I've noticed lately that there is a trend toward odd voices. I think perhaps it grew out of Macy Gray’s colossal impact. Once something hits that big, everyone gets in line to follow. Like anything else, there is a good and a bad side to this “I want to sign someone like her” approach.
The upside is that singers with truly interesting voices actually get a chance to be heard, and deservedly so. Gray’s voice is inimitable, and she is a pleasure to listen to. If her success allows other equally interesting singers a modicum of success, that is a great thing. Who wants to hear the same type of voice over and over again? Singers like Gray bring the excitement and passion back to music that can become too predicable.
However, the downside to this search for the next ‘most interesting voice’ is that many artists begin to sing in quirky, odd voices that are not in any way natural. I’ve heard (mostly) guys sing with a dark, covered tone, which won’t hurt the voice, but it just doesn’t sound right. I know what they are going for, but there are so many other ways to get there. Yes, it is absolutely cool to change your tone and timbre as you are singing a song – Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant are both genius at it. But to do an entire record (CD, whatever…) with a voice you have just put on like the latest shoes? To me, it’s ill-advised, and shows a lack of both creativity and sincerity in your art.
I’ve also heard (mostly) women use these really small, little girl voices, or they sort of hang their tone just at the back of their hard palate, but not far enough up to make it sound nasal, and quite honestly, it just sounds odd. Disconcerting, even. Again, it’s clear that they are trying to stand out from the ever-growing crowd of DIY indie artists. I get it. But sounding like a Lollipop Kid (caution, Wizard of Oz reference…) isn’t the answer.
While these techniques sound odd, and in five years will also sound incredibly dated, they won’t do any damage to these singers’ voices. They will develop some bad habits they will have to break, and they will have to work hard to return to their natural voice, but they will probably escape physical damage.
However, there is a whole group of singers who are doing damage to their voices by trying to sound gravelly and rough, or who are singing too much from their throats – what we call singing ‘on’ the cords. Their necks are so muscled up when they sing that there is no possible way for them to hit anything even high in their chest voice without straining everything they have. Over time, this will cause damage that is so unnecessary.
Why is it that people are selling themselves so short by believing they need to sound like something other than themselves? This is probably a more complex question than I can address – and one that probably too many therapists are getting paid to suss out. But once you get past that first question (if you do!), the next question is how do you develop your own voice? Now that one is a little easier for a non-therapist like me to deal with.
That said, there is no 12-step program for this, or a formula, or recipe, it’s more like a quest. Some of these things are mental – you need to tell yourself a different story about yourself. If you have the “I want to sound just like [fill in the blank]” story in your head, drop it. You will never sound ‘just like’ anyone but yourself. This is important to believe and understand as truth.
If you have the “My voice isn’t [interesting , unique, high enough, low enough] to sound good” story, drop that one too. If you compare yourself to some gold standard, you are always going to come up short in your own mind. Or as I tend to express it – the minute I begin to compete with someone, I’ve already told myself that I have lost.
OK, so the mental part will take some work, but if you assign yourself some practical things to do, it will help move your internal conversation to something more productive. If you are female, start listening to male singers. And don’t just listen, sing along. Learn some of their songs, and play/sing them yourself. If you are male, do the opposite. Listen to female singers. You may have to adapt keys, sing an octave higher or lower, etc., but the point to this exercise is that your ability to imitate the opposite gender is far more limited. Even more so if the key isn’t comfortable for you. Therefore, you begin to sing differently than you did before, and as you do that, you are forced to sound like yourself. Just this one exercise is huge. I can’t emphasize enough how much impact it will have if you really go deep into it.
Another exercise is to listen across genres, across decades and across cultures. YouTube is a great resource for this – so much is at our fingertips now – take advantage of it. Listen to the great jazz vocalists – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and a little more contemporary, Nina Simone. There are so many others, but start here, and expand. Listen to gospel – Mahalia Jackson, Rosette Tharpe. The crooners – Sinatra, Crosby. Find some old ‘wax master’ blues – Robert Johnson, anything that Lomax recorded as part of his documentation of American music. Early country – the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Sr., the Louvin Brothers.
Move forward – go to the early rock’n’ roll of Little Richard, the Sun artists (Elvis, Cash, Orbison, Lewis, Perkins), Buddy Holly, the Everlys. Chicago blues – the Chess artists, Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James. Go forward again – Memphis soul, Motown. Follow Johnny Cash from Rockabilly to Country, and listen to his contemporaries there.
Just as importantly, listen to singers not known for having great voices – Dylan, Tom Waits. Listen to what they do to make up for their lack of vocal polish. How do they still make you listen through, beyond, or in spite of their voices?
This list hits some major touchstones, but it omits far more than it includes. Do your own searches and investigation. If you see an artist’s name mentioned by someone else, go find their work and listen.
This list also stays pretty much in the popular music vein. There is a lot of interesting ground to cover there, but don’t forget to broaden your listening search to classical, opera, a cappella, barbershop, Broadway, artists and music from other countries. Feed your ear and your soul everything you possibly can. Because this is where you find your voice. It is an amalgamation of everything you have heard. If you’re a chick singer/songwriter, and you have only listened to chick singer/songwriters, how deep is the well you can pull from vocally, artistically? But if you listen to music far outside your chosen comfort zone, your well deepens many times over.
So what should you listen for? Everything. How singers communicate the story in the song. The vocal flips and tricks they use. Their dynamics (remember that?). The phrasing. The emotion. Where they pull in and where they let go to create tension and release. Singing is so much more than just the tonal quality of a voice. It is intimate and public all at once. It is communication at the most basic and most sophisticated levels simultaneously. Most of all, when you sing, it must come from you – without artifice. When that happens, you will have found your own voice.
Karan Andrea’s CD Desolation Hero received critical approval from Maverick Magazine in the UK, and she has been called "...arguably the smartest woman musician in all of upstate New York" by Elliott Randall, guitarist (Steely Dan, and many others), producer, and composer. Her current project -- the instructional DVD Guitar Player Wanted: Vocals a Plus - grew out of a casual request to teach a couple of guitar players how to sing. Contact her at Karan@soulhousesound.com; www.soulhousesound.com.