Erin Jenkins (Crystal Eyes) and Marlaena Moore on the Art of Stage Banter

What constitutes a good stage presence? The friends discuss.

Erin Jenkins fronts the Calgary-based band Crystal Eyes; Marlaena Moore is a singer-songwriter from Edmonton who’s now based in Montreal. Crystal Eyes’ second record The Sweetness Restored is out tomorrow on Bobo Integral, and to celebrate, the two friends caught up about the art of stage banter. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Erin Jenkins: It’s really nice to see you. It’s been a little while since you left the prairies and came to Montreal. How’s that been for you?

Marlaena Moore: Montreal has been really lovely. I landed here at a real nice time and have been meeting lots of cool folks, and I’m really excited to get going to seeing live music again here. I’ve decided I’m just going to try to go to every show that I can go to, basically. 

Erin: There’s a lot to choose from in Montreal. They’re lucky to have you. And what are you doing music wise right now? 

Marlaena: Just working on the next album. I’m right in the thick of it right now, so we will see when anything comes out. [Laughs.] I’m hoping to do some touring dates this summer and fall. I’m going to the UK in September for End of the Road, so that is exciting. 

Erin: Amazing. Well, I’m excited to have some new tunes to dig on. So I wanted to talk to you today about the art and the science of stage banter, because I’ve seen you play a lot, obviously — we went on tour together. And then I just come see you play. I love your songs, I love your voice, but also, I really love just your stage presence and your banter. You’re so natural, and I just admire it. I don’t know how you do it, like what your secret sauce is. I feel like I get on stage, and it’s those in-between moments where you have to fill time with banter, and I just feel so awkward and I usually say something just not funny, or I don’t know. So I want to learn. I want to see if I can absorb a little bit of what it is that you do. 

Marlaena: Well, I mean, the real truth of the matter is that I feel like I am also extremely awkward on stage and pretty much always leave a set going, What did I just say? This is all extremely flattering what you say. But I’m also quite bewildered, because I do not think of myself as someone who is good at stage banter. 

Erin: Fair enough. Maybe the first lesson is, get out of your head, right? Because you maybe never know how things come across. 

Marlaena: Yeah, I guess so! If I had to give practical, thoughtful advice on it in general, it’s to just really be yourself. If you’re someone who is awkward, then just be awkward. If you’re someone who likes telling really bad jokes then just tell really bad jokes. It seems so after school, but truly, just be yourself. I definitely get really self-conscious, and I feel like I have tried to think of things to say before, but usually it just kind of this word vomit. I would say the atmosphere really affects the stage banter as well. If I’m in a well-lit room and I can see everybody in the audience, it can be even harder to say things normally. Dark clubs feel a little bit safer to be kind of off the cuff. 

Erin: Yeah. So do you think stage banter is something you can teach? Or is it one of those things like, you’re born with it, you got it or you don’t? 

Marlaena: I’m not sure. I guess it all goes back to just being authentic. I mean, I guess also being aware that you can also just have silence on stage as well, to tune or just to have a moment, have a sip of water to give yourself space. But in terms of actual banter, it just has to come from you. And also, why do you feel the need to say anything to the audience? 

Erin: Like what’s the motivation?

Marlaena: Yeah, like what do you want to say and why do you want to say it? Also, I do feel like audiences are very sensitive to energies off of people and I think people can tell if something is contrived. The other thing too is just touring like a ton! You get to know what works and doesn’t work and what environments support and do not support certain banter. 

Erin: Yeah, that too. So do you have tropes, for lack of a better word?

Marlaena: I have really, really stupid jokes that I think are funny, that I don’t think anyone else does and kind of groans. And especially depending on who is there, I refuse to not say them, especially if it’s really going to get under their skin. 

Erin: Like what? 

Marlaena: My one that I would say would be like, “Hi, I’m Marlaena and this is Andy, and together we are Marlaena Moore,” like just really silly stuff like that that’s like, “Cool. Good. We’re so glad you said that.” And then honestly, too, if you feel like you’re not a jokester, I also feel like gratitude to an audience is often very well received, especially if it is authentic and well-meaning. You know, I’m super happy if people are there and they’re listening, because that’s the other thing too. It can also be really tough if you’re there and an audience is kind of rowdy or no one’s really listening to what you’re saying. So it’s also kind of reading the room. And then there’ll be certain shows where you know a ton of people there, so you’ll feel more comfortable. Or maybe you’re touring in Europe where you don’t speak the language, or there’s different senses of humor. There’s lots of factors, and I think that it’s also important to look out for yourself, too. You just need to be adaptable, and also leave room for silence. 

Erin: Yeah, totally. So you need to be in the moment. It’s kind of about being like tuned in.

Marlaena: Yeah, and I think that if you’re tuned in to how you’re playing — you’re with your band and you’re feeling the set — then I think it will also just come naturally.

Erin: You would think that, although I don’t know if it does for me. But it’s funny, the classic compliment the audience move that makes me think of like, “No one rocks like Springfield!” 

Maybe that can be mine — “No one rocks like Edmonton!”

Marlaena: Yeah, and that’s literally true. Greatest city in the world. It doesn’t even matter what city you’re in. You’re in Vancouver like, “No one rocks like Edmonton!”

Erin: That could be a good trick, start insulting the audience. But I feel like you could get away with that. 

Marlaena: The other thing is, depending on the show you’re playing, sometimes people don’t really like you or are kind of indifferent to a band playing. I’ve definitely played a lot of shows where I’m like, OK, I could just keep playing or I could not, doesn’t matter at all. So trying to banter off of that or comment in this situation, I don’t know. 

Erin: Have you ever said anything really wise on stage? 

Marlaena: Oh god. [Laughs.] I don’t think so. If I ever said anything that resonated with someone, then that’s great, but I cannot earnestly say that I have said anything wise on stage. 

Erin: What about anything really dumb?

Marlaena: I feel like everything I’ve said has been just so foolish. I feel like I’ve never come back like, Ooh, I really nailed it banter wise.

Erin: I think that’s kind of what your style is, because you’re not trying too hard. You aren’t trying to be cool or some vision of what rock & roll is supposed to be or something, and that’s what I appreciate. So I guess it’s figuring out who you actually are and being able to be who you actually are on stage, which I don’t find that easy. I can perform a script, I can perform a song, but it’s hard to be myself. Maybe I need to figure out what psychologically is going on there.

Marlaena: I mean, that’s a big old can of worms. Like, who are you as a person? I’m sure there are people who are able to successfully use personas to hide. Well, I feel like “hide” makes it sound kind of negative, but a different part of yourself comes out when you’re on the stage rather than when you’re on. Because I feel like I’ve seen people on stage and they’re fronting punk bands and are super aggressive and angry and really cool, and then you meet them and they’re the sweetest, shyest people ever. So it can kind of bring something out. 

Maybe you should be more mysterious — maybe that should be the character of the lead singer of Crystal Eyes. For me, I would absolutely love to have grace and poise and elegance and be just mysterious. But I am just destined to be a lanky goofball for the rest of my days. And so that’s just what is going to come out on stage. 

Erin: Don’t change! That makes me think about when I went to Primavera Sound many moons ago — it was My Bloody Valentine and Nick Cave, and it was such a different approach. My Bloody Valentine had their amps up so loud you couldn’t even hear the singing. That’s gotta be on purpose. And of course, they said nothing at all. They’re not talking, the music is just nonstop, just assault of guitar. And then someone like Nick Cave, he’s very much that persona, that character. But it makes sense for what he does, because he’s a poet.

Marlaena: Ideally, what would a night of perfectly executed stage presence and banter look like for you? 

Erin: I think you’re right — in a perfect world, it would be more mysteriousness. Like, let’s just let the music talk. Let’s have no gaps between any songs. But the reality for our band is, there’s so many different specific guitar pedals and synth presets going on that it’s really hard. I’ve tried to push this where it’s like, “OK, we’re going to play through them, we’re not going to pause, but we’re just going to have the set flow in this really perfect way.” But it’s just really hard to do because I gotta completely change my setup, so there has to be this space. And whenever there’s empty space, I just feel the desire to fill it. I’m like, Oh god, I’m up here and no one’s saying anything and we’re tuning or we’re switching pedals and guitars. Or even worse, the dreaded technical difficulties. How do you deal with that? Let’s say something goes wrong, what do you do? 

Marlaena: Gosh, I don’t know. I mean, the thing that you also have to remember, too, is an audience is capable of talking amongst themselves as well. We all forget that. We believe that the space in between everything is super vast, but it’s actually not.

One thing that I’ve been doing, and this is just for fun, but I feel like it could kind of help anybody come out of this: I’ve been taking improv classes, which have been the funnest, most precious thing in the world. It’s just a room of adults playing pretend, and I feel like a lot of people have been coming out of their shell doing the whole, don’t think, just go for it. So that mentality could be practical.

Erin: Good idea. It’s kind of just being open. And that’s what improv is, right? It’s just always saying yes to ideas. 

Marlaena: Yeah. But the other thing, too, is I would be kind of curious what a show would be like if you just allowed for pause, for voids within the set. I feel like that could be interesting, to just leave them being like, What are they going to do next? Who is this cool chick on stage who doesn’t say very much? If the knee jerk reaction for banter is just, Oh shit, there is space, we have to fill it, then it’s good to just play with the idea that maybe we can let silence occur. All of this just goes back to being authentic. But then also, I fully understand wanting to, when you’re playing for people, put on a performance. So it is fun to play with the thought of like, OK, who do I want to be and be perceived as on stage? 

Erin: I think making a character for myself would make it easier for me. I never thought about it like that. 

Marlaena: I think for a lot of people, that is totally the way to go. I remember in my old band Sweathearts, the lead singer of that band was not me. Day to day, it was definitely a release of just going into the space and being like, I’m going to be completely unhinged on stage. And so even though it wasn’t necessarily like a persona or a character, it was an aspect of myself that I wanted to lean into as hard as possible.

Now the thing for me, when you have a project where it’s literally the name that you were given at birth you’re performing under, the expectation is that that’s who you’re just seeing on stage. And while that’s not true for everybody who plays under their name, that’s kind of how I’ve always viewed it. So I’m probably not going to be making a persona for myself anytime soon. 

Erin: You have to live under that that name all the time. 

Marlaena: Exactly. I gotta live with it, you’re just seein’ it for this set!

Erin Jenkins fronts the Calgary-based band Crystal Eyes. Their latest record The Sweetness Restored is out April 22, 2022 on Bobo Integral.