“‘On Hold’ was written as a thank you for the warmth of the world when I was at my lowest, and I wanted the video that accompanied it to be a raw representation of this gratitude. While I realise that roller-skating through central London giving flowers to strangers isn’t particularly cool, random acts of kindness are – ultimately, being nice is underrated. This video is the definition of DIY – it was filmed by a mate of mine who followed me through the city on a skateboard and I edited it all myself, having never done anything of the kind before. It makes me smile to watch, and dorky as it is, I feel this video communicates a joy that often goes untold.”
Fenne Lily wrote a shadow of melancholy into her song ‘On Hold’ by choosing short words with a round hollow ‘o’ sound at their centre: hold, cold, low, know, alone, gold, control. She sings her story of sadness healed by hope into the words. She stretches or deepens the central vowel, adds a shiver or a husky tone, rounds the vowel sound into a hug or leaves it as a chilly hollow.
When you sing in English, round hollow vowel sounds are opportunities You choose the emotional flavour to pour into each one. You choose the amount and the strength.
You can change the filling slightly when words repeat. Listen to the subtle difference in warmth that Fenne Lily sings into the word gold at the beginning, the middle and the end of her song. She changes the weight on the d, sometimes thickens and sometimes lightens the l, sings the g brightly or huskily. These changes affect the sound of the central o and give Fenne space to pause on it, stretch it or deepen it.
We, her audience, notice it all. We feel every tiny tweak of sound. Just as we notice tiny changes in tone when we’re in love or arguing.
None of it is conscious. But when you sing, especially if you sing somebody else’s song, you have to believe what you’re singing. Your mind will shape your mouth to shape the words. Sing without believing and you might as well sing a dictionary.
Remember, it’s not the word, it’s what Fenne breathes into the word that fills gold with a particular emotional charge in her song. Words are called to mean different things in different songs.
Watch Nina Simone singing Plain Gold Ring. In Nina’s song, gold is a precious metal turned into a wedding band, not a metaphor for sunshine, safety and warmth. Nina sings the word gold as it is in the dictionary: straightforward. Nina saves her emotional charge for words like me, free, mine, time, heart:
Kimbra covers Nina’s song and she sings gold into a sadder sound:
When you sing an English word as a metaphor: it’s your job to communicate what this particular word means in your song. Your audience will follow you, if you believe in your meaning as you sing.
Don’t expect your audience to understand your metaphor exactly as you do. Metaphors are tricksy things. They bypass the conscious mind to settle in the imagination. They’re feelings, not facts.
All audiences understand gold as precious. That’s a given. Gold can mean greed, it can mean beauty, it can mean purity, it can mean truth and safety, or hard work and danger.
Gold can mean so many things, we wait for the singer to sing it into shape for their song. We wait for the singer to connect. Even if we don’t understand their words, we understand their meaning:
Neil Young surrounds the gold of Heart of Gold with a story built of words so intangible that they sound mythical. He reaches all of us, but I doubt if we’d agree on what he means, even though each of us ‘know’ what he means :
Spandau Ballet sing Gold into a different shape:
All English words are there to be sung into whatever shape you choose as a singer. Believe in what you’re trying to communicate, and your mind will shape your mouth and your breath to do the work. Just as it does when you argue, or when you fall in love.
Watch Fenne Lily bring the word touch into 3D life:
“Heartbreak walks hand in hand with an anger and a madness that I felt I had to address. The video for ‘Three Oh Nine’ was born out of fury, not defeat. It’s an ode to the post break-up ‘f**k you’.”
- If English isn’t your first language: listen closely to simple words sung by singers like Fenne Lily.
- Choose an everyday word – for example ‘leave’ from her song Three Oh Nine.
- Listen to Fenne sing leave, as if you were listening to notes of pure music. Forget the version of leave that you learned for exams.
- Break leave down into sounds, add to the word you ‘know’ from English class. Set the word free.
- Does she sing the word as you know it from the dictionary? (She doesn’t).
- What has she changed? How does she breathe the word?
- Does she sing the word exactly the same each time? (She doesn’t)
The more you examine English words as a collection of sounds, just as you examine musical note, the more you will free English from the standard shape it holds in your head. And the better you will sound when you sing in English.
© Sing Better English 2018