Working Hurt Hard

Tell your soon-to-be-ex-lover: You really hurt me this time and you keep hurt short and sharp. Really carries the burden of your pain. If you’re a small child telling your mother: Jake really hurt me, you stretch your hurt to breaking point and beyond, to make sure your big brother Jake gets a good telling-off. Really is just the icing on the cake.

The long /ɜː/ vowel  in hurt is elastic. Keep a steady tone and hurt will stretch, as far as you need, without snapping. Listen to Marika Hackman singing You Come Down. She squeezes the pain of time past, time present and time future into the vowel of hurt:

Marika calmly stretches the word hurt into an eerie, disconcerting shape. It floats. It echoes. It’s unresolved. You can imagine whatever  you like into the word.

It’s not a version of hurt that you’ll ever use in conversation. Remind your brain that it needs to revise its blueprint for the word hurt. Like this or this.

To end her song, Marika swoops hurt up into the final dominant note. One short word, moulded into a cradle for the imperfect cadence. That final, perfect hurt leaves you haunted. Without it, the song would ended too smoothly. You notice an unusual pronunciation.  That final hurt is stretched beyond anything you’ve ever heard.

If English isn’t your first language: it’s easier to pronounce hurt if you use a smooth English r. If you pronounce hurt with a rolled r, it will be hard to stretch the central vowel as far as you should. The rolled r will tip the word out of balance. It’s always possible to compensate – remember what Eugene Hutz manages to do with a rolled r here.  But you’ll have to work hard to sound relaxed while you do it.

Remember to keep a steady tone when you stretch hurt (or any other word). Only let your voice tremble or break if that fragility is part of the sound picture that you’re painting with the word.

It’s easier to do what Marika does so well if you’re singing a British hurt. The central vowel in the British English version is lighter and more spacious than the American version. You can hear both varieties of hurt here. The American English hurt can be stretched, of course, but it needs more concentration to do it well. Listen to Johnny Cash working with hurt here. A different stretch, but a perfect one.

I’m focusing on hurt because it’s one of those straightforward, single syllable words that get overlooked or taken for granted by singers. Native English speakers or not. Pass over the possibilities of humdrum words, and you’re wasting an opportunity to communicate shades of meaning when you sing. Every word should have a chance to get its moment in the sun.

There’s plenty more to learn from Marika’s song and songwriting. An article here where she says “There’s an immense sense of relief once I’ve written a song: it almost feels like you’ve let something go. Songwriting is about trudging through the darker sides of your brain and sifting that stuff out.” You can hear Marika singing in a tube station here and there’s an interview about You Come Down here.

Remember: the last word in a song stays with your audience. It’s the last message of the song. Its final breath. Make it count.

© Sing Better English, 2014


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