The art of the demo
About 8 years ago, when I was studying music in LA, our teacher sat us down around an old tape cassette player, and told us the story of a “game” he used to play with his fellow musicians, while on the road.
He was a career back-up singer whose life’s work was (and still is) to make some of the most famous pop stars of our generation sound a whole lot better. In concert, in the studio, and on TV.
The stars he worked with were bigger than big — rolling-stone-cover, pop-culture-catalyst, custodians of anthems — he was their vocal backbone.
His voice was silky smooth, his attitude strident, his smile cheeky, his eyes soulful.
It was a rite of passage, he told us, for every young singer (or musician) to lend their talents to a demo track.
An unknown concept for this then 20-something year old upstart from South Australia, who had somehow won herself a scholarship to one of the top music schools in Los Angeles.
So…someone actually asks you to sing their song? In a studio? For money? I thought.
It sounded like success to me…and I wanted a piece of it!
But the “game” my mentor and his travel buddies played had nothing to do with success. It was quite the opposite.
The idea was to try and outdo each other, not with the best demo recording, but with the worst.
He proudly told us the tale of his own “game winning” demo, a song so strange it almost made you weep listening to it. He slotted the tape into his cassette player and hit play. We all cried with joyful glee, understanding for the first time that this man, our hero, had to start somewhere once too.
And so, my search began, to put my voice to the very best (or maybe even the very worst) demo recording I could find in the great state of California. All in the name of experience.
My big demo break came only months later on a cool September day when another musical mentor of mine gave me a call.
A kind, generous man and jazz guitarist who spent his mornings surfing in Encinitas and afternoons recording in his garden studio — when he wasn’t touring the world with jazz legends like Chick Corea.
The only time I ever saw him wearing shoes was many years later when he invited me to see him perform with Dianne Reeves at the London International Jazz Festival. He played beautifully as always, but I couldn’t help but notice him shifting uncomfortably in his suit, like a pageboy.
Anyway, back to the demo. My friend had been working on a song with his neighbour, and thought my voice would be “just right” for the melody.
This was my chance! My first opportunity to make the great leap from amateur to professional.
I eventually got the sheet music the day before the recording. A hurdle lay ahead of me — my sight-reading skills were sub-par (to say the least), so I spent a sleepless night bashing out notes on my Casio keyboard, from the confines of my studio apartment, which overlooked the backside of a McDonald’s drive-thru in Pasadena.
My shrill humming and wavering pitch serenaded the passengers on the Amtrak train ride the next day, as we glided down the coast to Solana Beach. I used all my brain power to navigate the spritely notes on the page, and just as we passed Irvine, imposter syndrome sunk in.
What was I doing? Who did I think I was?
There was only one thing to do. Obtain some liquid, in the form of a can of Stone’s Arrogant Bastard.
By the time the train pulled to a halt, I was buzzing, ready, and the show went on.
Now. Apart from my chubby childhood cat, named Kevin, I’ve always had very little interest in felines.
At a young age I became desperately allergic to cats, and as a result have spent the majority of my life avoiding them like the plague. The knowing creatures have picked up on this, of course, and always seem to hiss at me when I pass by, or jump out at me from dark places. Their sideways glances suggesting they get some kind of morbid thrill out of the confrontation.
This may be why the universe gifted me a love song to (none other than) a “wonder cat” called Mitzy, for my demo recording debut.
The writer of the song, a delightful beach-side-dwelling chiller, had lost his beloved cat named Mitzy in the 80s, and decided to pay homage to his treasured old companion in song, many moons later.
And what a song it was!
The result is my very own “game winning” demo recording, Waltzy for Mitzy. A mellow love song that involves some very questionable screeching from yours truly at its climax. But who would I be without it?
A moment in time. My somewhere start. Now immortalised in song, along with a little black cat called Mitzy.
You’re very welcome…