What’s in a name?

or, why I’m choosing a new one

When you give something a name, you draw a line between its existence and your own. Adam, so the story goes, gave names to all the animals and plants. But notice that he did not name himself. He was named by his creator, made in the image of God, but not actually made a god. And gods are constantly named and renamed by mankind. All of us are named through the point of view of another – well, most of us. Why on earth and how on earth do we choose our own names?

On the 17th March 2017, I turned twenty-one and made a decision: I was not merely a boy who played music, rather I was a boy and a musician. And musicians belong to the groups of people who choose their own names, along with writers, drag queens, priests, trans people… These are people who need to draw lines: between private and public, between dead and new, between the stage and the street. Like all of them, I observed a new quality in myself, let it grow and eventually gave shape to it through a new name: JEM KID.

Choosing a name can feel quite momentous, as if what you choose will stick forever. But a name can be donned and doffed like a fashionable hat. JEM KID came to me as I sat before my half-completed Facebook business page. It was snappy and easy to spell. People would hear the name and know it belonged to an artist. It ticked a number of boxes, and I liked to tell myself that there was nothing more to it.

My friends were enthusiastic about the name for a different reason. For them, it represented me faithfully, evoking the playfulness with which I wrote my songs. Irony could be defined as the distance between a name and what it represents. Thus, a childish name for a grown-up performer (around this time, for the first time in my life, people began to perceive my appearance as that of a man, not a boy). And like my new name, my performances were saturated with irony. My best-received song from this time, Othello, embodied that tongue-in-cheek spirit.

When I was a boy, I was a good one
I’d write my girl a sonnet every week
And she was hardly sugar cotton candy
But I swept her off her feet
Like a proper old-fashioned chimneysweep

Othello

That day of Spring marked the start of a rich season for performance. I threw myself into my music with a vigour lain dormant since childhood. The drive to create and perform has never faltered. But that Autumn I realised that I was no longer singing out of joy, rather out of need or perhaps habit. The reward of each show felt scanter than it had at the beginning. All of that irony was creating a distance between me and those who listened to me, and I couldn’t engage. The only song that reached across that gap was one I sniffed at for its naivety, scribbled in a moment of darkness the winter before and long ignored in favour of cleverer, less honest numbers.

If you knew
who I really was
If you knew
what kind of man I was
If you knew
would you still be my side?
I’m scared of all the things I hide

Marvellous Friends

If my writing has improved since this realisation, it’s mostly because time has passed and I have grown. Perhaps choosing earnestness over irony was precisely the nature of that growth; perhaps it’s no more than normal betterment with time and practice. Either way, the name I gave myself two and a half years ago (is that all?) now feels like an old school blazer, short at the hems. It’s time to slip out of it.

So on the 13th October 2019, I’ll perform under a new stage name for the first time, at the Kindl Stuben Open Mic. You could see this as a quite superficial change, a rebrand for functional purposes. The new name has a classic sheen which makes it a truer signpost for the genres I’m associated with.

But I’m also using the opportunity to give life to the latest image of me. No more visual or verbal trickery this time – nothing to hide. For I know that’s how I write the songs that reward me the most: when I speak and speak clearly.

So he threw all the words on the fire
All the twists and the charms that he did not require

and the shadows, they scattered and fled
Oh, schoolboy – lift up your head!

Older with Age

ROOKLING