Performance » Music

The Voice, Lost & Found

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Local performer Gail Payne will sing of love and happiness Friday night during her Valentine's Day cabaret show, but she recalls a time not long ago when singing the blues would've been more fitting.

"What came out of my mouth was horrific," she said. "I just shut down. What I thought I sounded like and what I sounded like was so different."

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She was unsettled, confused and surprised.

"I was embarrassed and just didn't understand what was going on," she admits.

And so, in 2009 while singing with a community choir, she realized it was time to work on her individual voice.

Payne, who has lived in Indianapolis for 20 years, has enjoyed singing all her life. Music has always been an important hobby. But in 2007, she felt burnt out. So Payne concentrated her efforts on her marketing career.

 "Singing in a choir, you're required to blend," said Payne, whose full-time gig is running The Goods, a professional consulting service.

It is one unified sound.

Going it Alone

"To be so in harmony is an amazing communal experience that I've loved," she continued.

But Payne was ready to be taken out of her comfort zone.

As a soloist, "it's all you," she said. "[You] can't rely on a choir."

After five years of small work with community choirs, as she was approaching her 40th birthday in 2012, Payne's husband inspired her to step up her game. His challenge for her was to sing again, but this time to do it solo. No backup choir. No group vocals.

She viewed the challenge as a bucket list item. She would check it off her list and move on.

Turning to 20 of her closest friends and family, Payne invited them over for 20 minutes of music, food and drinks in her living room. A solo cabaret performance. 

Her passion was ignited yet again.

That moment in her living room set her off on a journey to recruit a vocal coach to help find and develop her voice -- and at last find herself, the singer she wanted to be.

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Baby Steps

Payne had a fear to overcome.

When she was standing on stage rehearsing her musical theater solo, her voice sounded different to her own ears.

"On stage, it sounded like hell," Payne said. "I was so upset about it."

Her love of musical theater and jazz was pushing her to perform. She wanted the opportunity to sing. This was her only outlet at the time.

"Not being able to fulfill my dream was really difficult and embarrassing," Payne said.

So she did not sing her solo in the show the next day.

"I wasn't confident, so I wasn't going to present," Payne said. "[It's] very personal."

But through her struggle, she realized how passionate she was about finding her own voice.

According to the singer, the same goes for anyone who is an artist of any kind. "Why would a painter want to paint what 20 others did?" she asked. "You're getting to express something about yourself, as an individual artist. For me, I just felt like being an individual artist and interpreting a piece of music myself."

She was done pressing the pause button.

"I want to explore this gift I've been given and all its dimensions and colors," Payne said.

She was ready to fail, ready to feel vulnerable, and ready to be pushed.

"I had to do it. Otherwise it would eat me alive, and I'd be in tears on the couch in my husband's arms," Payne said with a laugh.

Without Further Ado

Soon, she would be performing at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club. And then that led to the International Cabaret Conference at Yale University this past summer. There she found herself performing for people all over the world. And since then, other people have been asking for her to perform.

"It's had this humungous ripple effect," Payne said.

As a performer, she just has a few requests, asked quite seriously but with a light heart. The venue must be bigger than her living room. There must be a well-tuned piano provided wherever she is going to perform. And lastly, the venue must serve cocktails, wine and beer. This, she says, is part of what a cabaret really is.

"It's turned into a wonderful, budding side career," Payne laughs. "It's been wonderful."

She attributes her success to three other things. One, she found the right vocal coach. Two, she had family and friends to support and listen to her. And three, she has an accompanist to say, "Let's do it, I'll help you."

When considering her moments of self-doubt, fear of failure and ultimately the resilience to press on toward her goals, the only thing she regrets is the time it took to get there.

"It's been worth it, yeah, absolutely been worth it," she said. "I just wish I had done it 20 years ago."

Payne's next performance will be a Valentine's Day cabaret featuring herself, her pianist David Duncan, and guitarist Sandy Williams. This 60-minute cabaret will begin at 8 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Christian Theological Seminary next to the Butler University campus. A dessert reception will follow.

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