by Erin Dickins
by Erin Dickins
Photo by Michael Ramondo
Actually, it’s not so much the music, but the business of music that wears me down. Music in its essence is a muse, a Sirens’ call that is ever out of reach for the conditions that surround it. To experience music in its purest form, one would have to treat music as a hobby. Something you do for love alone. You get a day job and play music whenever you can fit it in. You jot down lines in a notebook by the bed, and read them six months later wondering why you never wrote that song. But even as such, reality will find a way to compromise the love affair. You “play out” just for the sheer joy of it, but, let’s face it, the cats need to be paid, the club requires that you fill the seats, your music doesn’t fit that venue, you are too old (or too young, not indie enough, too hip for the room, not the look we want, too avant-garde – although that one’s never been applied to me). So the joy and the pain get all balled up together, and I guess THAT is the real deal one must face in this relationship with the beloved, Music. You gotta “pay to play.”
I spent my early years in New York as a successful studio singer after a very cool run with the Manhattan Transfer, which I founded with Tim Hauser, Marty Nelson, Pat Rosalia and Gene Pistilli in the late 60’s. I was so young in the Transfer days that my mother had to sign contracts for me! It was a great experience, but not a fit. I found singing harmony absolutely delicious but longed to develop my voice as an artist. So we parted ways after several years together performing, and having recorded a charming album, Jukin’.
Living in New York at that time, being a studio singer was the most logical way to earn a living, and it had great allure. It was lucrative, anonymous and a light workload. I recorded almost every day with New York’s most elite singers and musicians (like Valerie Simpson, Melissa Manchester, Patti Austin, Irene Cara, Daryl Hall, John Faddis, Rob Mounsey, Steve Khan, Will Lee, Steve Gadd - just to name a few). Boy, do I have stories. I sang on everything from Burger King commercials to the Talking Heads, from American Airlines to Yoko Ono. The job description read: Learn how to copy the sound of every singer and every style in popular music today, and reproduce it in the studio within a matter of three minutes, and we will pay you buckets of money. Whoa. This was big fun, but still I had not found my voice as an artist. I hadn’t even explored it. I was busy being “everybody’s everything” as my good friend Ed Shockley recently said.
During this amazing time, I found the idea of touring pretty much irresistible, and offers came through my studio singer/musician colleagues.
My first road experience was with the Gregg Allman Band. We did a two or three month tour (who can remember) in the United States. Butch Trucks, Chuck Leavell, Randall Bramlett, Tommy Talton and Greg Boyer, strings and horns and the marvelous Annie Sutton (with an occasional visit from Dickey Betts) were in that band. It was brilliant. My parents were absolutely horrified, and when my mother came to a concert and met Gregg at the Academy of Arts in Philly, I was equally horrified to witness her telling Gregg that the green lighting gels were not flattering. But, in hindsight, that was a very good place for a rock and roll stage mother’s attention to have been focused.
Shortly thereafter, I was offered an incredible international tour with Leonard Cohen. We had just completed work on Leonard’s album, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” produced by John Lissauer, and the band was astounding. Leonard is indescribable so I won’t even try. The music was delicate and rough, sophisticated and carnal and an experience I will cherish forever.
This is when I got it – the part about being an artist. Working with Leonard made a profound impression, and although I did not leave New York for another ten years, I knew I was changing on a cellular level.
The first time I actually tried to quit the business, I moved to Hawaii – as far away from the New York recording scene as I could get without ending up in Guam or something. “They’ll never find me here,” I thought. It worked for almost three years until I started meeting some amazing players and couldn’t resist the call. I was sucked back into the vortex (more on that later) but still hadn’t figured out the lesson.
Over time, Hawaii in itself gave me the answers I sought. The environment there is one of deep connection to earth and self (Haleakala Crater on Maui, Hawaii is considered the earth’s fire vortex – no wonder I felt sucked-in). It is an environment where most everyone you meet is on a spiritual path; you can’t help it surrounded by such power and beauty. So far removed from the pressures of an inauthentic business, it was there that I learned that I am not my resume, not my age, or weight or bank account. That what matters is not me. What matters is the gift of music I have been given, and my willingness to share that gift.
I consider it my honor and my responsibility to spread the joy that I experience every time I open my mouth to sing. Music is an instrument of transformation, and I am wholly transformed when I sing. We all listen to music and attend concerts for that purpose - to be transformed. We come together to forget our worries and fears, our limitations and our sorrows. Whether conscious or not, when we allow ourselves to surrender to music, we return to the place in our souls where Love resides. Where joy is rockin’ the house! And, so we become en –lighten-ed by music. We literally lighten-up.
If I can be an instrument for that transformation, just for one holy instant, then I have done what is asked of me. That’s how you heal the planet, right? One song, one person, one joyful encounter at a time. It’s nice work if you can get it.
I am not sure why I have tried to escape this calling so many times over the years. Maybe it felt too big for me to handle, or maybe I had to get to know a more authentic me in order to carry it off. But I have finally surrendered myself completely to my passion and my calling, and I am up to the task, whatever it takes.
And, in the instant of my surrender, I realized that there is nothing left to for me do but cherish every joy-filled second of the ride. Everyone and everything I need - musicians, writers, producers, songs and support team have all arrived, as if on cue. Funny, I now no longer see any obstacles. It is all just perfect.
And, I will gladly “pay to play.”