I played my first gig at four years old to an audience of one. My father, woken in the middle of the night by the sound of singing, found me propped up in my bed, strumming my brand new, plastic guitar that I had just received for Christmas and crooning ‘Little Donkey’ to my bleary-eyed sister who I had insisted on waking up.
This craving to perform, to be really heard and seen, drove me to wake my sister up that night and that has never really left me. What did leave me as I grew older was the belief that I was worth listening to.
It started as a small child in school and church plays where I would get so nauseous with stage fright that I would try to pull out at the last minute. I joined a tiny secondary school in the heart of Dublin city which had the Arts central to its ethos. At home I would practice my guitar obsessively and develop my singing voice for hours, but I would freeze during school choir or musical auditions and much to the chagrin of my teenage self, was usually made an understudy.
As I grew older, I saw my peers begin musical projects, forming bands and heading off to study music. I longed to be part of it but in my mind, music represented an exclusive, impenetrable world reserved for people with impossible levels of self-confidence who were far more artistic, talented and beautiful than I.
I began to dabble in open mic nights, covering songs by my favorite American folk artists such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. When I finally formed my band Hvmmingbyrd in 2013, the thrill of finally gaining a platform soon gave way to a terror that I might have nothing to say. Onstage, I was painfully conscious of my body, not knowing what to do with my limbs. My lack of music qualification hung over me and every performance felt like a test that I was likely to fail.
Then, when touring to Leo’s Tavern in the wilds of beautiful Gweedore, Donegal, and a subsequent conversation with Moya Brennan, everything changed. After years of touring the world and winning a Grammy or two, Moya told me that one thing that she has learned is that audiences yearn for connection, not perfection. If they want perfect music, they can listen to your CD but when they come to a gig, they come to connect with you, the artist. I am a friendly person who loves to connect with people, to make them laugh and make them feel at home. The idea that I could do my best to hone my craft beforehand and then once I step onstage, let my perfectionism melt away and just share my music and enjoy the audience felt very liberating. Finally, she reminded me that regardless of audience size, as an artist you must give it your all.
Even if it’s only to an audience of one.