Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Surprising Audition

Sixth St, San Francisco
Anyone else have a story about an audition that didn't go the way you'd hoped it would?

I recently decided to test the waters of the indie band scene and spent a few days learning three songs by a mid-40s bandleader who had not yet released any records but had done some gigs in divey to good venues. The sound was (intentionally, I thought) rough but creative, a mixture of what he called jazz, psychedelic lounge, and R&B, and the tunes intriguing musically and periodically inspired lyrically. I had answered his ad for a new singer (the last one had moved away) with links to my press kit and website, and he had invited me to audition.

I reduced the 22-page chart he sent for one tune to 1-1/2 pp. so I could figure out the form. He sent me extensive emails on his band history and hopes, about which I commiserated. I soon noticed, though, that he never made a single comment or reply about my own experiences, which I'd offered in camaraderie, or even about any of my various recordings. He said he really wanted someone to sing most of his (often quirky) tunes note for note. I was game. Then a few days later he wrote that he was also open to someone who was a Sade clone and/or a "beat poetry/gospel" poet, as his band could accommodate all three different leads in one show. That was confusing, but given my cross-genre background as a singer  along with my writing and performances as a poet, and then as a singer integrating spoken word into tunes  it seemed I could fulfill at least one if not more of these roles to our mutual satisfaction – especially given the original influences he cited, spanning Sarah Vaughn, Chrissie Hynde, and Astrud Gilberto. He had referred to previous singers who were undisciplined or needed help developing or had shifting life goals, so I was pretty sure he’d dig my work ethic and stability. I was excited.

His band rehearsed twice a week, which seemed like a lot for what appeared to be a slim repertoire. Oh well, it could be fun. The rehearsal studio turned out to be near one of the worst corners in San Francisco. In the dark, I made it through a nightmarish tableau of darting drug addicts and salespersons, and insane shouters, then walked down a scary alley, hanging behind a couple of questionable characters ahead of me. I picked my way around a huge backhoe blocking the rest of the street. 

Beyond it, the door to the rehearsal building was locked. I heard the loud careening clacks of skateboarders just inside the lobby, who then let me in.

The bandleader came down. He brought me up into a dark, dusty, large room filled with randomly placed furniture – and pot smoke. I wondered where the band typically played amid the clutter. After his voluble emails, in person he could barely say much. He seemed nice but distant. I chalked that up to shyness. The room was lit mainly by one bright bulb over his head. After our shadowy entrance, I had to shield the bulb's glare with my hand to look at him. I never even completely saw his face.

A super-loud rock band was playing and singing next door  with no sound separation between the two rehearsal rooms. Still, I felt optimistic as he gave me some headphones, placed me in front of a mic with stand, and started finding the first track on his laptop. Oddly, my voice was doubled in the headphones. He said he couldn't hear that, that maybe he was just used to it. Okay. The music and headphones didn't block out the terrible shrieking rock band a few feet away and it was hard to hear myself, but I started singing the first tune with enthusiasm. He immediately began swiping his phone, which he continued the whole time I was singing. I tried to stay in the spirit of the emotional song and thought I did pretty well. For the second tune, which had a number of key changes, he brought up a track with just drums and a faint bassline. In the counterpoint din of the rock band, I asked for something with a chord or two. He found another track for the song, but it was at half-tempo. He went back to playing with his phone while I sang it. Then he suggested we stop, as the whole band would be arriving for rehearsal. I wasn't even going to be able to sing the third song.

I had worked for hours learning the tunes the last few nights and sounded pretty good on my home tape the night before. How did I sound here in the noise and disregard and gloom? Of course I didn't ask. No comment from him beyond "thanks for coming down." I had acted upbeat throughout but was glad to flee. 

I pressed through the street action, which now seemed like a raucous extension of the rehearsal studio's haze and disarray, fearing for my safety and thinking, You've got to be kidding. When I got over the bridge and to my busy Oakland Trader Joe's, I felt delivered to a place of sanity and light as I wheeled my cart in semi-shock down the reassuring aisles.

I got an email from him the next day saying, "I have extended the range at which I could envision working with you as a singer for this group and have concluded that it would not be a good match." Did that mean that even though he broadened his boundaries, I still wouldn't fit into them? (Had I just been insulted?) Was my sound that night really so different from my tunes online and in my press kit, and what about the poetry/spoken-word elements  or had he even listened to them?

Well, I couldn't have gone back there. But I was still hoping for something from this person whose musical universe I had entered and responded to with empathy and interest  some acknowledgement as a fellow musician. Suddenly, all my many years of rehearsal and recording experiences seemed like trips to a luxury hotel, or at least a cozy bed and breakfast, in the company of wonderful players, producers, and engineers, who were not only among the best in the Bay Area, but respectful to me and sweethearts to boot. How lucky I had been.

copyright © 2013 Lisa Bernstein


  1. That gut sounds like a nut. Anyway, his loss.

  2. I think I corresponded with the same person. He was pretty negative so I didn't pursue it. Self-sabotage?

  3. Just one of those self-involved, self-deluded jerks. Keep at it, baby, you sound great and your original work is tremendous!


Thanks for adding your voice!