You pick up your mother tongue through love and listening. You pick up your singing voice in the same way:
There’s nothing fake about Rory Graham‘s singing voice, even though it’s an Atlantic Ocean away from his speaking voice. Like Spanish singer Alberto Anaut, Rory was raised on blues and R&B. It’s their musical mother tongue, so they sing it as they heard it. Words and music woven together. With no teacher in between. The sounds of the language are as clear as the notes of the music.
Spanish Alberto heard R&B as a baby, with the voice as part of the music, long before he went to English class and had to learn English grammar. His spoken English is ‘learned from a book’; it’s less fluid. His singing English is pure and true. In through his ears and out through his mouth, like a native speaker/singer.
It’s the same for Rory. When he speaks, he’s pure Uckfield; when he sings, his vowels are pure American. He shortens his words in all the right American places, without thinking about it. Thinking would get in the way. This voice is his voice, for his songs. The voice closest to his heart. The voice that carries his words best.
“And I know, when I sing, people believe me”
A lot of British musicians worry that singing in an American accent will sound false or pretentious. Just a a touch of American is as noticeable as a sprinkle of glitter. One word is enough.
Listen to David Bowie feed the utterly American Buddy into Drive-in Saturday. “His name was always … Buddy” drops anyone British straight into a Hollywood teenage romance, in a way our home-grown Freddy or Neddy never could. Drive-in has already put the idea of America in our minds, though the song is obviously not set in present day America. For the British, the one word: Buddy is a masterstroke, especially when Bowie’s places it after a ‘pay attention’ millisecond of silence. With its shortened first syllable, tight American dd and Bowie’s wonderfully rich, ‘notice this’ American twang on the final y, Buddy paints a vivid picture. We can all imagine Buddy, clean-cut, shiny and bright.
Bowie turns quickly back to his London accent on stay, to make it clear: Buddy‘s just a character, a character in a film within the story of Drive-in Saturday. Bowie wants to remind us that the story of his song isn’t in America. Drive-in Saturday lives in the future.
“a song from the year 2033”
If English isn’t your first language: settle on American or British English when you sing in English. Don’t swerve between them. Choose: British vowel sounds or American vowel sounds. Or reggae vowel sounds. Or Australian English vowel sounds. But choose. To a native English speaker, the differences are clear. If you skip between them, you’ll distract your audience. They won’t be listening to you, they’ll be trying to understand you. Not good.
One last Rag’n’Bone Man song. Supporting Joan Armatrading, near home in Brighton, with Right from Wrong: