My public singing debut came at the age of four. I sat on top of the piano my dad played as I serenaded the audience of our church’s talent show with a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Before long, I was immersed in the world of church and school choirs and musical productions. I was loud and no shrinking violet about my musical abilities, so I snagged the lead in the children’s choir musical at church 3 years in a row—Daniel, Jonah, Paul (yes, there’s a gender issue in the Bible…).
I took piano lessons from early elementary most of the way through high school. But my musical revolution came when my dad gave me my first guitar for the 14th birthday. It was a Big Baby Taylor—scaled at 15/16 the size of a standard guitar, perfect for my small hands. It had a warm, bright tone. Dad taught me four chords and I went from there, strumming Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and more.
I wrote my first song not long after I got my Big Baby. It followed the predictable chord progression I-vi-IV-V in the key of G (what a musician friend of mine calls “the people’s key,” since everyone who’s ever touched a guitar can play in it). It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great.
I wrote songs throughout high school and continued to be a choir nerd. When I went to college, I thought I would major in music. That didn’t last long; the intensity and time commitment of that major proved too daunting for my broad range of interests. I kept singing in choirs off and on and leading worship for my campus ministry, by then on an upgraded Taylor 314ce, but I didn’t write much.
Late in college, I started dating a musician and soon was singing backup and playing percussion and keyboard in his bands. Watching him write music motivated me to try my hand at it again, and soon I was playing coffee shops, bars, and farmers’ markets solo around the area. I recorded a 4-track EP of my original music my first year in graduate school.
By the end of seminary, that relationship was over and music was mostly on the back burner. I did finally take up music with some friends who formed the band of a new house church, and that was a balm to my soul. I found that a lot of the way I had engaged with music in previous years had been hurting me. It had been all about performance, all about perfection, and I felt vulnerable and inadequate to a crippling extent when it came to my original music. I had built up this agonizing tension inside myself between my desire to share my music and my profound conviction that it sucked and everyone would hate it, because of course they would.
Playing music with people who became some of my best friends was healing. There was no judgment. We were all sort of figuring it out together, for the good of our worshiping community and for the sake of having fun. We all switched instruments, trying things we didn’t really know how to play. But it was a safe space for exploring, messing up, and working things out. I wrote a little here and there, played out solo a time or two; but mostly I rested from performing and focused on playing, building relationships, and worshiping.
When I moved to Winston-Salem to start my first full-time church job, I wasn’t sure where music would fit into my vocation. I knew I was starting a music-heavy worship service called Roots Revival, and from the start, my knowledge and appreciation of music was useful in designing and planning that service. I still longed to play and sing and write, but I was back among full-time professional musicians, and I didn’t measure up. So I stayed on the sidelines. I planned worship and preached.
And then Martha Bassett, our alternative worship leader, conscripted me to play percussion with the band. I had no idea what I was doing, but over time, I figured it out. I kept it simple and worked to undergird and complement the other musicians. I sang backup occasionally but mostly sat on my cajon.
Then last summer, I went to a songwriting retreat led by Dar Williams. It was one of the more incredible experiences of my life. For a week, we wrote, played, listened, shared, gave loving feedback, ate, walked, and explored together with this mishmash of people whose one thing in common was their deep love of music and words.
I had been aching to write, and this retreat gave me the opportunity. I penned at least a half dozen songs, workshopped several there, and watched as more spilled out in the weeks following. My insecurity had been a finger in the dike holding back my creative expression, and that week yanked it out and then took a sledgehammer to the whole thing. I was writing music. Lots of music. And it wasn’t bad.
It was my fiancé, Colin, who encouraged me to play my new songs for more people. He joined me on backup vocals and keyboard at an open mic where we played two of my originals and one cover. It was hard for me to share my songs with him and with others, but I did it.
And then I shared my songs with Martha. One of our band members had moved on, and I was being incorporated into the lineup in new ways—singing more, playing guitar and keyboard occasionally, filling in spaces that had not been open to me before. When I sent her rough recordings of some of my music, I was thrilled to hear that she liked them, and shocked to hear that she wanted to play them.
We started by using one of my songs in worship because it fit the theme of the day. Then Martha told me she wanted to sing another one of my songs. Like, for regular inclusion in a set list. Like, perhaps to record on a future album.
It took me forever to send her a chart. I procrastinated on it because I was still so insecure I couldn’t believe she would want to listen to my music, much less make it her own. But finally I sent her the lyrics and chords to one song. We arranged and played it, and it was amazing. And then she asked for a chart to another.
Now I’m preparing to play several shows in one week. The first is a songwriters’ circle, where I’ll play several original songs solo. The other two are full-band shows with Martha. Three of my original songs are on the set list.
All of this has forced me to face something I have never been able to admit: I am a musician. Sounds strangely obvious, right? But it never has been to me. I have never felt good enough to claim that title. For years now, Martha has introduced me to people as part of their band, and I’ve responded with something self-effacing like, “They’re nice to let me tag along.” And when my fiancé has told people I’m a musician, I’ve said, “Well, sort of,” or “I try.”
But evidence is mounting. I get paid to play music. I write songs. A professional musician is singing some of them. This is a thing. I am a musician.
I recently read this beautiful article by Sus Long, whom I met at a festival when I told her that I like to listen to her band Hardworker’s EP and cry. There is so much I love about what Sus wrote, so much I identify with, but the thing that is sticking with me lately is the question she once asked a female writer she admired: “Who gave you permission?”
I have been seeking permission to play music, to write music, to expect people to listen to my music, pretty much all my life. You’d think I would have gotten it from my dad, or from my many incredible music teachers over the years, or from other friends along the way. But even that, even Colin’s validation and Martha’s encouragement, didn’t make me feel like I had permission to claim my music and my writing.
I’ve come to the same conclusion that Sus reached—I was the one who needed to give me permission. I needed to stop cringing at compliments on my singing or writing, stop dreading affirmation I felt deeply undeserving of while simultaneously begging for validation that I desperately wanted but which would never, ever be enough. The only thing that will be enough is to give myself permission just to keep writing, keep playing, and keep singing.