What the hell is NERFA?
I spent last weekend in a hotel crammed full of folk musicians.
It’s a weird event where a few hundred songwriters make music in hyper-intimate settings: dozens of shows happening at once in small hotel rooms, each in front of an audience of five or ten or fifteen people (however many can squeeze into those tight spaces between the beds, or by the desk, or halfway into the bathroom).
No amps. No mics. No fancy lights. The only thing between the performer and the audience is the song. On bad days, that’s scary shit — because a song can either be a wall or a bridge.
I had a couple good days. Or nights rather. Or… mornings? My first set was at 2:30am on Friday morning. My second set was midnight on Saturday.
The wonderful wee hours
Playing that late after long days feels like you’re standing at some emotional threshold. Your eyes are tired, your spirit’s giddy, your voice is shot — and the audience is often right there with you, body ragged, but renewed somehow. Raw, more human.
Seriously. Have you ever sung harmony with ten other people in a hotel room at 3am? DO IT! One person sings, a few more join in, and by the end of the song there’s a chorus, one big swelling voice, made all the wider and more moving for the moments when our own imperfections catch and spark against the others.
During my second little hotel concert I decided, since everything felt pretty damn exposed already, to play a brand new song. A song about how we need each other. About how power and acquisition for their own sakes are dehumanizing, soul-crushing endeavors. A song about how one of the bravest things you can do is offer or accept help.
I asked the people in the room to sing along. By the third time through the chorus they knew the words and helped add beautiful, gentle, hopeful harmonies. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Then my eyes got teary. Then I felt like our voices — raised together — could move a fucking mountain.
And they probably could. One handful of dirt at a time. It’s the only thing that ever does: voices raised in song, protest, anger, hope, love, and action.
I keep learning the lesson.
Let’s get back to what’s beneath big buzzwords like empathy and community. Singing together, listening together, being vulnerable, choosing connection over control. I’m not saying that’s easy for me. I mean, I’m an only child! GIMME GIMME GIMME.
But my six-year-old daughter (also an only child) has much to teach the adults in her life, as well as those on Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue: “Sharing is caring.”
Be kind. Keep cool. Stay warm.
P.S. Thanks to friends Nico Padden and Emily Ann Peterson for setting me up with two showcase slots during that busy weekend. Above is a little snippet of my set in Emily’s “Songs of Bravery” room. (Though it ain’t the moment when we were all singing together because, well, we were all singing together, not holding up phones).