When you read or imagine a word, you create a physical shape and a ‘feeling’ for it, in your mind. You adapt the shape and the feeling, depending on the situation. Heart holds one meaning in the mind of a surgeon while she’s at work in the operating theatre and quite another while she’s at home reading love poetry to her wife.
When you sing, the way you feel about a word shapes your mouth. Your mind controls the amount of breath you use, measuring each word’s importance, and making it physical. The shaping of words begins in your mind and carries your imagination into the mind of your audience. Every little thing you do with your body while you sing communicates how you feel about what you’re singing.
Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens brings the music and the words of her song Tilted into clear physical focus:
When you sing a new song in English, it’s a good idea to get a physical feel for the sound of the words. Dance or walk the lyrics into the beat. Find out where and how they intertwine.
Remember Evelyn Glennie‘s Ted talk here about involving every single part of your body, when you want to truly ‘hear’ music.
For example, in Tilted, the hard c, p, t and d consonants provide a percussive rhythm in “Can’t help it if we’re tilted. Once you notice the physical importance of those crisp consonants, you’ll remember to pronounce them sharply, as if they were the taps on your tap shoes. You’ll feel the soft n, w, r, h and l consonants slide between the vowel sounds that swoop between the fixed points of the hard consonants.
Walk the lyrics and they will become a physical reality to you when you sing them.
Walking the words helps you pace yourself as you sing. It stops you rushing or worrying. The words will fit. They were written to fit. When you walk, you can feel the important t beats, and suddenly, between the beats, you have space to sing it if without stumbling.
Walking the beat stops you singing help or we’re too strongly or too quietly. In Tilted, help and we’re move you between the beats, clearly and smoothly. The idiom can’t help it runs together in a stream of sound and meaning. As in a phrasal verb, the verb help takes its place in the chorus line, between can’t and it. Each word in the idiom links to the others. Otherwise its meaning is lost.
If English isn’t your native language – be careful to give it the weight it needs in this song. It’s a common mistake for non-native singers to swallow impersonal pronouns like it. If you don’t have impersonal pronouns like it in your mother tongue, take special care with them when you sing in English.
We’re steps up into prime position when the songwriter needs it to encompass and strengthen a group dynamic:
All words have a chance to shine in song. To step forward into the spotlight or fade into the chorus. Songwriters imagine and singers decide. The music helps them decide well.
The meaning is in the sound and behind the sound. Meaning creates sound and the sound of words reminds you of subtleties in the songwriter’s thought process. Why did Héloïse choose tilted, rather than sloped, wonky, pitched or slanted?
Tilted is a wonderfully lyrical word. It rises and falls in the mouth. The slight droop of the l sound as it leans up against the clipped central t gives the word a slightly wonky aspect. A limp.
It was a conscious choice. Héloïse was translating from her French original, where the line is Ça/Je ne tiens pas debout, with its own percussive pattern. As she puts it in this Time interview:
“I was searching for lots of images or words that could fit, and I just stumbled upon this word, to tilt or be tilted, and I was exactly trying to find this image. It’s literally talking about not finding your balance with a playful image.”
Which brings me to Ian McKellen, some 20 years before his Gandalf days, speaking about Macbeth and the importance of understanding a writer’s choices if you plan to embody their words. He’s speaking about Shakespeare, but the process he describes works just as well for song:
And here’s the result:
The hard work is invisible. The words come out of Ian’s mouth as if he’d formed them, in that moment, in his own mind.
Just as Ian, in that moment, is Shakespeare, Macbeth and Ian McKellen, all at once, when you sing somebody else’s song, or your own song written years ago in a different frame of mind, you need to embody the words. Make them yours, weave them into the music. Walk or dance them into life.
As Héloïse puts it, in her Time interview:
“I can’t really sing this song without dancing now because my feet just have to do the same thing as the words. It’s really a song that exists with this choreography, and I love doing it because, again, it’s about really dancing on my problem. It felt good.”
In French, and in English.
© Sing Better English, 2016