by Lis Lewis
I’m sitting in rehearsal watching a band. The singer is great – she plays guitar and piano (and she plays them both well!) and sings like an angel. The band is kicking butt. Great arrangements and solid playing. Why aren’t I jumping up and down? Something is seriously missing. It’s FEELING.
There are a lot of great bands with good songs in clubs across the country but only a very few will reach out to the audience in a way that grabs them by the throat and demands attention. Besides all the musical skill, the singer/frontperson has to mean what they’re saying. And what they’re saying has to resonate with the audience. You, the singer, have to look deeply inside yourself for real stories, not glamour or fakery, and tell us something that is so important to you that when we hear it becomes important to us. What kind of story can you tell, and mean, that would make us feel it too?
The Stories You Tell
Tell us stories about the things that have made a great impact on your life. Usually they are small events: when someone important noticed you for the first time or a time when you felt abandoned by someone you cared about, or the fight you had with someone you love. Songs are short – usually around three minutes. You only have the verses, the bridge and one chorus to tell the story because the chorus repeats. So it has to be concise but pack an emotional wallop. Short, to the point and emotional all at once. That’s a tall order.
The most common problem I see in songwriting is that the writer tries to tell too much of the story in one song. Real life is complicated and messy. For a song to work, you should use the real life story as a framework for the song but not necessarily as the actual story. Let’s say you are angry at your father for being too controlling. He doesn’t trust you and won’t give you the freedom to decide things for yourself. There are many songs in this one scenario. You can take that emotional center (the feelings that this creates in you) and write about a boyfriend who is jealous, who is always accusing you of flirting with other guys. You can write another song about trust. It could be a fantasy about how you would trust someone you loved or how you would want your father to trust you. Or it could be about why you should be trusted. Or it could be about how you doubt yourself when he doesn’t believe in you. Or it could be angry – ‘why don’t you ever believe me?’ There are twenty or thirty songs in this one subject. And they don’t have to be about your father even though that is where the real story starts. They can be about anyone who you care about, real or fictitious. You take the central feeling and develop stories around it.
The Feelings You Feel
I have to admit, though, this band I saw in rehearsal didn’t have that problem. The songs were strong and full of meaning for the singer. I know that because she is my student and I’ve watched these songs evolve. The problem was she didn’t show how she felt while she was singing them. Most people who come to me for voice lessons say, ‘I’m fine onstage. I love performing. I just need work on getting my voice stronger.’ But then I go to their shows and I see either someone standing stock still with their eyes closed or someone strutting around the stage imitating a rock singer. There’s nothing real and exceptional going on. They look like they think they are supposed to look. Kurt Cobain didn’t pretend to be anything other than who he was while he was telling real stories about how he lived. The same for Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Gwen Stefani and every other major artist. These are artists who bring their lives to the stage with them. And when they sing about their heartaches, they mean it.
So I took my student for a walk outside the rehearsal studio and we talked. These are the things I said. When you sing this flirtatious song, you have to flirt with the audience. What are you like when you are flirting? Do you get coy or sweet? Or do you get aggressive or biting or clever? Do you use your body differently when you are flirting than you do, for instance, when you’re shopping? Of course you do. In this other song about your childhood are you angry, defensive or hurt? Right now it’s too vague. I can see you’re feeling something but I don’t know what, I can’t relate to you if it doesn’t affect me. You have to show it to us in very specific detail for us to understand how you feel.
Don’t close your eyes and try to connect only to yourself. You did that when you wrote the song. Now is the time to turn it outward and direct your feelings toward the audience. If you wrote the story well enough, it should drive you to express it. Don’t hold back because you’re embarrassed. Give it out. Be courageous. Show who you are. This isn’t the time to be shy or careful. This is the time to reveal yourself in all your tortured splendor. Of course it won’t be all pretty and carefully made up. It’s blood and guts. It’s the real life story of one person. But it will make the people who hear and see it feel like it’s their story too. That’s the real meat of it; that’s what great music is all about. It’s reality made large. And after you’ve done it, after you’ve pushed yourself through the fears and the insecurities, people will look at you and think how strong you are to be able to say those things that no one else could say.
Lis Lewis is a voice teacher and performance coach in Los Angeles, CA. She has been training recording artists for over 30 years. Learn more about her private voice lessons. Lis is the author of the books The Singers First Aid Kit and The Pop Singers Warm-Up Kit both published by Hal Leonard. In addition to private coaching, she has worked in collaboration with managers, record labels, producers, bands and songwriters in the recording and rehearsal studio to get the best performances from their artists.