Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Am the Queen of Night! F6! F6!

I'm not saying that Royal Opera House is going to fly me in to replace Diana Damrau as Queen of Night in its next production of Mozart's Magic Flute (or that I'd be auditioning for any such thing), but this is important (to me): please listen to this aria. Go ahead. It's Sunday night, what else are you doing?

OK, so here's why it was important to me that you listen. You heard those high F's? (F6's to be exact?) Out of the spanking blue I suddenly have that. Yep. I got it. It's allllll mine.

Ten-fifteen years ago when I was actually in classical vocal training/ensembles, I was a very resentful mezzo soprano who always whined about preferring to sing alto where 1) my voice was comfortable 2) I could harmonize = much more fun. Because, after all, my only "training" beyond that had been singing shape note hymns with regular folks in church. (No choral program in my rural high school.) But both of my voice teachers shoved a mezzo version of 26 Italian Songs and Arias in my face and made me sing very uncomfortable things in very uncomfortable ranges. I once, at age 18, sang a painfully strained, gasping version of Samuel Barber's "Sure on This Shining Night" for a recital and thought my voice (sure on my shining life) wasn't built to sing above a D5. Hitting those F5s and G5s was like wriggling and pretending to attempt pull-ups in front of the entire gym class. And I hated it. And I hated singing that way. Such was the case until last summer.

The irony is this happened quite on accident, while working with a pop vocal coach, while focusing on my lower register/chest voice, while on a mission to declassically train my voice. (If you're just catching up, here is the post about how this guy made me cry before my first lesson and another about how he told me why nobody was going to bother to listen to me sing in my second lesson. No, really, it's some of the best stuff anyone's ever said to me. Check it out.)

And here's the story in pictures (click to enlarge! because I want you to!):

This all happened with three voice lessons and regular vocal exercises over a period of one year. All of this focused on making use of my lower register (chest voice) and producing a more me-sounding, unpolished tone. And it's crazytown because, now that I'm not trying to be able to sing arias or art songs, I magically can. And now that I'm trying to unearth a more raw, speech-like quality in my voice, my voice can sound as clear as a bell. So . . . what am I going to do with that? That is the question.

I have some ideas. On that note, I had my fourth lesson today. I'll write about that next.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Song Alert: Nothing to do with you

A Summer Night. Credit: Keru
Here's the "rough draft recording," as I've been calling them: Nothing to do with you. (It's also in the SoundCloud widget above.)

To quote my favorite New Yorker cartoon: "This song is very difficult for me, emotionally. Plus, the chords are hard." No no no, it's not true. The chords are actually very easy. A simple harmonic ostinato.

This is the song that I wrestled with all through July (that didst bring a most grievous spirit upon me). Last Thursday I sat myself down at 11 AM and decided I was not going to shower, leave the apartment, or focus my attention on anything else whatsoever until it was finished. It was pretty grueling. While the hook came to me in a flash at the beginning of July, I'd tried many times to hash out the verses but I wasn't getting any ideas. Every line was a real struggle. But finally, by about 4 PM, all holes had been filled and I decided it was Good Enough.

Which means, as it does with all of my songs when I've just finished them, that I thought it was terrible and boring and I hated it. I sent off the lyrics to a trusted songwriter friend who cheered with me for finishing it (THANK YOU, DANI!). A composer friend added, with French accent, "Today, you've just given birth. You don't know yet whether this one will go off to college. Just, you know, give it some time and let it grow."

Half a bottle of Grenache on Friday night, and what-the-hell-it's-beautiful-let's-record-it. It's a song about love, God, sex, on a backdrop of cicadas, crickets, katydids, frogs, and other insects ... all the good stuff. Notice! It becomes gently NSFW in the fourth verse.

I'm a lyrics girl.

Two things:

1. Alaska and I listened to this This American Life segment on our most recent drive to my sweet Virginia homeland. Phil Collins talks about the divorce behind his break-out solo album and its role in his songwriting. (Yet Taylor Swift got a lot of flack for writing songs about her exes. Hmm.)

(I'm sorry about the messy embed. Something's screwy with the code.)

2. The Fleet Foxes album and its title song, "Helplessness Blues," just stopped me dead in my tracks. Had to back it up and listen again:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

The lesson from Phil Collins? Don't try to be too clever. The best songs are simple and honest. And the lesson from Fleet Foxes (and, by the way, Mumford and Sons)? Ask your questions. Everyone else has them to.

So, in response to my previous blog post, I've spoken with some trusted friends/mentors (some in the music industry), consulted Phil Collins, inferred from the Fleet Foxes, and I've come to some conclusions:

  • Not everyone listens to lyrics, so many won't even notice if I'm saying intimate things.
  • Those who do pay attention to lyrics will not care that these words represent my feelings. They will attach the lyrics to their own lives and make the words about their feelings.
  • The music business is full of people who have varying levels of skill as performers, promoters, writers, presenters, listeners. A great curator is a mild composer. A great record producer is a mediocre guitar player, etc. A music critic who writes bland songs. There's room for me in all this. It's really no big deal.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rabbit stole fire from the Weasels (I want to be that Rabbit)

I have not read Stealing Fire from the Gods but I am familiar with the Prometheus myth. More importantly, I saw Sufjan Stevens again in concert at Prospect Park on Tuesday night.

Laying in bed before falling asleep, I looked over to Alaska's pillow and asked:

"Do you think I can do that?"

"Do what?"

"What Shara [Worden] and Sufjan just did this evening."


"Are you sure?"


"It takes so much courage. I have to have that courage."

And I can't get it off my mind. No longer waiting for someone else to appoint me to the position, no longer assuming others' ideas are specialer, no longer satisfied to keep from realizing my instrumental arrangements because of logistics ... new hurdles. How will I get my instrumental ideas into arrangements? How will I develop my voice so that I can express every last drop? But then these questions: How do I write honestly and sing my songs with respect and care for the friends, family, beloveds who emerge in those songs? Some of what I have to say is not cute and it's not pretty. How do I allow myself to be publicly heartbroken, weak, sexual, vengeful, irrational, furious, spiritual, joyous, and uphold a professional profile as a publicist? Will people still hire me if I am, in my own songs, a mess? And will critics and clients trust my taste and judgment if my songwriting skills are simple and fumbling but their music is complex and expert?

And hearkening back, if I tell the truths about my experiences growing up in and leaving an exclusive religious sect, will the harassment start again? Will I start a whole new round of "talking tos" from relatives, eruptions and arguments from those close to me who are still in The Church™, spiritual sympathy cards ("So sorry to hear you are going to Hell! We're praying for you! Remember, the world could end tonight!")? I know I'm fine but will it disrupt my family? Can I go through all of that again? Do I want to?
I just ... I think I have to. John 8:32 and all that.

But will people misunderstand me? Or, maybe worse, will they understand exactly?