after all. Between all the traveling and the Euro-sightseeing, I didn’t even have much time to miss music as much I thought I would. I closed that door myself, after all, and was content with the way life was.
Now – to make all this slightly more New Zealand-relevant – a couple of weeks ago, it was an especially good night at the bar. Packed crowds, fast pace, an awesome crew working, the DJ playing all my favorite songs – so of course I couldn’t help but dance around the bar, singing out every word of every song at the top of my lungs. My much-beloved bar manager Braden looked over at me and said, “You know who you remind me of? The girl from Coyote Ugly.” Which – having not seen the movie myself – is apparently about a bartender who sings. “You can sing, can’t you?” he asks, and me – caught up in the moment – let a “Heck yeah!” escape before catching myself with a “I mean, a little?” “We’re gonna have you up there next Sunday,” he says, pointing to the stage, referring to Acoustic Sundays where two incredibly talented local musicians play every week. “You’re gonna blow me away, I just know it,” he says as he walks away.
I tried my best to lower his expectations – Pearlie, the female vocalist who sings every week, has an absolutely insane range – and the last thing I wanted was him expecting the same from me. The whole affair was rather haphazard. As if the fact that I hadn’t performed for over a year and a half weren’t enough, there was also no possibility of performing on a piano – it’d have to be guitar, which having never played it in public, I was only slightly hesitant about. I managed to borrow a guitar off a friend and find a few hours to practice and prepare – two covers, “Realize” by Colbie Caillat and “The First Cut is the Deepest” by Sheryl Crow, as well as an original, “Yours for the Taking.” And – just to top it all off – I’ve had a weird cough/cold bug my entire time in Queenstown, the fact of which wasn’t doing wonders for my confidence, my throat not being in the best of conditions.
But when it came down to it, I just had to do it. I went into work and was surprisingly substantially less nervous than I normally am before a performance. I’d had a brief chance to run through the songs out back on Shay’s guitar, a gorgeous Takamine, and felt okay – not great, but not entirely fearful either. At about twelve, right before starting his second set, Shay runs up to the bar and says to me, “Grab yourself a shot and get up there!” I ran to the back, threw on a different shirt and some lip gloss and took my hair down. I walked on stage as all my colleagues cheered from the side, thinking only, “Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?”
The bar was full, with at least a hundred people – the biggest crowd I’d ever played in front of – not to mention all my friends I work with, even the general manager of the bar, lined up one side, with the entire front section of the audience made up entirely of guys. It was utterly exhilarating, by far my best experience in New Zealand as of yet. Shay had originally told me to cut one of the covers and keep it short and sweet. But after the first two songs went so well, he came back on stage and asked the crowd, “What do you say we hear one more?” I couldn’t believe how much they were yelling. “Alright, alright,” I said, “If you insist.”
It was the best feeling in the world – as cool as it was having twenty guys in the front singing along to “The First Cut is the Deepest,” even cooler was having one of them pick up on the words to my own song and sing along to the last chorus. A surreal moment, a moment where you know without a doubt that this is what you are meant to be doing. I came off stage and Braden gave me the biggest hug, “That was perfect. You had 6’3” muscle men crying. There wasn’t a guy in the bar not in tears. You looked so comfortable up there it was unreal.”
And the craziest thing about it all, the absolute magic of the night, was that my music wasn’t dormant anymore. I’d given it up to see the world, and than randomly, strangely, suddenly – I had music and travel at once. Nothing had been sacrificed after all, nothing except my perception that I couldn’t pursue both. Can you really have your cake and eat it, too? I felt like crying I was so happy. It had been like playing for my family, having all my friends looking on, smiling from the sides, and having such a supportive, engaged crowd – I couldn’t have asked for more.
But there is more to come, as it turns out. Braden is a schemer, a dreamer, a man with grand plans. Starting in two weeks’ time, he’s launching a new promotion, Acoustic Wednesdays, with the same four local musicians on stage each week – and he wants one of the slots to go to me. I’ll also keep playing a few songs each Sunday, as well as a potential spot in a charity festival/event Braden is planning for the summer. From thinking I’d laid music to rest to having it back in my life so out of the blue, it has been so unexpected but so, so good. I’d forgotten how much I missed it and how much I love performing my songs. It was like falling in love all over again.
Of course, this new turn of events brings me to evaluate my original plans for the rest of my time in New Zealand – as I’ve done how many other times so far? I left Christchurch for Queenstown expecting to be here for the season and then move on at some point in October. After I got connected here and made plans for a three-week trip to Thailand in November, I sketched out a further itinerary of about four weeks at the top of the South Island post-Thailand before returning to Queenstown for three weeks over Christmas and New Year’s until, finally….the North Island – most likely spending my last three months based out of the capital of Wellington.
Braden’s been asking me all along to stay for the summer, something I wasn’t too keen to do…up until now – now that the chance to get connected into the music scene of Queenstown has presented itself, I could see myself perfectly content with not moving on. I could see myself quitting Premier Taste – as much for the sake of my sanity as for the sake of my music – spending the days outdoors, wakeboarding on a friend’s jet boat, skydiving, getting a long-overdue tan, and spending nights at Wattie’s and performing. There could be a worse arrangement, that’s for sure.
And so I feel like I’m back in that same quandary as before in Christchurch. As the Clash sing, “Should I stay or should I go now?” It’s getting to be an all-too-familiar question in my life, one that maybe I’m just going to have to get used to dealing with. Life is all about decisions, about choices, about making peace with closed doors, summoning the courage to knock on new ones, and – if there’s several open – having the wisdom to know which one to walk through.
As for now, I’m letting the questions alone – it’s just good to have the melodies back.