How I Became a Pariah

A bloody bird wing skeleton with the feathers still attached.I started my career as a kid on the stage, doing children’s theatre. What I really wanted to be doing was film and television, but the way it was, my mother had to drive an hour each way from the Pennsylvanian boondocks just to get me to a dance studio that had a theatre troop. Needless to say, auditions in Manhattan were out of the question. It was more than just a bit of fun for me though; I was quite serious.

Theatre inevitably led to musicals, which was when I discovered that I could sing. After briefly learning about opera and Mozart in our weekly middle school music class, I was completely hooked on music and singing. My family wasn’t very well off, and I bled my mother dry of her time and money chasing after my theatre and film dreams the way it was, so when I took an interest in the piano, I was out of luck in the lessons department. My sisters – by then married and moved out of the house – had taken lessons when they were little, and the old piano and their lesson books were still in the living room. I dived in and taught myself. I resented my bad techniques and inability to sight-read sheet music for many years, but as it turned out, my putting the cart before the horse turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

So far, I have painted a picture of a kid who loved Broadway tunes, opera and classical music… but I had a very musically eclectic upbringing, which is important to keep in mind. My eldest sister was into heavy metal, and I got exposed to Steve Vai, Black Sabbath and Type O Negative through her. My other sister loved 80s pop and early 90s country, so Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Garth Brooks entered the mix. My father loved his 50s and early 60s rock and roll as well as country western and generally strange tunes, thus Johnny Cash, Ray Stevens and The Righteous Brothers were all familiar. And my mother was just always singing… she had a lovely voice and sang traditional folk songs and songs from her childhood. She also loved Elvis! She had every one of his films on VHS, and on Sunday mornings – when normal people were going to church – her and I ate popcorn and watched old Elvis movies together.

Learning to play the piano was a painstaking and tedious procedure of line and key counting and intense memorisation… in no way lessened by the fact that I was determined that the first song I would learn must be Mozart’s Sonata in C, K.545 (the abridged Book 4 version). Unknown to me for quite sometime, I had miscounted the piano keys and believe that A was in fact C. I had been playing the tune in A minor. To this day, every time I play that piece, I play it in C until I get to the repeat… then I finish it at half the tempo in A minor.

I didn’t know any scales or even Mary Had a Little Lamb, so to break up the monotony of memorising, I just played whatever I liked. I came up with some fairly good little compositions. I had no preconceived notions of what I should or shouldn’t be playing, so I experimented mercilessly… incessantly. I developed a sound that was quintessentially mine, albeit somewhat difficult for many people to digest.

Fast forward many years later, and I studied music and composition at university (painstaking all over again to correct my bad techniques and learn how to sight read), and released albums of my own solo compositions that truly defied any genres. Many musicians and bands use that as a generic term, because they don’t want to be pigeon-holed into any certain genre even when they quite clearly belong to an established genre. The opposite was my problem, and it caused me a great deal of stress for many years that I had no base of music listenership to even begin to approach. I was too dark, intense and dissonant for singer/songwriter listeners. I was too classical for pop or rock. I gave myself a series of genre titles… ‘piano goth,’ ‘deviacoustic,’ (deviant + acoustic). These days, I generally say I’m either experimental or avant-garde when forced to the point. But if the truth is to be told… I’m a pariah.

This is only partially by happenstance. The sound of my music is largely affected by environment and has evolved quite naturally. The skeleton of my compositions – however – is quite intentionally harsh, nihilistic, and in some cases painful to listen to.

The world is filled with beautiful, feel-good music! There is so much of it, that if we – as a society – stopped making music tomorrow, there would be plenty to satisfy us for decades or even centuries. I’ve never seen the point in adding to that pile of great music.

I look at the world, and I think to myself, “am I the only one awake? I am the only one here in this moment?” From my perspective, I see the culture as running on auto-pilot… and this was long before social media happened. People going through the motions, saying what they are supposed to say, doing what they are supposed to do, but they never ask, “why?” They never question; they just do.

This is a slight tangent, but stick with me. I immigrated to the United Kingdom when I was 25, and I haven’t lived in America since. At some point, I stopped hearing British accents all around me, and for the first time, I was keenly aware of the American dialects. Dialects are made up of so much more than pronunciations. There is also a musical pattern that conveys meaning and context. For example, ending on a higher pitch is how we know that questions are being asked when we don’t have who/what/etc. at the beginning of the sentence. Not in America though… in America, practically any statement can and does end on a higher pitch. This especially happens with statements that “test the waters” and possibly go against the grain of conventional thinking. I’m not sure whether this is a valley-girl infiltration of language corruption propagated by film and television (it’s extremely generational) or whether this is a mirror into a deep-seated cultural problem: a tremendous uncertainty and psychological unwillingness to vary from the norm.

I made it my business… my life’s work… to defy the norm. Not for sensationalism and gratuitous provocativeness. To question… to move people far enough out of their comfort zones that they may began to question, too. To get people to experience rather than just go through the motions of life. And not just experience the good… the good is easy. But we don’t grow as human beings – as a species – unless we experience the bad, too.

I don’t hold grand illusions that my little art creations will change the world… but I do believe that for those who are willing to embark on the journey through my dissonant, challenging world there is a reward. The reward of having your world and your experiences grow.

If you would like to do a little boundary pushing with me, click here to listen to my album “Formaldehyde.”

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