Juliet Russell’s recording tips

I was impressed by Juliet Russell‘s friendly, practical and purposeful words about the singing voice on BBC’s Saturday Live yesterday. I looked her up on YouTube and found this video. If you’re thinking of making a recording in English, it’s well worth watching:

By the way – there’s plenty to learn, especially if English isn’t your first language, by watching Juliet putting her work as a voice coach into practice in her own song Lazy (below). She infuses ordinary English words with dreamy luxury from the moment the song begins. The words melt and meld for her.

Juliet works subtly, but if you listen carefully, you’ll hear her smoothing and softening t-full words like text, time, bright and outside in the first verse, to establish a languorous atmosphere. She doesn’t drop the t, she changes it. She’s painting a sound-picture of a day when nothing is as expected – not even the sound of the letter t.

Once she’s set up her own soothingnormalfor sounds, you pay attention when she starts sharpening, little by little, every t of some might say it’s such a waste. You register the change and you know that something important’s coming. Remember Laura Marling smoothing and sharpening the edge of her here or Liza Minnelli using an unusually British English ‘Is she pretty?’ to call attention to her anguish hereis a powerful emotional ally when you sing.

Juliet sets up the contrast to introduce a different, disapproving voice when she sings waste. Notice how she frames and contains that ‘disapproving’ voice within the lullaby motion of the song – so her choice of a lazy day in bed remains the stronger force. Nobody’s going to talk her out of it.

We notice what she’s doing because she’s doing something unusual. Juliet could have filled her whole song with smooth, rounded English sounds, but then we wouldn’t have noticed her softening them. And we wouldn’t have noticed her sharpening the edges of it’s and waste.

I’m not trying to say that Juliet went through a forensic Mr Spock-style process of word-choice when she was writing and then singing her song. Nobody thinks, ‘I know, I’ll just sprinkle a few words full of sounds in the first bit of my song and soften them so that everyone notices the contrast when I start emphasising the hard chop of sounds later.’ You’d sound oddly robotic if you followed such a rigid plan.

It’s the human story-telling instinct that leads Juliet to mute or emphasise sounds. We all do it without thinking when we argue or when we repeat the speech of others. ‘He told me he loved me’ carries a different message from ‘He told me he loved me’. When communication is important to us, we squeeze every last drop of persuasive sound out of a word. Without a moment’s thought.

Juliet means what she says when she sings, so her message is clear. It’s congruency again. Understand what you’re singing, make the effort to believe it and your audience will believe you.

You can hear Juliet expanding the ay diphthong of words like stayed, day, today and breathing pillows of space into the tiniest words – bed, I, all, world, so and do. She invites you into her oasis of relaxation, in the first few lines of her song, by softening and slowing each word. By the time you reach the title word, lazy, she can play with it a little and sing it almost like a yawn. Her attention to all the words leading up to lazy have woven it a strong hammock of active tranquility.  The word can relax. Lazy doesn’t have to carry the weight of the song’s mood all by itself:

When you’re singing in English, breathe life and meaning into your words – don’t use cardboard dictionary versions. Be as effortlessly architectural as Juliet. Don’t wait until you reach the ‘important’ word or phrase to start communicating emotion or deep meaning. Start building a strong supporting structure with every word/brick of the song. Your audience will thank you for it.

© Sing Better English, 2015

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2 thoughts on “Juliet Russell’s recording tips”

  1. There are so many things I love about this post, but I think my favorite is your own mellifluous prose. Or maybe your insightful analysis of Juliet’s song. Or perhaps a first-time-in-my-life appreciation for the letter “t”? Thank you for all of these lessons, Elaine.

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    1. Hi Heather – thank you for that.

      I had a sweet tweet from Juliet – she hadn’t realised that she was doing some of the things I pulled out of her song. That’s the thing, isn’t it – when a language is close to our heart, it works its own magic without any conscious effort.

      Turning the microscope on song sometimes feels a bit like pulling poetry apart in an English class, labelling the assonance, metaphors etc, as if poets paint (or poet) by numbers, consciously dropping specific tricksy details into their poetry to tweak the emotions of their readers. I think songwriting and singing are something like poetry, or any other writing, or creative process, in their making – I believe that a native speaker of English, if they feel a connection to the song they’re singing, will bend and stretch the words to get their message across, without thinking about it. Then, if it works they keep it or increase it.

      That’s what I want to encourage non-native English speakers to do when they weave English and music together in song – to set their words free from the cage of the one ‘right’ pronunciation that’s been hammered into them in English class or exams.

      Sorry – that’s such a long answer! But here’s a treat in recompense – I was looking up a link for the word idiolect and I found this. The street-talking RAF men are wonderful. I think you’ll really enjoy it: http://bbc.in/1HlzHLq

      Though – thinking about it, can you tell that the RAF men are posh? Or do they just sound British to you? I wonder whether the levels of class that are instantly and crystally clear to all British people in speech are clear to English speakers outside our tiny island.

      And, thinking about the letter “t” and its subversive power in sound, I added some bits to a Liza Minnelli/Breaking Bad post I wrote a while ago (it’s here, if you’re interested: https://singbetterenglish.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/power-of-pretty/) I’d love to know whether Liza consciously Britished-up her “tt” in “Is she pretty?” or whether the sound just fell into her mouth and she kept it there because it worked.

      All the very best wishes
      Elaine

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