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 soothing ‘normal‘ for t 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 t here or Liza Minnelli using an unusually British English ‘Is she pretty?’ to call attention to her anguish here. T is a powerful emotional ally when you sing.
Juliet sets up the t 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 t 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 t 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