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Music as Communication, Not a Sensation

How Johnny Depp Helped Me Overcome "Lead Singer Syndrome."

By Kate QuinnPublished 7 years ago 9 min read

I sang before I ever talked. Apparently, my uncle Jack was visiting my parents and I started singing "Scarborough Fair" by Simon and Garfunkel. I'd heard that song numerous times since my parents were huge fans of the duo. Of course, I didn't know how to articulate the words... but I could sing them.

I have no recollection of this. From what I was told, I sang the song all the way through. My uncle Jack was said to have told my parents, "She's on key!" Apparently, the song wasn't even playing when I started singing, but I stayed in key and didn't deviate from it. My uncle Jack encouraged my parents to give me music lessons, and that was how my journey started.

The moment I realized I have a future in music, I embraced it. However, I also embraced writing, acting, and instruments like the guitar and piano. The rest of my life would be spent figuring out my place in the world of music.

As a singer, I learned quickly how to be fearless on stage. I also learned how to hate myself whenever I wasn't "perfect." Or when someone insinuated or told me directly that I "suck."

Then, the more I followed and learned about Johnny Depp, the more he taught me the most important thing of all to remember.

Music is not meant to be about sensation. Not really. It's not about praise or glory. It's not about winning awards or getting written about with lavish praise in reviews. It's not about standing ovations, or people in your band or show falling all over your talent.

Music is a powerful language that can't be explained in words. What ruins it, is the showy way it's presented, by people trying to make a "star" out of someone who happens to be a decent singer, guitarist, or whatnot.

Johnny Depp is known for joking around in interviews when he feels shy about answering a question. One thing he never holds back about, though, is music. He was joking around one time, about himself as a possible "band leader," i.e. the "Johnny Depp Band." In a nutshell, he is more comfortable blending in than standing out.

"I am not built for Lead Singer Syndrome."

I have to admit, I bristled a little upon hearing that terminology. As a singer who always wanted to be in a band, I thought, what, are we all diseased then? Later when I thought of it, I remembered what Johnny Depp said about actors who jump into music careers because they "can." These are people with no real connection to music... someone told them they could sing or play, and there it was. Just basically a parody of music. But with Johnny, he LIVES the music.

So, the message I finally got, one I feel Johnny was communicating words, is this. If you're singing but not connected to the music, but rather to others' opinions of you, good or bad? You're not making music, you're sensationalizing. I had become so wrapped up in sensation and ego, I lost my grip on what I actually felt, deep down, from the music itself. We singers hear so much praise for not only our voices but our presentation. That was the trouble I ran into. My presentation was always sketchy. Everyone wanted me to look a different way, wear different clothes, different make-up, and all I wanted to do was sing and reach people. However, I didn't know where I began, where the music began, and where the sensationalism began and ended.

I stepped back from a gig I'd been doing in downtown Philadelphia, to go within and see exactly what my relationship with music truly is.

Did I want to be a lavishly praised singer whose voice just "melted" people, and made them want to know my story? Did I want to be lauded as the next Janis Joplin or Dusty Springfield? Or did I want to make music, just for the sake of being a part of such an incredible energy that everyone shares in?

I had to really get honest with myself before I could answer that question.

I was never all that popular as a child or teenager, but when it came to my singing, everyone scooped me up from the proverbial "gutter" to the highest pedestal they could create. The problem was, I fell off the pedestal one too many times. Half the time I didn't even know I had fallen off. I would bask in the lavish praise and not even know I was missing the whole point.

Slaves in the Civil War era and beyond sang as they worked in the fields, as a form of prayer. People embraced what they were singing, not just to "perform," or get applause. What many in the music industry seem to be constantly portraying, despite the meaning of the songs themselves or the musicians' intentions, is a show. An image. A face, a body, a sound.

A formula.

Whether we're in Hollywood or not, many of us who sing struggle with the "showy" aspect of it in one way or another. It's a trend to be a presenter, a performer, and to look the part of the character we're given. We hear so much about how great we sound, how our voices just resonate with people's hearts, what we're singing, all of it. When I was hosting the open-mic nights at HeadHouse Cafe near South Street, I was constantly being praised by the owner of the cafe, as well as audience members. It got so overwhelming, I wanted to hide in my room and never come out. A couple times I called out sick from the gigs. I just had too much anxiety. But what was I anxious about?

Like many who are encouraged to do music at a young age, I was told that if I don't toot my own horn, no one else will toot it. This is true in many ways, although there's a difference between making yourself visible when no one knows what you can do yet, and constantly showing yourself to be a sensation. As if that is all you truly can be. Yet it's not your voice, this sensation. It's not your truth. It's what other people have told you you are. Like many, I developed an identity with performing and trying to show the world what a good singer I was. Why? Well, I never was good at anything else. To belong to whatever crowd I was in, I had to go to a piano and sit and play and sing if I felt shy. Sometimes that brought people around the piano, complimenting me and listening avidly to still more. Other times, people yelled at me to stop showing off.

I used to revel in those who would angrily defend me against those yelling hecklers. People used to flock around me praising my ability to sing in front of others, and not be afraid to "toot my horn." However, these people eventually dropped off and flocked around the next sensation to come around the local scene. It was fleeting and fickle. The importance one places on this kind of "validation" is what hurts music and musicians so much. It's a loss of identity, so to speak.

Music is not supposed to be about competition or one person being glorified for whatever reason. No art is supposed to be about that. Of course, those of us who don't have the fame and following have to do something to make others hear us... so here's a thought. Why not let the music make US, rather than we make MUSIC?

We are communicating a language of the heart. The only way to feel connected to it as well as to the audience is to make love to what you're actually singing. Not worry about what your voice sounds like or what you look like up there on stage.

Music is a necessity, like food and water. It's life-sustaining. It is the essence of what keeps people sane, keeps them happy. Keeps them getting up in the morning. When you hear Johnny Depp talk about the Taraf De Haidouks, the gypsy musicians he worked with in the movie The Man Who Cried, you can almost feel the light surrounding his eyes. This is probably one of the most real, gut-level honest interviews Depp has ever done.

The gypsies, much like the Africans, the Irish and so many others, live for music and by music. There is no showing off, even with the singers. They are praying as they sing. They are expressing themselves in ways they are not able to do in words or gestures. They are, without overstating, showing us not just their lives and their heads, but a world beyond that that no one can explain unless you hear the song.

It doesn't matter if one is a singer, a guitarist, a drummer, an accordion player or one who runs the sound as the band is playing. We need to stay connected to what's inside the actual music, and allow that to flow out of our voices and instruments. If we are disconnected from that, we lose our ability to think rationally, much less creatively. Egotism, if it gets inside our heads even for a moment, must be wiped out completely. Otherwise, we risk not only losing our connection with music, but our souls. This is what has led to untimely deaths, like that of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and more recently Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell.

I thank whatever powers that be that I never got to Hollywood at a young age. There was a time I lived to sing onstage and be remembered. I wasn't going to sing in a chorus anymore, I once declared. No, I wanted to be the lead! Now? I want nothing more than to chill out with friends, all playing guitars, and play along with them. Take turns singing but most of all, stay close to what is really pure and whole, within all of us.

Music. The only energy that is truly Divine. The rest of us are only messengers.


About the Creator

Kate Quinn

"“Don't step into lives that aren't yours, make choices that aren't nourishing, or dance stiffly for years with the wrong partner, or parts of yourself.”

― S.A.R.K.

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

― Marcus Tullius Cicero

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