There's a long history of musicians who suffered from and overcame (or sometimes didn't overcome) crippling shyness, anxiety and stage fright to fulfill their dreams of standing in the spotlight. That spotlight, it's a cruel, uncaring light. So bright. So uncomfortably warm. Everyone's staring at you expectantly. It can all be so unnerving, as any of the performers on our list of the ten most timid musicians could attest.
10. Conor Oberst In addition to certainly, definitely being the next Bob Dylan, Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst was known in his early days for the intense stage fright that caused him to keep a bucket handy in case of mid-set bouts of vomiting. Nowadays, he's primarily known for having a name that looks as though it just came out of an online anagram generator (Bronco Store, Reboots Corn, Robot Censor). He and Embeth Davidtz should get together and see if they hit it off; their kids' names would most likely send off subliminal waves that would rewire your brain just by looking at them. I know kung fu.
9. Lana Del Rey Having been on the wrong end of a critical backlash the likes of which the Internet has rarely seen, Lana Del Rey could be excused for feeling a little nervous before she performs. She reports that fans sometimes hand her soft toys while she's singing in an effort to comfort her. As an international star with perfect hair and a penchant for appearing naked in magazines and videos, she's clearly having a hard go of it. There, there, little flower. A stuffed tiger will soothe the injuries of this cruel world. His name's Edmund.
8. Matt Berninger Matt Berninger of the National is known for drinking a bottle of wine before every show, and for writing songs in which he claims that "all the wine is all for me." Lest he come off as some kind of wine-hoarding monster, it's worth pointing out that he drinks in order to overcome a creeping dread of performing. I once drove from Ann Arbor to Cincinnati to see the National play, arriving to find Berninger holding onto the rafters above the stage with one hand, drinking with the other, and looking like he was about to collapse into the audience. In that moment, I knew that all I wanted in my life was to be like him.
7. Chan Marshall The titan of delicate indie music known as Cat Power not only speaks for the trees, she's also famous for her erratic onstage demeanor -- starting and stopping songs at whim, asking fans to talk during her performances, and occasionally leaving without explanation. "I want to make it perfect," she says. "It's not like I'm trying to torture people." Somewhere out there in the glimmering ether floats that Platonic ideal of a Cat Power show she's been reaching for all these years. It's probably just her playing some songs people like, then saying, "Thanks! Goodnight!"
6. Elliott Smith Elliott Smith led a life of constant depression and struggled with addiction. It's no accident that "Needle in the Hay" was used in the most harrowing scene of Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums -- you know, the one that takes the film's affectionately goofy tone and turns it deathly serious in a matter of seconds. It's also not a surprise that Smith suffered from bouts of stage fright that made him sick before shows. His life must've been a hellish carnival ride of unenviable experiences. Rest in peace, Elliott.
5. Thom Yorke Watching Radiohead's erratic and increasingly scruffy frontman experience some kind of funky seizure onstage makes it tempting to view him as a crazed clairvoyant. However, he has revealed in interviews that he will often get severely anxious before a show, providing inspiration for songs like "How to Disappear Completely." When you spend each day fighting an army of post-modern specters bent on devouring your soul, finding the willpower to shave in the morning is a low priority, apparently.
4. Jeff Mangum Jeff Mangum did what every artist dreams of doing: He created a work that transcends time and space, speaking directly to people's hearts. When In the Aeroplane Over the Sea began to draw the world's attention, he did a disappearing act and left behind a mythology that persists to this day. I heard he wandered around Bulgaria for five years with a tape recorder duct-taped to his chest. Or am I thinking of Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing? Either way, the truth is far more mundane: Mangum's been playing on other people's albums, hosting a few radio shows, curating festivals and occasionally playing small acoustic sets in preparation for a late-2013 Neutral Milk Hotel reunion tour.
3. Andy Partridge The XTC singer went through a much-publicized breakdown in the early '80s that left him unable to play live and turned XTC into a studio band. "The idea of having to entertain someone became a real upset," he revealed in an interview with typical English decorum. "I couldn't even go out of the front door, I was so upset at the thought that people might know who I was." Although Partridge certainly wasn't the first musician to quail at the prospect of fame, he became a kind of cautionary tale for those with pop-star ambitions.
2. Nick Drake Those who came to know Nick Drake through the 1999 Volkswagen commercial that featured "Pink Moon" probably pictured him as a Cat-Stevens-esque 1960s love-and-harmony folkie. In reality, Drake had a dark streak a mile wide, as the lyrics to "Pink Moon" will attest. Disinclined to give interviews or play live, Drake eventually holed up at his parents' home in the wilds of England. Another tragic figure who suffered from depression, he wrote one of the most terrifying songs about the condition: "Black Eyed Dog." Try listening to it before you go to sleep. That'll work out well for everyone.
1. Jandek Jandek is the Thomas Pynchon of the music world. He's so reclusive that his bio reads like the rap-sheet of a mafia kingpin. It's "widely accepted" that his real name is Sterling Richard Smith, although he tends to refer to himself as "a representative from Corwood Industries" during his rare interactions with other human beings. Although he has performed with increasing frequency in recent years -- including an appearance at Denver's Bug Theater in 2008 -- the man is still essentially a ghost. In fact, he could be sitting next to you as you read this. You could be Jandek. Are you Jandek?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!