You pick up your mother tongue through love and listening. You pick up your singing voice in the same way:
When you sing, you’re telling a story. Like a good actor, you need to believe the words that 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. Watch her pupils get bigger, then smaller, around 14 seconds in:
When you sing in English, to an audience that isn’t fluent in the language, you can’t rely on the exact meaning of the words to carry the weight of the song for you. You need to weave meaning into the sounds you sing. Each syllable of sound is a thread of colour in the tapestry of your song, for you to highlight or to hide. For the benefit of that single audience member who doesn’t speak English, or for the whole audience if your microphone’s not as good as it should be.
Watch Oum, blending soul and jazz with her own gnawa and sahrawi traditions, to beautiful effect. You don’t need to understand the words to ‘understand’ the song. So, without the ‘meaning’, where is the meaning? I’d say that some of it is in the way Oum extends her vowel sounds until they float away, like smoke:
How to cover a famous English song like Can’t Get No Satisfaction and make it your own? It’s Mick Jagger’s voice that your audience will hear, as the opening chords set their memories alight.
Do a tango version or sing it as a waltz; it doesn’t matter. Your audience have Mick in their ears. What if you snatch just one tiny word from the chorus and shake it out of Mick’s reach?
When you’re singing in English, you’ll often come across songs with slant rhymes. When a songwriter plays with sounds, you need to join the game. If you stay with the ‘classic’ pronunciation of English words, you’ll sound wooden and odd; bend too far and you’ll sound odder. Unusual sound rhymes, done well, are a treat for the listener.
For native English speakers, it’s natural and easy to play with the sound of words, while still sounding recognisably English. If English isn’t your first language: be careful not to overcompensate when you pull two words that don’t usually rhyme into a slant/half rhyme. It’s a question of hinting and shading. Think of feathers, not mallets.
Watch Nerina Pallot playing with the words up and stop in her song Put Your hands Up. Without her help, only the p would rhyme. Does she sing up exactly the same every time? And, for extra points – how does she squeeze her North London football club into her video?