A Star is Born at Centre-Stage
With Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born now in cinemas, Richard Ashcroft, Kevin Armstrong, Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs and Mercury-nominated Kathryn Williams tell us about the first time they braved centre-stage.
Are you ready? It’s time. You’re only feet away from the place, and the people, that are waiting for you. A few simple steps and, whoosh, there you’ll be. When you’re there – on-stage, centre-stage – you become a different person entirely.
Watch central character Ally make this journey in Bradley Cooper’s stunning remake of A Star Is Born, and it’s hard not to think of the woman who plays her, and her own passage to fame. Lady Gaga was once an ordinary Italian-American girl, Stefani Germanotta, making her way playing sets in New York clubs and bars. In just a decade she’s won over audiences worldwide, but her performance reminds you of the ordinary person she once was, learning to put on the razzle-dazzle, and the many other human beings like her who exist behind the spotlights. When they’re at the side of the stage they’re regular Joes, before they stride out and transform before their fans.
Richard Ashcroft was once a regular teenager in a local Wigan band, The Verve. Five years later, they were huge Britpop darlings, and Ashcroft their festival crowd-commanding front man. Their first gig was in a very humble setting, however: a friend’s 18th birthday party in a pub. “Any musician will remember that feeling of walking onto stage for the first time,” he says now. He remembers family and friends watching, nervous for him, projecting their own insecurities onto his performance. “It’s like you’re breaking a paradigm for the first time. I wasn’t quite feeling [that insecure], but I knew I had to do it, and that I was born to do that, to be up on stage.”
He also knows lots of his fans would like to be in his place, because he projects a confidence they wish to have. “That’s why people go to gigs to see people like me, because over the years I’ve got to a point where I really don’t care what people think about what I’m doing right now. I know that’s what they came for.”
The confidence of the huge live artist can mask nerves, however. Imagine watching David Bowie going from the side of the stage to the microphone at Live Aid, brimming with charisma: guitarist Kevin Armstrong doesn’t have to, he was there, psyching himself to accompany one of the most famous men in the world. “But Bowie always got nervous before going onstage,” Armstrong remembers today (he played with Bowie periodically between 1985 and 1995). “The difference was he harnessed that energy, and made himself get more excited by it.” It helped, Armstrong says, that Bowie had been going on stage for over 20 years at that point – his first band, The Konrads, had played parties and weddings since the early 1960s.
Playing bigger crowds is easier than small ones, in some ways, Armstrong says – as he knows, touring his solo material these days in clubs. “Seeing people’s eyes right in front you is much more intense than having a twenty-foot space, then a crash barrier, then an amorphous mass of people screaming.” Big stars feel the fear of the intimate crowd too, he says. He remembers meeting INXS’ Michael Hutchence at a small club in the 1990s, trying to get him to do a song before the small crowd – but Hutchence being too scared to do so, despite regularly performing at stadiums.
Other stars take more extreme measures to get ready for the stage. Armstrong still plays guitar for one of the most charismatic performers in showbiz, punk icon Iggy Pop. “He’s the mellowest, gentlest person off-stage – clever, sweet and really funny. But he has to have this intense, private time before gigs to psyche himself up.” Before the gig, Pop has to have at least two to three hours alone, without seeing anyone, not even his band; he even points his chair in the direction of where the audience are going to be. But this works, Armstrong says: the charisma that radiates off Pop onstage is like nothing he has ever experienced. “He’s 71 now, and the energy that comes off him is incredible. That time to prepare is what does it.”
Being with friends on-stage can help a performer’s nerves too. DJ Muggs from American hip-hop band Cypress Hill remembers going with his bandmates to watch groups in New York in their early days, and that they learned lessons from other artists together. “We drew inspiration and confidence from a lot of live bands, and that helped our own experience. And the fact we’re together makes a huge difference to our confidence. Our shared love of music bonds us on stage, overcomes any fear.” He enjoys walking onto stage these days, he says. “There’s less fear with experience.”
But what if you’re on your own, singing alone for the first time before a big crowd? Mercury Prize-nominated singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams has played the Royal Albert Hall five times over her 20-year career – a big ask for someone who often plays by herself with a guitar. She still remembers her first time on stage as an adult – in the corner of a pub in Newcastle, playing three songs on singer-songwriter’s night. “It could have been the Albert Hall for all my heart was thumping,” she says. “I remember closing my eyes so I couldn’t see people watching me sing – that way I could be safe inside my song, walking through the verse towards the chorus.”
Hearing herself in a different environment from practising at home was strange too. “I heard my voice louder than I had ever heard it before through the P.A, and it was thrilling and frightening but also like hearing a stranger.” But although she felt anxiety in those early days – and she still feels some of it today– something kept her going on then, and this same thing keeps her going on now. “I carried on playing and singing even though I thought I would black out with nerves. And that same drive is still there. Now I can be in the moment and sit in it, and that’s such a joy.”
It is such a joy to us when we hear a person come alive under the spotlights in an entirely transporting way. There they are, making that journey for all of us, putting the magic of music where it should be: centre-stage.
[Words by Jude Rogers, with thanks to John Earls and Liz Aubrey]
A Star is Born stars four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper and multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated music superstar Lady Gaga, in her first leading role in a major motion picture. Cooper helms the drama, marking his directorial debut.
In this new take on the tragic love story, he plays seasoned musician Jackson Maine, who discovers - and falls in love with - struggling artist Ally (Gaga). She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer... until Jack coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally's career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jack fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons.