Getting booked for the Nick Alexander Stage at Frank Turner’s Lost Evenings this year is a big step for me in a journey that Frank has been a direct and indirect part of from the very beginning. It’s also been a while since I’ve written, so I thought I would tell the whole, entire story thus far for anyone who might be interested. I don’t know, I think it makes for a pretty good story.
(Before I get into it, I want to mention that the Nick Alexander Stage is named after a man who was killed in the terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris in 2015. Some of his loved ones started a trust in his name, which gives grants to help get music equipment to disadvantaged people. Check them out.)
The absolute beginning of the story, which not a lot of people know (if anybody does), is that the very first time I heard Frank’s music (“Photosynthesis” over the PA between sets at a local show) it really bothered me. I sort of took it as a personal affront when he implied that everyone can and should follow their dreams, because I genuinely felt certain that I couldn’t. Music has always been my only consistent passion, but at the time, I believed the people who told me it was a pipe dream. Only extremely lucky people got to devote their lives to music (like this guy on the PA, talking down to me as I saw it), and there had been no signs that I should be one of them. Not a single person in my life ever told me anything different when I discussed it with them. I heard “Photosynthesis” just as I was properly entering adulthood and in the process of resigning myself to the thing that he was telling me not to resign myself to. It was an inconvenient message and I didn’t like that, but part of me was also obviously intrigued by it.
It took me about six months before I finally caved and started listening to his music, and he quickly won me over. By early 2013 he had become my favorite songwriter by a landslide, and I was slowly resolving my cognitive dissonance by taking his lyrics to heart, pushing myself every day to be bolder and truer to myself.
I was thrilled when I found out that he read and responded to emails from fans — I certainly wasn’t one to communicate with people I looked up to in person! One of the first emails I ever sent him told about a day when his lyrics had inspired me to go to a big guitar meet-up in Central Park despite my shyness, and that it had ended up being one of the best days I’d had in a very long time. He wrote back something like, “What a lovely email to receive. Hope you’re doing just awesome today!” and it pretty much made my year. At the time, I kind of thought that was the height of positive interaction I would ever have with him.
I moved very slowly with music at first. I had absolutely no confidence in my abilities, much less any presumption that it would be remotely possible for me to make a career of it, and I still struggled with stage fright and plenty of other anxiety issues. I finished a total of like six songs in a couple of years and would only go to an open mic or jam every month or two, with my nerves typically making them an extremely unpleasant experience.
Fast forward to the first Flogging Molly Cruise in 2015, where Frank played the impromptu solo set that finally broke something in me. At the end of one of Beans on Toast’s bar shows, Frank went up to the mic and said, “I’m doing a set for Love Hope Strength in the atrium right after this; follow me!” The entire, pretty much full population of the bar followed him in a big stampede. The ship lurched violently in the direction we were rushing in, twice. Even just in this journey from the bar to the atrium, before he had sung a word, the excitement was palpable. It seemed like nothing in the world was more important to anyone in that crowd at that moment than getting to that impromptu show and being as close as possible to the action.
He stood at the front of the crowd, announced that he’d be taking requests from people who signed up as bone marrow donors, and he started playing. There’s something about this kind of set that I find so much more emotionally satisfying than a regular polished set. There was no amplification of any kind and he was getting drunker by the minute. But everybody knew all the words, so it didn’t matter if he messed up a line or if we couldn’t hear him in the back. He was still there singing with us, the person who wrote these songs that have changed our lives. Nearly every line he sang was probably tattooed on someone’s body somewhere in the crowd. Everyone probably had a story about how one song or another had changed them, helped them make an important decision, inspired them, or been there for them at a dark time. I looked around and every single person was wearing the same look of pure joy, to the point where it almost would have weirded me out if I wasn’t also a part of it.
For the first time in a moment like this, I was struck by more than just my own immediate happiness and inspiration. I thought about how profound these moments were in the grand scheme of things, the way that music can bring strangers together so easily, the way that a stranger who created something you love can have a very real and far-reaching impact on your life without even knowing it. I thought about how Frank must feel up there every night, and I became consumed by a desire to feel it for myself. I remember it as one of those light-shining-down moments where I thought, this is what I want to do with my life. This is all I want to do with my life.
This was in March, and I had already made it one of my New Year’s resolutions that year, definitely influenced by Frank, to “devote myself to music.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant in January. Something like write more songs, work more on my guitar technique, and play more open mics, I suppose. I had been reading songwriting and music business books, one of which assured me I would write 50 terrible songs before I wrote a great one. As I sang along to Frank’s songs that night with everyone else, an idea was forming in my mind.
I fought my nerves and went up to him after most others had left. I felt compelled to tell him how he’d inspired me to take music more seriously that year even though I wasn’t sure if I was good enough. He was pretty well drunk by then, but fought through it to talk to every last person with surprising patience and lucidity. He was absolutely lovely and told me that his first few years of songs were terrible, that if he could do it anyone could, that he was sure I was better than I thought, and he even bent his knees when I told him I was intimidated by his height (which was really a very strange thing to say, bless him).
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have inspired me throughout my life, and not everyone is like this, at all. And while I don’t want to cede too much power to other people over the trajectory of my life, it’s hard to overestimate the impact these little responses can have, even though they might mean very little to the person giving them. If you get blown off or treated as inferior, especially if you already struggle with low self-esteem, it sucks and it makes you think twice about whether it’s even worth continuing to try. When someone is responsive and encouraging, especially if they are the person you look up to more than anyone else, it can sometimes be the one little boost you needed to take your next big risk or maybe just to get through one more day of thankless hard work.
As soon as I got home from the cruise, I made a post to let my friends and family know I was going to be writing and sharing one song every week for a year and to invite them to follow along by email. I knew that if I wanted to get to where Frank was, the absolute first thing I had to do was learn to write great songs, and I had no time to waste.
The “throwaway song of the week” project, as I lovingly named it, was the perfect crash course not only directly in songwriting, but also in what it means emotionally to be creative. I actually took a summer hiatus largely because I felt like I would never be good enough and trying was pointless. But at the end of the day, the personal pull to express myself through music was just way too strong for me to ignore. And by the time I was done I really did feel like a songwriter. I didn’t know if the songs were any good, if more than a handful of people would ever care about them, or if I could ever make money from them, but I knew that I was certainly very capable of writing songs and so I was a songwriter.
Near the end of this project was the second Flogging Molly Cruise, and Frank was on the bill again. I knew from the first year that it wasn’t uncommon for attendees to bring their instruments on board and casually jam with friends around the ship, and I guess I sort of took that to a new level. I wrote a few cruise theme songs that expressed all the positive experiences of the first cruise; put a sign on my guitar that said, “Free songs – ask me for my catalog” (a catalog of every song I knew how to play); and wandered around the ship pretty much treating it like a job (which I have also done every year since).
I can’t emphasize enough what a bold step this was for me the first time. I was still performing primarily at the open mic level, and I still got pretty nervous. I knew there was a fairly decent chance that Frank — my number one inspiration — would hear me playing at some point, and that thought terrified (but also obviously excited) me. But I wanted to be as bold as possible and take full advantage of every opportunity that came my way (even if that meant inventing opportunities). And I thought, if the scariest thing does happen and Frank hears me sing a song, that would mean I have nothing left to be afraid of!
Well, the cruise singing went better than I ever could have imagined. I’d posted the cruise songs online beforehand, so right from the start I had people coming up to tell me how much they’d enjoyed them. I got song requests everywhere I went and played for many lovely groups, pairs, and sometimes even individual people. I played a couple of songs for Beans on Toast at one point and became the unofficial opening act for Will Varley’s cabin shows. Sure, I had trouble making eye contact with my audiences, but I was doing it — I was performing for people, making them happy, and connecting with them, just like I’d dreamed of doing only one year before!
By the last full day, in all of my singing I hadn’t run into Frank even once. I thought it was just as well because it would probably overwhelm me and things were going so great. But that afternoon, while hawking free songs on the private island, I found myself singing a Beatles song in a cabana where he happened to be hanging out. The woman who requested the song was conveniently facing in Frank’s direction, so I was able to sing the entire song with my back to him and wander off again without once acknowledging his existence… but still, he had been there! I had done the scariest thing possible, or so I thought.
That night, there was an almost exact repeat of the previous year’s Love Hope Strength atrium set, except that Frank had decided to play his full album England Keep My Bones rather than requests. It was late and we would be shuffled off the ship early the next morning, so I was already beginning to mentally consolidate my experiences. Still buzzing not only from performing in front of Frank that afternoon but also from Skinny Lister’s amazing set which had just finished, I wasn’t really looking for this atrium show to make my weekend any better than it had already been.
But then serendipitously, halfway through the set, Frank broke a string and Rob (of Love Hope Strength) began asking frantically, “Does anybody have a guitar?” I didn’t have mine on me; it was under my bed in my cabin two stories down. After a few moments of no one else stepping up, I asked Rob if I should go and get it. He said yes, so I ran like I’d never run before and brought it back in record time. I honestly just really didn’t want the show to end prematurely; I didn’t expect anything in return. But after I had handed over the guitar, Frank asked me if I wanted to play a song.
What he was offering was actually scarier than the scariest thing. Not only would he be there listening right next to me, but the crowd was also much bigger and more attentive than any crowd I’d ever played to before, by a huge factor. Still, because of my resolution to be brave no matter what, I didn’t think about it, I just nodded.
I played my cruise song, “This Ain’t Your Mama’s Bahamas Cruise,” and it just felt surreal. I avoided looking at Frank as much as I could, but the crowd was loving it. They were singing along on the refrain and they all just looked really happy. In fact, they looked pretty much as happy as they had when Frank was playing. Afterwards, he actually let me stand next to him for the rest of the set and sing his last five songs with him, which felt like a dream come true.
When I got home, several friends had posted photos and videos of my moment, so I got to see Frank’s real-time reaction to the song, laughing at my stupid jokes and actually singing along on the last line!! I couldn’t get over the fact that, unpolished as I was, here was a successful person whose work I admired, and for a brief moment in time I was the one entertaining him with my song. And all it took was just writing one amusing song and getting up there and singing it. It made me think that maybe achieving what I wanted didn’t have to be so complicated after all, and maybe I could actually do it.
2016 had a lot of great momentum that ultimately fizzled out, but lack of immediate results never fazed me. I kept at it, writing songs, sharing them as widely as I could online, and performing wherever I could.
Every time I had a new batch of songs I would send them to Frank and put myself forward for any opportunities. One of his best traits is that, even as great as his network is now, he’s still very open to checking out fans’ music. He chooses all his own openers, and even when he’s not prepared to offer an opportunity like that, he will often signal boost on social media. So I would send him my demos knowing they might not be that impressive yet. But because he was always present, listening, encouraging, and being kind about it (which, again, is so rare), instead of getting discouraged I got more determined. I wanted him to see me get better and better and ultimately become great.
When 2017 rolled around, Frank was planning his first Lost Evenings festival in London and I was getting bolder and doing more with music all the time. I politely reached out to tell him I would be attending the festival, plotting a little DIY tour of England around it, and would love any kind of performing opportunity if he could help. After some time, I found out that he had set me up as “headliner” of a sort of official fan showcase gig. It was billed on the programs and website as a fan meet-up “featuring live sets from Amanda Riley and friends.” Not only did this get more people interested in me, but it also felt good to see my name there. It seemed like Frank had gone out of his way to provide a platform for me, and I greatly appreciated it.
By the time I got home from England, I knew that the next big step for me was to release a proper album. So I wrote some new songs, did an inordinate amount of research, and just did the thing, with a little (but not much) help on the creative and publicity aspects. It didn’t lead to achieving all my dreams in one shot, but I think that first album will always be one of my proudest achievements.
I sent Frank the album and he received it graciously, but he couldn’t fit me in anywhere for Lost Evenings II last year. So I ended up getting in touch with someone who had set up a giant Airbnb rental for dozens of Lost Evenings attendees, and we co-organized our own unofficial fan meet-up and showcase there. We had five artists and lots of fans, we sang originals and had some Frank Turner singalongs, and it was awesome! In this way I will have participated in all three Lost Evenings festivals so far, even if not always officially, and I’m sure I will continue to make that happen.
Secrets I Told to a Sound Hole came out in March of last year, so by summertime I was just starting to get back into serious songwriting. In a stroke of perfect timing, that also happened to be when Frank was leading a Music Masters songwriting camp in upstate New York, a few hours’ drive from me.
I tried to go into the camp with no hard expectations. I reminded myself that they couldn’t possibly all happen, but there were many different positive experiences I might have: making a lot of like-minded friends, winning over new fans, jamming or singing with Frank and the Sleeping Souls, getting some of my own personal questions answered, and learning from them as part of the activities. Well, actually, every one of those things did happen, and more! It was yet another transformative experience and I’m so lucky to have had so many of them.
Fresh with inspiration and insight from there, I’ve spent most of my time since then developing what I think is much better material for my next album, which I’m hoping to be able to release by this summer.
And now, a few weeks ago, I officially found out I was invited to play the Nick Alexander Stage. This is the second most official place you can play at Lost Evenings, so I am moving on up! Frank Turner fans (myself included) are always so supportive and excited to check out new music, so I’ve already gotten some new listeners following the announcement. I can’t wait to perform there and to check out some new music myself.
It’s been an intense but enjoyable journey to get to this point. I don’t know if this opportunity will lead to anything bigger on its own. But I’m sure as hell going to do everything in my power to maximize it. And as ever, I’m going to keep looking for new opportunities both in the obvious places and in the places where other people might not think to look.
Frank taught me to be this way, by example and by encouragement. It’s not that I’m giving him credit for my achievements or even for my courage and determination. Yes, obviously, all of it was inside of me somewhere, and if I didn’t push myself it never would have come out. But at the beginning of this story, I honestly believed that going after what I wanted full force was the wrong thing to do and wouldn’t lead to positive outcomes. I felt like I was stuck, unless something in my life could credibly contradict that. And that something ended up being Frank’s lyrics, the way he lives his life and goes about his career, and his encouragement of me when he didn’t even know me at all. There is a reason I got a “WWFTD?” tattoo (okay, that was somewhat impulsive, but it’s been two years and I haven’t regretted it yet).
And look at me now! Despite ongoing confidence and anxiety issues, people are constantly telling me that I inspire them by the way I live my life. And I don’t really ever get stage fright anymore.
Maybe someone or something else would have eventually coaxed me down the same path if Frank hadn’t. But I personally find it unsettling to think about where I might be now if I had accepted my initial impression about “Photosynthesis,” or if Frank had been dismissive rather than encouraging me each time I took a new risk. So regardless of what happens from here, I will always see him as having helped to give me my start in more than one way.