What is it that you love about your favorite artist? Maybe you’re hooked on their lyrics or song melodies, maybe you relate to their brand, but my guess is you favor certain artists because you love their vocal style. Christina Aguilera, Michael Jackson, Ellie Goulding, Tom Petty, Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, Cher, Stevie Nicks, Luke Bryan… the minute a new single from any of these artists comes on the radio, you know exactly who it is. Artists will get lost in the shuffle if they don’t have a unique sound.
As an ever-evolving artist, I am always trying to improve my style… It’s all about knowing your limits and focusing on your strengths.
Singers: If you’re with me on the search for finding your style, here are a few distinctive qualities that have worked for popular artists and may work for you, too…
*The Rasp: Singers who don’t have perfect pitch or a pure tone can make the most of what they got by adding a little raspy-ness to their voice. Even if you do have perfect pitch and a pure tone, adding the occasional “rasp” can add texture to a vocal performance. If there are low notes in a song that are giving you trouble, don’t sing them. Try talking them and rasp it up a little. You hear “The Rasp” mostly in the rock genre… Stevie Nicks, Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Tyler, Nirvana, etc.
*The Nasal: I have a tendency to get too nasal if I’m pushing too hard on high notes, but sometimes being nasal isn’t such a bad thing! It works great for Broadway babies and country songs. It also brings a more youthful, playful energy to the song. It worked for young Madonna (Material Girl anyone? NASAL!). Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Gwen Stefani, Miley Cyrus, and Tom Petty are some other artists who tend to keep their sound very forward in the nasal cavity. This style choice shouldn’t be overused, but own it if you got it!
*Sweet and Pure: Singers who are perfectionists tend to stick to the “sweet and pure.” If you’re just starting out and are too afraid to take stylistic risks, then “sweet and pure” is just fine! As you begin to gain more confidence, you’ll be willing to try more things and make bolder stylistic choices. I usually stick with this method when performing a new song for the first time. Once I begin to know the song inside out after performing it multiple times, I have more fun with it. “Sweet and Pure” means being very rhythmic, pitch conscious, and “straight” with your singing. It’s pleasant and neutral. The problem with this is that it can be too generic. But I believe people like Vanessa Carlton and Posh Spice work it very well.
*Sexy Sultry: Singers with naturally breathy voices or females with a low range can master this style choice! It’s a more relaxed, smooth tone with more sliding and less emphasis on vibrato. Lana Del Rey is a prime example. I could listen to her sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and still think it’s a great, hot song. She has the “Sexy Sultry” method down, but uses it wisely… Sometimes she’ll pull it back and go into what I like to call her innocent baby voice and sometimes she even uses “The Rasp!” Alternative, soul, and jazz artists often add “Sexy Sultry” to their performance.
*The Crazy Vibrato: Two words: Josh Groban. Enough said.
*Run Da World: You’ve heard runs in every Beyoncé, Christina, Ariana Grande, Mariah Carey song. It’s when a singer starts off at a high note and then quickly drops through the scale down to a very low note in a few short seconds. For some reason, people go CRAZY when a singer does runs… it makes them think that they are listening to the best singer in the world. Yes, runs are definitely a skill and take practice and experience, but a lot of times, female artists tend to abuse runs. They either don’t nail their runs because they are risky and hard to get right every time, try too hard to impress the audience by adding too many notes in the run (so it ends up sounding very pitchy and contrived), or they add runs to every line in the song and it is overkill. When it comes to runs, practice makes perfect. I wouldn’t recommend spontaneously trying to “Run Da World” during a performance unless you’re Mariah Carey.
*The Lilo & STITCH: Singers who have a full, thick, throaty sound tend to sound like a less extreme version of Stitch from the hit movie “Lilo & Stich.” This style choice definitely sets you apart and adds flair and spice to a song. Listen to Shaggy and Shakira to fully grasp “The Lilo & STICH.” If you feel silly doing the “The Lilo & STITCH” or feel like it sounds too forced, stay away from this one.
*The Attack: Pop singers who have songs with big, anthem-like choruses are usually the ones who use “The Attack.” By this I mean building up the song and when the chorus hits…belting the heck out of it. Annunciate your words, feel it, make the chorus THE best moment of your performance. That means keeping the verses pretty simple, not giving it all away, using dynamics, and building suspense. Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson do this all the time. They are the queens of anticipation!
*The Cry: Singers who struggle with high notes may want to try “The Cry” technique. It’s just a little whimper or breath release added to the end of a word or a subtle scoop/whine to the beginning of a word. It will help you scoop up to the high notes with ease. “The Cry” also brings emotion to the song and shows vulnerability. Think of the last line in the chorus of “You Outta Know” by Alanis Morrisette… “You-u (little cry), You-u (little cry), You-u (little cry) outta know.”
*The Attitude: Singers who like bringing some personality and sass to their performance should try “The Attitude” technique. This means singing like they’d talk or tell a story. A lot of dance/electronic artists use “The Attitude” because their songs are so fast that there’s not a lot of time to beautifully sing it and add runs, so they sing the words simply and add a little sass. Hopefully these songs will give you a better idea of what I’m talking about: “Shut Up and Let Me Go” by the Ting Tings, “Bulletproof” by La Roux, and “I Love It” by Icona Pop. You could amp up the attitude even more by actually speaking your lyrics at certain moments in the song like P!nk and Ke$ha do.
As you can see, there are so many fun stylistic choices to play around with! Part of the reason I LOVE singing cover songs so much is because I get to practice and learn about the artist’s distinct style and make it my own. To my fellow musicians, I urge you to keep your ears and mind open to different style choices you hear and take a stab at ones you like… mix and match to find your singing identity! Before you know it, you’ll be unforgettable!