What is SoJam? It’s the biggest geek-out and knees-up on the aca-calendar, held over a weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Pitch Perfect made flesh, if that helps.) For us, it’s three days of being fussed over and enfolded in a community of talent and warmth and silliness, an artificial moment of celebrity to be savoured in small doses. The grassroots participants of a festival like this are college groups, and although I feel almost a generation removed from them, I have to remind myself that it’s less than five years since I was singing in such a group, cooing over the Swingle Singers and wondering if I’d ever get to audition for them. At least two of the festival’s staff and workshop leaders competed in the 2007 ICCA finals in New York, as I did, and the last time we hung out we were under 21 and couldn’t buy a drink. Haven’t we grown?
Singing for an entire audience of singers is scary, but we rise to the occasion and our gig is met with the rabid enthusiasm that belongs uniquely to this kind of festival. The highlight for me is having the whole crowd sing along to my song Burden. Check it.
Raleigh is the 42nd largest city in the US, says Wikipedia. I feel like the phenomenon of the middleweight city is an aspect of American life that hasn’t really caught the British imagination but is one of the most alien details of the New World. Cities like Raleigh or Indianapolis (the 13th largest, where we are a week later) have all the amenities you could require, plus skyscrapers and wide streets and at least a few really hip bars, yet they barely register as tourist destinations. Their downtowns have so little in common with the crowded, provincial/post-industrial feel of an English city centre, where if you want to build a high-rise office you first have to dig up a Saxon hoard, a mass plague grave and an unexploded WW2 bomb. Anyway, if you do go to Raleigh, you have to eat at The Pit and drink at Foundation.
Our yo-yo route takes us back to Chicago, or rather to its suburbs, and a show in a rootsy and out-of-the-way club called FitzGerald’s. We rarely play these kinds of venues, but they bring home the fundamentals of what we do. As we introduce Clair de Lune – with a story about singing in an Italian chapel and seeing the moon rise past the window – a woman in the front shouts out “It was from the goddess!” After our set, another lady comes backstage and tells us that whenever we’re bored at an airport or frustrated about fluffing a note, we should hold on to how much our music has moved her. It’s about the most beautiful thing you can hope to hear as a musician.
It’s a little before 5am, the sun isn’t even thinking about rising yet, and we’re waiting at Indianapolis airport in the last few hours of our time in the US. 90 minutes of sleep, coupled with a deep aversion to wasting gifts such as local craft beers (too heavy to add to our luggage load), have left me semi-delirious with tiredness. Our flight is mildly delayed – probably something to do with the dramatic thunderclap that earlier provided a little exit music for what has been a tour lit by unbroken bright, cold sun – but with luck, we’ll connect at Washington Dulles onto a flight to Dubai. From the Midwest to the Middle East.
Doug Jones is at our gate! You know, THIS guy.
Long-haul flights swaddle us in a soma cocoon – TVs and beverages taking our minds off the bald fact that we’re dangling in a giant metal bird miles from life. But then come the sudden lucid moments: the discovery of a grey hair in the fluorescent bathroom mirror, an unexpected choke in a sad film. Between sleeps on the Washington-Dubai flight I see from the map that we’re flying over the Caucasus mountains, and there they are below, shifting ridges of white glowing in the night. A movie or so later, the sun rises, and there are the Georgia O’Keeffe cloud-prairies from back in the Chicago Art Institute.
As Emirates flights land at Dubai, they play a glitzy montage of the city’s sights, soundtracked by Sinatra singing ‘It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling’. If you know me you know I love LOVE Frank, but this is one of those Ol’ Sleazy Eyes tunes that make me cringe, about what a gas it is to ogle dames around the world. Oddly, the punchline is that trav’ling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, ending with an exhortation to “burn the passports”, which would seem to be seriously unsound advice before you’ve cleared immigration.
I can now confirm that when in Dubai, jetlagged to buggery and unsure when/ where/who you are, it’s not super helpful to eat lunch at Cheesecake Factory while looking out on a giant indoor ski slope. If you feel you’re losing a grip on reality, I’d advise against watching Kelly Rowland soundchecking in a silk onesie, practising her crowd banter to hundreds of empty tables under a cheese-puff moon. “Surreal” is a cheap word beloved of the humblebragger, but the Dubai airshow’s gala dinner is the full melting-watches lobster-telephones bonkers experience. We sing on a stage built on the sand of The Palm, with the wind blowing off the sea making our mics rumble and blowing our hair about like a power ballad on MTV. Afterwards we eat sushi served on fast-melting ice sculptures and watch Kelly and her band kill it. I get into this awkward moment with some manner of sultan/sheikh and his girlfriend cajoling me into solo-serenading them with a few lines of Al Green.
The next day we sit at a table with the commander of the Red Arrows talking us shape-by-shape through an incredible display, before he takes us onto the tarmac to look at the planes up close. As he talks, part of me keeps wanting to draw these laboured analogies between what we do and what they do. Oh, you work in an ensemble too! You have two spare jets? We have two spare microphones! Then I remember that if they make a mistake, they may die.
Please FedEx some perspective to my hotel concierge.