English words are like onions, when you sing. Chop them, roast them whole, caramelise them, scatter them as crunchy red raw rings on a salad. They never stop being onions, but you’re in charge of the flavour and the texture they provide.
Fire is a classic onion. We all know what fire is. It’s the singer’s job to make us feel what fire ‘is’ in their song.
Arthur Brown sings fire as creation and myth, not sex. Mick dissolves fire. He breathes it smooth and steady, ending in a warm whisper. Enticing and dangerous. A private offer. Just you and Mick. Fiiah:
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand sings fire efficiently and matter-of-factly. He’s not the source of the fire. His fire isn’t Mick or Arthur’s. It defeats him. Alex isn’t offering any promises for a shared future; he’s not going to draw you into his personal flame. He’s burning up, not smouldering with passion:
Jim Morrison sings fire as longing, invitation and a slow, slow burn. Black leather trousers and pointy boots. He splits the word on a central hinge, just like Arthur Brown, but where Arthur ends with a powerful, exultant ‘ya’, Jim purrs into his luxurious ending, like a tiger. Fi-yuur:
Jim pours his soul into fire in the chorus. In the verse he sings fire as a straightforward, practical word. A camping trip request: Did you bring the matches, darling? That set-up makes us notice the fire of the chorus even more. Change pushes us to pay close attention.
Whenever a word is repeated in a song, you make a choice each and every time. Painting shades of difference into the same word, especially when it’s a small word, is one of the most powerful things you can do. Like this or this.
Sing in English, and you’ll sing with fire. That’s guaranteed. The life of the word is the life you sing into it. You choose. Each time.
By the way: even when you’re singing a cover, you always have a choice. What does the word mean to you, in this song? How does it weave into the music? Watch First Aid Kit, the Swedish sisters, cover Jagger’s Play With Fire. Their fire ripples softly. They’re not parroting Mick. They’ve captured the meaning of the song in their swaying, luxurious singing of the words:
The best covers respect the original, understand the original and bring something new to the song.
© Sing Better English, 2016