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05.07.2023 The Singer's Paradox
I just heard ice cream truck music! It must be summer, or close to it. What’s your favourite summer treat? My all-time favourite popsicle is the Bomb Pop, or Firecracker as they are called in Canada. Actually, BOMB POP! would be a good name for a new sub-genre of pop music. Are you more of a popsicle or an ice cream person? If we’re talking ice creams, I always go for the fun-time carnival flavours; bubble gum, mint, and cotton candy. All those flavours make up a tasty, tasty rainbow. But enough of the sweet talk!
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We had some amazing days in the studio this week. I recorded vocals for a new song that has the same name as this journal—Daydream Trash. Kendall came by the studio yesterday to add some brilliant guitar parts and backing vocals too. I’m quite excited for you to hear it.
Here’s a preview of the lyrics from the first verse:
Daydream Trash a hundred in the shade reading Ellis by the pool a part-time rebel with nothing left to prove you say, Saturn's returning to set you straight paradise is fleeting and we're fashionably late
For me (and many vocalists), recording vocals in the studio can go one of two ways without much grey area: easy breezy CoverGirl or emotional apocalypse. When it’s easy, I feel unstoppable—achievement unlocked! 100 emoji! When it’s difficult, it’s like Atreyu and Artax in the Swamp of Sadness (see: The NeverEnding Story, 1984). This is the contradiction of singing: it’s straight-forward but puzzling, empowering but soul crushing, tedious but terrifying, blessed and cursed. Adding to the paradox, I love performing on stage. Even though the stakes seem higher in public, I feel quite comfortable up there—it’s the studio that hexes me from time to time. I know what you’re thinking, it’s not such a big deal, just sing right? Sigh… I wish it were that simple (for me).
The studio is a magic place. We craft songs out of thin air. It’s fun, and a little witchy. Even so, I sometimes feel my stress level activated as soon as the door shuts behind me. The mere mention of the ‘studio’ can awaken my nerves. My heart rate rises, my breathing shallow, my voice frail. Quicksand in the Swamp of Sadness. All of these autonomic reactions are bad news for a singer, because it shuts down your agency, your confidence, and the ability to connect with your voice. We all want to succeed and do well, which is normal, but getting worked up about the result before you even begin will only sink you faster. I can feel it all happening in slow-motion: I’m getting in my own way, again. When I feel myself going dark, it’s difficult to reverse direction. It usually ends in tears. It seems I sing, not only better, but pretty much perfect after a good cry, which I detest, because arriving at that outcome is no fun at all. Why can’t I just sing easy like I was born to do? Ah there it is, the ghoul haunting the vocal booth. As Taylor Swift sings: I’m the problem, it’s me.
Singing is a unique skill in music. Give a pianist something to play, and they’ll have ‘feel’ which sets them apart from other piano-playing but all the notes will be in tune, no matter how studied the player. Well, singing is not like this at all, you can’t delegate any task. Your body is the instrument; a little dusty, and varying day to day in condition, so you have to manage all the passive things a piano does for you and more. Singers juggle a broad set of technical skills like breath, volume, placement, tone, pitch, rhythm, all at once, while apparently staying relaxed and elastic like Gumby. You have to take care of yourself too; hydrate, exercise, rest, stretch. Smoking and alcohol are major no-nos. Your voice is the vintage car of music, cool, stylish, but in constant need of maintenance. Singing is definitely physical, but maybe most of all: psychological. Even if you are trained in body and mind, your hard won technical skills will constantly fluctuate due to how you’re feeling. It’s scary, but also kind of thrilling, like getting your pants ripped off while skydiving. There will be breakthroughs. It will be encouraging and defeating in equal measure. Got nerves? Get ready for pitch issues. Tension? Your tone sucks. Didn’t rehearse that difficult part enough? Here comes a faceplant. Singing never sleeps, it’s a moving target.
So, what can we do when it’s challenging? The nervous system deals with stress in a way that affects singing adversely, so sometimes we have use Jedi mind tricks. Lately I’ve been doing an exercise that my vocal coach gave me which is called THE FLAIL:
Take your power back by standing up, and moving around. Literally flail your arms, shake your legs, say fuck you to music, your inner critic, your producer, and the universe. Emerge from your personal hellscape. Do air punches, uppercuts, Van Halen high kicks. Do this for 2 mins without stopping. Give yourself a second to catch your breath, and then get back to singing. The idea is give your nervous system a distraction from the task at hand. It works really well.
Listeners connect with singing most because of the unique tonal personality and expression from musician to musician. The kind of carefree, naked realness that makes singing complex and difficult is the exact thing that listeners love about music. There’s a sweet spot where all the distractions fall away. When we’re there, singing is the easiest thing in the world. It’s like breathing, you don’t even have to think about it.
Thanks for being here. It’s Sunday so why don’t you treat yourself to an ice cream (sundae)? Enjoy your weekend. Until next time. XO