The Five Best Things to Know When Choosing a Stage Name
Our author, very much in character with Black Math Experiement
Photos by Jordan Chan
Hello, my name is Jef Rouner, but I've been going by the name of Jef With One F on various Houston stages and in publications since I was 14 years old. It's a pretty good handle that I was happy enough with until a freakin' Bachelorette contestant starting using it too, but for the most part I like being Jef With One F. It's a character I can use and something to set me apart. That's what stage names are all about.
Now, you boys and girls getting ready to mount the stage under something you think sounds cooler than your birth name, I want you to pull up a chair and listen to your Uncle With One F. I've been working under a pseudonym for longer than some of you have been alive, and I want to give you the opportunity to learn from my mistakes.
5. Have a Story About Your Name Very few people really understand the sort of personality that drives a person to use a stage name, and they're always going to wonder why on Earth you bothered to do so. They're going to ask, and even if there's no real non-lame answer, be prepared to explain. Bono got that handle supposedly because childhood friends nicknamed him "bono vox," which means "good voice" in Latin. Slash was a kid always running around back and forth, earning him his moniker. Alice Cooper? Literally just liked the way it sounded as a band name and wound up attached to it for more than half a century.
You are going to get very sick of this question very fast, so try to get your answered trimmed down to something that you can spit out in two sentences. Me? I had a friend who was a big Pixies fan and would call me "Jefrey With One F Jefrey" after the chorus of the song "Space". After we had a falling out he tried to "take back" the nickname, and I held onto it out of pure spite. Is that a good story? No, it's boring as hell, but it's good enough to get the conversation moving along.
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4. Do Not Hope For Anonymity Some people adopt stage names because they're doing music or art that is maybe not something they want associated with their family and day job. I can get that. God knows my dad is happy some of my more... out-of-the-box projects don't include our last name anywhere near them. If you're going to be a weird naked anarcho-punk then it's probably best if you don't have to worry about your grandmother's friends finding out on Google.
But make no mistake; anonymity in this day and age is a myth. The only musicians who have succeeded perfectly are The Residents, and that's due more to fans' desire to abide by the band's wishes than anything else. A stage name will not guarantee that your boss won't discover your Satanic goth-metal band in the Era of Facebook and FourSquare. It can put a welcome layer between your private life and your artistic one, but is as thin as a White Castle burger patty.
3. You Have to be Kind of a Jerk About It Not all the time. Tori Amos probably never had any difficulty keeping people from calling her Myra Ellen, and the single-name trail has been blazed enough that it's now considered acceptable if still a little weird. Still, a stage name is a brand name, and maintaining your brand name is doubly important when you are the product.
You don't want information about you to be confusing and scattered about. You want there to be a single identity that people associate with what you do, which often involves quietly forcing people to change how you're referred to and insisting on your chosen name. Capitulate on one instance and more will certainly follow.
My favorite story involves the Houston Chronicle's Joey Guerra trying his best to not refer to me as Jef With One F when covering David Arquette Day. Since he knew I wouldn't answer if he asked my last name, he tried to be clever and asked me how to spell it. I said, "W-I-T-H-O-N-E-F." The glare I got was priceless, but standing my ground on such things has served very well to keep the name I started to get noticed with front and center.
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2. You Will Get Sick of It Mimi, Sasha Fierce, Chris Gaines, and Dwane Johnson. What do all four of those names have in common? They are the attempts by extremely famous people to rechristen themselves because they felt that they'd outgrown the well-known brand they'd achieved success with. In all cases they were more or less failures, even The Rock and Dwane Johnson is his actual name. Once the public knows you one way, they are very, very hard to sway to accept you another.
Every aspect of your stage name you once thought was cool will one day seem really lame, just as the albums and books you used to be so into seem childish and ridiculous as a more mature person. That's inevitable, and you have to be ready to deal with it. Standing in front of the mirror getting ready to hit the boards as Gengis Von Rockhammer, take a moment to picture yourself as a 65-year-old person still being called that. It can happen.
1. Have an Exit Strategy It's not impossible to leave a name behind, but it's difficult to do without some serious thought. Despite what I said earlier, The Rock is step by step becoming Dwayne Johnson again, though he will probably never fully lose the nickname. And hey, there are worse things to be called in Hollywood.
Myself, I started finding it difficult to get larger publications to accept the Jef With One F handle on bigger stories. As such, my official bios now generally read something like "Jef With One F is the nom de plume and stage name of Jef Rouner, who blah blah blah." It's the Stephen Colbert approach, acknowledging from the beginning that there is you and there is a character, and taking periodic opportunities to make statements and appearances out of the character so that people see it for the mask it is. That sort of careful consideration is why he'll be able to be a different Stephen Colbert on The Late Show and everyone will perfectly go along with it.
In the end, there are a lot of great things about a stage name. Gordon Sumner isn't getting any panties thrown onstage at him, but Sting can build a cotton fort. Feel free to follow suit, but think it through a bit.
Thumbnail image (Guy Fawkes Mask) by Flickr user Enrique Dans; used by permission.
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