This post is part of a series of occasional Questions and Answers. Just use the contact form if you want to submit a question.
Blue Cat asks:
“How do you develop your own singing style or use your own voice when singing another artist’s song instead of copying that artist’s style and voice?”
This is what we call “making a song your own”. A difficult but very rewarding challenge.
I don’t know about you, but when I come to sing (or arrange) a well-known song that I really like, I have the original going around in my head.
As I sing I can hear the gorgeous backing singers, the sumptuous string arrangement and the pulse of the rhythm section. I float along on this cushion of loveliness imagining I’m the best singer in the world. And usually I end up imitating the original singer.
How can you break out of this and truly make the song your own, as if it belongs to you and you alone?
The best cover versions of songs are when they manage to erase the original from your mind. They are so good that you can’t imagine anyone else ever doing the song. Often these versions become the best-known versions and people often don’t realise that there is an original lurking around somewhere. Good examples of this are:
- The first time ever I saw your face by folk singer Ewan MacColl which became a mainstream pop song when covered by Roberta Flack (and ripped off by Matt Cardle for 2010’s X-Factor).
- Mad world by UK band Tears for Fears covered by Gary Jules for the soundtrack to the movie Donnie Darko.
- Hallelujah by Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, although most people know the version by Jeff Buckley (which 2009’s X-Factor versions ripped off).
Then there are the cover versions which are not a patch on the original. The younger generation come across a song by their favourite group and assume they must have written it, although it’s actually a cover version. There are loads of example of this, but one that springs to mind is:
- Father and son written by Cat Stevens in 1970, covered by Irish boy band Boyzone in 1995. No, Boyzone did NOT write this song!
Somehow the arrangers and singers of good cover versions have adapted the song in a way that makes it sound fresh and new and totally suited to their voices. How do they manage this?
Here are some hints on how you might make a song your own without trying to impersonate the original singer:
- be playful – try the song as a country and western standard, as an opera aria, in a reggae style, as a mournful ballad. Choose as many different and ‘inappropriate’ styles to sing the song in. Put on funny voices. Be playful. Wash your head of the original and you will feel more free. You may well stumble across a completely new, more relevant (to you) way of singing the song.
- discover (and enjoy!) your own voice – many singers start off by imitating their favourite singers. Trouble is, it can become a habit and you end up with a voice that is not really your own. So first you need to discover what your own unique, natural singing voice is and learn to love it. You might like to check out these posts: Your singing self vs. your everyday self, Learning to love the sound of your own voice, Why our singing voices have different accents, Does your singing voice reveal the real you?
- choose the right song – you need to be able to relate personally to a song before you can really make it your own. It might be the lyrics, the overall feeling, the quality, the melody, but there must be something that really moves you and attracts you to a song. If not, don’t do it.
- find an angle – rather than rushing in and impersonating your favourite singer’s version of a song, reflect on why you’ve chosen it. Try to relate it to something in your own life/ psyche/ philosophy/ history/ memories. Then sing it as if you had written the song for just that situation. They lyrics or feeling of the song will become far more relevant and there is a better chance that will sing it with your own natural voice.
- go back to basics – figure out exactly what it is that draws you to the song. If it’s the lyrics, spend some time with them reading them, reciting them out loud, declaiming them, making them your own. If it’s the melody, strip the words out and play with the melody (speed, volume, dynamics, etc.) until it really emphasises the mood that you’re trying to create. If it’s the backing/ production, try to isolate exactly which bits that are vital and then try to find a way of bringing the essence of this into your singing.
- try it out – perform your new version to a friend and get their feedback. Do they recognise the song? Do you still sound like the original singer? Get them to ask you questions about ‘your’ song: why did you write it? why have you chosen it? which is your favourite part? how can you perform it better?
A lot of the points aimed at singers above can equally well be applied to those who want to arrange a song to make it their own. In addition:
- strip out the production – figure out what are just production/ arrangement features in the original, and what is vital to make the song what it is. Often there is a particular riff or instrumental that really makes the song. If you were to just pick out the melody line, something will have been lost. Don’t just slavishly reproduce the original’s production.
- decide on your approach – is there a particular style that is suggested or that you’re interested in? You might be surprised at how readily a seemingly odd choice of style fits an existing song. For example, Sue Jorge giving Bowie songs a Brazilian tropicalia make-over in The Life Aquatic.
- seek out other versions – there may be lots of other arrangements of a song already out there. Not only do you not want to reinvent the wheel, but you also want to get an idea of what things are possible.
- listen to the original – and keep on listening until the song is really inside your head. Then stop. Walk around with the song like that for a LONG time until it ferments and gestates inside you and it will slowly begin to transform into your very own version. Your memory is fallible, so use that fact and don’t keep referring to the original recording. The things you remember will be just the things that are important to you.
Despite all that I’ve written above, I still find myself impersonating other singers and find it really hard to not simply reproduce a song exactly when I’m arranging it for voices. So please, do let me have some other ideas that I can use! Drop by and leave a comment if you have any other handy hints on how to make a song your own. I do really appreciate it.
Chris Rowbury's website: chrisrowbury.com