We generally like our music uplifting, but for local musicians sometimes life gets in the way.
Whether it’s the piano player at French 75 or the reggae-fueled singer at Mozambique, the glamour of playing night after night takes its toll.
Divorce, personal issues and chaotic schedules make the “rock star” life anything but.
Perhaps the only salvation for veteran musicians is their original motivation: just stay authentic.
“This business can chew you up and spit you out,” said Le Grand Barr, a “fifty-something” piano player who has been playing since he was 7. “It is a challenge; it is an everyday challenge. I’ve had to constantly reinvent myself. Whereas I’m blessed to still be working, I’m still met with challenges and obstacles.”
Most musicians start out with big dreams, and when that doesn’t materialize, the wreckage is ongoing.
“I was a young father at 21, so of course my daughter was affected,” said Barr, who is currently separated from his second wife. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of selfishness involved when you’re young because you’re thinking about your career and not necessarily about the responsibilities of being in a relationship, of being in a family.”
Another local musician agrees. Nick Hernandez is the 45-year-old lead singer of Common Sense and also divorced — largely because of the music lifestyle.
“It makes it tough to have a regular life,” he said. “All your friends are on a different schedule than you. You miss every holiday because you’re playing every holiday. You miss every Fourth of July for 15 years. You miss every New Year’s.”
Hernandez started Common Sense in college. With some early success — a record deal, TV commercials and national tour — he lived the fast life for several years.
“I think that’s what made it so tough on my wife,” he said. “We were young. We really didn’t know how to deal with problems like that. I was kind of immature.”
Now, Hernandez wishes he had learned a few things earlier, like balance.
“What’s really going on in your life is nothing like what people think is going on in your life,” he said. “People make everything up. As far as a local musician who struggles like a regular person in this economy, that’s kind of what I relate to.”
The local music scene has changed, according to Barr, who also plays at Savannah Chop House in Laguna Niguel. He cites cutthroat pricing as a serious challenge.
Barr admits to being at a crossroads with his music, wondering if it’s time to expand into other things, like writing music for films.
“We don’t value what I do for a living anymore. Music is not important anymore. And that’s really sad,” Barr said. “When a disc jockey can command more than I can command at a private event for a night, something is wrong with that picture.
“I have nothing against deejays — everyone serves a purpose — but you can’t compare my years of practicing, my skill set, my knowledge of music theory, with a deejay. You can’t compare the two.”
Barr, who plays everything from Frank Sinatra to Top 40, has to be well-versed in a range of musical styles.
“It’s every man for himself nowadays,” he said. “In this business, 10% is talent; the rest is business. You have to market yourself.”
Both musicians, however, still love what they do, despite the frustrations and heartaches.
“There is no formula to make this work,” Barr said. “It’s tough. You can’t treat it lightly. You can’t look at it as a passing fancy. If you’re trying to make a living at this, you better think long and hard, because there is a compromise.
“Can it work? Absolutely. I think anybody who plays music and can make a living at it should feel blessed and privileged.”
Hernandez agrees, admitting that he’s matured as a musician.
“You get to be your own boss,” he said. “You get to express your feelings if you’re a songwriter without being looked down upon. It’s like therapy.
“As a musician, I never lose the dream. My dream with music is to help people have a better life. I mean, it really is.”
So at their expense, musicians sing. The crooner in the corner at the local bar is singing the blues for a reason.
They struggle every night of the week so that we can have better mood music.
They can’t help but sacrifice for others. It’s what they do, and most would not be happy doing anything else.
They are the unsung singers.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.