A music student from Manchester in the UK - Harry Thompson, asked me some pretty interesting questions about my life as an independant singer-songwriter in Paris. I thought I'd share this on the blog as there's some valuable information on how I became the artist I am today.
1. What musical education/training have you had? Do you feel it’s been more or less useful than practical experience?
I had 8 years of private classical piano lessons as a kid, then switched to learning guitar by myself when I turned 15 and wanted to play rock. That's when I started singing along with the guitar, and also learned by myself. I never went back to playing the piano but learning it at a young age allowed me to work on my musical ear and motricity skills; which helped for learning guitar and singing later. I don't think the theorical part really helped but having to practice an instrument from a young age definitely did.
2. Describe an average working week.
We don't have average working week as independent singer-songwriters ! First, it depends if we're on tour, if we're working on a record in studio, if we're in a writing phase, or if we have a home base where we have to do regular gigs. Personally, I'm based in Paris and I've developed a community of artists through organizing 2 open mics & jam sessions per week, a song writing workshop per month, and some occasional house concerts. On a normal year, I spend half of my time in Paris working on that and on other occasional gigs with a mix of covers and original songs, while preparing and booking tours around Europe where I'll only play my own songs. And that takes the other half of my time. But I just released a new record last month, so I've been staying in Paris a lot more this year compared to usually, so I could work in studio-- then prepare the launch of the EP and manage the whole marketing strategy & promotion. I’m only gonna tour again in July and I've only just started working on booking that since the beginning of May-- So, my weeks lately have been a mix of studio work from November to January, marketing strategy & promotion from February to April, regular gigs in Paris all along and now preparing for the summer and autumn tours.
3. When, if ever, do you feel it’s right for musicians to play for free?
My first instinct would be to say never. But then, I remember it was useful when I had no stage experience and needed to practice. But playing for free doesn't even mean that you actually play for free, it actually means you're paying to play. Because of all the time and investment you've put into practicing, or into the instruments and gear you're bringing. And I’m not even talking about the time you're putting into promoting the event, which is free advertising for the bar, and the money they're gonna make with your audience. One of the biggest venues in Paris pays bands 150 euros only if they bring 70 people who pay 6 euros to get in. That's ridiculous because they make 420 only with the door ! And once you're inside, there's no drinks below 10 euros... So I totally boycott that place, because to me, that seems like a big lack of respect for musicians and they only justify it with a "it's good for your band to play here". But for them, it's just a very profitable business.
Of course, I can play for free for some friends or causes that matter from time to time if I like the event they're organizing and I have no gigs that night. But never for a venue that I don't know, except if it's an open mic to play a couple of songs and meet other songwriters or music event organizers. But playing a full set for a venue for free, unless it's your very first concert… that's a scam. A restaurant would never say to their cooks that they would only pay them if they have enough customers, and they would never ask their own customers to pay their food only if they're happy with the service. Once a service is booked and provided, you have to pay for it, and playing music is a service.
4. What 5 skills/attributes do you think are the most useful for musicians to have?
Well, the first one is to be passionate, because you're gonna have to work a lot if you want to master your instrument / voice / writing & composing skills. Without passion, you'll never naturally put a few hours every day to get there. If you're passionate, then you just naturally want to do it and you won't even notice that you spent 12 hours learning a guitar solo in the past 3 days, so it doesn't feel like you're working.
Of course, you also have to be creative, whether you want to write your own songs or perform covers putting your own stamp on them. That implies being in touch with your feelings, knowing how to listen to yourself and learning how to express this into music, lyrics or melodies.
For that, you also need to know who you are and believe in yourself, otherwise, you're always gonna feel like what you do is crap, and you'd give up after a few criticisms.
You have to be mentally strong to put up with all that, so you won't give up. I've seen too many talented artists who just gave up... And others with less "talent" who made it because they only kept going. But like Jacques Brel said : "talent doesn't exist. Talent is the desire to do something", and then do everything they can to fulfil that desire.
Then, if you wanna reach all your dreams and a sense of achievement and success as a professional artist, self discipline is essential.
5. Would you say that you’ve had your “big break”? If so, when and how ?
I didn't have a "big break" no, but there was definitely an epiphany. When I turned 30 in 2010, I got fired from a boring job, got dumped by my girlfriend, and the rock band I had started 5 years before split. At that time, I could have given up on music because I didn't wanna start another band, and didn't even consider I could become a solo artist. I needed to take some distance and had the opportunity to go to San Francisco for a couple of months through a home exchange. The first day there, I was walking around and stopped to listen to a street performer. I bought a CD at the end of his set and talked to him for a few minutes, but after he left, I felt like there was some kind of emptiness in the air. I had fantasized about playing in the streets for a while but I had never dared doing it, but that moment felt like it was the right time to try. I was freaking out at first but quickly felt better because people started to smile at me and toss some bills in my guitar case. After one hour, I needed to get some water, so I went to a hot dog joint at the corner and paid a bottle with a 1 dollar bill that I just got. That feeling to provide to my immediate need thanks to money I got from playing music randomly was a turning point. I kept doing it in San Francisco and started doing it all around Europe when I came back, realizing that I could actually now provide to all my basic needs by simply playing music.
6. How much networking do you do, and how necessary do you think it is? Why?
Well, I kinda made a pact with myself because of my "previous life" working in marketing, when I felt I was mostly forced to work for bosses I didn't like, So in music, I only work with people I feel a good connection with. That actually meant working by myself a lot at first But then, as I was building my solo artist identity and independence by busking alone in the streets all around Europe, I started to naturally attract or be attracted by people with a similar mindset, whether it was on the road or in Paris when I was coming back and started my open mics & jams. I kept that mindset also when I was booking gigs and tours all around Europe, because I always knew that in the worse case scenario, I could just do some busking if I couldn't find a venue which was the right fit for my music. So I would say that the networking I do is quite natural because it's about meeting and maintaining a relationship with people I want to be in touch with and if I can't, I know I can provide for myself anyway. I guess it's a longer road because I don't force myself to work with the powerful people in the industry who can boost a career if you sign with them and become their product, but I prefer being free to do whatever I want and spend time with people I actually like.
7. What do you find exciting in the Paris music scene right now?
There are more and more talented and independent artists here, which contributes to a great and inspiring energy. I've actually just been invited to a festival organized by a few collectives who host frequent open mics & jam sessions also, and we had a great discussion on that emerging scene to determine what we could do to structure each other and help build a stronger community together instead of treating it like competition. There's something powerful going on now because the independent underground scene is getting more experienced, more structured, with more skills on every level to manage projects on a bigger scale. We might be on the edge of building something which could actually work along with the local authorities so we can develop something which can last instead of being too ephemeral.
8. If you could go back in time, would you change anything you did in your career so far? If so, what?
Every step I took lead me to understand what I needed to do next, so if I had changed anything, I would probably be completely different right now, and my music also. But, well, if I could talk to my younger self, I would probably tell him to work a little more on some skills I could use nowadays like the piano, that I totally gave up when I started the guitar. And also a little more on my guitar skills, which I haven't worked as much as my singing, my writing or even my social & managing skills that I've naturally developed through busking all around and building the open mics & jams. But well, there's a Chinese quote saying "time is a created thing. Saying 'I don’t have time' is like saying 'I don't want to' " and I actually think I did what I wanted to do when I was ready to do them, so if I’m not a better guitar player now, or if I can't play the piano, it's also because an unconscious part of me just wanted to focus on something else. That's what makes the artist I am today and I'm happy with that.
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