Piano-pop crooner David Higgins' first chance to perform live came at age 17 when he played mandolin in a friend's jazz band. Young and inexperienced, he started the song at half-speed and never quite caught up. "I didn't know how to tell the guys I needed to double-time," says Higgins, who also plays violin. "I was so mortified after singing this song, and I remember thinking I'd never perform again."
He was wrong. Now a well-known name around Charleston, Higgins has spent the past five years on the local circuit performing pop-rock covers everywhere from Midtown to the Cocktail Lounge. But this year, the multi-instrumentalist has begun the switch to an original music career — first with an EP release (Hit the Ground Running) back in January and now with his first local all-original show on Tuesday.
Stylistically, Higgins hasn't strayed too far from what locals have come to love about him. "The new music is pop rock, and since this show will be full band, it'll be the closest thing to our normal kind of party gigs but with all original music," Higgins says. "It's also a little more on the ballad side of piano ballads. I'd say it's about half and half, because some of the songs don't fully flesh out into a party song or a full production. Some songs are pretty personal, so I feel like it fits the motif just to have it very raw and naked, you know?"
Considering Higgins' willingness to bare his soul — as well as his busy schedule involving everything from rowdy bar gigs and frat parties to weddings and corporate events — it's hard to believe he was ever a timid performer. But his fear of the stage wasn't exactly conquered overnight — he spent his college years at Anderson University performing in a weird mix of small-town bars, like an Irish pub, a divey sports bar, and a couple of biker bars.
Since he'd been playing piano his whole life, he started out singing Michael Bublé covers. "I wasn't playing anything they'd want to hear early on," he says of his biker fans. "But then as the requests grew, I started to play Bob Seger and stuff like that."
After finishing his bio pre-med studies in Anderson, Higgins moved to Charleston with his sights set on dental school — but it wasn't long before he changed course. "I kind of got cold feet right before I started and thought, 'If I don't try music out now, I never will,'" he says.
Since then he's not only covered a lot of ground in Charleston, but he and his band — City Paper Music Awards' Bassist of the Year Justin Harper, drummer Sam Jackson, and guitarist Jeremy Sakovich — have also created a fanbase in New York. "We got plugged in with them through a bar manager [of Montauk's The Sloppy Tuna], who visited Charleston, saw us play, and he brought us up," Higgins says. "So we just finished our third season up there."
The band traveled to Montauk and the rest of the Hamptons, New York City, and nearby New Jersey spots for 11 weekends over the summer performing a mix of original shows, club shows, and private events. "We'd fly out on the 5:30 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. on Fridays after our Thursday night at Cocktail Club and usually return to Charleston the following Monday," Higgins says. "Last year, we did a six-week residency at the Tuna, but this year we've diversified a little bit around the tri-state area."
He adds, "New York's maybe our strongest market right now. It's good but we want to do it in Charleston, because this is home."
Since returning to the Holy City, Higgins has continued writing his own material while gradually phasing out some of the cover gigs. But he's too modest to admit his songs are great. "I'm still not a super-seasoned writer, so I work on writing a lot," he says sheepishly. "Hopefully I will be one day, but I'm not right now so it takes me longer, and I spend a lot of time writing things nobody will ever hear. But I'm trying to get better."
As for the big switch to originals, it won't be easy to walk away from the career that's kept the singer's belly fed for so many years. "I think it will be difficult, but it's not gonna be a cold turkey thing," he says. "We'll still do some of the party ones, because it's fun and it's good in getting the college contacts. College kids are such good fans and supporters — they've been really loyal to us, so it's always good to stay connected."
And it's not like Higgins ever hated doing covers. In fact, he loves it. "For a while it didn't matter to me, you know — as long as I was performing," he says. "But I guess about three years ago is about when I started writing with intent, and so the main push is to go original and really just switch over completely. That's the goal."