If you invite Death into a song about Love, choose your sound carefully, to keep Death in its place. A regular, reassuring, constant heartbeat of guitar and drums. A hint of melancholy in the A minor scale. And the words? Warm, round ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘y’ and ‘b’ sounds. No sharp cuts of ‘k’, ‘tt‘ or ‘ss’. No heavy ‘d’. Light words, layered with the lalala of summertime and love:
House music asks a lot of a singer. Each word is a beat with feeling, a flavoured note of music. In English, it’s not usual to expect individual syllables to carry such Japanese haiku levels of vivid economy. The challenge, for a House/Deep House vocalist, is to flesh out the bones without disrupting the beat. It’s a precision art.
How do you avoid sounding like a woodpecker, when lyrics are mainly one-syllable sounds, closely backed by drum machine beats?
Preparation. Before you watch Kah-Lo infuse the tiny word ‘now’ with ultra-cool in Riton‘s Rinse and Repeat, try saying the English phrase “But it’s how I look now” out loud. Which words did you emphasise? I’d guess you emphasised now. Not but and not look. But it’s how I look now isn’t natural English. Or is it? Kah-Lo makes it so:
A happy word sung sadly is sadder than a sad word sung sadly. Song titles like The Weeping Song or Broken Dream give us fair warning. We’re ready for a story of hope crushed by time or tragedy. The singer can deepen what we already expect, but they can’t turn our expectation upside-down. A Broken Dream can’t be fixed in a song Weeping can’t disguise itself as laughter. Sad words are sad words.
But what do you expect from a song called Cartwheels? Joy and spontaneous exuberance? The innocent, happy whirl of love’s first days or weeks? Watch Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas sing the word cartwheels into sorrow. How? Listen for the catch in the voice on the ar of cartwheels. It throws a shadow on shared memory of carefree love:
Which word feels more uncomfortable in English – gritty or kitty?
If I assured you that a gritty was as soft as a kitty, your brain would need to come up with something like this:
Where is the discomfort in gritty? It’s in the clogged sound of the guttural gr. That gr is heavy enough to force the tt into a solid lump that squashes all the air out of the y. You don’t need to know the word gritty in English to ‘get’ it. The shape of the sound does all the work. Perfect for another uncomfortable summer’s day in the middle of New York City.
The k of kitty is a light, quick touch. A puff of air. It skips onto the tt and bounces up and away into the floating vowel sound of its y. Perfect for a city night that cools and expands into unlimited opportunity and excitement.
And city? With its smooth c beginning, city can sound heavy or light, oppressive or liberating, hot or cool. City slides between feelings, depending on how you shape it to sing it. The central vowel can be stretched and filled with emotion. Think of Stevie Wonder and Living for the City.
Sing city abruptly and it suits a sweaty, hothouse atmosphere. Slow and expand its vowels, especially the y and hear the word lighten and spread to float up into the cool night. It can all happen within the same song. City will do whatever you want.
Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City plays with the hot/cold possibilities of the word city, with real traffic sounds (a la Gershwin) and with the surreal fun of being trapped miming to your own song with your braces on backwards:
People throw themselves into Dem Bones with such enthusiasm because it feels like pure rebellion. We all carry a schoolteacher voice in our heads. Each time we sing dem, the teacher voice squeals those. But the music takes us by the hand and leads us out of earshot. You can sing dem bones, you can sing them bones, but the music just won’t allow you to sing those bones. The music’s right, the teacher’s wrong. The world turned upside down.