Bob Dylan. Billy Corgan. Kesha. Conor Oberst. Ani DiFranco. Neil Young. Picking up on a theme here? All are fantastic artists, and all have been accused of being “bad” singers. Yet they still connect with millions of fans and are able to stand out from the crowd, in part because of the unique qualities of their voices.
“Beautiful” voices are everywhere. You might have one or know someone who does. But a beautiful voice will only get you so far. Can you remember the winner of American Idol in 2009? Probably not. That’s because American Idol and its ilk are heavily focused on finding and promoting “beautiful” voices. No doubt you can find some exemptions to this rule, but generally speaking mainstream audiences know and are comfortable with “beautiful” voices. The problem is that this comfort can breed fan apathy and disengagement, meaning you’re forgotten in a sea of other beautiful voices.
But if you look at your favorite artists, I bet there are voices that many people would find “bad” or “ugly” or “off-key.” That’s because a unique voice has a higher likelihood of connecting, if only because it forces fans to make a judgement call. It provokes a question. Is Dylan singing off key? Or is he singing in his own unique key?
In the beginning, when you are developing as an artist, it’s likely you’ll begin by copying someone’s vocal style. As you progress you will learn the characteristics of your own voice. When you embrace your own unique qualities and truly embellish them, you will begin to find a fanbase that appreciates those qualities. That allows you to be more “you” and stand out in today’s oversaturated world.
Obviously singing the “right notes” and being in the “right pitch” have been proven to connect with people but beyond the technical pitch of the notes you’re singing, the characteristics of your own voice is what will really get you to connect to fans.
Also, it’s important to remember that what you are singing is as important, if not more important, than how you are singing.
You can’t separate Bob Dylan from his visionary lyrics. Nor can you separate Kesha’s delivery from her lyrics. I think you’ll agree with me that in both cases the content of the lyrics are as important as the voice.
So how do you find your unique voice? From what I’ve researched it seems to come down to the following basic principles.
Sing a lot. In a lot of different styles. Record your practice sessions. You’ve probably been singing and writing lyrics for a while. Now make a goal of getting as many hours in as possible. You need to practice to get good at this and figure out your personal style.
Listen back to your sessions. What do you like? What do you not like? Jot down your thoughts and sing again. See if you can remedy the parts that you don’t love. Record those results. Listen. Repeat. Ask others for feedback.
After all the singing and testing you should get a sense of where you feel the most comfortable. Embrace that place and work on making further strides down that road. If you’re a solo artist, consider joining a choir, or an acapella group, or a band to get exposure and feedback from other singers.
Did we mention you just need to keep writing and singing? Yeah, keep that up and you’ll find what you like and what you don’t as you steadily experiment and improve.
Once you think you’ve found your voice let it inform your entire artistic direction. Your voice is a huge part of why people are into you so embrace all aspects of it. Tom Waits has a distinct voice and style, and makes musical choices that all fit together. He’s able to let his voice be the jumping off point to many parts of his artistic world. Like him, you should create, explore and share your voice with the world. And remember that your voice is ever evolving so keep working on developing your unique sounding voice rather than a perfect sounding one. Embrace the imperfections and make your fans remember who you are because the sooner you do that the sooner you’ll be able to separate yourself from the noise.
Matt Voyno is the Editor of NueAgency’s Beats + Bytes Music Tech Newsletter that includes over 10,000 music industry insiders like Lyor Cohen and Bob Lefsetz.