How to make it
Make me a star
Gotta sing? Gotta dance? Kirstin Innes trawls Scotland’s grassroots music, comedy and poetry scenes, from open mic nights in pub basements to glitzy cabarets in community halls, to find out the best ways to get your voice heard, and picks up top tips from some rising stars
Talent. Britain has it, apparently. The airwaves are clogged up with fat, snaking queues of wannabes who want nothing in life so much as the chance to perform an acapella version of Rihanna’s Umbrella to a sneering celebrity panel. We’re in an age where to ‘make it’ means that moment of discovery where you’re plucked from obscurity and launched on the world fully formed, and everyone else realises just how special you’ve always been.
Television and Myspace make instant stars of the likes of Girls Aloud and Kate Nash, so the notion that you might have to work at your talent, that getting yourself heard might take years, seems almost outmoded.
And yet, down at the coalface – the open mic nights, comedy clubs and spoken word evenings in back rooms of pubs all over the country – people are slogging away to tiny audiences just for the joy of putting on their craft.
Gerry Lyons has run the open acoustic night downstairs at Nice & Sleazy’s on Sauchiehall Street every Monday for ten years now. It almost feels irreverent to write that without appending ‘legendary’ to either venue or night – both are institutions, and have exerted huge influence over the recent evolution of Glasgow’s music scene, although Lyons himself is far too modest to admit it, and is still slightly wide-eyed about the success his nights have had.
‘I honestly don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a musician in Glasgow, and it’s really quite exciting for me to see how many bands on the scene today have started from meetings and collaborations at Sleazy’s acoustic nights – The Pendulums, Dead Fly Bukowski, Tom Snowball. Jo Mango and Gareth Dickson, who now tour with Vashti Bunyan, met there, and they still come in to try out new stuff.
‘It took a few years for people to “get” the acoustic night, and to properly realise that this was a platform where they could showcase their own stuff, get feedback, and meet like-minded folk. At first everyone just sat around doing the same Oasis covers, then after a while they all moved on to Radiohead . . . ! However, as the idea of the scene grew, the performers grew more confident, and these days, I don’t want to over-romanticise, but there are moments when we get that sort of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in Greenwich Village vibe. There’s an atmosphere that people come back to. Elliot Smith played onstage when he was in Glasgow – just turned up with his guitar. I think everyone got a real thrill out of that.’
Although Lyons relies on a core group of performers who attend every week, there’s no predecided programme for the evening and first-time musicians are always welcome.
‘It’s a regular crowd, but they’re always really accommodating of newcomers. We get people who come back, week after week, and you see their songs evolving and improving with the experience of performing live and learning what that audience will respond to.’
Glasgow slam poet-about-town Robin Cairns, who runs monthly open mic poetry night Last Monday At Rio, as well as the biannual Glasgow Slam (like a dance-off for performance poets), would agree with Lyons’ emphasis on slowly evolving your craft.
‘Open mic nights are a good way to find out if you’ve actually got any aptitude for the thing you’ve set your heart on, but they’re also really valuable because of the range of other performance styles you’ll encounter. We don’t all spring from the rock with our performances developed and intact – by taking part in events you learn what other people are doing and start thinking about other possible styles you can adopt. The spoken word scene is so new in Scotland that we’re all still finding our voices, and maybe there isn’t a fully authentic style here – we get a lot of English and American influence. However, what’s important is that we’re building a scene. It’s like being Billy Connolly, in a way, starting out as an alternative comedian in the 1970s. You have to create the venues, you have to build the scene yourself, you have to create the audience.’
Cairns is well aware of his part as an architect of that scene. Last Monday at Rio is an evening in two halves – there’s an open mic format to start out, where anyone who fancies themselves the next Murray Lachlan Young can try to impress the audience, although be warned: you’ll be gonged off if you go over the two minute mark. Cairns himself comperes the second part of the programme, with a line-up of invited guests.
‘I usually pick my headline act out of the pool of spoken word artists and performance poets currently working the scene, and then complement them with different kinds of performers. It’s essential to maintain some sort of quality control, but we need the open mic sessions to keep the scene rejuvenated.’
If you’re tone deaf, and performance poetry isn’t your thing, why not start your own evening and do something different? License Pending, which debuted at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in July, was set up by current Glasgow Slam champion Drew Taylor and local actor Martin O’Connor in order to create a freespace for emergent musicians, dancers, comedians and performance artists to come together. Over in Edinburgh, Neue Liebe, inspired by the smoky, sexy cabarets of the inter-war years, was a surprise hit of the recent Leith Festival, incongruously throwing ballgown-clad musicians and painted burlesque performers together with the occupants of a Leith working man’s club.
‘All our events have been very well attended and well loved – cabaret especially seems to be a perfect form of entertainment for a crowd that wants to explore a variety of art forms,’ says Neue Liebe organiser Jennifer Williams. She curates the acts in her cabaret, but is open to new performers approaching her.
‘I consider it my own duty as a poet to find ways to share my work with as wide an audience as possible, and helping other artists in this pursuit is a worthwhile and necessary activity.’
What Williams, Cairns and Lyons are all absolutely clear on is that the performers who attend their nights do it for the love of performance itself.
‘I can’t see a career in television for a performance poet,’ Cairns says, with a grin. ‘Spoken word performance isn’t going to make you famous, and it’s not a crash course in becoming a comedian. This is a haphazard scene, but it’s wonderful when you get these big, beautiful voices rising out of it.’
‘It’s therapy, isn’t it?’ says Lyons. ‘That’s why a lot of people write music, that’s why people need to perform it, that’s why they come to open mic nights, where people are sympathetic to them. It’s got absolutely nothing at all to do with the fact that we give them free beer.
WHERE TO GO
Music open mic nights
• Blackfriars, Bells St, 0141 552 5924, every second Tuesday, 8pm
• Elliots, Bath St, 0141 248 2060, Thursdays, 8pm
• Nice’N’Sleazy’s, Sauchiehall St, 0141 333 9637, Mondays, 8pm
• Oran Mór, Byers Rd, 0141 357 6200, Wednesdays, 8pm
Comedy open mic nights
• Red Raw, The Stand Comedy Club, Woodlands Road, 0870 600 6055, Tuesdays, 8pm
• Comedy@the State, The State Bar, Holland St, 0141 332 2159, Saturdays, 9pm
Spoken word events
Last Monday at Rio, Rio Café, Hyndland St, 0141 334 9909
Licence Pending, various times and venues. See www.myspace.com/licencepending
• Bannermans, Niddry St, 0131 556 3254, Sundays, 4pm
• Blind Poet, Nicholson St, 0131 667 4268, Tuesdays, 10pm
• The Canon’s Gait Bar, Canongate, 0131 556 4481, Thursdays, 8pm
• Whistle Binkies, South Bridge, 0131 557 5114, Mondays, 9pm
• Comedy at Black Bo’s, Black Bo’s, Blackfriars St, 0131 557 6136, Tuesdays, 8.30pm
• Red Raw, The Stand Comedy Club, York Place, 0131 558 7272, Mondays, 8pm (not during Fringe)
• Big Word, Jazz Bar, Chambers Street 0131 220 4298. Not during Fringe, see www.thejazzbar.co.uk for further info.
• Beatnix Poetry Slam, Jazz Bar, Chambers St, see above.
• Neue Liebe, various times and venues. See www.myspace.com/neueliebe
Siân Bevan has been performing comedy since graduating from university. She regularly gigs on the comedy circuit and currently has a show, Bevan and Brown Are Terrified, on at the Free Fringe in Edinburgh
People seem to want things to happen very, very quickly these days. You get the odd person who makes a name for themselves in five minutes, but they’re always the exception, and often end up as a flash in the pan. The comedians who really stand the test of time – Stewart Lee, Eddie Izzard – are the ones who’ve doggedly worked the circuit for a decade. Remember that it’s a really enjoyable process, climbing the ladder. Don’t try and race to the top before you’re ready.
‘I’d always been quite gobby, and when a friend told me I should get into stand-up, I entered the BBC New Talent competition. I got to the semi-finals, and was invited down to a writing workshop run by Robin Ince, which was all very good, but I just did it too soon, and I wasn’t ready for it and didn’t take proper advantage of the opportunities.
‘Most competitions have a fairly open call for anyone who’s been performing for under three years, but I really don’t think you should enter without at least a year’s experience. After that you’re more settled, you understand comedy and you know what you want from it. Quite often the prize in a new talent competition is a headline set, and I think at that stage you can have a brilliant five minutes but might not yet be ready to cope with 20 minutes of a Jongleurs crowd. However, you do pick up a lot of important contacts along the way, and that’s an essential part of making a career for yourself in comedy.
‘By far the best starting point for new comedians in Glasgow and Edinburgh is The Stand. They run a night called Red Raw especially for new comedians – it’s friendly, the comperes are experienced, and the audiences go there expecting new talent, so they’re more tolerant. There are other open mic nights around, but wait a while before you go to them. The audiences won’t be so sympathetic if you die up there.
‘Finally, if you want to get into stand-up comedy, go and watch it. It’s amazing how many people you get who’ve maybe watched a Billy Connolly video once and thought: “I could do that”. Spend two months just watching comedy, finding out what works for other people, getting to know comedians, getting your set exactly how you like it – know what you’re doing.’
Singer-songwriter Lou Hickey began plying her trade at open mic and acoustic nights all round Glasgow. She is now part of the Club Noir Burlesque troupe, has supported acts such as Martha Wainwright, and recently played at T in the Park and Indian Summer
‘I used to be in a really awful metal band, and started doing my own stuff live by accident when I was in my final year at uni. I was recording some songs for my sound engineering project. I also used to run gigs for Strathclyde uni and there was a spare slot and I put myself on. Then the 13th Note offered me another slot and it all started from there. The first time I performed live, I was taken along to an open mic to build up my confidence and it was the best thing I could have done. If you’re starting out, or if you’ve got new material it’s good to try it out without the pressures of a big formal gig. There are no expectations there – and you get free beer.
‘These days, my gigs come through my managers, but that’s not an essential thing. You shouldn’t look for a manager; your manager should find you. At first I put on gigs of my own – which is great because you get to pick the bands you play with and can supervise the publicity – and played open mic nights and acoustic sessions in the West End. Just phone up venues and promoters; they always have slots that need filled. And if you haven’t got enough money to put a CD together, try approaching students on the music production course at Strathclyde Uni. Most students have projects to do and will be looking for bands to record, and the production there is really good; I’ve had a lot of compliments about the quality.
‘My second gig with my full band was a support slot for Martha Wainwright in the Carling Academy. It was amazing playing in such a big venue, but the most exciting gig for me was King Tut’s. A lot of people out there are doing this to become rich or famous, but my ambition was always just to get a CD out there and play King Tut’s! Everything else on top of that is a bonus. But really, the best advice is just to keep plugging away.' (Shelley O’Neill)
THE PERFORMANCE POET
Drew Taylor, 22, has been making waves around Glasgow since he won the open-entry Glasgow Slam in April. He now runs Cabaret night License Pending with fellow performer Martin O’Connor
’I’d been writing for years, but I started performing my own poetry mainly as therapy. I went to drama school and I’ve trained as an actor; it was good fun, but I found myself a bit restricted by the opportunities that we were given during training. You’re not really encouraged to do your own stuff.
‘After a while I decided to go my own way and as live art things weren’t necessarily my bag, I stumbled across the work I’d done when I was a kid. It was good, and I started writing my own things again – generally when things were getting a bit rubbish I’d write everything down just to help get through it and all of that ended up turning into poems. It didn’t occur to me to do anything with them until a friend suggested it to me and I started performing my own work in February this year. My first performance was at Tchai Ovna’s irregular “Reading the Leaves” session, then I went on to do student open mic nights at Glasgow uni and the art school. I gradually got noticed, and winning the Glasgow Slam has led to lots of other invited performance slots for me – I was in the Big Word in Edinburgh recently.
‘I don’t think that coming from a drama school background has given me a particular advantage as a performance poet. Okay, I benefitted from the vocal training and all of that kind of stuff, but the idea behind acting is that you lose yourself when you’re performing, you get really into the character. You can’t do that when you’re performing your own work, and my performance poetry is all about me. The majority of actors that I know find it very difficult to stand up in front of people and talk honestly and candidly when not hiding behind a character.’