Joe Kowan: I have stage fright. I've always had stage fright, and not just a little bit, it's a big bit. And it didn't even matter until I was 27. That's when I started writing songs, and even then I only played them for myself. Just knowing my roommates were in the same house made me uncomfortable.
But after a couple of years, just writing songs wasn't enough. I had all these stories and ideas, and I wanted to share them with people, but physiologically, I couldn't do it. I had this irrational fear. But the more I wrote, and the more I practiced, the more I wanted to perform.
So on the week of my 30th birthday, I decided I was going to go to this local open mic, and put this fear behind me. Well, when I got there, it was packed. There were like 20 people there. (Laughter) And they all looked angry. But I took a deep breath, and I signed up to play, and I felt pretty good.
Pretty good, until about 10 minutes before my turn, when my whole body rebelled, and this wave of anxiety just washed over me. Now, when you experience fear, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. So you have a rush of adrenaline, your heart rate increases, your breathing gets faster. Next your non-essential systems start to shut down, like digestion. (Laughter) So your mouth gets dry, and blood is routed away from your extremities, so your fingers don't work anymore. Your pupils dilate, your muscles contract, your Spidey sense tingles, basically your whole body is trigger-happy. (Laughter) That condition is not conducive to performing folk music. (Laughter) I mean, your nervous system is an idiot. Really? Two hundred thousand years of human evolution, and it still can't tell the difference between a saber tooth tiger and 20 folksingers on a Tuesday night open mic? (Laughter) I have never been more terrified — until now. (Laughter and cheers)
So then it was my turn, and somehow, I get myself onto the stage, I start my song, I open my mouth to sing the first line, and this completely horrible vibrato — you know, when your voice wavers — comes streaming out. And this is not the good kind of vibrato, like an opera singer has, this is my whole body just convulsing with fear. I mean, it's a nightmare. I'm embarrassed, the audience is clearly uncomfortable, they're focused on my discomfort. It was so bad. But that was my first real experience as a solo singer-songwriter.
And something good did happen — I had the tiniest little glimpse of that audience connection that I was hoping for. And I wanted more. But I knew I had to get past this nervousness.
That night I promised myself: I would go back every week until I wasn't nervous anymore. And I did. I went back every single week, and sure enough, week after week, it didn't get any better. The same thing happened every week. (Laughter) I couldn't shake it.
And that's when I had an epiphany. And I remember it really well, because I don't have a lot of epiphanies. (Laughter) All I had to do was write a song that exploits my nervousness. That only seems authentic when I have stage fright, and the more nervous I was, the better the song would be. Easy. So I started writing a song about having stage fright. First, fessing up to the problem, the physical manifestations, how I would feel, how the listener might feel. And then accounting for things like my shaky voice, and I knew I would be singing about a half-octave higher than normal, because I was nervous. By having a song that explained what was happening to me, while it was happening, that gave the audience permission to think about it. They didn't have to feel bad for me because I was nervous, they could experience that with me, and we were all one big happy, nervous, uncomfortable family. (Laughter)
By thinking about my audience, by embracing and exploiting my problem, I was able to take something that was blocking my progress, and turn it into something that was essential for my success. And having the stage fright song let me get past that biggest issue right in the beginning of a performance. And then I could move on, and play the rest of my songs with just a little bit more ease. And eventually, over time, I didn't have to play the stage fright song at all. Except for when I was really nervous, like now. (Laughter)
Would it be okay if I played the stage fright song for you? (Applause)
Can I have a sip of water? (Music) Thank you.
♫ I'm not joking, you know, ♫ ♫ this stage fright is real. ♫ ♫ And if I'm up here trembling and singing, ♫ ♫ well, you'll know how I feel. ♫ ♫ And the mistake I'd be making, ♫ ♫ the tremolo caused by my whole body shaking. ♫ ♫ As you sit there feeling embarrassed for me, ♫ ♫ well, you don't have to be. ♫ ♫ Well, maybe just a little bit. ♫ (Laughter) ♫ And maybe I'll try to imagine you all without clothes. ♫ ♫ But singing in front of all naked strangers scares me more than anyone knows. ♫ ♫ Not to discuss this at length, ♫ ♫ but my body image was never my strength. ♫ ♫ So frankly, I wish that you all would get dressed, ♫ ♫ I mean, you're not even really naked. ♫ ♫ And I'm the one with the problem. ♫ ♫ And you tell me, don't worry so much, you'll be great. ♫ ♫ But I'm the one living with me ♫ ♫ and I know how I get. ♫ ♫ Your advice is gentle but late. ♫ ♫ If not just a bit patronizing. ♫ ♫ And that sarcastic tone doesn't help me when I sing. ♫ ♫ But we shouldn't talk about these things right now, ♫ ♫ really, I'm up on stage, and you're in the crowd. Hi. ♫ ♫ And I'm not making fun of unnurtured, irrational fear, ♫ ♫ and if I wasn't ready to face this, ♫ ♫ I sure as hell wouldn't be here. ♫ ♫ But if I belt one note out clearly, ♫ ♫ you'll know I'm recovering slowly but surely. ♫ ♫ And maybe next week, I'll set my guitar ringin' ♫ ♫ my voice clear as water, and everyone singin'. ♫ ♫ But probably I'll just get up and start groovin', ♫ ♫ my vocal cords movin', ♫ ♫ at speeds slightly faster than sound. ♫ (Applause)