Fenne Lily: Gold On Hold

“‘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 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.

22 carat yellow gold leaf 
          L. Cornelissen & Son, London

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.

A miner underground at Pumsaint gold mine, Wales; c. 1938. Photographer: Percy Benzie Abery

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


13 thoughts on “Fenne Lily: Gold On Hold”

  1. Goodness … what a wonderful collection of songs you’ve put together to illustrate your lesson! Once again, you’ve left me thinking quite deeply about a word I’ve said maybe a hundred times but never once paused to consider carefully. Of this set, “On Hold” was my favorite because of the lovely message. But really they’re all gems. Fantastic post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Heide. It’s funny isn’t it, how we colour our words without thinking about it and everybody we speak to notices when we sound a bit ‘off’ or when we sound happy. We’re all expert at it, even though we were never taught it at school. I suppose being a toddler is our masterclass in effective persuasion. We polish our skills from then on. Years of studying each other to work it out!

      The On Hold video’s sweet, isn’t it? Fenne Lily is a wonderfully talented songwriter and singer. I’m looking forward to seeing how her career develops. She’s on tour in the UK at the moment and I’m hoping to catch her.

      Now – a gift for you. I’ve seen your gorgeous photography of Paris. I thought you’d enjoy this Moody Blues video of Paris, filmed in 1967. Don’t the roads look empty? I’m bemused by their haircuts – it looks as if they had access to hair products that don’t exist any more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right that it’s funny how little conscious thought we give to our speech — everything from pitch to intonation — yet how we learn all of these complex little nuances almost by osmosis. See? Once again you have me looking at the “givens” in an entirely new light!

        You’re right also that Fenne Lily is wonderful. I do hope you’ll be able to see/hear her live (and tell us all about it)!

        As for your generous and thoughtful gift … alas, the link isn’t working for me. Might you be willing to try again, or perhaps tell me the exact title? Sometimes WordPress plays little tricks on us and truncates urls, it seems …

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think we’ve forgotten how we acquired the knowledge, just as we’ve forgotten the trials and tribulations of learning to walk. We learnt all the big things so long ago, when we were tiny. Reading tone of voice, when you’re dependent on keeping the giants around you happy so they don’t stop feeding you and protecting you, is a desperate survival skill. When to gurgle or smile to keep them close, when to scream for attention and when to stop. We forget our own witchcraft.

        Links are funny things, aren’t they? Some travel well and some are real stay-at-homes. Try this one – it’s a more faded version of the first. I hope it’s clear enough so that you can recognise some Paris spots, oddly traffic free:

        It’s the Moody Blues in Paris in 1967, leaning up against interesting wallpaper and singing Nights in White Satin

        Liked by 2 people

      3. You have such a wonderful way with words — “We forget our own witchcraft.” We do indeed … except maybe for a few singers, and that’s why the rest of us find them so beguiling.

        And thank you for the Moody Blues link, which worked like a charm (speaking of being bewitched!). How fun to see Paris in 1967, a year before the tumult of the student revolutions. And how fun to see Justin Hayward as a young man, also! I had forgotten how deadly attractive he was. Still is, in fact … he hasn’t lost his mojo for THIS old fan!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. He’ll be glad to hear it!

        I was looking into the background to the song and I’m amazed that he wrote it at just 19:

        “There was a lot of emotion that went into the song,” he affirms. “I was nineteen or twenty at the time, living in a two-room flat in Bayswater with Graeme [Edge, Moody Blues drummer] and our girlfriends. I came back from a gig one night, around four or five in the morning, when the birds were just twittering, sat on the side of the bed and wrote a couple of verses. The only people writing in the Moodies then were [keyboard player] Mike Pinder and myself. He’d been working on a song called Dawn Is A Feeling, which I’d heard him fiddling around with, and I knew the other guys were expecting something from me at rehearsal the next day.”

        Searching for some kind of metaphor for his emotional turmoil, Hayward remembered a recent gift he’d been given. “Another girlfriend, who was neither the one that had just dumped me or the one that I was then going with, had given me some white satin sheets. They just happened to be in my suitcase and I was trying them out in this place that Graeme and I lived in. They were very romantic-looking, but totally impractical.”

        From an interview in Louder https://bit.ly/2yXob9M

        Somehow the song reaches far beyond the ‘impractical’ bed linen.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Meticulous choices here. I’ll be lingering awhile. I’ve found that in rock and roll, the players will linger with their instruments such as singers do, and in that lingering long-play express feelings and emotions that parallel drawn-out vowels and the taps on consonants. Oh, there are excesses, but it’s a worthwhile exploration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Beautifully put. It’s that freedom to bend, constrict or expand vowel sounds to express and explore emotion that’s natural to any native speaker who has had to argue for something close to their heart, but unpractised in non-native speakers whose version of words gets solidified early into a single, neutral form. Enough to pass exams, but not enough to sing a convincing love song. I’m not sure how language teachers could remedy the situation, except by bringing target language speakers into the classroom and running some kind of unethical dating scenario. It’s one of the reasons I dissect the sounds of song words so clinically – to give permission to language learners to play and to let go of their ‘exam ready’ frozen version of language.

      By the way – having seen your posts on the mid term elections, I thought you might be interested in the way Pollen, an artist collective, have expressed some of the issues at stake tomorrow. I was impressed because it feels like a balanced, thoughtful, informative, beautiful piece of work, all done for the sake of democracy. It says Minnesota, but I imagine the information applies throughout the USA: https://www.pollenmidwest.org/stories/this-is-minnesota/


      1. Pollen has a great web site. Information is presented in digestible chunks, and the stories available are persuasive. Thanks for calling my attention to it. We have a gentleman in our community who periodically invites folks for conversations about sensitive issues. He’s serious about getting people together to talk about (maybe through) their differences. He’s just put out a call for a conversation about President Trump, making it clear that those who are for the president and those who are not will listen, speak and converse about him. He’s done that with a number of issues. You might find his approach interesting, as well: http://www.respectfulconversation.net/bio/

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you for that link. I’d say that Harold Heie has got it spot on – respectful conversation is the only way we humans can build coexistence in anything approaching symphony. Understanding, not necessarily agreeing but trying to understand the pathway to a point of view, is an everyday part of that. Otherwise we end up like those feuding families in the Mani of Greece, building taller and taller fortified towers to protect ourselves from the ‘other’ https://bit.ly/2DoDA7O

        You might be interested in the work of The Forgiveness Project, if you haven’t come across them already: https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/ They do good work and their education resources are universal and useful.


We'd love to know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.