Skinny Love: watch my lips

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 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 in Skinny Lovemoment and morning Why pause on the m of my but not the of morning?

As a song about love slipping away, Skinny Love slides on soft 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 around the early snap of the k and the short, thin 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 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 of my still attracts the ear:

Which version do you prefer?

© Sing Better English, 2016


7 thoughts on “Skinny Love: watch my lips”

  1. I always guessed that Birdie had braces at the time of the video recording, and that’s why she kept them covered during the “my-my-my” parts, how at the end of the dipthong the lips stretch wider to (typically) reveal more teeth. 🙂

    I like how she places more accent (no pun) on the “ah” part of “my”…. there’s something gentle about it, removing the possessiveness that I would normally associate with that word (as a native speaker at least)…. rather than my as in mine, I associate more with my as in “oh my goodness”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Naví – good point – it’s true about the braces making it harder to rest on the m without curving her lips inwards to cover them. I wonder if it was one of those serendipities of singing, where the thing you ‘have to’ do sounds better than the thing you would have done. I do think that the extra millisecond on the m adds an emotional gravitas to the song and to the my, my, my

      Now that her braces are off, she does more of what you appreciated – more of the gentleness on the y Possibly because she was only 14 when she sang Skinny Love originally and, even 4 years of a teenage life give you more understanding of heartbreak. Her voice here is so much more nuanced and she finds different places to pour the sadness:

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I prefer the Bon Iver version – although Birdie’s voice is beautiful, the original feels more emotionally charged to me, probably because it was about a real person and he knows exactly what he means by the words he wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She has a very pure voice, doesn’t she? I wonder whether Birdy will come to ‘feel’ the song on an emotional level more and more, as she gets older and as the words attach themselves to her own life experiences.

      Which version of None Inch Nails’ song Hurt do you prefer – the original or Johnny Cash’s? I saw Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails talking about Johnny Cash’s cover of his song like this:

      “I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” (Interview: Alternative Press #194. September 2004. Via Wikipedia)

      I suppose Birdy’s version of Skinny Love is ‘every bit as pure’ as Bon Iver’s. And it has certainly touched a lot of listeners.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Although Birdy’s enunciation is clearer to my ear, I prefer Justin Vernon’s performance. It seems to dig deeper, somehow … and ultimately I find it more moving.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I’m with you on that. I’ve read that Justin Vernon/Bon Iver wrote the song in response to the end of a relationship and he does sound as if he’s trying to make sense of pain. He sounds as if he ‘means it’.

      I can also see why Birdy’s version is the more well known – it’s something to do with her age, her voice and the way that she moves through the story of the song. She’s lighter on the words, which has an attraction of its own. A lot of people think it’s ‘her’ song, so her version is the one they cover, not Bon Iver’s. Which must be odd for him – especially somebody catches his version on YouTube and think he’s covering a Birdy song!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wouldn’t that be frustrating — to pour your heart and soul into a song, only to have the public think you’re covering Birdy? Hopefully the act of writing it was sufficiently liberating and healing for Justin that he doesn’t mind the subsequent misattribution too much.


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