The room was small with black dividers forming the walls. It was simply furnished with a black coffee table and, in contrast to the dark surroundings, two white sofas which lined adjacent walls and were pushed together in the far right corner of the room. The air was stuffy and I moved my hair back from my forehead with my hand. Sitting on one of the sofas, I took a sip of my gin and tonic in an attempt to remain composed and to try and coax my fantastically overwhelmed grin to feign a cool smile. A sense of relaxed intimacy filled the air as more people entered the room, and music began to sound in gentle tones. Despite the warm atmosphere, a confused mixture of feelings had taken hold of me: astonishment, excitement, and absolute joy. I was a stranger to this level of attention, this kindness.
At the beginning of this year, I was involved in making a radio documentary for the BBC World Service, which detailed some of my experiences following my sudden hearing loss. During a moment in the recording, I found myself in an emotional situation. I was in an empty music venue and was explaining that I would no longer be able to go to live music events, due to my sensitivity to loud noises; a consequence of my hearing loss. I realised I would never be able to see my favourite band, The National, play live.
Many aspects of life have changed for me since the day I lost full sound. I have found that it is often the small, more personal effects of losing my hearing that carry the most impact. Tiny chunks of my personality have been broken away by some of the cruel repercussions of my hearing loss. When dealing with tinnitus, dizziness, ear pressure and sensitivity to sound, I sometimes feel that my focus is driven away from the things I love; the intrinsic pieces of my personality that make me, me. I have always enjoyed music, in particular going to summer music festivals. This love of music had been repressed; forced into quietness by the accompanying conditions to my hearing loss.
A few months after the documentary recording went live, I was contacted by the National’s manager and was invited to go backstage to meet the band before a show they were playing at MadCool; a music festival in Madrid, where I live. Of course, I was very excited at the prospect of meeting the band. Yet, it was also difficult to imagine this as an experience I would be able to enjoy, or perhaps even tolerate. After all, I had spent almost three years avoiding loud noises and live music events. But, it was a wonderful opportunity and one which I couldn’t refuse. I explained my sound sensitivity issues with the tour manager and was told that, if I felt comfortable, after the Meet and Greet I could watch the concert from the side of the stage where it would be much quieter than the audience area.
The weeks leading up to the event, I was nervous and excited. I was nervous about the festival noise and volume levels. I was nervous about meeting the band. I was determined to enjoy this day as much as possible. I was in a privileged situation and was going to make the most of it, though I knew the day would bring challenges.
As well as having noise sensitivity issues, I have also been advised by specialists against attending live concerts. I needed to ensure that I wasn’t going to be in any position that could cause noise-related hearing damage. And, above all, I needed to feel comfortable. I was going in prepared. I packed a bag with my earplugs and some ear muffs. I was ready.
My boyfriend and I arrived at the festival on a very hot day. The vibrations of the sounds as we approached the outdoor venue caused some pain in my ears; I had forgotten the strength of live music. Luckily, we didn’t have to spend much time in the main grounds of the festival.
After enjoying some time in the artists’ area, the band’s tour manager came to collect us. We followed her as she moved briskly, and within seconds we were walking down a black corridor with labelled doors on either side. I glanced up and read one of the labels: ‘The Smashing Pumpkins’. Oh my goodness! – We were in the artists dressing room area!
We reached the end of the corridor and I stopped for a moment at the realisation that I was about to meet my favourite band. “This is really happening, isn’t it?” I said to my boyfriend. Until this moment, I hadn’t quite believed it.
We turned left and walked straight into The National’s dressing room. It felt like entering a scene from a film. The first person I saw was one of the guitarists, Aaron, standing in the doorway playing his guitar. He greeted me and introduced himself. We were quickly introduced to the other band members and I had a brief chat with Matt, the lead singer. My boyfriend was busy talking to some of the other band members when Matt asked me to sit down on one of the white sofas. He told me to choose a good spot. I didn’t know what he meant by this, so I placed myself to the left of where he sat down (my hearing side) so that whatever happened, I would have some chance of hearing him.
Matt was joined by Gail, one of the female vocalists on their new album, and they were handed a sheet of song lyrics. I read the title: Hey Rosey.
And then, without any announcement, they began to sing. Music played in beautiful acoustic notes and the gentle tones meant that I was able to listen and enjoy it without pain. I thought perhaps the band were rehearsing before going on stage. But, very soon I realised they were playing solely for us. There wasn’t going to be a group of special guests as I’d expected – we were the only ones! This song was ours. I took a sip of my gin and tonic.
When Matt, the lead singer, began to sing I was reminded of a time a few years ago when my boyfriend bought me some new headphones. They were much better quality than I was used to, and to test the sound quality I played a song by The National. The music sounded so clear, almost like I was sitting in the room with them. At the time I commented that it was like a private serenade through my headphones. But, at this moment, I realised it was nothing close.
I tried to take it all in; looking at the faces of the band members, listening to the music, and enjoying the atmosphere. I wanted to be able to remember these moments; sharing this intimate display of creativity.
After the music stopped, I continued talking to Matt. He asked a little about my condition and he commented on how generous he thought I had been in sharing my story through the documentary.
Continuing the theme of the documentary that had brought me to this moment, I asked Matt whether there was a sound that he treasured. He paused for a second. Then suddenly he was visibly struck with emotion. He threw himself back in his chair and held his head in his hands, and replied, “The sound of my daughter giggling…her giggling.”
Soon, we were ushered into a black van and were taken to the backstage area. The stage manager showed us the setlist of songs and explained where we could stand on the stage. I was hoping I would be able to enjoy this, without the worry of hearing damage or sound sensitivity issues.
We watched as the band entered the stage, a few metres from where we were standing. Then the concert began.
I was wearing my earplugs and was able to tolerate the volume level of the music. From the side of the stage where we were standing, the vocals were sometimes difficult to hear, yet the feeling of music dancing through my body filled me with excitement. This energy, I hadn’t experienced for almost three years.
Matt dedicated the song Hey Rosey to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear him say my name, but my boyfriend alerted me, and I saw Matt waving. I waved back with unreserved delight. I was dancing! I was smiling! Some of my hearing loss grief was lifting, and this stifled part of my personality; this love of live music, was being reignited. I was filled with exhilaration. I thought I would never be able to go to a live concert again, and here I was, watching my favourite band from the side of the stage like a rockstar!
I have come so far on my hearing loss journey. In the documentary, I spoke about how I was trying to be aware of the sounds that I love, and to not take them for granted. This love of music will always be a part of me, and I hope to be able to continue to appreciate music throughout my life, whatever my hearing capacity. And, if this was to be the last concert I’ll ever attend, rest assured I enjoyed every moment.
Thank you to The National, Shaun Gibson from Straight and Narrow Artist Management, AJ Faber, and everyone else who made our backstage experience so special. Thank you also to Chelsea Dickenson from Audio Always who, without her documentary, this would never have happened. It was a truly amazing experience and one which I will treasure. You have all made my smile brighter.
Click here or below for the dressing room acoustic session.