Female 'Sidemen' Step Up Their Solo Efforts

Three musicians talk about the journey from backup player in a band to center-stage performer

Those who have seen Mindy Jostyn perform know that she is at home playing the guitar, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, accordion, and keyboard. As if that's not enough, she can sing, too.

Her musical dexterity has landed her gigs as a sideman for Billy Joel, Joe Jackson, Donald Fagen, and John Mellencamp. Even Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenwieder and bluesman Dr. John figure into her list.

These days, however, Ms. Jostyn is not seeking out the next mega-tour with another pop star; she's focusing on her own music.

She recently released a solo album, ''Five Miles From Hope,'' which features contributions from friends Carly Simon, Donald Fagen, and Garth Hudson.

''A music career is very much an improvisation,'' she says.

Jostyn represents an emerging tier of women in the music world who are breaking out on their own after working as ''sidemen.''

Sharon Shannon, known for her accordion and fiddle work with various Irish groups, is riding the coattails of her second solo effort, ''Out the Gap.''

Like-minded fiddler Eileen Ivers just released her second solo album, ''Wild Blue,'' after stints with Hall & Oates, Luka Bloom, and other bands. Paula Cole is doing well after touring with Peter Gabriel. Last year's Grammy-winner Sheryl Crow used to back Michael Jackson.

Some say the time couldn't be better: Female artists are more represented on the charts than ever before.

Jostyn has seen some of them rise from the small clubs and coffeehouses in New York City, people like Grammy-nominee Joan Osborne, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, and Dar Williams. While these singer-songwriters seemed single-minded in their careers, Jostyn and other artists in similar positions have found that sideman work doesn't automatically give you a free ticket into the solo world. In fact, sideman is a label you sometimes have to work against.

On the other hand, sideman experience offers exposure that a musician wouldn't necessarily have had if she started solo - from musical influences to industry and media contacts.

''I learned from every circumstance I was in,'' says Ms. Ivers, who is the feature soloist in ''Riverdance,'' the musical that sold out Radio City Music Hall in New York. ''Working as a sideman is totally different head space,'' she explains in a phone interview. Sometimes you're like a hired hand, whereas in a band you're an equal member. For her, going solo was a daunting but natural transition. ''Once the hurdle is over, it's really fun.''

Sideman work can also earn the support of high-profile musicians. In press materials that accompany Jostyn's CD, Joe Jackson is quoted as saying: ''She has at least enough talent for three normal people.'' Carly Simon is apparently also a fan. ''When she becomes a household name we will all say, 'We knew it all along,' '' her quote reads.

For Ms. Shannon, the transition from sideman to solo artist was like coming full circle. She had started a solo effort of traditional Irish music before joining the Waterboys. Several years in that band exposed her to rock and other influences, broadening her musical repertoire.

''I was steeped in tradition growing up. I'd say 90 percent of the kids where I grew up learn to play an instrument,'' says Shannon by phone from Ireland. Her first solo effort was shelved for a while, but she returned to it after the Waterboys stint with a fresh eye - and an established following. ''A lot of young people got to know my music through the Waterboys. It was a kick-start.''

The music business is fickle, however, and that can be particularly challenging to any musician, even the most successful. From dealing with record labels and agents to producers and the press, marketing efforts can eat into writing and performing - what musicians love best. Not to forget that in a world where exposure is all-too-often equated with success, and critics' opinions seem to measure talent, competition can be rough.

''Everybody has a different experience,'' Jostyn says. Surprisingly, women are still sometimes viewed as specialty acts in the industry, she says. ''I try to see myself as an individual in the music business, not a woman. It's the artist's responsibility to decide not to accept limitations.''

Ivers, the only woman in the 11-piece Riverdance Orchestra, concurs. ''You'd like to think that everything is equal, but I'm sure there are shadings of [discrimination].... For the most part I don't think about it,'' she says.

A common denominator of these sidewomen gone solo is their attitude toward their creative work.

Jostyn is careful not to let the business of music overwhelm the artistry. ''I concentrate more on writing good-quality music and performing, not getting too sidetracked in peripheral issues.''

Musicians often find they must protect their true aspirations. In the case of a sideman going solo, that includes learning how to say ''no'' to tempting offers from superstars who ask you to sign on to lengthy tours. ''You have to take great care of the individual that is creating,'' Jostyn says.

And once an artist does go solo, there's always the option of going back to a band. Shannon says she would like to form a band someday where she isn't the frontman or the ''name'' on the CD cover. ''That would be a lot of fun with everyone contributing.''

Ivers actually considers her latest CD ''more of a band situation. I love the team-playing aspect where you're bouncing off other folks melodically and rhythmically.''

At the end of the day, the advice these woman heed is to take your past experiences, use what you've learned, and, in the words of Ivers, ''Follow your heart. If it feels right, go for it.''

Jostyn adds: ''Don't compare yourself to others, saying this person or that person is doing something more right or getting something you should get. It's your own path.

''I come back to having a sense of joy in what I'm doing here and now. When you're in touch with that sense of joy you lose the sense of being burdened.''

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