When I first started working on this thing — this solo album with many guests, for lack of a better description — I wanted to take a stab at finally writing for voices that weren’t mine. The idea of doing that on its own was and continues to be so inspiring, it’s insane. I don’t think I’ve written so many songs intended for one specific album in my life, ill-fated ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE thing aside.
I wasn’t sure how many singers I would be able to get involved. I figured I’d be lucky if I got a couple. As it stands right now there are eleven. Eleven different singers who have become a part of this album. And there should be a few more before things wrap up.
Writing for other players and singers is fascinating. That was true when I first started doing it, and it’s no less true now, after I’ve been doing it here and there for about a year. You can set up space for someone to improvise within the framework of something that’s written, map something out in detail for someone to replicate, or use a written part as a jumping-off point for improvisation and fuse the two approaches together. Those are the three different ways I’ve gone about it, at least.
In a way, all-out improvisation is the least surprising approach most of the time. You tend to have a feel for what a musician’s personality is and the way they’ll think through things, so you have some idea of what you’re going to get, even if the performance itself is impossible to anticipate. You know to expect the unexpected.
More surprising is giving someone something you want them to reproduce as precisely as they can — which doesn’t seem to make much sense, but stay with me here. When you’ve never done that before, because you’re used to playing and singing every part yourself, it’s surprising first of all to learn that it is a thing you can do. You can write arrangements and fit the pieces together in a way that isn’t just intuitive. You can operate as an arranger. And with singers, it’s really something to hear someone sing the words and vocal melodies you’ve written, in some cases note for note, while still finding ways of working their own sense of phrasing and their own emotional truth into it. Because those things are always going to worm their way in there somehow.
One example: I wrote a song that was a musical dialogue for two voices, male and female. I recorded a rough demo and sent it to Leanna Roy (who you might know as Lele Danger). A friend put me in touch with her when I was looking for singers who weren’t dudes and not having much success.
Leanna has a gorgeous voice. I thought I had a pretty good idea what it would sound like when she sang her part. I’ve rarely been a huge fan of my own voice, but one thing it’s given me is a surprising amount of range to play with. So I could hit the notes she was going to hit and imagine what it would sound like when I wasn’t the person singing those lines and hitting those notes anymore.
Then she came in, and what she did almost broke my brain. Here she was singing the part pretty much the way I wrote it, but there was all this feeling I wasn’t expecting to be there. She was singing about capsized seasons and disinfected answers to hesitant questions like she felt it in her guts, even if she had no idea what my lyrics were supposed to mean. It was like she invested this character I barely sketched out with all this depth I didn’t even know was there.
That’s because she has her own vocal personality, and it brings something to the song I could never give it myself, because I’m not a woman with a beautiful voice. And it’s because the song brought something out of her that wasn’t ordinary, and she acknowledged that. I love her voice, but I’ve never heard her sing quite that same way anywhere else.
So she brought something special to the song, and the song fed her something special she was able to channel back into it, and out of that came something that could never have existed without this accidental perfect storm of bringing and feeding and channeling.
(There’s more to the song than that, but I ain’t givin’ it all away.)
In some ways it’s a total crapshoot. If I don’t know someone’s voice that well, I’m guessing at what a comfortable range is going to be for them to sing in based on what I’ve heard of their singing and the way that fights against what I want to write and what key it wants to live in. And I have my own way of phrasing things and forming melodies that might not be aligned with the way someone else’s musical mind works.
Zara is a great example of this. She usually won’t sing something exactly the way you ask her to sing it. It always comes back a little different. In her case I think it’s because singing is a wholly emotional process for her. She doesn’t attack it in a cerebral way. She feels it.
With the first song I asked her to sing on — the one about buying time at the end of the world — I probably spent half an hour trying to get her to sing a few lines with a certain inflection. We’d get about halfway there, and then she’d start singing it a different way. We both ended up laughing about it.
In time, I got her to sing it the way I thought I wanted her to. But later, when I listened to what we recorded after she left, I realized her way was better. She has this way of jazzing things up and singing around and behind the beat that’s really interesting. She also has this Chan Marshall, Sharon Van Etten kind of darkness to her voice, which is amazing as a writer — to hear a voice like that singing your words back at you.
The second time I asked her to sing on something, I just played her my guide vocal and then let her do her thing and bend it where her voice wanted to go.
Last night I had another one of those brain-exploding experiences.
I found out about Jen Knight by chance, while eyeing music-related classified ads on Kijiji out of curiosity. I found a cover she did of the Radiohead song “Creep” on YouTube, and immediately I wanted to write something and ask her to sing on it.
She has this voice that screams soul. A voice that could lead a gospel choir to higher ground. If you were writing something you might hope to have someone with a voice like that sing, you would think “uptempo soul stomp thing” before you knew you were thinking anything. And yeah, that’s what I thought when I first heard her sing. The voice wants to take the mind there. Go mind, go. Go down where slow secrets go to reinvent themselves as nimbler creatures.
But see, my brain wants to kick thoughts like those in the shins hard enough to snap bone and use the pain-induced delirium to turn the thoughts, warp them, make them something other than what they were born to be. My brain says: What if you took that voice and made it the messenger for a dark folk song with no chorus? What then?
Voices transform words and melodies just by being themselves. When I sang the thing I wrote, I liked it just fine. When Jen sang the thing back to me, I thought, “This is the voice that was meant to sing these words. It never could have been any other way.”
She becomes the character the song wants her to be. If I close my eyes I can see her there inside its heart. She’s come down the other side of a mountain she took a long time to climb, and made her way back around to where you are, and you aren’t even you yet, aren’t even real, but she wants to tell you what she’s seen and how it’s going to be. She’s giving you the map of your life, if only you had hands to grasp it with.
That’s the power of a voice that isn’t yours singing words you wrote, when the right voice meets the right words.