Nothing Like a Friend

When you sing in English, small words offer big opportunities. They can stretch and dance in song. Give them room; pay them attention.  Be ready for Russian doll words: tiny words that appear then reappear, nestled inside bigger, emotion-carrying words. Listen to tiny ‘in‘, working alone and within:

Sheffield songwriter Richard Hawley is known for his pared back lyrics, vivid in their simplicity. If you’re writing a song, Richard’s work is the perfect reminder that plain English words, used well, have great emotional power.

Listen out for the tiny word go in Which Way Do I Go? Its vowel sound ripples through the song, popping up in knowing, shadow, won’t and, of course, low:

What should you do as a singer covering Which Way Do I Go? (or any other song with Russian Doll words). Don’t overemphasise or overplay the sound echoes, but notice them as you prepare to sing the song. They’re part of the internal music of the words. Richard Hawley chose them for a reason. You need to feel the reason too. You need to sing his song as if you’d chosen the words yourself.

Why did Richard choose Which way do I go, instead of Which way should I go? They’re subtly different questions. You need to understand the difference, and to understand Richard’s choice, if you want to inhabit his song.

When you sing a cover (especially if English isn’t your native language): Start with the small words when you sing. They are gifts to you. Never ignore them. Never take them for granted. All sounds carry meaning in song. The smallest words are building blocks for emotion. Never waste them.

By the way, Richard shares his Sheffield heritage with the Arctic Monkeys:

And with Jarvis Cocker:



7 thoughts on “Nothing Like a Friend”

  1. I’ve been experimenting more with ‘singing out’ words…. how long to hold them, whether a vibrato rings out or the tone just barely reaches ‘fullness’ in being shaped…. It’s funny, I started experimenting with that a few years ago and it just never ceases to amaze me, how it picques interest and keeps the listener’s attention engaged throughout the song.


    1. Hi Naví – yes, it’s magical, isn’t it? Your audience feels the effect, without seeing the wires.

      We’re such subtle creatures where sound is concerned. Trust or distrust hangs on the depth and roundness of a single vowel. “I love you” nourishes or destroys with its central ‘o’. We’ve all heard the believable versions and the “really?” versions.

      Your listeners are lucky. How do you calibrate your experiments? Do you record your voice in preparation for performance or do you leave yourself free to stretch, deepen or colour your words depending on your mood?

      By the way, have you ever heard In a Broken Dream? I think you’ll enjoy it, and the skill of the session singer:


      1. I do record on my phone (the sound isn’t great, but it’s still helpful), but mostly once I’ve completed the song just so I can listen and think of ways to make it better.

        I practice quite a bit at home…. maybe 30% is actualy physical technique, like remembering to hold back the air-power to make the end of a phrase more light and breath-like… but most of it is just connecting to the emotion behind the song. I think that’s really what makes a song sound ‘genuine’, rather than just a show tune for performance. If I can really connect with that song and emotion, and not simply repeat words and sounds, then the song comes alive and feels alive, too!

        Ah, you’re inspiring me to record this…. I will this week or at the weekend hopefully! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Absolutely – ‘connecting to the emotion’ is more important than anything, I think. More important than a beautiful voice. We’ll forgive wrong notes or wrong-footed timing, but a song is a hollow shell of sound until the singer chooses to step inside it for us. We, the audience, feel the singer cross the threshold. It’s visceral.

        I hope you enjoy recording. Thanks for your helpful words – they’ll be really useful to other singers.


  2. One of the many things I love about your posts is the universality of your lessons. I’m learning a couple of Italian arias right now and your suggestion to “start with the small words” will greatly help my pronunciation, I think. How wonderful to see you back!


    1. Thank you for your kind words.

      I do believe that small words reward attention when you sing. They are the building blocks, the light and shade, the tiny stitches of sound that reinforce and remind. They are the nuts and bolts. The stepping stones.

      I think the trick, when you’re singing in a language that isn’t your own, is to play within it. Not to ‘please the teacher’ with it, but to please the music with it.

      Are you learning your Italian arias for performance? What a joy. It’s a language that dances, even when there’s no other music in the room.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “It’s a language that dances, even when there’s no other music in the room.” That may be the single most beautiful description of Italian I’ve ever read — how wonderfully stated! As for those arias … I never perform for anyone but the shower head, my dear E. It’s better for everyone that way. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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