When a man who’s spent his whole musical life trapped behind a guitar steps free onto a large stage:
When you invite Death into a love song, how do you keep your audience sensing eternity, not endings? You build a regular, reassuring heartbeat of guitar and drums, with a hint of melancholy in the A minor scale. You use words with warm, round ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘y’ and ‘b’ sounds. No guillotine cuts of ‘k’, ‘tt‘ or ‘ss’. No heavy, dead thuds of ‘d’ or ‘ug’. Light words, sung lightly, layered with the lalala of summertime. Death becomes a fact, not a fear; a natural part of life 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: