A couple of years ago I did something incredibly geeky and, quite frankly, a little creepy. I surrendered to the nagging desire in the heart of every music fanboy. I wrote a fan letter.
I know, I know. It’s lame and I’m a dweeb. A mature, level-headed music listener would be content with merely enjoying the work without needing to make some sort of personal contact with its maker, without causing unheard-of levels of secondhand embarrassment by gushing overzealously over how much they love this song, how it changed their life, how it fills a hole in their drab existence. I shouldn’t feel the need to reach out, but dammit, the internet makes it so easy. Making that connection is but a couple quick clicks away, and it’s unobtrusive enough that they can easily choose to ignore you without coming across like total assholes, the way that they would if they gave you the cold shoulder while walking down the street.
Steve Nieve is an English pianist and composer, best known for his time as the keyboardist for The Attractions, as well as his long-term artistic partnership with Elvis Costello. An incredible and versatile talent, producing lush and elegant classical piano melodies with the same ease with which he busts out aggressive angular Vox continental organ attacks. He has played with orchestras the world over, he’s collaborated with musicians across a host of different genres, he is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. He has played in some of my all-time favorite records. And he’s on Facebook.
The idea to contact Steve creeped into my head after listening to “Welcome to the Voice”– Steve’s wonderful opera about obsession, oppression and the human voice– for the fourteenth time. I had the Deutsche grammophone release, featuring the voice talents of Sting, Robert Wyatt, Barbara Bonney, Elvis Costello and others, as well as music by Steve and The Brodsky Quartet. For a while there I couldn’t stop listening to that CD, it’s absolutely enrapturing from top to bottom. So I sent Steve a Facebook message– a brief one, expressing my admiration for his work, how much I loved “Welcome to the Voice” and what a shame it was that I couldn’t find his solo album “Mumu” in Buenos Aires. I almost had a panic attack before hitting “send”. But then I did, and I immediately hated myself for it.
I mean, Jesus Christ, this is exactly the type of shit that makes musicians weary of their fans, right? The ridiculous, over-the-top idolatry that comes from a small, unbearably vocal contingent of rabid consumers who can’t simply relax and enjoy the material that’s released onto the world, they have to actually reach out and shower them with praise, deifying someone who’s simply doing their job. I mean, do you go around sending Facebook friend requests and messages expressing your gratitude to anyone who does anything that you like? What is it about music that’s so different? Why don’t I ever get the urge to email my bed’s manufacturers and tell them how much I love this bed they made for me, and how comfy it is, and how just knowing that it’s waiting for me at home serves as a shining beacon of hope towards the end of my almost unbearable work shift? When was the last time I Friend-requested the chef at my favorite restaurant?
A couple of days pass and I’ve resigned myself to the idea that Steve– who was on tour at the time– was probably too busy to respond. Perhaps they didn’t even notice the message. Perhaps this isn’t even their Facebook account. It could just be the record label. Or a manager. Or even just a demented fan posing as Steve Nieve. Who knows? This was a stupid idea. I should have kept my mouth shut. Who the hell do I think I am?
But then, the response came.
It was short. It was economical in its wording. It was written by somebody who was obviously busy. But it was kind, it was sincere and it was genuine. Steve thanked me for my words, expressed an interest in coming back to Buenos Aires and said that he’d be happy to send me a copy of “Mumu” if I gave him my mailing address.
I nearly freaked out. A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, a member of a legendary band, the pianist in my all-time favorite album took time out of his schedule to write me. Not only that, but he was offering to send me a copy of his album. For free! Wait… for free? I wasn’t too sure about that. Was he offering to sell me “Mumu”? Does he want me to give him my credit card information? I’d be more than happy to pay for the album but I don’t even have a credit card. I could set up a PayPal account I guess. I don’t know. What’s expected of me, here?
My friend Rease has seen this side of me a few times. The ridiculous overjoyed fanboy side. She’s seen me interact with people I deeply admire, and she’s seen a transformation in my overall demeanor. Rease says that whenever I talk to famous people I turn into Dobby, the house-elf from Harry Potter. A jittery bundle of nerves and overly-formal speak, always addressing the object of my admiration as “sir” or “Ms.”. When she pointed this out to me I brushed it off, but looking back at the response I drafted, I can’t help but agree with her assessment.
Steve responded back, clarifying that the CD was meant as a gift. I gave him my address and sure enough, several days later I received a package in the mail containing not only “Mumu” but all of Steve’s solo CDs and an incredibly thoughtful handwritten note, thanking me for my interest in his work. How amazing is that?
And the music itself is wonderful. “It’s Raining Somewhere” is a gorgeous collection of solo jazz piano improvisational pieces that are like being carried along by a gentle wind. “Windows” features melodies of international patchwork: a view of the world through hotel room windows across different parts of the globe. And “Mumu”– Steve’s pop album– is a joyful listen all the way through, combining rich melodicism with wry humor and crisp production. The opening track– the lovely “Confident Again”– is an impossibly pretty boarding-gate lullaby; a hazy bed of piano and Steve’s hushed, imperfect voice singing sincerely about goodbyes, devotion, ice cream cones. It’s truly a beauty.
I guess what I’m saying is sometimes we’re paralyzed by a fear that’s not completely justified, of how our actions will be perceived. And we’re so consumed by our own neuroses and paranoias that we might miss out on something pretty fucking awesome– not just for ourselves, but for someone else too. Maybe Steve was having a crappy day, and my little Facebook note made him smile. Maybe people are less precious and pretentious about their own art than you think, and maybe they need to hear that their work is appreciated.
Maybe we just take ourselves too damn seriously. Maybe taking the leap and being that obnoxious, overbearing fan is okay, sometimes. And hey, if the object of your admiration is as cool as Steve Nieve, you might be rewarded. But even if they’re not– even if they don’t respond, because they really are too busy, or it’s not their Facebook account– it’s never a bad thing to let people know how much their work touched you. And that something that they made moves through you at such a profound level, pushes you pleasantly along throughout your day, sings you off to sleep at night. Maybe it’s okay to gush and give thanks for something that means so much to you. Maybe we need to start being more outright in our gratitude for the silly things that help us cope. Maybe next time you go to a film festival and a movie touched you, stick around and shake the director’s hand. It could make their day. It could make yours.