First published in Period.ink, 2015.
I am a haunted woman. I’m haunted within and without by a word; one I’m sure many of you are familiar with. It’s friendly looking, full of round and unthreatening letters, until you reach the final, punctuative ‘t’. It’s a ghost that sleeps behind me, breathing down my neck. A weight carried, unmaternal, in my belly.
I’m talking about ‘Doubt’. In the springtime stroll of life, cotton dress billowing, Doubt is the leering masturbator at the bus stop who sends you scampering home. Shouldn’t have worn that fancy dress in the first place, you think.
When I’m not working I’m trying to make music. (See that? Trying. That’s Doubt.) I’ve always felt compelled to perform. I used to tape balloons with drawn-on faces to wooden spoons and re-enact West Side Story in its entirety from behind the sofa. There followed puppet shows in my council estate back garden, am-dram, school choir, and a long run of pub singing.
Somewhere in middle of all this I discovered guitar music via The Bends CD I stole from my brother’s bedroom. He was angry, but it was worth it because I discovered that I loved guitar music. I adored it. I can still sing every lead guitar line from the first three Radiohead albums.
I loved it so much that I did everything I could to get closer to guitars: bought every gear magazine I could, glued every picture of every guitarist I liked onto my school art folder. My wall was a shrine to skinny, sullen shredders. I even wore a pick around my neck on a dog chain just like Green Day’s Billy Joe (judgment graciously accepted). I attempted to Pepe le Pew my way into the arms of as many guitar players my small town could offer—once resulting in a broken arm (another story). I did everything, in fact, besides actually learn to play the instrument. In the sweaty, sticky stretch of puberty, it never once occurred to me to learn guitar seriously.
Eventually I got a guitar on the tick from a catalogue. I learned how to play Zombie by the Cranberries. I learned how to hold it and look at myself in the mirror, sometimes sitting with it between my legs like I’d see girls do in literally every magazine. I only ever saw one girl play on telly: Alanis Morrisette. I was amazed. I turned to my brother: ‘That’s so cool!’ He changed the channel. ‘Fucking tacky’. That was the end of my brief love-affair with Alanis, because if there’s one thing I learned from my magazines it was that guitars were for boys.
When at 19 I decided to learn guitar seriously, I discovered to my horror that my male friends had 6 or 7 years of experience on me. It seems that in-between teenage masturbatory discovery and Key Stage 3 exams, they were learning Led Zeppelin and Sabbath songs. What was I doing in that time? Cutting out pictures of Pete Vuckovic from 3 Colours Red and gluing them to notebooks probably. Doubt came and punched me in the tit. ‘You are too late!’ it said to 19-year-old me. So I gave up, which is fucking funny because now I’m 32 and trying to learn again. Everything I can’t do is a reminder of how much ground I lost, just by being too dumb and impressionable to ignore the transmissions from trashy mags and MTV.
Doubt lounges on my bed, idly picking croissant crumbs from its crotch. ‘Too late!’ it purrs, turns over and farts wetly.
‘Haha!’ you say. ‘But there are lots of lady indie types! You, Maggie, are a whiny sow.’ I am a whiny sow, but that aside, while there are some lady indie types, and while I wouldn’t dream of taking away from their hard work and talent they all tend to have something in common: fortune. Real fortune. Class fortune. They were nurtured. Talent was cultivated. Risk was mitigated. Doubt was minimised.
St Vincent went to Berklee, as did Aimee Mann. Bjork studied classical piano and flute. Have you heard Bat for Lashes speak? It’s lovely; deliciously posh. It rings with comfortable confidence. Female indie musicianship is the reserve of the middle classes. (Though, arguably, all indie is now.)
Do you know how much audition fees are to music and drama academies? Too much for many to try out even once, never mind second chances. Have a look at these fees from the RSAMD. Add to them travel, food, accommodation and it’s easy to see how working class nippers are kept out of reach of culture, one velvet-gloved palm to the forehead.
Pop music is where it’s at for aspiring singers from council estates. They’re comedy crass or they get the Phillip Pirrip treatment; wonderment that they should sing so beautifully from between yellow, crooked teeth. That the common racket of their accents can transcend dole queues and debt in notes of Les Miserables.
So what do I do? What do I grab hold of while I play catch up? I piggy-back on the talents and learnings of my betters, I suppose. That’s how the Party Fears album was made. That’s how I played with Garden Party, BaekMa and New Blue Death. A short-stay pass for the slow girl, Doubt says. But there’s a fear isn’t there? On the gallop, your legs begin to slip, your grasp begins to slacked. You bounce, a burden, on the labouring back. And what if they let go? Your palms sweat, your grip loosens. Doubt.
So why do music at all? Why not just watch Grand Designs and swoon at Kevin McCloud’s benign haughtiness? Learning guitar and learning piano is a frustrating business. Yes, as frustrating as it was for the St Vincents, Bjorks and Bat for Lasheseseses.
So why do I bother? If I’m so late, as that bastard Doubt keeps saying?
Because there is nothing in this world that I love to do more. There’s nothing I’m quite so good at, even in my limited ‘goodness’. Living and playing in Seoul gave me a bigger bite of the cherry and now I want to glut myself on it. It’s why I moved to Berlin in a personal act of financial self-destruction, a Party Fexit if you like– for music. I can’t not write music. I dream of it. I wake up with songs ringing in my head. Sometimes I feel sick with the need to sing, to play, to write, to perform.
Doubt withers in the performance because I’m not me anymore. The multitude fears: that I’m inadequate, that I’m a parasite feeding on the talents of my betters, that I’m a terrible person inches away from discovery or abandonment…
Fears piled on fears: ageing, money, the disintegration of the NHS, Trump’s America, Putin’s America… Air travel! They aren’t in the performance because I am not in the performance. I am erased. I have escaped into the shared bubble that floats between the band and the crowd. I at once vanish and appear. When everything comes together on stage, it sounds like precisely that: coital, cathartic, creative.
So there I am, trapped on the merry-go-round of lost time, and the one genuinely satisfying means of escaping those very regrets and fears. But it’s not all bad. Despite my moany disposition, I do possess some small capacity for growth.
I’m learning to say thanks more. I believe I have the best people in my life to help me and teach me, to bring my songs to life—guide me, encourage me. I might start apologising to them less, needing them less greedily than I do. It’s a reasonable goal. I’m trying. And I have the means to try. Many don’t, and that’s a decent reminder to try harder still. I’ll try to cosy up to that feeling more. I am fortunate. Freedom to learn, even now, even in my – gasp! – thirties: is a good companion. A better companion than Doubt.