Naked At The Albert Hall By Tracey Thorn: Book Review
Why do we love someone's singing voice?
What assumptions do we make about someone because of how they sing?
In her new book, Tracey Thorn explores the "mixed blessing" that is singing, from stage fright to stage presence, and from the magic of Dusty Springfield to the politics of The X Factor.
Interviews with Alison Moyet and Romy from The XX, and musings on Elvis Costello, Adele and The Streets, are woven into Tracey's own singing journey from bedroom to backing singer to taking centre stage in front of thousands.
Our advice: have your Spotify account at the ready.
Naked At The Albert Hall By Tracey Thorn: Book Extract
We love singing, don’t we? Both doing it and listening to it. We sing when we’re happy and celebrating – ‘Happy Birthday to You’ – and we sing when we’re down, in an attempt to keep our spirits up. We sing when we’re bored, to try and make the time pass faster – silly songs on coach trips, repetitive songs on long walks. Like whistling in the dark, we all sing together sometimes when we’re afraid, soldiers marching in unison to ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’; and we choose songs to make light of things that are unutterably gloomy – I’m reminded of the end of the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, when Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman) leads her orphans over the mountains and to safety, all bravely singing, ‘This old man, he played one, he played knick-knack on my thumb . . . ’
We sing to elevate sporting events – ‘Abide with Me’, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’; we sing when we’re winning – ‘We’re on our way to Wembley’; and when we’re losing, others remark on our silence by singing themselves – ‘You’re not singing any more’. We sing all together on the dancefloor, even if you can’t hear us, and after a few drinks we’ll get up with a karaoke microphone and sing so you can hear us. At big concerts we sing along en masse, and we like nothing better than being given the chance to join in a call-and-response with our heroes on stage, echoing them, copying phrases they give us.
We sing at serious occasions, too; in church, at weddings, christenings, funerals. We form choirs, to sing either hymns and classical pieces, or vocal arrangements of rock songs. We’re encouraged nowadays to join in, whether or not we feel we can ‘really sing’. It’s good for us, apparently; a recently published piece of research suggests that, like meditation, singing has a relaxing effect on the body, lowering blood pressure and thus helping us along the path to a longer, healthier life. Another study claims that singing exercises could strengthen the throat muscles and somehow ease snoring. And it’s ‘good’ for us too: morally uplifting, an improving activity. Classical music has been linked with ideas of morality since the eighteenth century, and the teaching of singing became at least in part an exercise in fostering good behaviour. ‘Music as morality and singing as discipline were at the very root of Victorian church music’, writes John Potter in his book Vocal Authority, and singing became an important part of infant school education. Along with jam-making, the Women’s Institute became famous for its communal singing of ‘Jerusalem’ at meetings. A bit self-important, a bit goody-goody, it was what put my mum off for life the first time she went. Unable to take seriously the sight of a group of housewives solemnly intoning William Blake’s hymn, she got a fit of the giggles, and never returned.
And yet, despite the fact that we do it all the time, when people are asked what talent they would most like to have, they often answer that they wish they could sing. It’s a shared dream, a fantasy talent. A skill, like being able to speak another language, or paint, which we feel would free us, define us, make us more entertaining and interesting, and more able to express ourselves. We elevate singing above many other activities, often endowing it with an almost religious significance, and believe that both in singing, and in listening to others sing, we can experience something transcendent. So we mythologise and romanticise singing and singers, seeming to hold it up as a skill both more difficult and rarer than it actually is – talent show auditions reveal that in fact quite a lot of people can sing; it’s not as unique as we tend to assume. This elevation of singing is a romantic notion, and can be flattering – if you happen to be a singer – yet also strangely reductive. When we regard singing as an instinctive and wholly emotional act, we narrow down our understanding of what it is and what singers are. If we think of it as simply a primal outpouring of feeling, then we miss the elements of conscious control and decision-making that go into singing, and which can make the difference between boring singing and interesting singing. I don’t mean to deny the emotional aspect, but what I do often find myself pointing out is: there’s more thinking in singing than you might think.
These are the thoughts that have led me to write this book. It’s not intended to be Part Two of my memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, in which I described much of my career in music, but it is connected. In writing an autobiography there is inevitably a certain amount that gets left out. You have to settle on a tone of voice, and a stance, in order to avoid merely compiling a long list of things that happened; and with Bedsit Disco Queen, my chosen stance was all to do with my attempts to make myself fit in a world – the music business – which I more or less stumbled into. It was a book about ambivalence, and the quest for personal identity; about love of music and awkwardness with music; about fame and strangeness and the attempt to cling to some kind of normality. What it wasn’t, particularly, was a book about being a singer, and after I’d written it some people asked me why I hadn’t said much about singing – in places skating over the very aspect of my life that has publicly defined me, and often referring only in passing to how I feel about singing and what it means to me. I left certain details out, because I wanted to write a book that was pacy, and funny, and kept moving forward, and had moments of introspection without getting bogged down in them. But having written that book, I feel that I can step back and slow down, and take a longer look at some of the thoughts that I filed away in a corner of my mind, hoping to come back to them later. Some of the things I want to say in this book are almost footnotes to Bedsit Disco Queen, or digressions on subjects that it briefly alighted on. Conversations that I half started, or alluded to, but raced past without finishing. Or thoughts that only occurred to me later.
This book might seem personal and idiosyncratic, but that’s because it’s not a journalist’s investigative exploration of the story of singing, or an academic’s all-inclusive encyclopedia. It’s more a compendium of insights which I haven’t often seen recorded or discussed; alternative takes on aspects of singing which are taken for granted. The fact, for instance, that as the person doing the singing, you can drift towards feeling resentful of the idea that you are simply in possession of a natural gift, and that there is an artlessness to the occupation you are known for. Singing is a physical activity as much as an emotional one, and though the sound is produced in the very core of your body – from the lungs, right next to the heart – the brain is always involved too. Decisions are being made all the time, ones which require attention and focus – settling on the range in which you’re going to sing, which part of your voice you’re going to use, your pronunciation, accent, inflection, sense of rhythm, volume, dynamics . . . These are constants – ongoing operational decisions which may feel instinctive, or become second nature through practice and habit, but which are nonetheless mental and intellectual activities, not simply happy accidents. There are technical choices, too, involving microphones and headphones, setting up volume and balance, and moving in and out from the microphone to alter the sound. All these things have an effect on performance. And the question of ‘taste’ – not only in what songs to sing, but how to sing them – brings an aesthetic consciousness to the process of singing. Again, this is a mental process, not a mere outrush of emotion.
I don’t often hear people say these kinds of things about singing, so this book will, in part, be an insider’s view, an uncovering of secrets about singing, things that are known only to those who have sung for their supper. However, since I’m writing from both sides of the fence, as a listener as well as a singer, I want to include my point of view as an enthusiast, talking about voices I love, trying to get inside them. I’m writing as a book-lover, too, drawn to those points where my love of singing and my love of literature overlap; where novels or poems articulate deeper truths about singing, and its significance. There are characters in fiction who embody different aspects of the singer’s role and life, and I want to look at them as a way of exploring the singer as a symbol, as well as a living, breathing human being.
With all these goals, and my wish to hang onto a very personal viewpoint, I’m aware that this book will be neither chronological, like a memoir, nor will it follow the arc of an argument. I have no particular point to prove, or specific conclusion to reach. I plan to follow stories that particularly interest me, wherever they may lead; sometimes one idea may lead to another, sometimes a new train of thought might interpose itself. There’ll be a playful element to some of it, as I make what might seem to be fanciful connections between apparently unlikely things: a lyric by The Streets leading me to a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, or a Franz Kafka short story making me think of Vashti Bunyan.
But I will also talk about my own singing and how I feel about it; about books and talent shows, microphones and Auto-Tune; about the debate between artifice and authenticity. I will ask a few other singers what they think, and try to work out what it is we want from them – and whether it is anything they can possibly provide. When we talk or write about singers, what do we say? And how much do we really understand what it feels like to be a singer? We love listening to singers, and sometimes we dream of being one ourselves, so we assume that it must be an uncomplicated source of fulfilment and joy to sing for a living. And yet, having been a singer for most of my adult life, and having read many biographies of singers I love, I’m all too aware that this isn’t always the case; that singers can be bundles of neuroses, tormented by anxiety about their vocal inadequacy, fears about losing their voice, about it failing them – or, equally, about it defining them too much, at the cost of their personality. Being loved for your voice can be great, but it leads to the question: does anybody love me for myself ?
For you may feel that you’re nothing special. That in fact, you’re a bit of a bore. And it may be that, if you tell a joke, we’ve probably heard it before. But if you have a talent, and everyone listens when you start to sing, is that really nothing more complicated than ‘a wonderful thing’? Or is it perhaps more of a mixed blessing, and one that should come with a clear warning sign: ‘This way danger lies’?
I don’t do nostalgia gigs. And by that, I don’t just mean I don’t perform them, I mean I don’t attend them either. I don’t believe in them. I really don’t want them. For one thing, they make me feel old in a way that it is wholly unhelpful and destructive. I don’t mind being the age I am – I’ve reached a level of achievement I’m happy with, I enjoy my daily routines, I feel comfortable in my own skin. I don’t long to be eighteen again, or twenty-five, and it was between those ages that I experienced most of my gig-going high points. So going to a gig to watch a band I loved years back, playing an album I loved at the time, just seems masochistic – nothing more than an exercise in pointing out to yourself that it was all a long time ago, that they’re old and we’re old, and all of it is over. Which isn’t really what I believe. The great things about that record you loved, they’re not over. You carry them with you, they’ve shaped you, they’re part of you. As my old friend Peter Walsh, from Australian group The Apartments, never tires of quoting at me, ‘The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past’ (William Faulkner), and this is precisely why I don’t feel any need to have my nose rubbed in a musical history which has never really left me.
And yet. Here I am, it’s June 2005, and I’m in a seat at the Royal Festival Hall. I’ve broken my own rule and come to a nostalgia gig, a performance of a seminal album. I’ve bought the ticket and I’m here, and now, in truth, I’m excited, getting in the mood. It won’t be as bad as you fear, I reassure myself. Come on, it might be good, you might enjoy it. Relax.
The lights dim. Onto the stage walks the singer. She’s wearing the jacket from the cover of the album, and that’s good. She looks older, sure, unashamedly older, and that’s good too. Of all people I would have hated her to buy into a desperate chasing of eternal youth – nipping here, tucking there. Now she’s appeared I’m feeling a frisson of proper excitement. Maybe I’m going to be completely won over after all. The piano line starts up – and yes, it’s true, it sounds exactly right. In she comes, with that opening line, maybe the best opening line ever, and suddenly – without me even knowing how I got out of my seat – I’m on my feet, my arms are in the air, I think there may even be tears in my eyes. And more than that, I’m transported, I’m whirling through the air, through time and space, and I’m back in my little orange-painted bedroom at home, and I’m tipping the album out of its sleeve and slipping it onto the spindle of the blue Dansette I inherited from my brother, and she’s singing that opening line. And the line is ... And the line is ...
‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.’
When did you know you could sing? people ask me. How did you even start? Where does your voice come from, is it from inside your head or inside your body? It’s not like other musical instruments, is it, and because of this there are aspects of what we sound like which will be for ever out of our control. The moment when we first encounter the sound that comes out of our own body can be a profound and decisive one. I’ve written before that it was a disappointment to me when I realised I wouldn’t be Patti Smith, but that was a little way off in the future when I first heard her in 1979. The introduction was made by Mike Harris from down the road, who’d lent me her album Horses, along with Stiff Records’ The Akron Compilation in a scratch ’n’ sniff sleeve smelling of rubber. My first reaction to Patti was one of possibility. I wanted to be her because a) on the cover of the record she looked like a boy, and I felt that I pretty much looked like a boy, and she made looking like a boy seem a beautiful thing; and b) the first time I tried to sing along with those opening lines on Horses, I realised in fact that I could sound like her. I was sixteen, the idea of singing had barely entered my head, and yet somewhere inside me vague imaginings, unformed desires, were beginning to stir and take shape.
That record’s opening lines, from her version of ‘Gloria’, have now passed into rock mythology, but I can still recall the visceral jolt of hearing them for the first time. And not just the audacity of the words, the defiant sneer, but the tone of the voice – worldly, dismissive – and beyond even that, the pitch of the voice. Low, dark, boyish, it existed in a space that seemed familiar, and contained echoes of the sound I was tentatively exploring in the privacy of my bed- room. Joining in with her I found that we did indeed occupy the same ground, and without knowing how or why I had an immediate sense of my voice ‘fitting’. Imagining this to be an entirely conceptual ‘fit’, I of course believed that I sounded a bit like Patti Smith because we were alike, it was a metaphysical connection being made. And in doing so I fell into the first and most basic misconception about vocal influence and inspiration – the idea that it transcends the physical. Now, I believe that the reason she implanted herself into my imagination as my first vocal influence was the simple accident of vocal range; the fact that in that first song I heard her sing, ‘Gloria’, she comes in on a low E, the E below middle C, and for the rest of the song moves around within the space between this E and the one an octave above. My perfect, ideal range. Still the place I most like to sing.
I’d sung along with pop records before, of course I had. But never before had one demonstrated to me the perfect place for my voice to be. So when I talk about my lack of stage presence and self-confidence, and in doing so imply there’s something almost ridiculous in my wanting to be Patti Smith, maybe I’m in danger of forgetting this ultimate truth – that at the very moment I was beginning to experiment with the idea of singing, I heard a singer embodying in one six-minute song a version of myself both simplified – a black and white version with no grey areas – and amplified.
Almost the entire Horses album is pitched perfectly for me, as I discovered during the evenings that followed this epiphany. My parents would take the dog out for a daily walk, leaving me with fifteen luxurious minutes of solitude in which I would sing along at full volume with various tracks. ‘Kimberly’, for instance, with its melody that lingers and hovers around the note B, slap bang in the middle of my range, where my voice is at its strongest and fullest. Joining in with Patti on these songs was a joyous experience, utterly secret, something I shared with nobody. The basic physical coincidence of our vocal ranges connected us not just ideologically, but physiologically.Next chapter
If you talk about the voice as being a musical instrument, you can make it sound like something tangible. In his book Vocal Authority, John Potter describes it, in mechanical terms, as being made up of three elements: ‘a power supply (the lungs), an oscillator (the cords, or vocal folds as they are sometimes called), and a resonator (the vocal tract, consisting of the mouth and throat cavities)’. The lungs propel air, which passes through the vocal cords, making them vibrate and producing the sound we use for either speaking or singing. But unlike any other instrument, these components are your own actual body parts, and the sound you make is both defined and limited by your anatomy. As an instrumentalist you might practise and adapt your technique in order to follow the style and sound of players you like, and you might then call this influence. But as a singer there is only so much you can ever do to adapt the sound of your voice to emulate other singers. We label as inspirational those singers we happen to sound like. We feel a kinship with those whose sound lives somewhere close to our own, or at least seems to come from a similar neighbourhood.
It’s also true that we can be negatively influenced by people, or strain to avoid taking on too strongly the imprint of another, for fear of drifting into mere imitation and un- originality. Bob Dylan talks in his book, Chronicles, about how intimidated he could be in the early days by hearing others who seemed more authentic than him, and how inadequate that could make him feel. He’d been learning and playing all of Woody Guthrie’s songs, and feeling pretty good about himself as a singer of these songs, when he suddenly heard the recordings of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who’d been singing the same songs for years. Dylan describes being devastated by this – ‘I felt like I’d been cast into sudden hell’. Far from being inspired by the sound of someone doing what he was trying to do, he felt paralysed, and realised that in fact he would have to run a million miles from the very person it seemed he could learn the most from. All he could do was try to ignore Elliott – ‘It would be hard not to be influenced by the guy I just heard. I’d have to block it out of my mind . . . tell myself I hadn’t heard him and he didn’t exist.’ In other words, influence can sometimes be terrifying – not inspiring at all, but crippling.
When I started, it was more often male singers with whom I connected – Elvis Costello and I shared a lot of range – and a little while later the dark brown tones of Nico’s singing provided another source of influence, or inspiration. In perhaps my favourite line from his recent Autobiography, Morrissey describes Nico thus: ‘Her singing voice is the sound of a body falling downstairs.’ Certainly there’s a downward trajectory to her singing, which reflected my own vocal style. In an early interview with Melody Maker, it was pointed out to me that I must have been influenced by Bridget St John, who in all honesty I had never heard of. Learning that she was a folk singer from the early 1970s, I took umbrage at the comparison and made a conscious effort to avoid finding out anything more about her. Years – no, truthfully, decades – later, I did investigate, and discovered that the distance from her Ask Me No Questions album to my A Distant Shore is only a few short steps. Vocally we are kin. Lyrically we are kin. She must have loved Nico, too, so maybe we both simply took some cues from the same place, but it’s fascinating to come across the singers whom you seem to have been magically influenced by without ever having heard them.
My range was tiny at first; on the earliest recordings I made, with the Marine Girls, I sang only a handful of notes. By the time I came to make A Distant Shore in 1981, only a couple of years after hearing Patti Smith and getting an inkling that I might want to sing, I still hadn’t really learned how to do it properly, so there are moments where it gets a bit ‘pitchy’ – to use modern parlance – but that’s counterbalanced by the complete absorption of the performance. It’s the record where I began to find out for myself what I might sound like, or be able to sound like, and there’s a sensuality to the vocal which is the result of finally having the mic to myself and simply revelling in the experience – all that lovely reverb, all that lovely low vibrato, God I was enjoying myself! I can remember the freedom of the experience; I was on my own for the first time, without the other Marine Girls, and I sang without the inhibition I sometimes felt in their presence. In front of them, I was wary of ‘showing off’, of implying that my singing was better than Alice’s, of indulging myself. But here I was able to admit to myself that I could sing, and so something of my own style and vocal personality was unlocked; the voice that would be recognisably mine came out into the open and declared itself. But whether I found that voice, or invented it, is a question that has always mystified and intrigued me.
It was in many ways a small voice, but it was all mine, and for years I didn’t try very hard to do much with it, either to extend or improve it. My approach was that of the passionate amateur, grateful to find myself in possession of a talent that others valued, never exploring much further beyond the realms of what came easily, or ‘naturally’. Singing live and touring meant that I had to try to sing louder, and build up some endurance, but other than that I remained faithful to the handful of notes which constituted my sound. I couldn’t go very high and it didn’t really occur to me to try, until around 1989 when I began to experiment with my higher head voice, or falsetto, you might call it. I hadn’t ever wanted to use it before, it didn’t sound like ‘me’, and it was startling to hear myself sing outside my range. I used it intermittently from the Everything But The Girl album Worldwide onwards, but only grew into it in a comfortable sense during my resurrected solo career after 2007. My producer Ewan Pearson and I joked during the recording of Out of the Woods and Love and Its Opposite that on those two records I sang the highest notes I had ever reached for in my entire life – these being the highest harmony on ‘don’t tell me it’s too late’ at the end of ‘Raise the Roof ’, and the ‘sun in your hair’ line in the middle of ‘Kentish Town’. I needed stepladders to reach them.
It was a very long way from Patti Smith, and not the voice I’d found when I first tried to sing. It must have been there all the time, but hidden away – it needed me to locate it, and then to believe that it sounded OK and have the confidence to use it, before I finally added this bit of range to the notes I had available. I thought that my identity was moored for ever in those first few notes I sang – and to some extent I will always think of that part of my voice as the real me – but still, I’ve learned that although range is both natural and instinctive, it can also involve an element of choice; that extra range can be uncovered, or released, or simply willed into being. These notes, they all come out of the same body, the source of all the sound we make.
If the sound we make is at least in part determined by anatomy, then which parts, I wonder, might influence the way I sing, and contribute to the way I naturally sound? I’d imagine that strong lungs, an open, relaxed throat and a sense of ease and control in the mouth and jaw would be essential for a singer, or would at least contribute to successful singing. But when I examine myself and my physical history, I realise that I don’t meet these requirements, and that limitations have played a part in the development of my singing and some of the problems I have with it.
First off, I’ve always had weak lungs. Due to an accident at birth, I inhaled fluid and developed pneumonia as a consequence, not a good start for baby lungs. As a child I had a chesty, loose, smoker’s cough every winter, which my mum would dose up with Phensedyl, a medicine which at that time you could buy over the counter but which doctors gradually became more strict about prescribing. She came home one day from the chemist saying she had had to sign the poison book in order to get a new bottle for me, because apparently the local junkies were drinking it on the village green. At that age I had no idea why, though I found out some years later when I glugged back too much of it in a hotel room in Germany while coughing my way through a tour, and spent a hallucinatory afternoon in bed listening to the kettle in the corner of the room talking to me. In my twenties I developed asthma as a result of living with two cats I turned out to be allergic to, and so asthma inhalers were added to the chest complaints section of my medicine cupboard.
The anatomy of the throat – the way in which the larynx and vocal cords are put together – must obviously play a part, too. I had to go for a laryngoscopy a couple of years ago when a small operation, for which I’d required a general anaesthetic, revealed some difficulty during the anaesthetising procedure, possibly an obstruction in my throat. The doctor recommended I get it checked out. This was terrifying, both medically (oh my God an obstruction in my throat obviously a tumour I am dead) and musically (could I have developed some problem with my larynx or vocal cords – polyps, nodules – which might put an end to my singing?). With my throat numbed, the specialist inserted a tiny camera up my nose and down into my throat, declaring within a few minutes that all was normal, and that this was just bloody typical of anaesthetists who, if they ever had a difficult intubation, would immediately refer the patient to a throat specialist, arguing there must be some anatomical problem. Apparently this time there wasn’t – my throat was fine. After all those years of singing, it was the first time anyone had looked at it, so it was a relief to hear this.
And what about the anatomy of the mouth and jaw? Here, too, I have encountered problems, a deviation from what’s considered ‘normal’. When I was a child my dentist noticed that I was developing a pronounced underbite, meaning that my teeth didn’t meet well. He wanted to perform surgery, essentially carving a section out of my lower jawbone and reconstructing my entire jaw, so that my teeth would meet nicely. Mum refused to even countenance the procedure, much to my relief, and it was never mentioned again. Years later, in my twenties, probably, a different dentist asked if I’d ever considered having anything done about my malocclusion. I told him about the suggested childhood operation and he whistled through his teeth. ‘Thank God your mother didn’t agree to that,’ he said. ‘Brutal. We don’t do that nowadays.’ Then he went on to describe the current procedure – a simple case of having my jaw broken and reset. OK, I said, and why would I want to have that done? Well, he said, you’d look different. I didn’t know if I wanted to look different. Would I sound different? I asked. He wasn’t sure. I was, however, sure I didn’t want to sound different. He told me it would be best to have it done before a certain age – thirty-something, was it? I forget now. I went home and let the years drift by until it was hopefully past the point of being possible.
But I can only assume that it all contributes, that every bit of the anatomy involved in producing sound must have an impact on the final quality of that sound. Classical singer Ian Bostridge is the author of a fascinating book called A Singer’s Notebook, in which he describes going to a singing teacher who works with a laryngologist and a physiotherapist to concentrate on the mechanical aspects of singing. He observes: ‘My teacher’s most interesting general point about the vocal mechanism is that, unlike the piano, it is not designed for the purpose with which we most associate it. The primary function of the vocal tract is as one of several lines of defence against choking . . . If I’ve understood him properly, much of what we do as singers, particularly in achieving the high notes that technique facilitates, is actually about persuading the body that one is not about to swallow as one reaches for the skies.’
I love this fact: that, as singers, we are not only working with a mechanism inside our own bodies, but a mechanism that isn’t even really intended to do what we try to make it do. Every effort to produce a beautiful sound is an effort to overcome the limitations of our apparatus. It’s like trying to use a cheese grater or a vacuum cleaner to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?Next chapter
The idea that there might be something remarkable about the physiology of the singer, especially the classical singer, is one that recurs in literature. In Willa Cather’s 1915 novel The Song of the Lark, there is a scene where the singer and protagonist Thea Kronborg is examined physically, her teacher feeling her larynx while she breathes and sings, and she is described as being designed to be a singer – ‘the big mouth, the wide jaw and chin, the strong white teeth, the deep laugh. The machine was so simple and strong, seemed to be so easily operated. She sang from the bottom of herself.’
And again in George du Maurier’s bestselling novel Trilby, when Svengali meets the singer Trilby he examines her like a breeder checking out a racehorse, peering into her open mouth and declaring, ‘The roof of your mouth is like the dome of the Pantheon . . . The entrance to your throat is like the middle porch of St Sulpice . . . and the bridge of your nose is like the belly of a Stradivarius – what a sounding board! And inside your beautiful big chest the lungs are made of leather!’ These descriptions are strikingly architectural and mechanical in their language, as though the singer’s body is a building or a machine – the grander the cathedral, the stronger the machine, the bigger and better the voice. Similarly, in his book about opera and homosexuality, The Queen’s Throat, Wayne Koestenbaum talks about Maria Callas: ‘Walter Legge, who produced many of Callas’s legendary recordings, once peered inside her mouth and remarked that it was shaped like a Gothic cathedral.’
It’s as if there is something out of the ordinary, then, about the mouths and throats of singers. As a singer, it could make you self-conscious to dwell on this thought, and that is the last thing you need; you become very aware of your body, more so than other musicians. While I’m very wary of risking sounding like a comedy mime artist – MY BODY IS MY TOOL – it is a simple truth that unlike other musicians, who use an instrument made of wood, strings, brass or electronic components to make their sound, we have to use something made of tissue, skin and bone. Musicians are famous for the care they take of their instruments – buying first-class airline seats for expensive cellos, for instance, or keeping guitar collections in temperature- and humidity-controlled environments – but for singers the equivalent is to lavish fastidious care on the body itself, to a degree which can become tiresome and restrictive. Classical singers take it for granted that rest and quiet are an essential part of touring, whiling away their days gently cosseting their voices and indulging in anxieties and neuroses which are seen as a natural and serious part of their job. The rock singer is supposed to be above all this, to devote more energy to shouting, drinking and hotel-trashing, but it is an unacknowledged fact that not all singers outside the classical realm can afford to play fast and loose with their voices in a Led Zeppelin-like manner. The amplified rock/pop voice can be as hard to maintain, requiring similarly dull regimes of conversation- avoidance, herbal teas and early nights. The anxieties induced by colds and upper respiratory tract infections mean that singers can become preoccupied by the state of the ear, nose and throat areas, and the presence or otherwise of that basic bodily substance, phlegm. Phlegm is an absolute nuisance to the singer, present – as for most people – in greater quantities in the morning, and makes early performances, for instance on breakfast TV shows, something of a throat-clearing nightmare, to be avoided whenever possible. Eating also causes phlegm to be produced, and so meals before a gig are troublesome. On tour, the structure of the day usually means that arrival at the venue will be followed by a soundcheck, leaving an hour or two before the show in which to eat and get ready. But that is already too close to showtime to eat a meal, and so often – like many singers, I suspect – I would choose not to eat much at this time of the day. Later, there would be sandwiches at the hotel, or a bumper bag of crisps on the tour bus; no proper food, no fruit or vegetables. And then we wonder why we fall prey to colds and respiratory tract infections.
Recently I asked Romy Madley Croft, singer with the xx, about being on tour, and was relieved when it transpired that she was the same as me – perhaps the same as all of us singers. ‘I used to struggle with constantly having a sore throat on tour,’ she said. ‘This might be too much information but I realised it came from exposure to lots of air conditioning, getting a blocked nose and that leading to me breathing through my mouth when I slept, giving me a dry throat. My only singing-on-tour tip is taking decongestant spray with me.’ See? We’re all frustrated ear, nose and throat specialists.
Talking can become a problem, too, especially if, as I believe many people do, you talk less from the diaphragm, like Shakespearean actors, and more from the throat. A lot of talking can tire and strain the voice, yet tours are often accompanied by non-stop promotional activities and interviews. I have always found speaking on the phone especially problematic – something about the fact of not being able to see the other person forces you into a greater degree of voice projection and tension. An afternoon of face-to-face or phone interviews could be disastrous, and eventually these were things I backed away from. At times when my voice was really struggling, I would avoid all talking, spending the day solitary and silent, reading and looking out of the window, nursing medicinal teas, pacing wordlessly in the dressing room rather than socialising and enjoying the build-up to a gig.
All these physical issues are impossible to suppress completely; they just have to be worked around. And they ensure that singers are neurotic about certain tiny aspects of their physiology. As Ian Bostridge writes, ‘It makes us . . . a very inward-looking breed, literally, obsessed with the health of tiny pieces of mucous membrane (the vocal cords) in the cartilaginous larynx . . . ’ But this basic fact – that the voice is a body, or at least, inhabits a body, and is produced physically, via the movement of muscles, air passing over the larynx and so on – is also what connects singers to their audience, in a way that is different from other musicians. In his brilliant book, Performing Rites, the critic and sociomusicologist Simon Frith points out that as the audience we are aware, consciously or not, that we too possess the same physical attributes – lungs, larynx, vocal cords. When we listen to music we can’t usually play along, but we can and do sing along. We have the same body as the singers we are listening to, we come tantalisingly close to being able to do what they can do, and so the very body which makes the singer so neurotic is also what bonds her to the audience. All of us make sounds all the time – we speak, we laugh, we cry – but if we are not musicians we may never go near a musical instrument, never use one to make a sound with. Musicians, therefore, are separate, distinct from us, in a way that singers are not. Still, singers reveal to us that they can do more with the body than we can, and so they are us, but better. We see ourselves not only reflected, but enhanced, improved upon. The bond is at once egalitarian yet also hierarchical – we identify with and we revere singers – and there, in a nutshell, is the source of some of their power over us.
The voice is not just a body, however, it’s also a person, and this, too, makes it quite unlike other musical instruments. We usually identify more with singers than other musicians, and we identify them more completely with their songs. In Performing Rites, Simon Frith writes about the fact that we regard vocal expression as being more direct than when a musician expresses themselves via a guitar or drum kit. Despite it being a performance, containing elements of imagination, acting and projection, we often take singing very literally, imagining that what we hear or think we hear is a direct and faithful expression of the singer’s personal feelings or their personality. We feel we get to know singers by listening to them sing, and if we like the voice, we tend to imagine that we like the person.
I have a confession to make: when I listen to bands, I only really hear the singer. People say, ‘Great bass line on that track,’ or ‘LOVE the drummer in that band,’ and as a teenager, when I was starting to buy records and take them seriously, I simply didn’t know what they were talking about. I was unable to identify what the bass player was doing, or understand what his or her role was. Drumming was more obvious – you couldn’t not hear it, after all – but still, for me it was going on in the background. As for the other instruments, well, they were there to hold the tune together and move it along, to weave a kind of aural net, the purpose of which was to bear the singer aloft and carry them towards you so that they could deliver the true purpose of the music – the lead vocal.
Joining a band provided a brisk Dummies’ Guide to Instruments, and I began to understand what each member was doing. I learned how to join in with the conversation, and trained myself to pay attention to the other things that were going on apart from the singer. But that didn’t mean I ever quite moved on from my earliest perception, and even now I don’t think I hear music that differently. This leads me to wonder, is it possible to like a band, or any record, if you don’t like the singer? Is my way of listening really so unusual, or is it the way most of us hear music?
It can even be difficult to like a band if you have reservations about the singer, or get stuck on some mannerism or other. I’ve always found it hard to get past that whistling sibilance on every ‘s’ that Damon Albarn pronounces, and it stood in the way of me ever having any real affection for Blur. On his more recent projects, some of the intonations and glottal stops have been dialled down, but still, that ‘s’ is a funny little tic. It’s out of his control, obviously, and mean of me to mention it, but on just such minor and apparently trivial points can our feelings about singers snag.
On the other hand, it’s possible to like the singer but not the band. In the Oasis/Blur wars I was on the wrong side, in that I favoured Oasis. Everything they subsequently went on to become, which was hinted at right from the beginning – repetitive, retrogressive, lumpen – versus everything that Blur went on to become – imaginative, open-minded – should have made it obvious who was better. But I had a simple singer preference. On those early singles, Liam Gallagher’s singing was spectacular – a sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead, the first vocalist since John Lydon to capture that underdog spirit of defiance in all its glory. ‘I’m feeling supersonic/GIVE me gin and tonic’ he demanded, not even bothering to take his hands out of his pockets. At the super-slick, stage-managed MTV Awards I attended in New York he rolled on to the stage, spat on the floor, sang at us with lazy, contemptuous fury, and made me feel proud to be British. But his voice really was the most impressive thing about them, and once I’d had a few blasts of it via the first three or four singles, I felt I’d really had the best of them.
It reminded me, though, that the singer is almost always the way in to the band. It’s both a pro and a con of being a singer; audiences feel close and connected to you, and you can reach your listeners in a way that instrumentalists have to strive harder to do. On the other hand, someone not liking your voice can feel very much like them not liking you. As well as concern for one’s physical well-being that can border on the neurotic, the unavoidably personal element can add to a singer’s sensitivity and self-consciousness; the sense that singing is an exposing thing to do, or at least that an audience, and critics, interpret it as such, and consider themselves entitled to make judgements which, when negative, can feel like attacks on the person.
But a positive judgement can turn into something else entirely: an unrealistic and idealised version of the person doing the singing. It’s not a new phenomenon – Simon Frith discusses the idea of the star singer originating in classical music, before it was adopted by the world of pop: ‘The mass cultural notion of stardom, combining a Romantic belief in genius with a promise to make it individually available as a commodity . . . derives as much from the packaging of “high” artists as from the hype of the low’. In the early nineteenth century, for instance, the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind went on a US tour, which was masterminded by P. T. Barnum, and sold extensive merchandising. What we’d now call a marketing strategy was created around her, which emphasised her virginal innocence, her spiritual purity, her ‘authenticity’. She was presented as something superhuman but also unreal, sanitised, infantilised; she was more than just a woman singing a song, she was an Ideal, a Symbol. And perhaps this desire to deify the singer, to stress her purity and goodness, reflected some- thing prevalent at that time, namely an anxiety about the moral status of singing, the probity of performance, of The Stage.
This idea is explored in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, written in 1876, a book which is full of characters who sing, and who fret over what singing says about them, how it reflects upon them as citizens, where it places them in society. Daniel Deronda himself has had a good singing voice since he was a boy – one of those angelic, choirboy voices ‘which seem to bring an idyllic heaven and earth before our eyes’. Anxious about his social standing – he does not know who his parents are and has been brought up by the uncle he secretly believes to be his father – he is alert to any indication of a slight concerning his social status. When his uncle suggests to him as a boy that he could become a professional singer, he is horrified, and replies angrily, ‘No; I should hate it!’ Daniel has a clear sense that being a singer is somehow not respectable, and that perhaps his uncle feels he is not quite a gentleman. Being a professional singer seems to him not just disreputable, but also demeaning, unmanly – ‘he set himself bitterly against the notion of being dressed up to sing before all those fine people who would not care about him except as a wonderful toy’.
So Daniel is the natural, gifted singer who does not want to sing, and his opposite number is Mirah, a young Jewish woman who has sung, or been made to sing, since she was a child. Dragged around theatres by her father, she has performed against her will and shares Daniel’s disgust at being used as a plaything – ‘it was painful that he boasted of me, and set me to sing for show at any minute, as if I had been a musical box’. Mirah has a sense of alienation and dehumanisation, the feeling that people don’t love her for herself, but only for as much as she entertains them. There is a hint that Mirah’s father has attempted to prostitute her out to rich men. Singing, then, can be a slippery slope, down which one could slide away from respectable society into its dark, hidden depths. If singers are treated like objects, slaves even, they are deprived of autonomy and dignity, so being a singer can be a wretched, demeaning profession.Next chapter
It is left to the musician Klesmer to make a stronger claim, and to stand up for the right of musicians to be regarded more highly than as mere entertainers: ‘We are not ingenious puppets, sir; who live in a box and look out on the world only when it is gaping for amusement . . . We count ourselves on level benches with legislators.’ If George Eliot is here deliberately echoing the line from Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’ – ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ – she is making a case for singing to be elevated to a higher status. This links back to something I said in the foreword, the idea that singing is ‘good’ for us, that it is morally uplifting, and it’s an idea that recurs in poems and novels. In Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Singers’, the job of the singer is to awaken spirituality and godliness in the hearts of those hearing the song: ‘God sent his Singers upon earth/With songs of sadness and of mirth/That they might touch the hearts of men/And bring them back to heaven again.’ There’s a holy, transcendent role to singing; as opposed to singing as entertainment, which can be corrupting and lowering, it’s an explicitly religious interpretation, aligning singers with priests and preachers, charged with saving the souls of their fellow men. A heavy responsibility, you might think.
Even ordinary people can tap into this spiritual uplift when they sing. There is a description in John Cheever’s The Wapshot Scandal of a group of carol singers, who look ordinary and mundane in their outdoor clothes, ‘but the moment they began to sing they were transformed . . . The carolers seemed absolved and purified as long as the music lasted, but when the final note was broken off they were just as suddenly themselves.’ The effect of singing may be short-lived, only lasting as long as the song, but it is transformative and redemptive, and morally uplifting. In Daniel Deronda, Klesmer voices a similar view: that in order to save singers from the ambiguity of their position, from being regarded as tramps on the stage, performing monkeys, anyone’s plaything, they had to be lifted up and sanctified.
This is idealisation, pure and simple, and singers are uniquely vulnerable to it. More than actors, they are seen to be ‘themselves’ in performance; what they offer is a direct expression of their own inner self, or soul, not the portrayal of a character (even though they may in fact be doing exactly that, singing lyrics written by others, or singing the tale of a character not themselves, or singing in character). The audience will tend to assume that the ‘I’ speaking (singing) is the person they see before them. And as such, their responses to the music, their projections and imaginings, become fused with what they imagine to be the personality of the singer. When reading reviews of Bedsit Disco Queen, I couldn’t help noticing how often my writing voice was compared to my singing voice. The comments were positive, and lovely, my ‘voice’ being described as warm or approachable; down to earth and likeable. But making the link between the two voices was interesting to me, suggesting that many listeners already liked ‘me’, or felt that they did, because they liked my singing voice, and readily identified my writing voice as belonging to the same person.
In the 2009 novel The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips, a young singer called Cait apparently enjoys the attentions of an obsessive fan, but towards the end of the book she encounters a different character, Stan, who seems to like her not only for her voice but for herself: her voice is ‘not the most interesting part of you, by a mile’. She ends up dating Stan, who says to her, ‘If your job was dressing up as a rabbit in a theme park, would you want me to come visit you and pretend you were a real rabbit?’ In other words, singing is a form of pretending. It is not who you really are. Anyone who forms a relationship with The Singer, in which they require her to act at all times like The Singer, is asking her to carry the make-believe elements of her job into her real life.
As a lyric writer, I am aware that songs written in the first person have more power, and an audience will connect more readily with them. But I am also aware that it will be taken for granted that every ‘I’ I sing represents the real me. Writing a song called ‘Oh, The Divorces!’ might have been asking for trouble (many listeners assumed I had recently divorced), and following it up with a track about visiting a singles bar in which I sang ‘I pull off my ring as I push my way in/Won’t be needing it here’ seemed to confirm that, yes, ‘I’ really had ended my marriage and was now out on the dating scene. I’m regarded as a confessional songwriter, but one way in which it is possible to maintain a sense of privacy, or some mystery about the meanings of songs, is to blur the moments when ‘I’ really means me, and when it means someone else entirely.
Some singers and writers are understood to write ‘in character’ – Elvis Costello, for instance, or Randy Newman – because the characters they create are so obviously not themselves, and are either highly exaggerated or satirical creations or, in the case of Randy Newman, a monstrous opposite, who could not be mistaken for Randy himself. I don’t do anything as extreme as that, so the assumption that ‘I’ means ‘I’ is easier to make, but it can be frustrating, and is another way in which the skill or decision-making involved in writing and singing can be overlooked in favour of a romantic belief that the artist is always engaged in the pursuit of self-expression. This simply isn’t the case. Something is being expressed, yes, and it may be something heartfelt and true, but it may not be about myself or my own feelings.
So when we respond to a singer, often we don’t really see or hear the actual person; we see and hear an imagined version of them, a projection of our own needs and desires. As Virginia Woolf wrote in Jacob’s Room, ‘Nobody sees any one as he is, let alone an elderly lady sitting opposite a strange young man in a railway carriage. They see a whole – they see all sorts of things – they see themselves . . . ’ When we hear a singer, much of the experience is actually happening inside our own heads, and is a mixture of memory, desire, expectation and need – we hear what we expect to hear, or what we want and need to hear. If listeners tend to idealise singers, then the love an audience has for your voice can sometimes feel threatening to the singer as a person. It can make singers anxious that perhaps listeners want too much, more than the singer is willing or able to give. The biographies of troubled artists offer examples that bear this out, and when I talk to other singers there can be a recognition of this kind of feeling, but it isn’t often understood or mentioned by people who write about music, especially if they are writing from the position of fan. It takes an imaginative leap for a writer who loves singing or a particular singer to move beyond their own pleasures as the listener and get inside the head of the singer. This is where fiction can bridge the gap, offering a way into that understanding, and it’s why I want to look at certain novels which say things I haven’t seen written down elsewhere. Only recently I discovered the novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, published in 2001, and it has stayed in my mind as a book that places a singer at the centre of its plot and in which I recognised and identified with much of what happens. Most of what we read about singers is journalism, which can be accurate and insightful but at its worst can simply repeat cliches that ultimately prevent us from getting to the truth of the matter. Those in the know – the singers themselves – might have other stories to tell, but someone needs to ask the right questions in order to access those stories. A novel can go further, inviting us to inhabit characters who take us beyond our own experiences. Bel Canto does this very well, dramatising the effect singers can have on those around them and the obsessive feelings that can be evoked. It is set in an unnamed Latin American country, where one night a glittering party full of international guests at the Vice President’s residence is stormed by a group of terrorists who take everyone hostage, including the party’s star guest, an American operatic diva called Roxane Coss.
Glamorous and starry, she is an otherworldly being in their midst, bathed in an unearthly glow, and their reactions to her are all overreactions, or coloured by their own imaginations: ‘No one could see her objectively anyway. Even those who saw her for the first time, before she had opened her mouth to sing, found her radiant, as if her talent could not be contained in her voice and so poured like light through her skin.’ Before the terror attack takes place she performs to the crowd and has a spiritual, in fact explicitly religious impact on them: ‘Her voice was so pure, so light, that it opened up the ceiling and carried their petitions directly to God . . . ’
During the long siege that follows the hostage-taking, one of the guests, Mr Hosokawa, becomes more and more obsessed with her. It is not the reality of her that he desires, but an idealised version, and he doesn’t really like to think of her as a body: ‘It made him uncomfortable to notice the supreme athleticism of her mouth, to see so clearly her damp pink tongue when she opened up wide and wider still.’ This is a dangerous kind of love: the kind of love that no one can live up to, that can only end in disappointment, and even turn to hate.
There is a young priest among the hostages, who also falls under her spell. He has long been an opera fan but feels guilt for the pleasure he gets; the singing fills him with a kind of longing, which is akin to desire. So he consoles himself by coming up with the idea that it is really a kind of religious rapture that she inspires. Yet there is a paradox – listening to Roxane sing, he thinks, ‘God’s own voice poured from her’, and yet just a couple of lines later, ‘It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth’ Well, which is it? Is the voice God’s voice, from heaven above, or something elemental, earthy? There is a tension between the disembodied spirit quality of the voice, and the fact that it can only exist, can only be expressed at all, via the medium of a human body, with all the earthly connotations that brings. The ideal or the reality, which is it that the listener prefers?
Ann Patchett makes it clear that Roxane Coss is in every sense a flawed, mortal creature, and as we learn more about her, so the contrast between her humanity and the saintly version of her created by her listeners becomes ever more obvious. She is aware, for instance, of the power her voice gives her over others, and is not above exploiting this power. She is also proudly aware of her status, and takes comfort from this during their predicament: ‘Maybe there would be a bad outcome for some of the others, but no one was going to shoot a soprano.’
Throughout the book, though others project onto her their need for her to represent something pure, aspirational, heavenly, her behaviour reveals her to be quite worldly, even venal. Her reason for being there in the first place is purely financial: ‘I thought about declining. I declined several times until they came up with more money.’
And the moment which is most at odds with her admirers’ image of her comes when she realises that the dire situation they are in may actually work out well for her in the end, as the story of the hostage-taking will increase her fame and so her value: ‘“So if I get out of here alive I can double my price?”’ Surrounded by people who are, in various ways, going a bit mad over her singing, she can coldly calculate the effect this is all having on her future fees. It reminds us that as well as being a vocation, and offering something transcendental to the listener, singing is also a job, it is how some of us pay the bills. And this makes singers more prosaic about singing and what it means, sometimes weary of other people’s attempts to elevate what they do.
Even Roxane’s speaking voice exerts power over people. She talks on the phone to the priest’s friend, another music lover, and in a moment of gushing fan behaviour, he asks her just to say the names of some operas down the phone to him:
‘“La Bohème,” she said. “Così fan tutti.”
“Dear God,” Manuel whispered . . . He was paralyzed by her voice, the music of speaking . . . ’
This is funny, in its extremity. The ludicrous, over-the- top reaction of the fan to the object of their worship can’t help but seem silly. No one can bear the weight of all this implied significance and the reactions to Roxane become meaningless, fabrications of the imagination. It’s a novel that is very astute about the way in which ‘fans’ can become delusional, and the disillusionment that would surely result if they could get inside their idol’s head.
None of this is to say that singers don’t want or need to be loved – they do, of course – but there is tension in the gap between being loved for yourself and being loved for something that is not real. And an audience’s tendency to idealise can make a singer believe that in order to be loved, the singing has to be perfect, or aspire to perfection; that faults will be judged and the self disliked for them, when of course the opposite can be true. Wayne Koestenbaum explains in his book how he loves Maria Callas above all because she made mistakes and ‘seemed to value expressivity over loveliness’. I would count Björk as that kind of singer. I remember a television programme in which someone said that, in contrast to many classical singers who strive only to use the most beautiful part of the voice, the ‘filet’, Björk was prepared to use ‘the whole animal’. Similarly, Koestenbaum describes Callas’s voice as ‘a set of sounds on the verge of chaos – but enjoyably so’.
Around Callas there grew up an enormous cult of personality and a strong bond between what people saw as the calamities of her personal life and the faults of her singing. Loving her, they could sympathise with both – ‘we loved the mistakes because they seemed autobiographical’, writes Koestenbaum. The audience were drawn in and involved, they felt they had a part to play in the construction of her singing performances; the sympathetic listener was needed in order to complete the singing: ‘if her notes had a tendency to wobble, to grow harsh, then this possibility of failure gave her fans a function. The infallible performance does not require an audience.’ Koestenbaum points out a particular moment in a rendition of an aria where she holds ‘an awkward high note for its full value, even though the tone is unpleasant; she outstares the ugliness . . . During the harsh high note, we are closer to Callas. We befriend her.’
She reveals her vulnerability, her humanity at these moments, and we want this from singers more than we want their technical perfection.
But oh, how hard it is for singers to believe this, and to feel it to be true. Next chapter
Who is your favourite singer? It’s a question I’m often asked, not surprisingly, and my answer is usually the same: Dusty Springfield.
I was born in 1962, and Dusty’s career hit its peak around 1964, so as a singer she must have always been there, soundtracking my life. Yet no one in my house had any of her records. The radio must often have been playing her big 1960s hits, but I certainly wasn’t hearing them at home. The songs seeped into my consciousness so that when I began to listen to her properly later on, I found I knew many of them by heart – but were they actually her versions I knew, or other people’s? ‘I Only Want to Be with You’ I guiltily thought of as a Bay City Rollers song. ‘How Can I Be Sure?’ was by David Cassidy. ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ was Elvis Presley or even, God forbid, Guys ’n’ Dolls. She was often on TV when I was a child, and I must have seen her, but again, the image that comes most readily to mind is a second-hand one, of someone impersonating her. She’d become famous for the flamboyant hand gestures she made while singing, and the joke was that she looked like she was directing the traffic. So while I have no true memory of seeing her performing, what I do remember is a comedy show, someone doing traffic policeman arms, and knowing that they were ‘being’ Dusty. I don’t think it was meant unkindly, but still, there it was – she was famous enough to be the subject of a comedy impression, yet all I remember is the impression, not her.
However, I do know the first time I heard her. Elvis Costello was presenting a radio show, playing a selection of his favourite records, and as was usually the case with anything like that on the radio, I was taping it onto cassette. This was 1980, or maybe 1981. He had already introduced us to another of her signature tunes, ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself’, when he performed it on the Live Stiffs Live album in 1978, and that had been a revelation, opening my eyes to the possibility of liking Bacharach and David as well as punk; a difficult but heady idea, and one I would have to come back to later. Now on this radio show he played ‘I Don’t Want to Hear it Any More’ from Dusty in Memphis, and for the first time I truly heard that voice – that smoky, husky, breathy, vulnerable, bruised, resigned, deliberate, sensual voice.
Ugh, all the same old words, and they won’t do, will they? They won’t do. Roland Barthes in his 1972 essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ touched on this basic problem of music criticism, remarking snidely that ‘the work (or its performance) is invariably translated into the poorest linguistic category: the adjective.’ Well, it’s hard to know what other part of the language to reach for when we want to describe something. If a voice is a noun, then we need an adjective to describe it, but they are of course limited and so we all reach for the same ones, and they wear thin from overuse. But where to find better ones, truer ones? If you’d never heard her voice, what words could summon it up in your imagination?
In her biography Dusty, Lucy O’Brien quotes Jerry Wexler, who produced Dusty in Memphis along with Arif Mardin, talking about the uniqueness of her sound: ‘There were no traces of black in her singing, she’s not mimetic . . . She has a pure silvery stream’. Silvery, I like that. I’ve always thought if Dusty’s voice was a colour, it was silver. There is so much air in every note, and although the sound is rich, it has none of the chocolatey-brown of, say, Karen Carpenter’s. It seems to exist higher up, almost suspended above our heads, literally transcendent. You look up to Dusty’s voice, in every sense.
Neil Tennant pointed to the emotional tension in her singing, saying there’s ‘an intensity and desperation to her voice that’s fantastically sensual’. Desperation: that’s very observant. It’s easy enough to hear the sensuality, of course, but to spot the undercurrent that makes her pierce you as much as soothe and seduce you, that’s getting more to the heart of her. Of course, although she could be melodramatic, particularly on the mid-1960s pop recordings, she was never a belter, and she was a singer who made use of the microphone. When she did project, there would be a fragility to it, and a feeling that she was covering it up with an element of bravado. There was a possibility that the voice might fail her, a note might break, although it never did. The slight huskiness is often commented on, the sound of being on the edge of laryngitis, which she suffered from recurrently. Some recording sessions were interrupted by her battling with throat problems – there are even songs where she sounds a little too close to actual voice loss, for example, ‘Let Me in Your Way’ from the album A Brand New Me.
But here’s the terrible thing; the terrible, true thing that she thought, that maybe lots of singers think, which runs counter to all that we imagine it must feel like to be in possession of a unique and gorgeous voice that people love. This is what she once said: ‘All I know is that I have a distinctive voice I don’t particularly like listening to’.
Dusty Springfield is many people’s favourite singer; she’s not a challenging, left-field choice in any sense, and yet she also exemplifies the tortured artist, riddled with self-doubt, unsure of her worth and even her identity. Lucy O’Brien brilliantly chronicles how, as a slightly frumpy teenage ex-convent girl, Mary O’Brien took the irreversible decision, long before Madonna had apparently patented the concept, to reinvent herself, taking a gamble with her future and her sense of self, the consequences of which she couldn’t possibly have anticipated. It must have seemed like an act of defiant self-liberation when she turned her back on the girl she’d been born as, and emerged with a new look – peroxide blonde hair glued into a beehive do, eyes almost lost under layers of thick black eyeliner and mascara – and a new name: Dusty Springfield. The look was all artifice: the sculptural creation that is a beehive hairdo was possibly the most unnatural style ever invented; the make-up deliberately over-the-top, too much. It was not about looking pretty, it was about looking different, both from everyone else and from her former self. And in this very difference there was an attempt to stand out, to seek attention, but in the same moment, to deflect that attention away from herself onto this new creation, this new fake persona, who could be everything Mary feared she couldn’t be. Mary O’Brien could not be obliterated, she was still in there somewhere, hidden. As the early years of Dusty’s career went by, and she became more successful, she exaggerated the look more and more – ‘the bigger the hair, the blacker the eyes, the more you can hide’ she is quoted as saying – and then found herself having to reconstruct her creation every single morning before she could face the world. No one was allowed to see her without the famous make-up or hairdo, and the sheer physical effort involved in all of it was exhausting and demoralising. What started out as a safety net became a trap. What she hadn’t foreseen, and what looks so obvious in hindsight, is that in the act of creating a fake self she had dramatised and given physical expression to the very self-doubt which usually remains internalised. If artists often question their authenticity – and God knows they do – then what she had done in creating a fictional identity with which to confront the world made it absolutely sure that she would never be able to answer that question satisfactorily. She has talked about how intimidated she was during the sessions for Dusty in Memphis for Atlantic Records, by the fact that those around her had worked with, and often talked about, Aretha. She had a tendency to think that the black session singers doing the backing vocals were ‘the real thing’ and she was a pop fake. And here’s where I empathise completely with Dusty, having experienced the exact same doubts during the recording of EBTG’s album The Language of Life in the US, coincidentally also for Atlantic Records, where I was singing with musicians who had worked with Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Understanding where and how you fit, and justifying your right to sing in the company of those who may be your singing superiors, is not always easy to sustain, and requires a degree of rationality and detachment which not many of us possess. It’s a banal and repetitive tragedy that the pleasure a singer can provide does not reflect back to the singer her/himself, but instead hits a brick wall of self-doubt and discomfort.
In the recording studio Dusty’s doubts were all about her voice. She would be demanding and perfectionist, both admirable qualities, essential for the making of good music, but when it came to the moment of recording the vocals she would turn those thoughts on herself like knives. She would have the volume in her headphones turned up as loud as possible, to the point where it was almost painful, and the effect would be overwhelming. That way she could let herself go into the experience, disappear inside a wall of sound, and so, just as she hid her physical appearance behind the mask of hair and make-up, she would hide even her voice. Jerry Wexler describes her doing this during the sessions for Dusty in Memphis, and is quoted in Lucy O’Brien’s biography saying that he always encouraged singers to have the sound fairly quiet in their headphones so they would project more, but Dusty had insisted on setting it at ear-splitting volume. ‘There was no way she could hear herself – it was like she was singing into a void.’
If you’re singing into a void, casting your voice out there into a black hole, the implication is that you want your voice to go away, to disappear. Some of the pleasure of singing is purely physical, an athletic enjoyment of using the body, stretching muscles, working up a sweat. You don’t have to hear yourself in order to do this, and if you’re unsure about the quality of what you hear then the enjoyment may be greater if you can’t hear yourself. Singing in a choir, your voice can vanish among all the others, you are part of one big communal sound and no one is listening to you in particular. But as a solo singer, especially a famous and loved solo singer, this luxury is usually denied. You must be heard, and you must hear yourself. Dusty tried to escape hearing herself as a way of escaping confrontation with that which disappointed her, but I wonder also whether she suffered from that confusion between her voice and her person, whether she perceived doubts about her voice as in fact doubts about her value as a person, even about her existence as a real, authentic person. Was she trying to make ‘Dusty’ disappear, and be Mary O’Brien when she sang? Or did she want to be neither: was she trying to disappear altogether, to become no one, just a voice, not even a voice she wanted to hear, just the sound coming out of her, going nowhere?
As her career moved on, and she left behind the glory of the British pop hits and the magnificence of albums like Dusty in Memphis, she really did begin to get lost, wandering a path with no obvious musical or career signposts to follow. She had matured as an artist, and at the very point when she should have been reaching a pinnacle in terms of success, her audience began to dwindle. Dusty in Memphis, released in 1969 and one of the greatest albums ever made, sold relatively poorly and was fairly soon deleted. Cameo, released in 1973, was a complete flop. It’s one of my favourite records. I sing along with it and wish I had her voice. I fantasise that this is my new album, that all those musicians and backing singers are there for me, and that I am the voice at the centre of it all. I don’t have Dusty’s range, and I wish I did. If I could sing those songs the way she sang them, I’d be so proud, is what I think. I’d be fulfilled. I know it isn’t true; I know it isn’t as simple as that, and yet I fall into the same trap as every deluded listener. It’s what singing does to us. It makes us so happy that we imagine it must come from happiness, mustn’t it? Otherwise, it just doesn’t seem fair. That we should be having all the fun.