The Voices Behind The Words.
WHEN it comes to music, I am focused primarily, and passionately, on the nature…
of the voice. It is a bit of an obsession for me, as I feel that the voice is at the forefront of all music. In terms of my own plotting, I structure everything around the vocal performance. Words and lines are sculpted, shortened and re-written to accommodate a particular frame of mind and desire. When I look at the current scene, it seems that there is a great emphasis on ‘the voice’. If you disregard the horror and hatefulness of so-called ‘talent shows’, you can find examples of some great voices. Under-the-radar artists such as Sam Smith have been tipped for big things in 2014. Current market leaders such as James Blake as getting just-rewards: his ethos and appeal is largely centred around his vocal prowess. Elsewhere, there are a few solo artists that are projecting a vocal tone that is very much their own. Whether it is effective or potent or merely promising, it is vital to possess your own appeal. There is still an over-reliance for acts- especially new ones- to copycat and replicate an established star. It seems that every new band that has an Indie or rock feel has an essence of Alex Turner. A large amount of female solo artists mimic Rhianna or Mariah Carey. It is due to the poison of talent shows that this is being seen as acceptable. Those programmes actively encourage their participants to sound like a recognisable star. The sense of individuality and originality are left at the door, and a real problem is created: we have clones of clones of clones. We do not need another Mariah Carey or Rhianna- we don’t need the originals to be honest. Outside of this realm, a great deal of new acts are guilty of this indiscretion. It is probably the solo artists that are most culpable, and I have heard multiple examples of a fresh artist desperately lacking any identity. It is not a coincidence that the great albums and songs are made by those with an original voice. The artists whom seem determined to be a third rate wannabe are eventually buried. It may be the case that being truly unique is difficult- as so many different vocal styles and sounds have already been presented. You only have to look on my blog pages to find plenty of evidence to the contrary. The likes of Issimo are particularly inspiring, as both Marc (Otway) and Abi (Uttley) have distinct voices. You can hear their native accents coming to the fore, and they infuse their songs with personality and distinction. I have featured many artists from the Cuckoo label, from Cissie Redgwick through to Little Violet. In these examples we find not only an ambitious and oft unheard-of musical template, but very strong and original vocals being emanated forth. This all bring me to my main point and thesis for today. I have been looking back at the past year and shrugging somewhat. There have been some great artists and albums coming forth, yet there is still a certain spark missing. I have found that bands generally will be okay, as they have their own market and potential. The members can support one another, and even if the overall sound (or voice) is not unique, they tend to still be quite profitable. The life of the solo artist is a little more fraught. It is one of the largest expanding markets and subsequently the most fickle and precarious. A lot of times the potential for sonic evocation and projection is limited (as one person is creating the sounds); so it is harder to capture attention and keep it focused. Of course talent shows are partly to blame, but I feel that there is still myopia prevalent on the scene. Those whom are original and have a stunning songbook usually come out on top; yet too many artists enter the scene and look for a voice to emulate. Vicarious ‘success’ is an ignoble and fraudulent way to carve out a career, yet there is a lesson in there. You don’t need to be completely out there and distinguishable to be considered a unique artist. Employing a supplemental from column A, and infusing it with a hint of column B can often be an effective measure. So long as the overall voice is not glaringly plagiarised, then it is quite prudent to employ some of your musical heroes’ essence. Whether there is fear or a lack of understanding I don’t know, but the point is this: too few of the all-time greats are being aimed for. A lot of male and female solo artists tend to concentrate on the last few years of music, when seeking for a voice to try and match. There is an overall naivety and shocking lack of understanding for what has come before, but few are aware of the past masters. Few have knowledge of Nina Simone, Prince, Neil Young and other artists; disturbingly claiming that there are “before my time”. The Battle of Hastings was before my time, but I know about it because I have a brain and can read. Unless you are deaf or monumentally stupid, there is no reason not to know about artists such as this: as well as blues greats and jazz legends. I think this lack of appreciation is stifling potential, and it is a crying shame.
I have thought long and hard about the singers that inspire me most. I have trained my voice to incorporate a slight flavour of each of them: it expands ambitions and makes your overall tones more flexible and diverse. For music to develop and evolve, and for voices to encapsulate and inspire, there needs to be a greater understanding and knowledge of the greats that have brought us this far. You don’t have to rip singers off or obsessively listen to them. Delving into the annals of the past not only broadens your musical mind, but also gives fresh avenues of discovery. If you stumble upon a terrific voice and artist then it primes your logic to become focused. It is because of the fact that I listen to so many different types of voices, that I have been able to write a lot of songs; to pen so many different lyrics; and become hugely ambitious when it comes to my own voice. The voice is one of the most sensual and powerful tools at your disposal. It is the gateway to every thought, dream, interaction and conversation, and in musical terms it is the most vital component of your arsenal. I feel it is important to narrow attentions and craft a concentrated and distinct voice, yet there is something primal and exhilarating to see what you can achieve with your own voice. There is a stigma and fear when it comes to being ‘unusual’ in this sense. If you are a woman, why not want to sound like Tom Waits, Howling Wolf or Bob Dylan. It may be physically impossible for some, yet if you are able to achieve this (as well as keep your own tones in place) imagine what you can achieve. As well as potentially freaking people out, you offer yourself greater potential as a songwriter and artist. If you are a man, what is wrong with wanting to employ a bit of Kate Bush or soprano oeuvres? It may be seen as unusual, but who the fuck cares? Too many people are too concerned with being ‘acceptable’ or ‘traditional’ that they do themselves a disservice. In thinking of my vocal heroes, each one is distinct and hugely ambitious in their own way. All of the aforementioned have a unique potency and instrument that has not only enlivened millions of minds, yet tend to find themselves unmatched. Many have tried to replicate some of the artists, yet in terms of one or two of my examples, no real effort has been made to to to match them. This baffles me somewhat. If a voice is planet-straddling and beyond belief, then why just listen to it and assume you cannot equal it? If you try and fail then fair enough, but most don’t. As I say, you do not copy the voice pound-for-pound, but follow its example. Anyway, I shall get on with things and explain why the following five artists have inspired me so, and why we need to find new artists that can equal their ambitious and legacies:
Freddie Mercury: The King of all Voices.
A great deal of people share my view that Freddie Mercury is the greatest voice of all. In spite of this protestation and claim, few are compared with him or have come within accessible reach. It is partly true that the legend may be impossible to top, yet I feel again that fear and fear of being branded a ‘copycat’ scares people off. Mika made- as continues to make- a disastrous attempt at being Mercury-esque. He has taken the example a bit too far. He writes songs in the vein of Queen, yet possesses only a morsel of Freddie’s vocal power. Adam Lambert and others have a bit of a range, yet none of the potency, emotional range and conviction of Mercury. If there is one idol that should inspire the masses, then Freddie is just that. It is not only his phenomenal (octave) range that staggers me, but also his emotional one. If you listen back and hear songs such as Love of My Life, we hear the tender Freddie: pouring his heart out and laying it bare. His agile and angelic falsetto is broken out, and you hear the man as a sensitive romantic- in this case, penning a paen to his former girlfriend. Conversely songs such as Don’t Stop Me Now is a testament to gay sex under the influence of cocaine. It is a song where Freddie is playful and impassioned. As well as Freddie did tender and romantic, it is not a side of him that too many identify with. Songs like Love of My Life and Somebody To Love are incredible songs, yet many focus on Mercury’s power and conviction. It is this facet that overwhelms me truly. The key to being an idol and inspiration is the conviction in which you deliver your tracks. Whether singing about late night liaisons or fat-bottomed girls, the moustached god gave it his all. It cannot be denied that Mercury has an unbelievable pair of lungs. Listen to songs such as Barcelona, Who Wants To Live Forever and The Show Must Go On, and you can hear what I mean. The latter is especially impressive, as Freddie was barely able to walk during the record; yet it remains one of the greatest vocal turns ever. I especially adore Under Pressure, not only because Mercury blows David Bowie clean out of the water, yet runs such a gambit and range of twists and turns. From high-register whistles, to emotional belting, it is a perfect example of what Freddie Mercury could achieve. He recorded into his 40s, and his voice never faltered or diminished. His tones were operatic and awe-inspiring, pin sharp and shy- there is something to admire in all of his songs. I love Freddie because he is an (honorary) Brit whom I feel will never be equalled. Alas, there is a lot of room and a great niche that needs filling. Aside from Lambert and Mika, few people have tried to recapitulate or attempt anything akin to Mercury. Instead of replicating his exact tones, it is the range and scope of his voice that should be converted. Queen were able to write such a diverse range of songs due to their frontman’s voice. Freddie did what he wanted and didn’t gave a damn. He loved opera as well as music hall; he loved being playful as well as bare-chested. It was due to this freedom and expressionism that he remains such a phenomenal vocalist. We need someone who has a rebellion and a sense of freedom; whom can project that power and conviction, yet have such a range that they can tackle anything and make it sound mesmeric. Mercury was- sadly- mortal and although he may never been trumped, he should influence more to at least try. Some skirt around the shoes of Mercury, yet few dive head-first. In an industry where people are crying out for vocal idols, ambition should run this high and far. If you could hone your skills and create something with the force of Barcelona or Bohemian Rhapsody, then you have the potential to blow the scene away.
The Show Must Go On:
Michael Jackson: The Prince of Pop and ubiquitous Man-child.
In recent years, Michael Jackson has been alluded to with regards to his death and the manner in which it happened. Too much controversy and whispering has occurred, and too little focus on his music has been provided. Jackson is in my top five because he is the singer I envy the most. Mercury is the greatest singer ever, yet Jackson remains a huge challenge. It is the tone and delivery of his voice that means he is practically impossible to replicate. Just today I was revisiting his album Bad, and marvelling at the wonder of his voice. It is not just the vocal tics and mannerisms that make Jackson so distinguished, but it is again the range and force of his voice. Whereas Mercury has that power and gravity, Jackson conveys his brilliance differently. Jackson is skilled in the upper ranges and has a castrato ability. His voice was that of a choirboy and he could achieve things that no other man could. I listened to Dirty Diana and was amazed at the nuances and fascinations contained within. He could go from a gravel to whimper within a word; scream passionately and tenderly convey within a line. That track shows just how good Jackson was- and is- as it shows him at full-throttle. Just listen to the outro. where he screams “C’mon!”. Try doing that first of all, and tell me who else could. During the Bad era, Jackson focused a lot on romantic themes and songs. He told of picking his girlfriend and painting the town. As the second half of the album unfolded, the themes shifted towards anger and finger-pointing. Leave Me Alone is self-explanatory, where as Smooth Criminal dealt with seedier and violent themes. During the Dangerous period, Jackson focused more rigidly on anger and introspection. It was an angrier and harder album and tracks such as Why You Wanna Trip On Me? and Who Is It? highlight that. Mingling alongside were sweat-dripping love notes, and in the case of the album’s standout (Remember The Time) a song about remembering fonder times in a relationship. Perhaps it is the tone of Michael’s voice that means he is beyond compare, but there is a lot that is transferable to any modern-day singer. For a start there is still a stigma around men singing angelically. The male falsetto has been given enough light, yet few take that further and extrapolate fonder tenderness from the art. Like Mercury, one can try and aim for that range and diversity. Jackson employed a gravelled tenor as well as a high-reaching falsetto to deliver his songs: conveying the maximum amount of potential. If you leave the individualities and idiosyncrasies of Jackson’s voice to his legacy alone, there is still a lot of land to be conquered. How many singers have tried to adopt that scope and range- in terms of octaves and emotional ground? Again, Jackson was a mortal and not beyond comprehension. Too many people merely are content to listen to the music, rather than try to incorporate Jackson’s lessons into their own voice. Justin Timberlake is a flyweight example of someone whom has attempted to update Jackson’s sound. I feel that there is great potential and reward if someone had that ambition and fortitude. The man was a legend for his voice and song writing abilities: the two are not mutually-exclusive. If you try and learn lessons from Jackson’s sermons, and marry them into your own cook pot, then great adore will await.
Jeff Buckley: Much More Than Just ‘Hallelujah’.
Mr. Buckley may forever be associated with that one song. A lot of younger- and ignorant- listeners assume it is an original; many more assume that Alexandra Burke did it better. The fact of the matter is this: Leonard Cohen wrote it; Buckley owns it. If it weren’t for the majesty of Cohen’s words, which remain some of the greatest ever written, Buckley would not have been able to sing it at all. That track shows Buckley at his transcendental best: he goes from a whisper to a desperate cry, via sexual longing and religion question. His version and interpretation was a testament to the power of the orgasm, and there is a raw and sweaty sexuality to his delivery. As much as his voice sends shivers down the spine, it also thrills and exhausts too. Buckley sadly recorded only one album, but he shares two common facets with the aforementioned duo of singers: he died tragically and needlessly, and his voice was a paragon of conviction and power. Mercury and Jackson has a raw and primal power, yet Buckley had a sweeter and more sensitive potency. If you listen to cuts from Live At Sin-e such as Calling You and Sweet Thing, and you hear that seep through the speakers. Buckley could hold a note that would go on forever; he could hit notes that most women would envy and could reduce grown men to quivering wrecks. As exquisite as his falsetto was (just listen to Corpus Christi Carol); he also has a hugely powerful middle range. Buckley’s tenor was like no other, and his lung capacity beggars belief. If you listen to Grace‘s title track, his performance defies logic. Most people would run out of breathe or have their vocal chords stripped clean trying to keep up with it. Songs such as Last Goodbye and Lover, You Should’ve Come Over have power and romantic longing; Mojo Pin is a trippy dream come true. Buckley is a singer that has had many people following in his wake. In the sense that Mercury and Jackson have had no one really attempt to replicate the vocal notes, Buckley has had (all too) many attempt this. Every male singer invariably is compared with Buckley, and it has always infuriated me. Buckley was not a synonym for ‘falsetto’ or ‘sensitive’ or ‘sweet’. No one past or present has matched his grandeur- I’m not sure anyone will. No singer, be they Matt Corby or Patrick Watson has the same crystalline falsetto; neither has the range; neither could ever get anywhere near Buckley. Thom Yorke is a singer in my top 10, and is there because of what he owes to Buckley. If it weren’t for Buckley, The Bends may have sounded entirely different- and Yorke’s voice would have centred around a completely different orbit. That is the kind of parable that inspires. Yorke is a unique singer in his own right, yet one can trace lineage and D.N.A. to Buckley (circa 1993-4). Instead of trying to cover Hallelujah for the 10,000th time (everyone is wasting their bloody time), focus should be paid towards Buckley’s key elements. Sensitivity was the forefront, for sure, yet there was a lot more at play. Buckley see-sawed his falsetto and tenor: shifting gears and notes within a line to create the most expeditious sting. Singers like Matt Bellamy have employed some of this logic into their own voices, yet few of-the-moment singers get that point. It is not good enough to make an attempt or simply replicating Buckley note-for-note. Buckley’s voice is something that should be tampered with, yet his range and majesty should be aimed for.
Chris Cornell: The Most Powerful Growl One Can Imagine.
The last of my male icons is Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. I love metal and grunge and admire singers like Kurt Cobain, Rob Halford, Robert Plant and Axl Rose. Between those singers a whole wealth of raw power and manful chest-beating has been elicited. To me Chris Cornell is impressive, not only due to his huge power, but also the nature in which he achieves it. A lot of metal and grunge singers pull out the falsetto wail and banshee scream to achieve their honours, but Cornell favoured- and does- the lower registered scream. I have listened to songs from Badmotorfinger and Superunknown and drooled. Listen to the throat-shredding examples Jesus Christ Pose, New Damage and Limo Ride. It seems to epitomise power itself, and each of those tracks stun and tack you back; forcing you to the floor in submission. Tracks like Black Hole Sun and Drawing Flies showed what it would sound like to smoke 10,000 cigarettes and drink 1000 litres of whiskey. Such is the gravel and husk to the vocal edge that I have envied it for years. To attempt to equal those feats, one would need corrective surgery on their vocal chord- or else lose their voice altogether. Cornell is a man’s man, but also a man of the people. An intelligent and witty songwriter, he is no knuckle-dragging meathead. His themes often deal with depression and suicide, yet he does not croak or whisper in resignation and woe-is-me histrionics. Cornell rallies against the world and stick a middle finger up. His defiance and masculine punch strikes his messages hard, and seems to have been overlooked by a large chunk of the market. A lot of people tend to avoid genres such as grunge, thinking is a throwback to the early-’90s, and should as such remain there. Others feel that metal is too violent and divisive, lest their ears bleed from listener to it. This goes to show the largest sphere of ignorance that is prevalent. A great number of bands within these categories do scream and spit their messages: they are reserved for the predetermined few. Vocalists such as Chris Cornell have a passion and sensitivity to them, that many miss. Their voices- like Rob Halford as well- have such a power and potency to them, yet also can drop you in with their vulnerability. In idolise and include Cornell, because he is a singer that is overlooked when we consider the ‘all-time greats’. The point I am trying to make is, that we need someone with his power to blow away the cobwebs. It is true that is still recording, but his better- and most impressive- days may have past. In order to introduce the joys of grunge and metal into a wider franchise, it is important that new singers keep Cornell’s legacy constant. Every new singer seems to err towards the softer and more restrained end of the spectrum. It is not true that heavier and more primeval enunciations should be reserved solely to the band leaders. If a solo star were to go for the same kind of grasp and power as Cornell, then it could have impressive repercussions. Messages such as depression and insularity should not be subjugated into the shadows and identified with a bygone era. They are ever-present and mandatory themes that many can identify with. Dealing with them in a redemptive and never-give-in manner could inspire not only musicians to highlight these themes, but inspire those whom deal with depression to help deal with it. Cornell is an inspiration to the music industry in the same way Buckley was: both have their demons, yet they address them with indefatigable resilience and foresight. In an industry where focus is diffuse and blacker themes are dumbed down, we need someone like good king Chris.
Black Hole Sun:
Bjork: Iceland’s Queen of The Quirky.
There is possibly nothing more synonymous with Iceland than that of Bjork. As much as I admire various forms of the male voice, there is none as unique and mesmeric than Bjork. I find her sexy; I find her endlessly fascinating. She has a charm, candour and power like no other. It is the way she projects her songs that is the heart to her appeal. Bjork elongates words, weaves sentences within one another and offers growls, squalls and screams into the mix. If you listen to It’s Oh So Quiet, it is a symphony of infant innocence and vivacious jubilation. Although the themes deal with love and passion, Bjork sings as though her face is on fire. She infuses the song with so much glee and quirkiness, that one cannot help but smile and sigh. It is not just the uniqueness of the delivery, but the sound of her voice. Bjork manages to climb from a gravelly growl to a glass-breaking squeal; going from growls and wails through to appropriate whispers. Throughout her career, Bjork has displayed this frightening ability. Listen to Human Behaviour, Play Dead or Army of Me: one can hear that range and bipolar mood shift throughout. Bjork is also notable for her child-like innocence and coquettishness as well. A lot of Bjork’s music deals with strange themes, evocative imagery and surreal wonder, so it is fitting that her voice is comparably fascinating. It is not just her native accent that enforces this ability, but Bjork’s knowledge of the essence of music. She puts the sound and sensations at the forefront, placing importance towards aural and sonic projection. By introducing odd time signatures, minor instruments and juxtaposition, she creates a cacophonous joy. If one were to try to dissect and compartmentalise Bjork’s musical codas, it would take many brains and hours to do so. Similarly, her voice is as inscrutable. It contains ferocity and intense power, yet has a sweet and shy cuteness where necessary. Like Jackson and Mercury, Bjork has a devastating range which enables her to pull off these feats. In terms of female vocalists, there are none that have tried to sound like Bjork. Perhaps it is impossible from a linguistics and logical stand-point, yet one does not need to be born in Iceland to be Bjork-esque. Bjork writes themes of far-away lands, strange love and the physical world. If more were to take inspiration from her songbooks and thesis, then their voices would naturally adapt. I would love to hear a singer that has the same sort of mannerisms and quirks as Bjork’s. There is a huge gap to be exploited, as Bjork is not only an idol for all singers, but also a fearless and pioneering singer and composer. Too many female singers go for the sweet-natured or bluesy take, bypassing the avenues of Bjork. Her time is not up- far from it- yet her days of Post and Debut heights has past by. Bjork is also an idol for women, as she is not concerned with image, attention-seeking or sexual exploitation; she is a role model for musicians who adore music. You cannot say that of too many alive today, as there is always a tendency for many to introduce personal problems or controversy into their music in some form. Bjork has always tried to externalise these themes and regenerate them in more detached and storybook terms. By employ striking imagery and melting them into mouth-watering sonic landscapes, here is an artist that needs some suitably-ambitious acolytes taking the mantle and sticking it up the backsides of the status quo.
I should give honorary mention to Nina Simone, whom I consider to be the finest soul voice there is. Her cigarette and chocolate tones have dropped me to my knees more than once. Her low and husky voice convey so much passion and conviction that you cannot help but listen. Similarly Kate Bush fascinates because of her delicate and golden voice. Bush has a voice that is beyond compare, and she should serve as an inspiration to all young woman. There are many more such as Thom Yorke, Tom Waits, Otis Reading, Prince and Robert Plant that I can mention and investigate in full. It is the five names you see above that have inspired me most. I also think that they are vocal icons that have provided value lessons and give much food for thought. Next week I shall look into my top 5 albums and how they can translate and resonate today. My intention was that many starting out (or already established) take heed and note, and readjust their ambition barometers. A hope it does not take a epidemic blitz of knowledge, where by the preceding core is realised after a tontine, it is just a suggestion that things take a small change; that acts integrate some of their heroes into their voices. Of course, this already happens, yet it seems that some of the big names are being overlooked. It is admirable that many acts aim high and push their limits as much as possible. I dream of the day an artist as monumental as Freddie Mercury or Michael Jackson can arise- an idol for the ’00s- and instil some soothing anointment into the aching joints of music. I know I tend to protest and moan wholeheartedly, but resolution and rectification is within reach. As much as anything I was wondering whether anyone else had five favourite singers they feel influences them…
WHAT do you say?