If I had a dollar for every time I have heard….. “I love to sing, but I hate the sound of my voice” from students, friends, strangers. Worse than that are the “I can’t sing” people and the people who believe they are tone deaf. All of which are exaggerations of a negative self-defeating attitude.It got me to thinking about “tunedness” and “tonal quality” in general. Most people are repelled by hearing a recording of themselves for the first time. We usually hear our own voices not just through our ears but the resonating of our own skulls. When we hear the recording, this resonance is absent, so it sounds “weird” and wrong. This revulsion subsides as with more experience and confidence we accept “what is” over some possible ideal of what is “supposed to be”.
The other day I listened intently to the rough mix of my own recent studio recordings. I was highly critical of my own music and making notes of verses I’d like to overdub because “a note in the verse is slightly flat”; Checking for notes that may need to be “evened out” or replaced. I am ruthless when it comes to my own stuff. I became discouraged with one performance which had sounded great in the studio and now sounded “out of tune” to me.. I had even asked George (whose ears I trust) if he heard any “pitchy” notes. We had agreed just after I sang that this was “the” take. Passion was there, phrasing, timing, tuning. I listened again this morning and it sounded perfect. What changed?
In between the two sessions of listening critically to my music I had listened to a huge hero of mine. I listened to Bob Dylan’s album “Another Side of Bob Dylan” and noticed “pitchiness” on virtually every song on an album which I had never questioned as anything but perfect. I realized that if this music had been overly scrutinized it might have never seen the light of day. The material and the authenticity and integrity of the music surpasses any flaws perceived or not. It took guts and confidence to put that out there.
There is no mistaking Bob Dylan’s voice for anyone else’s. Many people don’t like it. They just don’t get it. Even Dylan has tried different approaches to singing. His Nashville voice, his Guthrie voice, the croak, the “live voice” (my least favourite), and my favourite voice (Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde)mid-sixties venomous punk and fragile lover. I accepted Bob’s performance without once questioning his tuning. I have sometimes questioned the tuning of the guitars on his early rock stuff. Mike Bloomfield’s parts in particular strike me as a bit “off” even as perfect as they are.
Also in between my own two listening sessions of my recordings my daughter Ema Jean sent me her latest mix of one of her songs. She wanted my opinion. I listened intently to the song several times. Each time focusing on a different element, but the last time I listened just for pleasure and I was viscerally transported. I told her (in a text) that it was perfect. She wrote back “Really? You don’t hear anything weird?” I listened again several times and for the life of me I could not perceive any flaws or “weirdness”. I told her it was perfect.
I remember one of the songs on my first album where I was reaching for a particular phrase in my improvisation that I played “wrong”. I had a sound in my head and my fingers were a bit behind and it came out “different”. No one else heard it because no one could have read my mind or known my intention. Because we were recording live to two track in an expensive studio I left it as is. I always heard it as wrong (while everyone else who has heard it accepts it as what it is). Until a few months ago when the song came on in the car. Sharon likes to put her iPod on shuffle, and often, surprises come up. I was delighted to hear a piece I had written so long ago come up randomly. I did not hear the wrong passage at all. I heard the phrase as what it has now become, which is perfect.
Ema’s song may not be exactly what she hears in her head, but to an objective listener, it is perfect. Independent of my being her dad, her work is of a consistently high quality.
Virtually all of my favourite singers have released music that have a characteristic of uniqueness that can be seen as pitchiness. Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ellen McIlwaine, Leonard Cohen, J.J. Cale, John Lennon, Tom Petty, Lou Reed, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy. And so on.
Listening critically requires objectivity, but we always listen to our own music through the burden of ego and the liability of subjectivity. I hold myself to standards that are virtually impossible to achieve and that I don’t require from others…..
“Use what talents you possess; The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” – Henry van Dyke