All singing is choice. Choice carves sound. Watch Birdy singing Bon Iver’s Skinny Love and you’ll see her curving her lips inwards and letting them rest together on the m as she sings my, my, my, my, my. Her pause on the round body of the m weighs down the flyaway y. It adds a layer of resigned melancholy to the word.
It’s a choice. Birdy doesn’t round her lips in the same way when she sings the other words that begin with m in Skinny Love: moment and morning. Why pause on the m of my but not the m of morning?
As a song about love slipping away, Skinny Love slides on soft s sounds: salt/staring/sullen. The hollow vowel sounds of fall/all/tall and year/here/veneer/ echo through the song. The hard consonants of wreck/breaking/tickets crack in the background. The sound landscape of the song is the sound landscape of happiness floating away.
The word skinny is a masterstroke. The songwriter, Bon Iver/Justin Vernon, found the perfect sound. Skinny holds soft s, nn and airy y around the early snap of the k and the short, thin i vowel. The soothing memory of what was, disrupted by the sharpening realisation of what is.
Skinny is an unusual word to hear applied to love. It attracts the listener’s close attention. We weigh and measure skinny in our minds, for sound and meaning. The meaning is caught in the sound.
Each if us understands ‘skinny love’ in our own way. We ‘feel’ what it means, led by the sound, though we’d find it hard to explain skinny love in a word or to translate it directly into another language.
If English isn’t your first language: watch the way Birdy shapes her mouth to make the m of my. Think about how you will draw attention to the word when you sing.
Remember, Justin Vernon, as an American, had this meaning in mind for my, my, my. He opens space for a new meaning when he repeats my eight times, instead of two or three. Whenever a songwriter places something ‘different’ from the expected in a song, it’s your opportunity, as the singer, to inject your own meaning into the gap.
Birdy’s way with my isn’t the only way. Watch Justin Vernon sing Skinny Love. He negotiates the sound landscape of his song in a different way. The m of my still attracts the ear:
Which version do you prefer?
© Sing Better English, 2016