Looking at the Spanish Top 40 this week, I saw Birdy’s cover of People Help the People at Number 2. I remember seeing Cherry Ghost performing their original version of the song on Jools Holland back in 2006. So I thought I’d see what has brought Birdy so high in the Spanish charts. The letter h has been her secret weapon.
There’s a lovely video of Birdy singing People Help the People in Shakespeare and Company in Paris showing what happens when a bookshop keeps a piano and what happens when you add an extra letter to a word. Watch her singing the word people:
The first thing that struck me about Birdy’s version, aside from the qualities of her voice, is the h that she drops into people. To keep the long ee vowel pure and to tie the sound more closely to each note, Birdy sings People as Pee-hee-Pul. The h is more subtle than it’s possible to write. It’s a breath, a framing sound within the word. Birdy doesn’t sing Pee Hee Pul as three separate words. It’s still one word, extended.
Placing an h in the middle of a long English vowel sound is a classic singing technique. It doesn’t only work for ee and, indeed, ee doesn’t always need it. It depends on the music. In the And He shall purify chorus of Handel’s Messiah, for example, listen to the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge repeatedly dropping an h into the long final y of purify here, but leaving the long ee of He completely h -free. Purify is the word that they want to colour, by keeping its y vowel sound pure for a long time. Be sure, if you choose the h-dropping technique, to choose the right word and the right vowel, for the right reason.
For Birdy, placing an h in people stops her running out of breath as she stretches the word. It stops the long ee vowel sound swerving out of her control. People is such a focus for the song and she wants to bend the word to her will; to keep control, while letting it soar. She powers through people and the rest of the song swirls around it.
Cherry Ghost treated the word differently. No h in his people. He lets the ee vowel break naturally in the middle of the word and the catch in his voice adds a layer of poignancy. The word people means something slightly different in his mouth, in his song. Something like this. You can hear his acoustic version here.
Birdy’s treatment of people changes the feeling of the song, subtly but perceptibly. It gives her more room to swoop and spiral around the warm round hug of an o echoing through if you’re homesick, give me your hand and I’ll hold it. She leaves the end of and if I had a brain so undefined, it’s hard to hear the word brain clearly. But it doesn’t matter to her version of the song. If you listen to Cherry Ghost’s version, you hear the word brain with more emphasis and clarity. It had a different meaning in the song for him.
Smoke and mirrors – the work of a singer to pull some words into the light and let others fade into the background.
I’d be interested to know what you think. I imagine Birdy’s people referring to people close to her and a little bit beyond. Cherry Ghost’s people seems to refer to humanity in general. Let me know in the comments if you feel the same, or if the way the word people is sung by each singer carries a different message to your ears.
If English isn’t your first language: adding an h into the middle of a long ee vowel sound when you sing in English will help you to keep the sound pure and true. But it will only work if your h is an English h – soft as a breath. If your h is too hard, you’ll chop the ee into ugly pieces. Look here if you’d like help from Happy to get your h just right. Or refresh your memory with a BBC Learning English video here.
Check that your round o of homesick and hold is the same as your o in cold, stone and loneliness, but different from the o of throngs, consequence and love. The difference is as important as the similarity.
By the way – what does the word people mean to you in this song when you sing it? They’re not the same people as Jarvis Cocker’s Common People here and they’re not the same as Louis Armstrong’s people in Go Down, Moses here. Are they the same as David Bowie’s people here? So many people.
Remember, it’s your choice. Cherry Ghost sang the word people one way and Birdy sings it a different way. Each suits the song and the music, but one will suit your idea of the song best. It’s up to you.
© Sing Better English, 2015