By Lis Lewis
Whether you are trying to get signed to a record label or are creating a career for yourself independently, in order to have musical success you have to develop an audience who identifies with you. You need great songs and a great voice but there is another more elusive element, sometimes called charisma. This other skill is hard to put a finger on, but it has to do with the force of your personality and how it affects your singing, your songs, your interaction with your band and your audience, your photos and press releases – in fact every element of your band’s image and concept.
As the frontperson of your band, you are the one the audience comes to know first. Through you they become familiar with the material and the other band members. You set the tone. Are you deep and gentle like Sarah McLaughlin, introspective and intense like Thom Yorke of Radiohead, or aggressive and dangerous like Pink?
Where do you fit in? Or rather, what makes you stand out? How do you become intriguing enough to be considered a star? How do you create a concept around which to shape your songs and your band? Let’s take a look at a few people who have accomplished this feat and see how they did it.
The most mythic artists, like Lady Gaga, have such a strong persona that you could actually sum them up pretty easily. Gaga is provocative and outspoken, infusing her electronic dance music with glam. She pushes against the values of society in many ways: with her sexuality, her dark lyrical perspective, her outrageous clothing and her mash-up of musical styles. She rebels against any kind of limitation. When you think of Lady Gaga, a very clear and strong image comes into your head. She has created a myth and it shows in every element of her work – from music to clothing, from lyrical content to video content.
Gwen Stefani is also a rebel but in a different way. She is street smart and uses humor to defy the restrictions set by society. She is definitely not “Just A Girl”. She is glamorous even while wearing track pants. Although the lyrics might be intimate, there’s an aggressiveness in the music that keeps her from getting too close or being too sweet. She’s tough and vulnerable at the same time and plays these contradictions off in her clothing, gestures and movements.
Even artists who aren’t as radical as these two have honed their message down to its essence. Sheryl Crow was once described as the ‘thinking man’s party girl’. She’s tough and she’s smart with a vulnerable side you only rarely get to see. She’s a cynic and nothing is going to get past her. You would probably never hear her sing a lyric that is as confessional and intimate as a Colbie Caillat lyric nor will she use that kind of sweet vocal sound. Even though Sheryl Crow is certainly capable of singing with a beautiful tone, she chooses a more conversational, undersung style, whether consciously or unconsciously. This is because it mirrors her personality and her view of life, which is not sweet, not pretty. Her guitar sounds, her clothing, her attitude, all reflect the same concept.
No matter who you respect as an artist, whether they are flamboyant like Adam Lambert or completely unglamorous like Dave Matthews, you can still see who they are and what they represent in the way they bring life to the songs, the musical style, the stage show, the photos, the press and all the other elements.
Your Own Myth
Where do you begin to find your image, your onstage persona? Start with yourself, your history and your real personality. You can’t pretend to be an angry young man or a sexy babe if it isn’t what you really feel – you won’t do a very good job of it. Who are you really? It’s hard for us to know who we are and how we appear to others. Here is an assignment to help you get started: ask five of your friends to write down a list of your three strongest personality attributes. They don’t have to be nice things because if you are a troublemaker, for instance like Pink is, that might play very well on stage. And they shouldn’t be characteristics like ‘nice’, ‘smart’, ‘talented’ or ‘creative’. Those things won’t set you apart from anyone else. We are looking for the things that make the people who know you recognize you. Maybe you are a caretaker type of person or maybe you have a lot of energy. Maybe you are a geek or a loner. If someone says you are sexy, ask them to be more specific. Are you sexy in a ‘girl–(or boy)–next–door sort of way? Wholesome, brazen? Sensuous? Are you funny? Is it dry humor? Bawdy humor, adolescent humor? Try to get your friends to be specific. When they are done you will have fifteen words or phrases that are descriptions of your personality as others see you. Some of them may overlap. If you are very funny, probably everyone will include it. But the point is to see yourself from the outside. When you start to have an idea of what image you present to the world, you can begin shaping that image.
From The Inside Out
Image is not something you apply from the outside. Sure some producer can tell you to wear certain clothes and act a certain way and sing his songs and then he will make you a star. But it rarely happens that way (with a few exceptions) and it isn’t very satisfying. You aren’t you. You are pretending to be what he has created. You feel like a fraud. Even the boy groups that have been created by a producer have later gone on to take a strong stand on what they really want and who they really are. Image comes from the real you. It comes from the inside out. Look inside yourself for your opinions and feelings and then write about them in your songs. When you sing them the force of your convictions gives you great energy and stage presence. This is the start of charisma.
If your material is socially conscious, then your band shouldn’t be dressed like they’re going to Mardi Gras. If you’re writing romantic songs about the joys and sorrows of love, then your band will probably not be covered in pierces and tattoos. If you are singing blues songs, chances are you won’t have a cellist. If you’re a garage band then you probably won’t want to look like you stepped out of business meeting. Of course there are exceptions to all of these and the exceptions are sometimes the most interesting. Contradictions can be fun. But it’s still a choice based on what you want your audience to perceive.
When you go to a concert of a person you admire, you come away feeling that you’ve gotten to know that person. How did that happen? What did they do to express who they are? Were they shy? Talkative? Angry? Arrogant? Bubbly? Silly? Serious? What about you? Who will you be? When your audience walks away from your concert, who will they have seen? Remember, this is a longtime process. You will always be creating yourself. As your beliefs and attitudes become clearer to you, your concept will evolve. And as you take a stand on those beliefs you will develop the confidence and clarity of purpose that leads to charisma.
Read part 2 – Charisma, The Sequel