House music asks a lot of a singer. Each word is a beat with feeling, a flavoured note of music. In English, it’s not usual to expect individual syllables to carry such Japanese haiku levels of vivid economy. The challenge, for a House/Deep House vocalist, is to flesh out the bones without disrupting the beat. It’s a precision art.
How do you avoid sounding like a woodpecker, when lyrics are mainly one-syllable sounds, closely backed by drum machine beats?
Preparation. Before you watch Kah-Lo infuse the tiny word ‘now’ with ultra-cool in Riton‘s Rinse and Repeat, try saying the English phrase “But it’s how I look now” out loud. Which words did you emphasise? I’d guess you emphasised now. Not but and not look. But it’s how I look now isn’t natural English. Or is it? Kah-Lo makes it so:
When you read the English phrase: “But it’s how I look now,” you naturally emphasise now. It’s the logical choice. The other words are a pitter-patter of ‘lead up’ language. ‘How’ might take a little extra secondary stress. That’s natural English. It’s hard to make “But it’s how I look now“ sound English. Try it. It’s hard to find the meaning in the phrase, even when you emphasise unusual words. But, especially, needs a special sort of emphasis, low, not strong. Kah-Lo achieves it, with style, because she’s planned it. She unsettles the line, from the very first word. You’re forced to pay attention as you chase her meaning.
Kah-Lo prepares the ground by reshuffling words. She moves But, it’s, how, I, look slightly closer together than usual, to unsettle their standard intonation pattern. Unusual intonation always attracts attention.
Once you’ve unsettled the expected intonation, you have to do something extra with the difference you’ve created. Your audience is waiting for you to tell a different story. Kah-Lo reshapes and widens the meaning of now in her song. Now’s not a quick snapshot of immediate time in Rinse and Repeat, it’s a steady state of being, with a history and a process.
Clever, isn’t it? Anyone who hears Rinse and Repeat will register and react to the unusual intonation of “But it’s how I look now.” But once you’ve heard Kah-Lo create that pattern of intonation, you’ll find it hard to say that line any other way, even though it’s an unusual way. Your mind registers and retains the new pattern. Kah-Lo’s put the new inside your head, to help the music.
We can tell that Kah-Lo’s doing it on purpose because she’s already pronounced the preceding lines crisply and clearly: “Time to make the club go up/Time to shut the club down/This is not how I woke up”
Kah-Lo sets up a pattern in those first lines. It’s a pattern of placing stress on the first, third and final words/syllables, leaving a tiny gap before the final word in the line and then emphasising that word: up/down. She doesn’t emphasise the words by pumping energy or excitement into them. She drops her voice down. She gives a vocal shrug. The up or down of the clubs isn’t important to her. She’s too cool to care.
Kah-Lo establishes her ‘standard’ template for this song: sticking close to the beat, giving equal weight to each word, except the last word. She knows that a deviation from that ‘standard’, will be noticed and understood as intention. We understand it as an important message. We pay attention when she colours but and look as well as now. We follow her, with interest, and she rewards us with meaning.
Kah-Lo is careful not to over ‘pop’ the p at the end of lines. Every up, from go up to wake up, sun comes up and way up is controlled and clear, but dampened. This gives a slightly world weary feel. Kah-Lo places the weight of the word up on the beginning of the word, on the vowel sound, not the p. If you know Beyoncé’s Single Ladies, you’ll have heard up sung with the weight of the word tipped forward onto a crisp p. Beyoncé’s giving orders, telling you to put your hands up. Her enthusiasm propels the word forwards. Kah-Lo’s up is a cool, restrained observation, not an order. Too sharp a p would kill Kah-Lo’s intention. It matters.
If you’re a vocalist for House music, or any music where repetition is strong and the beat is even stronger, be prepared. Adding a human voice to House music adds humanity to machine beats. It’s a special opportunity:
- First of all, ask yourself why the songwriter/producer has bothered to write words for a human voice. What can you add with your ‘live’ voice that a sample or a voice loop can’t?
- What’s the quality in your voice that the producer/songwriter wants in this song? Velvet? Sandpaper? A cool breeze?
- Which words, or groups of words carry the heart of the song? In Rinse and Repeat, I’d say on powers the dance beat (listen to the male vocal’s heavier version of on). The title phrase rinse and repeat adds a little change in rhythm, a quick sideways flourish, one of those cha-cha-cha moments that make dance music worth dancing to. Be aware, but don’t overplay those words. You’re a House vocalist, not an aerobics instructor.
- For the same reason: don’t crash hard onto every single rhyme, especially if the rhyme appears at the end of a line, or every line. Let your audience discover rhymes for themselves. Be clear, but don’t hammer rhymes home brutally. Let the words work their own magic. Let them be.
- Be prepared to suggest changes. Only you, the vocalist, know how the syllables feel in your mouth or bump up against each other. Be respectful, but be straight.
- Respect the beat. You can reach all kinds of vocal depth without losing touch with the beat. Think it through. Plot your progress in and out of the beats. Stay close.
- Don’t stretch or shorten simple words without thinking. You’ll muddy the sound if your syllables aren’t pure and clear. Mood lives in conscious choice, not mistakes.
You’ll find lots more subtle detail in Kah-Lo’s use of language, if you listen closely. Her language modulations work on you, whether you notice them consciously, or not. If you’re going to work on House music as a vocalist or songwriter, she’s worth studying.
If you want to write House music in English: You can learn a lot from Rinse and Repeat. The lyrics are clever. Deceptively simple, but cleverly so. Short words, of course, but loaded with helpfully mood-enhancing sounds. The word on, repeated often, is a warm beat in itself. The final n is a soft ending, the o is a round sound. The repeated, rounded, half-rhymes of down/now and on/morn wrap Rinse and Repeat in a warm, hypnotic blanket of sound. A little like the mesmerising repetition in Iggy Pop’s The Passenger or White Town’s Your Woman.
The phrase Rinse and Repeat is a masterstroke: a phrase with its own internal musicality and street meaning, as well as a widely understood dictionary meaning. The r sounds make rinse and repeat roll off the tongue for the vocalist. Against the backdrop of short, simple, single-syllabled words, Rinse and Repeat stands out as a four-syllabled entity; a skyscraper among cottages. Contrast is interest. The phrase rinse and repeat is repeated and it carries extra layers of repetition within its meaning. The perfect phrase.
The best house lyrics are carefully chosen. Sound and meaning mix into mood. The vocalist takes responsibility for subtly damping or extending sounds, as piano pedals do.
The best House vocalists weave mood and meaning into the tiniest moments, like tiny bright flowers in the cracks between paving stones. They make space without losing their responsibility to the beat. They set up repetition as a chance for subtle contrast, not as headache-inducing hammer blows of sound. They leave the drum machine to provide the beat and use their voice to colour the mood. It’s a special kind of magic.
If English isn’t your first language: don’t fall into the trap of singing/speaking ‘standard’ versions of the simple words in House and Deep House music. You will sound like a robot and you’ll kill the House vibe.
House/Deep House add human vocals, especially female vocals, to bring soulful, smooth or characterful qualities to the sound. Take up the challenge of adding interest to small words in small spaces. There’s an art to it. This or this will give you some ideas of what’s possible. This article will give you an idea of what’s already been achieved.
By the way: Steve Reich brought me to Kah Lo and Riton. Rinse and Repeat was played as the introductory music to this BBC radio programme about Steve Reich’s influence on modern music.
© Sing Better English, 2016