In this extract from ‘The Songwriter’s Handbook’, the chart-topping recording artist expounds the importance of producing an authentic live performance
Not everyone sings their own songs. But the singer-songwriter era spawned a generation of songwriters who wrote especially personal songs; songs that, because they’d written themselves, and had first-hand knowledge of, they sang with an intimacy and believability that helped those songs ring true. Of course, being a songwriter doesn’t make you a great interpreter of your own songs, and you don’t have to be a songwriter to sing with profound emotion.
But it’s worth thinking about the crucial connection between the words of a song and how they are sung. Not every good song has to possess the qualities of authenticity, sincerity and heart, mentioned earlier, but those that do stand an easier chance of being relatable, of connecting and resonating with an audience.
To my mind, the job of a singer is to give respect to the song, whether they wrote it or not. A singer achieves this by believing in what they are singing. It’s an actor’s job which relies, not on counterfeit emotions, but on becoming the character in the song and sincerely and honestly speaking/singing in that character’s voice. If a singer does their job well and believes in what they are singing, the listening audience will believe it too. So, anyone that is writing and singing their own songs has a bit of a head-start in this regards, regardless of whether they sing in dulcet tones or not. If you are honest in your writing, it can make it easier for you to recall those thoughts and feelings when you open your mouth to sing. But even then, it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do.
My biggest challenge as a performer is to mean what I say when I sing the words I wrote. Any experienced performer can fake sentiment and emotion, and generally succeed in convincing most of the audience, but the best performers aren’t faking it; they may be calculated about when they breath and how long they sustain a note and how much vibrato they introduce at a certain point, but if they’re doing their job they’re also singing with sincerity and honesty – they mean what they sing.
And in order for anyone to mean what they sing or say, they have to deliver their lines as if they were speaking them for the first time to a loved one or a friend. With all the inherent distractions of being on stage, or in a studio – lights, audience noise, mics, cables, etc – it’s hard for even an experienced performer to sustain that level of sincerity for any length of time. But that’s the job. And like I said, it’s not always easy.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
There’s one song of mine, I’m A Lucky Guy, which I generally place in the middle of my show, which is a simple, country tune that expresses my genuine view, despite my many complaints and frustrations, of my relative good fortune. You could say it’s corny, but audiences seem to enjoy and relate to it. I place this song in the middle of my set, because whenever I’m standing on stage, singing that particular song, my guitar in hand, looking out over an audience – no matter how large or small – it’s impossible for me to not reconnect with the powerful personal truth behind every word of the song. Which is essentially, that as long as I’m still here, surrounded by loving family and friends, healthy and able, against all odds, to make even a modest living pursuing my music, I am, indeed, a ‘lucky guy’.
For some reason, that particular song forces me to sing honestly and sincerely, even on those occasional nights, where everything seems to be going wrong and I find myself distracted and in a lousy mood. I can sometimes feel my voice actually reconnect with all those feelings of gratitude expressed in the song’s lyric, so that for those fleeting moments, I’m genuinely meaning what I say, and singing what I mean.
SAY IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT
And when I finally get to the punchline in the last verse, “…cause I know it could all be gone in the blink of an eye.”, if I’m doing my job right, the whole audience believes what I’m saying too, because they know it to be just as true for them as it is for me. And at that moment, we’re all on the same page, all in this together, all part of the same song.
Growing up, my mom read me lots of books by the great children’s author, Dr Seuss. In his book Horton Hatches The Egg, Horton is tasked with babysitting Mayzie bird’s unhatched egg. Mayzie flies off to Palm Beach leaving Horton and an egg which he has sworn to protect. Despite many obstacles, Horton follows through on his spoken promise. As he puts it, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.” I try to apply this philosophy to my songwriting; the idea that you should write, and also sing what you write, with honest intent and veracity. Sage advice from a pachyderm.
So, try to keep some of this stuff in mind when you’re writing and singing. Words have meaning. At least in this part of the world, you can’t get arrested for singing what you believe, so you might as well express yourself as truthfully and honestly as you can.