Photos by Robin Sabot
"So are you a singer?"
"Yes. No. Sort of . . . ?"
I get this question (or various iterations of it) often, and I never quite know how to answer. Stumbling over my words, I try to determine the best way to convey what it is that I do, how long I've been doing it, and what I hope to do in the future. All in as concise and clear a manner as possible, because who wants to hear my entire resume/biography while standing in line for chips at a party? I'm a singer, but I'm not currently performing. I'm an artist, but I'm not trying to sound pretentious. The arts are a significant and fundamental part of my life, but I'm not doing it full‐time right now. I make music, but it's so much more than a hobby . . . One word never seems to cover the full set of circumstances, and I'm left babbling an answer that is far from concise or clear.
Why is it so difficult to answer that question with one word? I can't say "no" when I've been singing, acting, etc. my entire life. And I have trouble saying "yes" because that one syllable seems to bear more weight than I'm at times prepared to carry. Saying that I'm "a singer” seems to imply that this is my main job, that I am a full‐time professional and have dedicated my life solely to the arts. It invokes the image of a starving artist, getting by on a survival job and pure devotion to a craft, come hell or high water. I'm not sure that I can claim that commitment, that dedication, that persistence, when I've been double‐timing with other pursuits. Am I a musician even though I am not a master of my instruments? Am I a professional singer if I don't perform all the time? Do I have to make the choice to forego all other paths and finally commit to the arts to convey the passion and love I have for it, choosing the Robert Frostian "[road] less traveled" to prove my devotion? These are questions that often run through my mind, preventing me from giving a simple answer to what should be a simple question. So when someone asks if I'm a singer, I struggle to find the right words to say. Even after all these years, it seems that the performing arts and I have not DTR'd yet ("defined the relationship"). But can I be anything but a singer/musician/artist, when the performing arts are something I think about every single day?
Of course no one is pressuring me to properly define my relationship with the performing arts, certainly not the innocent partygoer who simply wants to know whether or not I can make music with my mouth. This confusion is very much self‐inflicted, fueled by the threat of a DTR talk that I have been putting off for years. In the meantime, I answer the question "Are you a singer?" with the same noncommittal, expository response as someone who feels obliged to answer "Yes, but . . ." or "Yes, because . . ." when asked if they're single. For the sake of growth, let me attempt here and now, to describe "what I am":
Yes, I am a singer. I don't perform every day, but I have been performing on and off my entire life and will continue to perform for the rest of my life. I am a musician because, like August Rush, I hear music everywhere I go, even though I didn't major in music and have not mastered music theory. I am a writer though I've never had anything published and I am the founder and CEO of a production company, though it is in its infant stages. I am a producer, in the sense that I produce projects inspired by my own ideas, but I'm no Jordan Roth or Kurt Hugo Schneider. I'm an actor, though I never went to a conservatory and don't do shows back to back. I like to think of myself as a dancer, because I dance every single day and it's something I believe I am good at, even though I haven't had much training. And I believe that I am a professional, because I have obtained a professional set of skills over the years that I have dedicated much time to and have been paid for in the past.
Do I have a right to claim any of these things when I know so many other people have demonstrated their commitment to these art forms by forgoing everything else? I don't know. I want to be worthy of those titles and all they convey, but what do I have to have accomplished to be worthy? Some people might say that these are only hobbies—avocations and not occupations. Others would say that I should claim whatever I want, and that labels are just words that cannot possibly contain the sum of one human being and all their goals and passions.
What I know for certain is that I am instinctively creative; that I have ideas that are more akin to visions, and that I have the overwhelming urge to bring these visions to life by whatever means possible. I know that I am a storyteller and that I love to share all kinds of stories in different mediums. So if that means that I am an artist, then I am one indeed. If the fact that I sing and dance every single day of my life and have dedicated significant time to improving my skills makes me a singer and a dancer, then I'll claim those titles as well. If the fact that I have performed at a professional level and have been compensated
accordingly means that I'm a professional singer/musician, then that's what I'll call myself. If the fact that I attend auditions whenever possible and study acting in my spare time makes me an actor, then I'll take it. And if the fact that I have a production company with profitable projects and several more in the works counts for something, then add producer, director, writer, and CEO to my list of credits. Other people might dispute these qualifications, but at the end of the day, I guess the only acceptance that matters is mine.
So the next time I'm making small‐talk at a party and someone asks me if I'm a singer/actor/artist/etc., I'll simply say "yes." Period, full stop, end of sentence. Because if I spend every day thinking about the arts, how can I be anything less than committed? I guess the truth is I DTR'd a long time ago. The performing arts and I are in a serious, lifelong relationship, whether or not we're Facebook official. I don't know where this relationship will take me, but no matter what the circumstances are or where I may be or what I may be doing, I am a professional artist and creator. And no contested labeling could ever change that.
Last night I was, like the rest of the world, listening to the wonder that is Adele's new album, 25. I began to think about why Adele is such a captivating artist, why she stands out among the myriad of performers on the world stage. She certainly has a unique style when she performs, eschewing acrobatics, crazy costumes, and dance troupes for simple backing bands and singing in one place. Her music, for the most part, doesn’t feature the heavy electronic sounds we have become so accustomed to in this day and age of auto-tune. She rarely has club dance hits, instead performing ballads and slightly more up tempo melodies, but never anything you can do the Nae Nae to. And she is easily one of the most vocally talented singers today, sounding as good live as she does in recordings. Are those the reasons her album release has been met with such naked and eager anticipation?
Honestly, I think it’s so much more than that. I had forgotten the effect that her music could have on a person. The way she manages to convey emotions from the depths of one's soul with the melodic ease of a seasoned professional. But that is the image she projects: not only an expert in emotional devastation but a woman who knows what she wants and knows who she is. Maybe this image is driven by the deep introspection that marks her music, from "Hometown Glory" and “Someone Like You” to "Hello" and “Million Years Ago”. It is obvious to anyone who has listened to her music that she has taken time to reflect on her life, her choices, her relationships, and the changes that come with age and experience.
But what makes Adele pure magic is not just her ability to reflect on her life but the ability to convey those reflections to complete strangers. To build bridges connecting our experiences to each other, making us feel united in our conquests, our defeats, our mistakes, and our growth. That is the key to Adele's gift. With her voice, her lyrical genius, and the sense of gravitas that accompanies her performances, she communicates the deepest of human experiences and emotions. It doesn't hurt that she also has an engaging personality, a sense of humor, and an appreciation for profanity that makes you want to ask her to grab a beer with you at the nearest pub.
With her gifts and skill, it’s hardly a wonder that her journey has been so epic over the last few years. She piqued our interest with 19, grabbed our attention with both hands in 21 and has now rejuvenated our adoration with 25. She is a true artist who makes real music with real messages behind them. Her songs carry weight and her vocals have the strength to back them up. She also took her time making this album, focusing on making good music and not just money. Meanwhile, she has managed to protect her family from the scrutiny and intrusion that comes with mega-fame, controlling how much of her personal life the world gets to see and when. She seems accessible without being overly so, barely using social media but still managing to make her fans feel connected. She lets her music speak for itself and stays true to her British roots, managing to be humble without being insecure about her talent.
Adele is the kind of artist who's in it for the long haul, focused on making a mark and not just a quick buck. At 27 she has mastered so much of the game but is still prepared to learn more and evolve as an artist. That should be inspiration enough for anyone looking for modern day musical icons. Thank God for Adele and her mastery of the music language. We are made better for having musicians in this world who can remind us of our shared human experiences, uniting us in an incredibly divided world.