What If?

2 Nov

I wish I’d been in a band

Sophie Ellis Bextor has been part of my life for a long time now. We’re not related, and I’m not even sure if she’s had a single out for a while but I still hear her name on a fairly regular basis because some people think I look like her.

I first became aware of Sophie when I was a student in Manchester. One afternoon, a barman – the kind who collects little-known indie label seven inches – was pouring me a beer. He stopped and looked up. I thought he was going to ask if I minded a frothy head.

“Do you know, you look just like the lead singer of Theaudience, Sophie-Ellis Bextor.”

I didn’t have the internet at home so I waited until the next day at uni to type “Who is Sophie Ellis Bextor?” into Ask Jeeves, the Google of 1998.

I saw her on the screen. Yes, she did look like me. The same chubby heart faced shape, pale skin and dark home dyed hair. We even wore similar clothes: sparkly vintage cardies, cheap Topshop dresses and opaque tights.  The hairstyle, a more-Nineties-than-strictly-advisable messy chignon, and a lipstick that was a shade too dark, were even the same.

The similarities probably ended there, and soon all that was left was the voice in my head that said “Sophie is in a band and you are not.” It didn’t matter to me what the band was like. I just had huge crushes on girls in bands because I wanted to be one.

It didn’t help that we ended up in the same London neighbourhood for a short while after I had my first child. Sophie wasn’t aware of her semi-doppelgänger neighbour, but as I pushed my pram up the Chiswick high road I often caught a glimpse of her. She had gone solo by then and had been in the charts with a song I happened to love, ‘If this Ain’t Love’. By now, she was thinner than me. Her teeth were straighter than mine and she had better hair than me.

I often wondered “What if?” It wasn’t that I wanted to be Sophie. I just wanted to be a singer. It didn’t matter if it was for a living, or as a pastime. Anything would have done.

The simple sad fact is, I was too scared to be in a band. The year after I left school, I had auditioned, and subsequently been rejected by just about every drama school in the Southern Hemisphere (even the ones that specialise in a special brand of Lionel Blair musical theatre.) Something in me wanted to hide from the shame that the brush-offs had caused. Had I been that bad, really? I lied to myself. I said “I never wanted to be a performer anyway. I will go and do an English degree instead.”

Hence, I’ve been watching Sophie, and girls like Sophie, and girls not so much like Sophie, and friends, and people from my past having what looks like the time of their lives on stage ever since. And when I happen to be in the audience, or watching them on YouTube, I tell myself the well-worn lie that I branded into my consciousness all those years ago. “If I just distract myself with a busy life, then my real desire to sing and do all of those things that I really love doing will just disappear.”

But they haven’t. Things don’t just vanish. What makes me mad is not that I have been forbidden from doing anything in my life. I am not like the girl in my daughter’s class who is handed maths worksheets while the other pupils have drama lessons.  In my life, I am, and have always been, the only person standing in the way of my dreams. Me, and the fear.

I have to question what I’m afraid of though. Looking like an idiot? Being criticised? Not succeeding? Failing to make something of myself? After asking myself, I think it’s all of these things. Pretty early on I decided that if I aimed low then I could never fail.

Year upon year – ever since the disappointing thud of the drama school rejection letters on the doormat – I have made excuses. I am not moving further towards doing what I want to do: in a way, I am moving farther away. The ‘reasons against’ list has become a permanent fixture in my brain; I have created these excuses as a way of avoiding the fact that I’m not doing what I’d really like to be doing.

Now I’m 35, I only need one reason. Realistically speaking, I’m just not young enough for a new career on the stage. Forget all of the worries I had before: not talented enough, thin enough, or confident enough. If only I’d been brave enough to have swept those mercilessly negative thoughts away all those years ago, I might be living the dream now.

Even if the reality of the dream wasn’t all I thought it would be, at least I could say I’d tried.

At 30, I briefly decided to do something about my frustration. I did what all lost city dwellers do when they need a lawnmower, highchair, dog whisperer, nanny or band. I clicked onto Gumtree.

My age? I left that out. Experience? I tried to skirt around that too. “Grade eight singing, ooh and once kept everyone up at a hen party with my various renditions of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Stronger Than Me’ and Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’.” The former made me sound like a convent pupil, and the latter made me out to be someone looking for a backing band to carry me through pissed, aggressive karaoke marathons.

In truth my singing had all taken place with friends (bar one excruciating studio session with my brother’s mate who had a jazz-funk band. I had to freestyle for half an hour. The result was a lot of oohs and ahhs, and somewhere, in smooth jazz loving America, it was a hit).

But I could hold a tune. I knew that. “Woman living in London seeks band” is the brief and extremely vague WANTED ad I put up on Gumtree.

Having omitted my age, musical predilections and ability, I received one response: a covers band from Haywards Heath, who needed a temporary replacement for their singer. She had taken time off for hip surgery. The only question I was asked by the keyboardist? “Do you know how to sing ‘Fields of Gold? We perform at weddings and the guests seem to love a bit of Sting.”

Well, yes, actually. I was a late developer when it came to cool and only discovered my teenage years in my late twenties. At school I liked Prince, Snoop and Bjork. Secretly though, every now and then I listened to Sting on my CD Walkman and gave one earphone to the only other suitably middle-aged boy in my homework group.

But I was hardly going to reveal all of that to a husky voiced musician named Les from a band called Fatal Attraction. The conversation had utterly depressed me. In the moments that followed, Chas and Dave could have called me up to ask me to sing with them and I’d have jumped at the chance. It would have seemed a brilliant offer in comparison.

When my lazy attempt to court a band on the internet proved to be a failure I did what I always do. I gave up.

Five years later, and I still haven’t joined a band. I’m four years older than Debbie Harry when she formed Blondie, so I can’t use her as my inspiration anymore. But admitting to the fact that early on I buried my hopes and dreams, thinking they’d suffocate and die in time, made me feel a lot better. I am no longer afraid to say that the 16-year-old me imagined an adult life as a modern day Stevie Nicks, but without the cocaine habit and the tricky love triangle.

The other night I went to see Bat for Lashes live. She was magnificent – a fully charged, throbbing machine of energy, talent and beauty. I was filled with a mixture of admiration and envy, and again, the Sophie E-B thing popped into my head. Not at any point in my entire adult working life have I sat back and thought, “This is my dream job.” Do many people? I’m not sure.

My life has not been one huge disappointment though. To say that would sound ungrateful – and despite me writing a whole blog based on the thoroughly limited subject of me – self-piteous.

In my bravest voice I would be inclined to say to anyone who’s scared of going for something they really want, “What’s to be afraid of? If you don’t give it a go, you’ll never know what you are missing.”

I may sound like I’m already waving goodbye to my performing hopes and dreams, but I’m sure there’s a singer out there – other than Susan Boyle – who started out late in life.


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