The voices, the voices ... it’s the voices

(December 05, 2011)

Some singers bring song to life while others seem to just trot out the words. Some repeat what has gone before or turn out a poor imitation of an original. Some take the song and make it ‘live’ like never before – those my friends are true singers. The voice is a wonderful instrument and although many singers use it to great effect, some voices (and not always the clinically pure) give the lyrics an indefinable edge. What makes the song – the melody, the lyric or the vocals? Whatever it might be the voice can make it or break it. And it’s not always the ‘clinically perfect’ voice that cuts the best.

There are those voices that possess a naturally engaging vibrato. There are those that sound like hot gravel rolling down a tin roof. There are those who drive their vocals from the bottom of some smoke-filled, booze-fuelled pit. There are those whose drifting ethereal tones swoop from the rafters to settle around your ears. There are faintly whispering vocals that sound vaguely like some lost waif drifting through a faery world. There are hard-edged, punch-in-the-face roars. However, you describe, define or position the vocals, whichever style reaches that place where you really live and touches your soul it’s rarely the pure, the clear or the perfectly-formed that receives the accolades – at least in the widest sense of folk music that is.

Tuned to the imperfect

And that may be because our ears are naturally tuned to the imperfect. Now I don’t mean flat, off key or out of tune, I mean the obscure edge of some voices that intrigues and remains. Those voices make similar sounds to others but there are certain qualities that attract yet resist definition. And it’s that resistance that often comes across as imperfect. Perhaps ‘out of the ordinary’ is more accurate but I prefer imperfect. That’s because the word ‘imperfect’ perfectly describes the attraction of the flawed, the deficient or the faulty.

For that’s precisely what these engaging voices possess – human imperfection and the reminiscence of the damage done to achieve that voice. Otherwise why would voices be described as whisky-soaked, tobacco-generated, or the result of gargling with disinfectant or liquid shoe polish

Now I don’t propose that this becomes a definitive categorisation of folk (or otherwise) voices and neither is it a list of ‘imperfect’ voices. It is simply a thought extended to an idea that the imperfect voice is fundamentally more attractive in certain genres – and folk is one of those.

Voices for styles and styles for voices

There are certain styles of folk that demand certain voices. Listen to as many shanty singers or shanties being sung as possible and you will hear precisely what I mean. Which voice fits best with the subject? Before we get bogged down this is not about accent. The fact that one voice has a Cornish, Bristol, or Glaswegian accent does not make that voice a fine singer of shanties. However, the timbre, the edge, the cut, the essence if you will, of the voice might just make the difference. Equally, songs about rural England do not demand a Suffolk, Norfolk or Lincolnshire accent.

I pause here to reinforce the point that this is a discussion not a lecture. Don’t fly into a hissy-fit if I’ve omitted to mention your favourite folk style or forgotten your favourite regional accent. I’m merely citing examples to illustrate a point.

Whatever it is there’s ‘something’ that makes the right voice sound ‘right’. You and I might not agree on what that something is. Some voices make some of us cringe – very good though those voices might be – while some drag us in to the song with startling immediacy.

The next time you listen to ‘that voice’ the one that reaches out to you ask your neighbour if it does the same for them. This action may not constitute effective research but it would be an interesting exercise.

Click here to return to the Comment page