English words on the page are pinned to the dictionary. Music lifts words off the pin and breathes life, colour and complexity back into them. Intention shapes breath. Breath shapes sound. Sound shapes meaning.
Think of ‘happy’. Light and joyful in the mouth of Pharell Williams, twisted into a painful shadow by Tom Robinson; Mary Margaret O’Hara lifts happy off the dictionary pin, and lets it fly free:
It’s the same story: when you sing an English word, you choose its meaning. You build on the dictionary definition, intensify it, twist it or bend it.
The dictionary is your friend – it establishes a ‘standard’ meaning for the words you sing. An agreed measuring point. A starting place.
I’d say that Mary Margaret O’Hara adds a depth and a time-line to ‘happy’. Her ‘happy’ is a complicated thing – as human happiness tends to be. It shifts, ebbs and flows. It’s a question and an answer.
How about ‘about’? One of those quiet English words, enabling others, but never, never drawing attention to its humdrum self. Quickly said, passed over and forgotten. Not here:
Mary Margaret O’Hara has an unusual way of singing, yes, but she’s not alone in calling taken-for-granted words into surprising action. Think of Jarvis Cocker adding a cutting layer of irony to ‘do’ here, or Liza Minnelli sharpening ‘pretty’ into a dagger for her own heart here. Nina Simone shifting the balance of ‘black’ here and Kizzy Crawford reshaping ‘golden brown’ for her own delight here.
All words are available for metamorphosis when you sing. Choice is all, but opportunity is everywhere. Choose well and nourish the meaning of your song. Breathe life into your words.
© Sing Better English, 2016