When you sing, you’re telling a story. Like any good actor, you need to believe the words as they come out of your mouth; to choose them. No matter who wrote them.
Watch Françoise Hardy switch from ‘young female guest’ on Sacha Distel‘s TV show to ‘woman in love’. We believe her as she starts to sing. Why? Because she believes herself. You can see her refocus and prepare in the video. Watch her pupils get bigger, then smaller, around 14 seconds in, as she prepares to sing Frank Gérald‘s words:
“After all the years of hearing the song misinterpreted and played backwards and all of that nonsense, I never thought someone would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘And by the way, that was a lovely piece – and to prove it here’s another way of looking at it.” Robert Plant
If you’re thinking of writing a song in English, choose words for their shape as well as their meaning. Meaning can float in the air (“I am the Walrus?”)but the shape of English words in song must align with the feeling of your music.
Think of Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Sadness. From the title to the chorus it’s a masterful mix of sound shapes. Summertime: soft, warm and measureless. Sadness: deep and hazy. Together, each intensifies the other. I’ve chosen Miley Cyrus’ cover version, from BBC Live Lounge. You can see how Miley shapes her mouth and where she breathes, to allow each word its languorous character:
You can’t un-remember the shape of lines in famous songs. Try to say “I did it my way” without drifting into Frank Sinatra mode. When you find yourself pausing for a moment after “it“, you’re answering to Frank, not English punctuation. There is no comma. Your memory of the ‘right’ way, Frank’s way, shapes your mouth and your breath.
William Shatner tries, valiantly, to reshape the words of Rocket Man; to give them a conversational feel. But the memory of Elton John’s original tugs William towards it, especially once the music starts up around him. Memory shapes mind. Mind shapes the mouth: