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Reduced to the Fundamentals

21 Nov

I watched the final of the Australian X Factor last night. Actually it was probably a combined  six minutes of the final, but that was about as much as I could stomach and was plenty to set my neural pathways on a course towards this blog. I don’t want to pick on an easy target, that’s not what this is about. This is about what happens when the development of a cultural value nears its logical end. The approach of the far end of a polar scale. It is a subject I haven’t seen discussed anywhere (specifically), yet once I explain it, I’m sure you will notice it everywhere.

I am talking about the value that mainstream western culture places on the pure fundamentals of the human voice to the exclusion of its timbre.

It’s easier if I explain it how most people would experience it: Like I did.

So I turned on X factor. Some pretty teenage girl was singing a run of the mill pop song. She was pitch perfect. She hit every note high and low without so much as a hint of vocal stress, emotion or character. I was unimpressed. I mute the TV until the next contestant comes on.

The next contestant is some guy in his early to mid twenties wearing a dinner suit and singing (what I’m guessing is) a Michael Bulblé song. Once again pitch perfect, no audible effort, no character, no emotional connection between the singer, the lyrics and the audience. Terrible. This guys was playing dress ups. I mute the TV ahead of the last finalist’s performance.

You can guess what happens here. The next contestant was a boyband. I thought they were One Direction making a guess appearance. They looked and sounded exactly the same, except I was apparently wrong. Absolutely inflectionless. No defining character was to be found in any of their voices. I turn the TV off and now I’m sad.

In audio engineering there are essentially two aspects that an engineer is attempting to capture and shape:

  1. The fundamental; and
  2. The timbre

The fundamental is essentially the key aspects of the sound that allows the listener to identify the core elements of the song they are listening to. The melody, the chords. We’re basically talking about pitch, but it can cover other things such as lyrics. It is what you are left with when you remove the timbre of the sound. The fundamental is what helps us identify a song even when no-one is singing it. Like an instrumental version of a popular song.

Timbre is the aspect of the sound that gives it its character. The reediness and airy hiss of a saxophone, the imperfect oscillations of a bowed violin string and those characters of the human voice that help us tell one person’s from another.

It is no secret that audio engineers have long been able to master the fundamentals of the human voice via the use of pitch correction – more popularly known as auto-tune. The fundamental is easy. It is in all music. Without the fundamental there is no music.

At the other end though we have the the timbre of the voice. Infinite techniques and effects exist that effect timbre. It is possible to remove the timbre characteristics of a person’s voice, but you can’t add them in. For instance there is no effect that can make anybody’s voice sound just like Elvis. These are therefore the collective characteristics on which we base our preference of one singer over another. Well that’s how it has traditionally worked. I am not sure it’s like that anymore.

I have noticed over the last decade that the kinds of pop singers that rise to A list status have had less and less distinctive voices, or rather the lack of character in their voice has been the closest thing to a defining characteristic. For me it started with Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Akon, and has spread to the point that I am hard pressed to think of a pop star today that has a voice of true character in their timbre. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Pink, Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift, Kelis; These artists might appear on the odd decent track, but their voices could be interchangeable.

I’m preparing for the wrath of Beyoncé fans at this point, but I think that one need only look at the central conceit of her role in Dream Girls (that her character was picked out for solo stardom by Jamie Fox’s character because her voice lacked character – it was good enough, but not great, and certainly not the best in the group) to see her career mirroring that of her character’s and also Diana Ross’.

I recently read Underrated Overground by Noah Berlatsky, an article defending modern R&B as an artform. In which the writer had this to say:

“Take one of the most common contentions — the argument that the performers’ voices are lousy. I’ve seen this said of Ashanti, Ciara, Kelis, Teairra Mari — even, bizarrely enough, of Mariah Carey. And it’s undeniably true that few of those performing R &B can belt out a tune like Aretha. The thing is, they’re not supposed to. Contemporary R &B has very little to do with classic 60s Southern Soul. Instead, it’s rooted in the high-gloss production and intensive harmonies of Motown and Gamble and Huff. There are a couple of exceptions: Shareefa’s debut deftly combines old school grit with new school gloss, and Faith Evans unbelievable“Mesmerized” sounds like Stax on steroids. In general, though, a big voice and giant production add up to a faux- Broadway disaster (hello, Christina.) Contemporary R&B just works better with less dramatic singers. Tweet and Monica, for example, both use smooth, creamy deliveries that swirl languidly into the backing tracks. And then there’s Cassie, whose vocals might be kindly described as wispy. That doesn’t hurt her a bit, though; on her debut, her voice is so processed and multi-tracked that the singer becomes just one more electronic blip among many — part of a robotic, flawless glucose-delivery system that makes Pizzicato Five sound clumsily robust.”

I added emphasis in the above passage. I’m not arguing that there is no artistic merit in mainstream music (a friend of mine performed on one of the biggest worldwide hits of the past two years, and I think it was a genuinely great song), but the inclusion of the character of one’s voice and high production values are not mutually exclusive ingredients in a pop song. The writer of the above passage is an informed and willing participant in the shift of cultural values, whereby the fundamental is the only element of the human voice that is of value, and it’s character has none. In fact  a voice that lacks character but is capable of carrying off the fundamental without inflection is more likely to be successful than a voice that is both proficient and full of character.

It wasn’t always like this. Most any of the enduring pre-millenium vocalists possessed very distinctive voices with unique characteristics – regardless of genre: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, Dione Warwick, Lennon and McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Harry Nillson, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Joe Strummer, Johnny Rotten, Arri Up, Michael Jackson, Cindi Lauper, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Frank Black, Henry Rollins, Kate Bush, Glen Danzig, James Hetfield, Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor, Perry Farrel, Chino Moreno, Chris Cornel, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Björk, Thom York etc. etc. Even Christina Aguilera and Ronan Keating had distinctive voices.

I struggle to come up with a list of singers that have distinctive voices from the past 12 years. Here’s an attempt: Brandon Flowers, Adele, Kimbra,Feist, MIA, Lily Allen, Julian Casablancas, Daniel Rosen, Lykke Li, Jack White, Lana Del Ray and… I’m out. I hate lists, and I’ve essentially incited a pissing match by writing these two, but you get my point.

It used to be that you identified the artist performing the song by the voice, now the voice is literally just another instrument, and the holder of it is merely name-checked as a hangover from a previous cultural structure. Vocalists are no longer even associated with the writing of the song. It’s all about the producer featuring [insert name here], and if you are lucky enough to be releasing music in your own name you’re also lucky enough to possess a voice bland enough to appeal to the masses.

The best explanation I can give as to what I think has caused this shift has to do with the convergent nature of electronic music. That electronic music and the wealth of technologies creates a natural gravity in song writing and production whereby purely electronic sounds are manipulated to approximate natural sounds and natural sounds are manipulated to sound artificial and electronic. These developments have been at play since the early days of electronic instruments in the 1950s when analogue synthesizers were endowed with as many features as possible to approximate natural instruments, and samples of real world things were recorded and manipulated to sound unreal (the original Dr Who theme is a really good example of this). What tends to happen is that the more manipulated natural sounds meld well with electronically generated sounds that imitate real instruments and sounds. I’d say that the preference of character deficient voices is the result of this production technique that has been employed to such an extent over the last 20 to 30 years, that it now forms a cornerstone of mainstream taste.

So yeah, next time you are watching a TV talent quest (X Factor, Idol, The Voice et al.) you’d have a better chance of predicting the eventual winner by picking the contestant with the blandest voice. So good luck. I’m changing the channel.

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Time and Place

31 Oct

“Ladies and Gentlemen all the way from Akron Ohio – The Black keys!”

The crowd screams. “Woooohooo! (whistles) (claps) Yeah!”

Most of the merchandise says nothing other than “The Black Keys – Akron, OH”.

So what of this Akron Ohio place. It must be important. After all the Black Keys have attached their brand to it.

Turns out Akron doesn’t have much to say about itself in popular culture. Chrissie Hynde wrote a song about it once, no-one other than her and the The Black keys ever really came from there, yet it has a population of 200,000 so I wouldn’t call it a small town. That’s a city.

Dunedin New Zealand is much smaller, yet it had a sound. A sound I might add that countless bands from New Zealand and even elsewhere continue to attempt to attach their name to. So what of that place. If you are a band from there, are you of that sound. What claim do you have.

I find the attachment of a place to a band or musical artist’s brand a little tenuous. It is both inclusive and exclusive depending on the context and at worst it only works to pad out a headline for an act.

I was once sitting in the greenroom for a shins concert and some idiot approached me with “All the way from Portland Oregon, it’s the SHINS!!!” – Sorry bro, I’m not in the shins. Red-faced before his companions he muffed a recovery and slunk away only to be heard in the distance repeating the same excited intro when he stumbled across the real Shins. They were equally unimpressed. The point being his emphasis on the place was supposed to give the band a fantastical quality. He might as well have said “All the way from Mount Olympus….”.

But what does the place name add? I still don’t know. I played around Dunedin for about 5 years. I never claimed connection to the Dunedin sound, yet I strongly identify with the creative architecture of the city that allowed me to grow as an artist and play more shows than I have since. The town has an amazing musical history that I think all acknowledge, whether they identify with the music of the stars from its glory days or not. What if I was there 16 years earlier?

What if I was in Akron 6 years ago? What if I was in Portland instead of Dunedin? What if I was making music in Bristol in 1991. In Manchester in ’81, in London in ’76, in Mississippi in the 30s.  It’s difficult to imagine that just being in those places at a certain point in time could provide one with a promotional edge. Like your music was better for being there at that point in time.

Time and place are often cited as key ingredients in the success of an artist, like you had to be there, but somewhere deep down I call bullshit. Yes you can be part of a movement, but because something is going on around you shouldn’t mean your music gets raised to mythical status. Because you’re from a place shouldn’t give you a claim to musical superiority, or fame in and of itself. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Akron Ohio appears on the T-Shirts because it is a symbol of defying the odds. Maybe the same goes for Dunedin, it was a scene and a sound that was international in spite of itself. Portland, Detroit, Nashville, Memphis, Bristol,  Manchester, Liverpool, Nigeria, Cuba, Brazil – all appear to me to be symbols of success in spite of great obstacles. The movements associated with each are famous because the music was born out of adversity of some kind – even if that adversity is simply emerging from a cultural wasteland unscathed.

I like to think there is hope in that. So many artists from small towns or seemingly insignificant places write their chances of reaching an audience off purely because of where they are, but from what I’ve seen the place doesn’t put the artsist on the map. The artist puts the place on the map. I for one know where Akron is now.

Solace in Traditional Forms

25 Sep

As a young songwriter (I’m talking teens and early twenties) all I wanted to do was re-write the book on how songs were made; to make something so outrageously original yet accessible that  young and old alike would think “this is amazing. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done before”. I went so far as to shuck traditional theory and lessons when learning the guitar in the hope that my lack of formal knowledge would allow me to stumble upon some sonic truth that had laid undiscovered throughout civilisation.

Yet somehow even using this method of songwriting I was drawn to the traditional forms. Major and minor chords would still form the root of whatever I was creating. It had nothing to do with selling out my ideals, but everything to do with solving the particular problem I was facing in bringing the musical idea that was trapped in my head out into the world. I had been willfully blind to the fact that every chord under the sun can be quantified by traditional (still largely current) musical theory.

I still did the best I could to steer away from the traditional forms. I didn’t want to have anything to do with my parents or grandparents generation. I wanted to help define the sound of my own generation. Yet despite dabbling in (and usually mixing together) every trend of that decade, I found myself drawn to traditional forms as if by gravity.

I hated Country, yet I would write it. I hated old american folk music and yet I would write it. Ragtime was boring. Most everything that wasn’t the result of some sort of punk attitude or aesthetic I had no interest in, yet somehow over time I began to appreciate it. And it wasn’t just me.

All my friends began having less and less interest in the latest hottest thing. We became fluent in the pathways of music past, and how to interpret their influences on those hot new things. The hot new things became hollow. Not hot or new at all. Just a jumble of old influences that their friends and contemporaries hadn’t yet cottoned on to, or if they had it was intentionally ironic or post modern or whatever other excuse was needed to form a membrane between what they were doing now and the context within which the earlier influence arose.

Something else was also happening. We were living. Things in our lives weren’t going as we’d planned. Life was more complex than we had been led to believe, and it was harder to succeed than we had thought. All of a sudden the new music with its vocals set deep back in the mix, its illusive meanings, or straight-up shallow raps didn’t seem to reflect where we were at emotionally. It didn’t shed a light on what we were going through and we were old enough to know what was going on behind the curtain; “That’s just a TR808 with a Juno bass line” etc.

There was however a pre-existing cure for our ailment, and it has come back time and time again when it has been needed, and that is the traditional folk song in its many forms. Blues, country, appalachian, jazz, gypsy and soul etc, are all folk formats to one set of peoples or another, and they all offer a reliable platform upon which an artist can say what they feel they must.

It tends to come back into popularity in times of great social change and turmoil, when people are looking for something familiar to hold on to (GFC anyone? That’s still happening right?). It’s hard to identify with a guy singing about getting a bitch on a dance floor when you’re being bullied at work, have money troubles and a rocky relationship. Sometimes you just want to hear your life sung back at you.

There is currently a healthy resurgence in these folk musics and the cringe formerly attached has greatly lessened in the younger generations (at least in my own). I have felt a shift in the current generation of pop artists whereby the aim is to be as respectful to the source influences as they can, to pay homage to them while also attempting to bring something new to the canon of that genre. Aloe Blac, Sharon Jones and the Dap kings and Mark Ronson come to mind as examples of respectful referencing of classic soul music for instance.

I have been doing live sound for countless acoustic acts over the past 7 months, all of whom have sought to bring irony free truth in communicating the subject matter of their material. When tongue-in-cheek does creep into a set it is usually in the form of an ironic acoustic cover of a Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls or Britney Spears style pop song.

They tackle the traditional art form in all seriousness because they are relying on it to help them deliver their message in the most economic form of emotional communication as they can. It is this economy of communication that has ensured that the traditional artforms that gave rise to the 2 minute pop song still endure. It is also why I myself have gravitated towards it.

I have been heavily influenced by artists such as Harry Nilsson, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman, Neil Young and  Burt Bacharach in the past few months. Not one of them would I say was all that original. Of course they all exhibit something unique to themselves, but every single one of them relies heavily on the frame provided by the traditions that came before them on which to hang their ideas. These guys were just particularly good at using the format to communicate.

I am still in the throes of dealing with a number of years of complex and deeply upsetting trauma through song. I can’t stop writing (I wrote a song yesterday while repairing a broken window!). And the only format that I have found that can adequately allow me to match my ideas with lyrics and melody is the traditional pop song. Often I have found Country to provide the easiest backdrop to what I want to say, and allow me to marry complex lyrical ideas (such as a narrative) with a strong melody. It’s like coming home. Like that moment when you’re old enough to realize that your parents aren’t really bad people, that they had tried as hard as they could for you given the circumstances and while struggling with their own demons. The traditional pop song was never boring. We just didn’t get it. We thought we didn’t need it. We were sure there was a better way that completely avoided it; and there might be, but it is my belief that you need to acknowledge what the traditional form is before accusing it of what it isn’t. To move forward sometimes you need to look back lest you go around in circles. Wait a minute….but we are going around in circles! Well I suppose he world isn’t flat.

Originality and the Love Song

17 Aug

I am an artist. I express what I am compelled to express. My art might be shit. It might be great; The main thing is that I express whatever the concept or thought might be, in an attempt to articulate and communicate the idea. Expression of a thought is as important a human function as breathing, eating or taking a piss. If you don’t satisfy the urge, it doesn’t go away. Pressure builds until the need satisfies itself in an often catastrophic outburst. It is my belief that un-satiated creative urges are at the root of a lot of mental health issues. I know it was for me for quite some time.

Recently I have been writing a prolific amount of love songs; or at least love has been the central theme given that most of the songs have been inspired by my own profound feelings of pain and loss following a failed relationship. I have been doing this purely to help me pick my way through the inevitable emotional debris, of which there is apparently quite a lot. It got me thinking about  how many love songs the world already has and whether the world really needs any more of them.

Certainly there is a general backlash against the theme by a lot of artists because they find the topic trite. I recall listening to an interview Dudley Benson gave on New Zealand’s National Radio in which he said that he actively avoided writing love songs because he felt the topic had been covered comprehensively by so many artists for so long that there was really nothing more to be said on the subject. This was my own feeling on the topic for a while, as was the general opinion of most of my artist friends – though we all broke the unspoken pact from time to time.

But why? If love songs as a product are so played-out, why can’t we help ourselves but produce them?

I have been haunted by something I’m pretty sure John Mill said about originality and the human experience. That just because someone has experienced something before, it doesn’t lessen the significance of that experience to anyone who subsequently goes through the same thing. There are countless experiences that we all go through as human beings significant and insignificant, but they all inspire the same feelings in each of us when they happen to us. Grazing your knee as a child, eating something for the first time that blows your mind with its deliciousness, the death of a loved one etc. We empathise with each other when we talk about our common experiences. They are equally significant to each of us not because they are original but because of the strength of feeling we attach to those experiences. And love inspires the most profound feelings of all.

When each of us has gone through a break up, countless songs come to mind that seem to succinctly describe what we are feeling. My brother thought my father was taking-the-piss when every song that came on the radio the following day seemed to apply to what he was going through. Of course it wasn’t Dad’s fault, but the radio was switched off for at least the next week and a half. I myself could rattle off a list of songs that I believe accurately describe what I have been through and what I felt at each point in time, when listened to in say a playlist.

So why then do I and countless others persist in writing songs about love and the loss of a loved one, when I can quote the applicable song titles? Because my urge is my urge. Quoting “Train in Vain” by The Clash doesn’t have the same emotional effect as singing what I’m actually feeling at that point in time, in words that I have put together to reflect my thoughts with musical accompaniment that evokes the approximate emotional tone of what I’m experiencing. Any line or chord may not be original when taken on its own, but when arranged in a way that expresses exactly what the artist feels at that point in time, it transcends the unoriginal to join the ranks of the innovative. Of course inovation is measured on a scale, but its a far fairer standard by which to measure art than that of true originality. It has been said countless times before, that there is nothing original under the sun; but within anything that is the slightest bit innovative lives a kernel of originality. The usefulness of the love songs must be to help others perhaps to create a more accurate playlist to reflect their own emotions and experiences. (Remember when we used to be discerning about what music made it into our personal collection – why was that?).

What I suppose I’m saying is that using originality as the yard stick by which you measure a love song’s value is to use the wrong tool. The correct tool to use is your own heart to measure the significance of how a love song reflects feelings you have had or are currently experiencing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a song to write.