Art of Performance
Head down, hand on chin, and with furrowed brow, David Wilcox assumed the posture of The Thinker, albeit on a folding chair.
The reflective position was an appropriate one for the heady singer-songwriter. What didn't fit was the barren solitude of the waiting area in which Wilcox sat before a recent club show in Chicago. Wilcox really belonged with the milling crowd downstairs. After all, this is a man who gets misty-eyed just thinking about performing.
Just minutes before taking the stage to the rapt reverence and attention of yet another audience, Wilcox, presently touring behind Live Songs and Stories (What Are Records), which embodies 15 years of folksy onstage humor, despair, and therapy, waxed philosophically and sentimentally on the art of dynamic performance.
Musician.com: What's going through your head right now, as you get ready to perform?
David Wilcox: The thing that can happen in a room when an emotion is tuned, and everyone is feeling the same thing is so mystical. I don't know where it comes from, but it's what I'm after-to pick the songs as I go, so I'm following where the audience is ready to go and leading them at the right times to get everyone together. Tonight, I know people have come a long distance, and they've been standing in line, so we're going to need some fun songs just to unwind, and then it can get a little intense toward the middle. But it's an early show and there's no opener, so it's going to take a lot of pacing, a lot of exaggerated pacing-fast to slow, funny to intense-to try to get everyone tuned and the room moving to the same emotion. That's the trick. It's a good challenge.
Musician.com: So, you're saying that seemingly mundane things like venue location and timing can affect how you choose to arrange your set? What about the weather? It's pouring out now, and people are arriving all soaked and harried. Would that factor into your set as well?
Musician.com: What turned you onto the mysticism of performance, as you put it? Did you witness some show early in your life that made you conscious of that phenomenon?
Wilcox: I was watching theater and [got into] what happens when one person or one group grab[s] the attention of a whole bunch of people. Mostly what fascinated me was not the situations where people showed up in order to hear something they'd been looking forward to hearing. The thing that really fascinated me was where someone could grab a room or a subway car,.you know, grab the attention of people in a public place and do it with humor and a little bit of edge to get people watching,and a little bit of common ground to keep people comfortable enough to be drawn in. You really see how people react to something they haven't seen before and whether they're going to trust it or not. I love watching things like that-you know, with a subway car, some guy gets on, and he starts into this monologue about whatever-I love studying how that works and whether or not it's successful-whether people tune it out or decide: "Well, he's the entertainment right now. Let's get into it." The kind of performances that moved me were at that chaotic level-whether an open mic or a street performer or some nut in a subway car. It's a great thing to study as to how to build trust with an audience.
Musician.com: Do you remember your first performance in front of an audience?
Wilcox: Yes, and even then, I was not thinking that it was me that was up there, but was thinking: "This song deserves to be heard. I'm the one who knows it, and I'm going to be the one who sings it." I've always been hiding behind the songs-I've always thought it was the songs up there, and I'm just the movie projector that shines a light through them.
Musician.com: Were you nervous at all?
Wilcox: There was a lot of nervous stuff at first. I used to feel nervous, and I would say to myself: "C'mon, David, it's as if you're asking yourself whether or not you deserve to be up there in front of all these people." The answer to that was "No." But it's the wrong question [to ask]. The right question is not what I deserve, but what [the audience] deserve[s]. They've come a long way; they've come from their living rooms, driving through the rain for an hour and half or two hours or whatever to maybe feel something tonight in these four walls. If I'm all that they have tonight, me being nervous is not going to help. You got to get it out of the way because, if something's going to move them tonight, I have to remove all the obstacles, get out of the way, so the music can get through. So, for their sake, I was willing to short-circuit all that nervousness.
Musician.com: You've described your performances as conversational. In everyday life, conversations often become stilted, even when two parties know and respect each other. Do you ever find that happening with your audiences, and, if so, what do you do in those situations?
Wilcox: That's a great question. The times when I'm feeling scared, like I've done something wrong or have the crowd offended or in some way put off, instead of just bullying through and doing an imitation of myself and plowing through the song, very often I will stop halfway through a song and say, "That's not working." Sometimes, I even just get right to the topic because, if it was something that I said, I can sort of feel when it happens that they react to something I said. Maybe they're misunderstanding it or taking it in a way I didn't really mean, but I can go back to that topic and try to pick up the pieces with a real humble, honest kind of [approach],with a sense of humor, but also getting right to the point where I'm apologizing. And that's surprising for an audience to see, I think. It can pull things back together.
Musician.com: Is a small venue a prerequisite for meaningful connection with an audience? In other words, do you believe a performance can be intimate and conversational in a hockey arena?
Wilcox: I don't know. I'm more practiced in smaller places obviously, but I've opened for people in arenas, and, to me, it feels like I was [intimate and conversational]. If the sound is great, it still has the same focus and can feel just as intense. I'm not sure how I get a sense of what the crowd is feeling, but I sure do. I have felt there are rooms that have a great focus and some that don't, but size is only one factor. It's design and how many distractions there are. Also, quality of sound and light and stuff like that. There are big rooms that have a great focus.
Musician.com: Do you find your songs evolving for you and your audiences over the course of the tour?
Wilcox: There are a lot of changes that happen depending on how a song works on a particular night. Night to night, a song can mean different things, depending on the frame that it's put in, the song that comes before or after it, the thread of storytelling, where it fits into the night. A song can be sung with very different emotion-the very same lyric, the very same song, if you bring it with a real frustrated edge or you sing it with compassion or you sing it with anger, it can tell a completely different story. Used in a different place in the series, it can bring out highlights in the lyrics that just weren't visible before, [turning] it into a different song. There are some nights where a song can shine like never before, and it becomes a sort of anthem for the night. Then, you try it again another night, and it's just not there. So, I'm not afraid-if I dive into a song and it's not working that night, I will drop a verse and chorus and onto the next [song] to find something that does work. Last night, playing here [at Schuba's in Chicago], I played a couple of intense songs and went into a funny song. The reaction of the crowd,.there was so much energy with the funny song-an unusual amount of everybody shaking loose the frustration of the day, I guess. The laughter was so much bigger than usual. It just felt like they needed more of that. So I played, like, three more funny ones, and it was still there. It was still building, and I started to feel like, "OK, this is about the top of that emotion" and dropped it into something else right away. But there are songs that, on an average night, are just sort of mildly funny, but last night had people howling. It was great.
Musician.com: As someone who feeds off audiences, how do you handle life in the studio?
Wilcox: I would much rather be playing live. For me, the records are an invitation to the concert, but I've never been as comfortable [in the studio]. I've even gotten to the point where I know I have to have some kind of audience in the studio, even if it's just 10 people. For me, to have a great performance, there's got to be something there to draw the music out. I can use my imagination and pretend there's someone there listening through all the wires and all the recording devices, but, if there's really somebody there, it makes it easier.
Musician.com: What's next for you?
Wilcox: I've got a studio record already done. We're planning on the fall, maybe the spring [for release]-it depends on a bunch of stuff. I'm really grateful that I get a chance to work at something-you can be at it for 15 years and still feel like, "Ah, so this is how it's done." Just now discovering the way I write best, feeling like I've reached another level with getting to the heart of what I want to say lyrically, and having a lot more fun with the writing process and with writing with other people, It feels like a blessing to be working at what I love.
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