The Right Style

By Lis Lewis

All your life you’ve listened to music. At various times in your life you’ve turned to different artists and different styles to give you comfort or make you dance. There isn’t one style that meets all of your needs. When it comes time to record your own record you might feel that you want to show your versatility and sing a variety of styles. But if you are aiming for a record deal you will need to narrow down what you present to its essence. Instead of a little of this and a little of that, you must show the world one strong complete package that makes a clear statement-one style.

Most singers love more than one style of music. You’ve heard someone like Gwen Stefani sing her brand of ska music and then branch out to hip-hop. Or Garth Brooks defining himself with country music and then making a rock and roll album. Every artist would like to be able to explore different types of music. But even these two artists who are so talented and flexible started with one remarkable personal statement in one style. No Doubt’s first record wasn’t a little ska and a little hip hop. It was all the same brand of exuberant, savvy pop/ska. While you are developing your audience and your fan base you need to have a clear strong vision of who you are and what you represent. Are you a rootsy folk/rocker like Mumford & Sons? Are you a pop singer/dancer like Britney Spears? Are you an angry political rock/rapper like Linkin Park? Or are you a romantic soul R&B singer like Usher? The audience needs to know who you are and recognize you. If you are a ‘jack of many trades’ you have no clear identity.

Now the hard part: what style is the best one for you? The easiest place to start is to look at what you love. You can’t sing something you don’t love. There are too many people out there singing their hearts out who love the style of music they are singing. You could never compete with them if you don’t love what you sing. Second, the songs you sing best will be the kinds you have listened to all of your life because you understand them the best. If you have never listened to a blues record you can probably cross blues off your list.

But just because you love to listen to it doesn’t mean you can sing it. Try to be discerning about the difference between what you love to listen to and what you sing well. Even though I’ve listened to Aretha Franklin all of my life, and even learned to sing a lot of the runs and licks that she sang, I would never try to sing a song in her style. I just don’t sound right doing it. If you can, be objective. If you can’t, ask someone who can tell you.

Each style has conventions: when do you use vibrato, should you use your head voice, when do you slide, how elaborate are the runs, is your voice rough or sweet. If you could hear Sarah McLachlan sing a Sheryl Crow song, you’d know what I mean. She would sing it lighter and prettier. She would use her head voice where Sheryl Crow would belt. Sheryl Crow is tougher and her voice has more gravel in it.

You learn these conventions and absorb them through years of listening and imitating the artists you admire. If you’ve been listening to Christina Aguilera then you will be used to singing long strings of notes and working with syncopated rhythms. You’d be learning entirely different licks and sounds if you’ve been singing with Pink. All styles have characteristics of their own. When you understand what makes a style unique you can learn how to sing it.

Another major factor is the songs. If you are writing your own songs they will indicate your direction. Each genre of music has a specific approach to lyrical content and rhythmic and harmonic elements. If you write complex intimate lyrics like Radiohead then you probably aren’t going to sing romantic R&B. Of course there is a lot of overlap which is why, every now and then, an artist in one genre will cover a song from another genre. Ray Charles did an album of country songs. Shawn Colvin did a record of mostly rock songs. They blur the lines between styles.

But each style still has it’s attributes and your job as the singer is to know what they are. As you sing various styles to discover the one that’s perfect for you, you may find that you want to combine elements from different styles into one as Mumford & Sons did when they put their folk songs over the kind of driving rhythm elements that rock has. This is the mark of a creative person. What about combining an electronica track with an aggressive rock guitar? Yes it can be done.  All of your songs will have a common concept and stylistic approach. They will express your vision, your stories and you. They will do it through your songs and voice and tracks. And they will have a unique but consistent style that is yours.