Thursday, May 23, 2013

I like singers who sing like they talk

Mark Ellen won't mind me saying he can be absent-minded. In the early days of The Word he forgot he'd arranged to do a phone interview and went out to get a sandwich.

Reception rang looking for him. "There's a Tony Bennett on the line." I couldn't help wondering whether this was the great saloon singer or a decorator ringing Mark with an estimate. It's a common name.

I asked them to put him through. Soon as I heard the voice say "Mark?" I knew it was the Tony Bennett. The voice speaking to me was unmistakably the same one that had sung to us all those years. He could no more disguise it than fake his fingerprints.

Since then I've decided the singers I really like sing in the way they speak. For instance I prefer Christine McVie to Stevie Nicks. That doesn't mean they sound exactly the same but it does mean their musical sound is identifiably related to their spoken one. The best singer of all, Sinatra, was the classic example. That's how he made songs make sense. He slipped from speech to song without stopping to arrange himself into the posture of a singer.

On the other hand, and here I'm obviously an old git, an increasing number of singers don't seem to feel they're performing until they've put on what they clearly think is a singerly voice. And I don't just mean the usual diva tricks - showy melisma, notes sustained beyond reason, the word "my" delivered as "mah". I also find myself being exposed to a lot of guitar-playing stool-roosters who deliver in a mannered "hello sky, hello trees" style from the back of the throat with minimal involvement of the articulators. They wouldn't talk like that. The result is their songs make no sense whatsoever.


  1. So what on earth did you say to Tony? Did you make excuses for Mr Ellen or conduct the interview yourself?

  2. ...and Jake Thackray.

  3. I know what you mean, but...

    I heard Stuart Maconie a while back say that Elton John sounded like a 'slack-jawed yokel from Tennessee' or some such on (the indisputably great - FACT!) Tiny Dancer rather than Reg Dwight from Pinner. He highlighted 'seamstress from the bayyynd' in particular.

    Good point Stuart - which also applies to Jagger, Van, Rod, Winehouse - basically everyone apart from the bespectacled Sunshine on Leith hitmakers.

  4. Reminds me of Neil Tennant's observation in a Word piece about singers delivering lyrics as you'd say them. A few, like Tori Amos, can mess with that principle to great effect, but generally it's true. It's why Tom Petty is so much better than Springsteen, and why Robert Plant needs calming down!

  5. My son feels the same way. He's 8, and is trying to put together a heavy metal group with his school friends (Skull Crackers, by the way! Posters already made). He needs to learn guitar, of course, and I asked him who was going to be the singer. He was going to do that as well. Why, not Danny, his mate, who has been assigned bass? My boy told me he can't sing. I asked him whether he had heard him. The answer was no, but he didn't like the way that he spoke. It wasn't very musical.

  6. Was thinking about just this subject as I was listening to a video of Laura Marling and some American chap singing Bruce's 'Dancing in the Dark'. You'll find it on google.
    Her accent is almost a caricature, but it works brilliantly.

  7. I remembered to turn up to my Tony Bennett interview, Easter weekend 1995. The Rolling Stones were playing the same night on the other side of Auckland, for the first time since the Exile tour. Tony was so polite it was almost frustrating; he was such a gent that the sub-editor thought it was only right that my naive mention of his hair looking like a silver cap should be deleted. The most gracious, most gentle man I'd ever interviewed. Every answer he gave, to avoid controversy he always quoted someone famous. But when I made a mention of modern ie post-war pop songs - this to a fellow who while in the wilderness made an album covering songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder he now disparages - the facade cracked a little. He almost spat out, "I look upon them like a dog looks upon a lamp-post". Whoah! But then he showed me his latest painting from his hotel room, and invited me to soundcheck. It was just him, his pianist Ralph Sharon, his sound engineer, and me. And listening to Ralph and Tony check out the theatre's acoustics on a few standards was just glorious - they played together like Fred and Ginger danced. The Stones were good too - I was close enough to see the yellows of their eyes, and they (well Keith and Charlie) played like longterm members of Duke Ellington's band. Tony should have guested.

  8. I think that Sinatra is someone that needs to be listened to again every so often. He and the songs he sang are so ubiquitous and have been covered by so many it is easy to carry around in our head a slightly parodic version of him.

    I listened recently to some of his re-mastered recordings and was knocked out by the the effortless depth and breadth of his voice.

    p.s. Andrew Loog Oldham in his book, 2 Stoned, gives us a nice vignette of a breezy Sinatra recording session.

  9. Kirsty MacColl is another great example. Her tone, accent, delivery, style and wit all as much her as her crippling stagefright and wild auburn hair.

    (And also: why should people brilliant in their chosen fields be vilified for a less-than-polished media presence? Since when has 'being excellent at x' become not enough? Tired of hearing 'Saw x on . Not very interesting were they?')