Masterful singing from multilingual songwriter Mabel. Listen to the subtle difference she sings into the phrase ‘don’t call me up’, which appears 11 times in the song. You’ll only hear the final ‘p’ as a strong, stand-out sound twice, when ‘don’t call me up’ is a command – at the beginning and end of the song . The other 9 times, ‘don’t call me up’ is an exasperated ‘for goodness sake, stop’. Mabel’s voice control and her music make us feels the difference:
Watch Mabel’s lips as she sings live, and you can see her moderating the force that she gives to the final ‘p’ of ‘Call Me Up’. She changes the force of the sound as the song develops. The very first time Mabel sings the phrase, ‘Don’t Call Me Up’, she puts power into the explosive sound of the p to make the first message of the song clear and strong. To her ex and to us, her audience. The music supports her message. Everything stops – the only sound we hear is her voice, telling her ex, loud and clear, to stop bothering her.
At the beginning of the song’s story, Mabel’s ‘faking it till she makes it’. She’s ‘trying’ to have a good time. By the end of the song, she’s made it. The final ‘don’t call me up’ is certain, clear and strong.
The message shifts as the song moves along. Mabel begins to sing about herself and her enjoyment of freedom and singledom, with her good friends around her. By the second time she sings ‘don’t call me up’, her energy isn’t on her ex, she’s turned it towards herself. She changes the way she sings ‘up’, softening the final ‘p’. This time her words are accompanied by music, not silence. The final ‘p’ is muffled by a drum beat. Mabel’s words and her music weave together to make her ex-boyfriend’s repeated phone calls seem tedious, rather than an expression of desperate, misunderstood, romantic love. That’s important – otherwise we might expect a reconciliation at the end of the song. Mabel wants us with her, not distracted.
Mabel’s message is clear – not just from the way she sings that p, but in the way she luxuriates over the words that describe her new, active, happy life. In the live video, her smile says it all:
The very last time Mabel sings ‘Don’t call me up’ she returns to the strong p of up. The drum beat has disappeared and we just hear Mabel’s voice. She sounds certain and strong.
If you’re going to cover Don’t Call Me Up, don’t sing up exactly the same throughout. The drum beat will help to muffle the p, but it’s your intention that will change the sound most. At the beginning and the end of the song, you’re giving a clear message to your ex: “Stop phoning me”. In the middle of the song, you’re singing about yourself and your joy in your freedom. You’re celebrating your own decision to end the relationship. There’s a smile in your voice.
If you sing the phrase ‘don’t call me up’ exactly the same throughout the song, it will sound boring and repetitive. The words will fight with the meaning of the song: ‘without you, boy, I’m stronger’.
If you’re writing a song in English and you want to future-proof its meaning, it’s wise to do as Mabel does, and make the music support your message. In Don’t Call Me Up, the muffling drumbeat helps protect the song from boring, woodpecker-level 11 times repetition of ‘don’t call me up’. There are only two points, at the beginning and end of the song, when the drum beat vanishes, to let the meaning shine out, un-muffled, bright and clear. Brighter if the singer takes the opportunity to load the ‘p’ of ‘up’ with certainty and power.
Why repeat don’t call me up if it’s not necessary throughout? It is necessary. Without the punctuation of ‘don’t call me up’ the song would turn into a long list of nice, but rather vague, things that Mabel’s doing at night. And that wouldn’t be interesting. The repetition of don’t call me up reminds us of why Mabel’s ‘going out tonight’ is an active, positive choice, rather than just what you’d expect any young person to do at the weekend.
The song starts with Mabel “trying” to have a good time. As the song goes on, it’s obvious that she’s not having to try any more. It’s the ex-boyfriend who’s trying, and failing, to get her back.
Mabel wrote Don’t Call Me Up with Camille Purcell and Steve Mac. I imagine that collaboration helped to finesse the lyrics and the music. When you’re a songwriter working alone, rather than in a group of musicians, extra ears are always useful.
Two years ago, Mable speaks about her beginnings. It’s inspiring, especially if you’re just starting out yourself:
© Sing Better English 2019