Finding My Voice
Amy Bee Sting, performance artist and vocalist, writes about finding her voice, and multi-disciplinary act Oh My God! It’s The Church.
Amy Bee Sting (Photo credit: George Harrison)
**** WARNING: This blog post discusses suicide ****
As a vocalist in a fairly successful band, you might presume that I appear confident in my voice on stage, in front of thousands of people. The truth is, I’ve had a long and emotional journey with my voice – a journey that’s still far from over – but it’s a journey that I finally feel able to write about openly. This is the story of how I found my voice.
I was two years old when my mother took her own life. She was eighteen, barely an adult herself, and her death was reported as a ‘Teenage Tragedy’ in the local newspaper. This wasn’t her first mention in the local press in her (and my) hometown of Stoke-on-Trent. My Mum, Silvia, along with her sister, Emma, were a musical duo, at first going by the name ‘Silver Emeralds’ and then later ‘Dusky Music’. I’d like to think I might not follow in her footsteps by choosing absolutely shit band names, but with my band’s namesake being ‘Oh My God! It’s The Church’, I don’t think I am eligible to comment. With Emma on keys and my Mum on vocals, they spent their teenage years gigging all over the Midlands and the North West, raising money for countless charities. Their song ‘Marathon Man’ was used by Stoke’s local radio stations for the annual Potteries Marathon for many years after her death, this being one of the few recordings I have of her singing.
After my Mum died, and I was old enough to start asking questions about her, my family would always talk about her voice and how fantastic it was. Although incredibly emotional, it was consoling to be able to hear her singing on her recordings on cassette. This was especially the case back in the 80s, pre-camera phones, when it was rare to have a voice or video recording of the deceased. To me, singing was my mum’s ‘thing’ and it belonged to her.
As I got older, I started to explore music for myself. I would listen to my dad’s record collection that consisted of Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd, Supertramp and Led Zeppelin. I was in love with the heavy riffs, the wild vocals and the outrageous fashions of 70s and 80s rock. When I started nursery school, I was heavily chastised by my teacher for singing Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ whilst everyone else was singing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. I must’ve traumatised that teacher for many years, but perhaps she deserved it for not knowing who Ozzy Osbourne was.
In primary school, I joined my school choir, as I just loved to sing – it came very naturally to me and I enjoyed it so much. I also started to learn the cello, which I really wish I’d have kept up, as I’d be a pretty righteous bass player – “Cello! You got a Bass!” (Jack Black, School of Rock, 2003). I sang all through high school in choirs and drama productions – a highlight being winning the school talent show when I was 14, singing Britney’s ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ in my school uniform (insert laughing and cringe emoji here) and, for this reason, I am so happy I grew up in a world without camera phones. I did all of this very aware that I was doing my mum’s ‘thing’, and that singing wasn’t there to be taken from her, always making sure I didn’t do it ‘too well’ or so much that I would receive comments like, ‘you’re just trying to be your mum – you’re copying her and that’s not OK – leave her thing alone!’
As I reached adulthood, I struggled with my mental health, particularly around my family life and my mum’s death. I had so many questions – the questions that everyone who has experienced a loss through suicide will be well-versed with. So many ‘whys’ and never any answers. My fragile state of mind meant that I became too terrified to sing, as I felt that that was the only thing I had left of her, and I needed to protect it at all costs.
I needed another creative outlet that I could call my own. So, I auditioned for dance school and then progressed onto university with a BA (Hons) in Dance Practice and Performance, proud that I now had a channel for my performance skills that didn’t tread on anybody’s toes, even if those toes had been gone for over twenty years.
There were choral vocals to get involved with at university, and I did so with gusto, but I didn’t put myself forward for a solo or main vocal part. I was there to dance, not sing, and I’d made that very clear to myself in my head. A few years later after graduating, I met my partner Ben and we decided to create a show that fused our creative talents – a show that would include theatre, dance and music. We christened it, ‘Oh My God! It’s The Church’. And I was going to have to sing. Oh F*ck.
I let the others take the front row, and hid behind the backing vocals, still singing, but not being heard too much. This was OK – not treading on any toes if I am just part of the chorus, right? However, as the show progressed it meant I needed to come forward vocally, with each performance trying to push ‘the thing’ to the back of my mind. The constant overthinking and anxiety around this issue would show up in my performances, and I would secretly negatively critique and compare myself, casting doubts as to whether I should be on stage at all. I still don’t know how I managed to create this music-based show, as I was absolutely terrified of singing, and not because I thought I was bad at it, but because I’d be taking it from somebody else.
After a mental health diagnosis of BPD, anxiety and depression, many hours of therapy and many months of antidepressants, I felt that it was time to see a vocal coach to work with me on finding my voice (and I told her nothing of all this, so, Sophie, if you’re reading this, this is why I sung like a little mouse in our first sessions together!). The coaching gave me more confidence in my mindset, and with that confidence I was able to start letting go of singing being my mum’s ‘thing’, and find a way to let it be something for me too. When I finally started to let go, I found a little superpower inside of me which made my performances much more enjoyable.
I suppose in a way it was a good thing that I spent a lot of time finding my voice, as the journey allowed me to explore other art forms I may have not otherwise explored – a different path may not have led me to create the multi-disciplinary act that is Oh My God! It’s The Church. This journey has allowed me to realise that, yes, singing was my mum’s ‘thing’, but in our very short time together, she managed to pass her ‘thing’ onto me, and in doing so her voice lives on.