In Los Angeles, music is a business. Every publisher, attorney, producer and record label executive wants the artist to realize that the dollar is the bottom line.
For those of you who understand the business aspects of being a musician–and they certainly need to be understood if you are to succeed–let me remind you that you need to be an artist first and foremost. Express yourself through your music; show your vision of what it means to be human. And even though you are telling your story, if you say it with conviction and clarity it will ring true for your audience.
Every artist has to find his/herself. When novelists develop a recognizable identity it is said that they have found their ‘voice.’ Steinbeck and Hemingway had a specific style and certain themes that reflected who they were and how they saw life. Painters develop in a similar way. We can distinguish a Van Gogh from a Picasso because their separate visions made their styles and subjects strikingly different.
A singer, a frontperson, a songwriter or a band has to evolve this same unique persona. By trying many different musical styles, songs and lyrics to find what works, you can eliminate what doesn’t suit you. It won’t be enough to find or write a nice song, one you can sing easily and has a good hook. It has to be a great song, a perfect song, one that fits you like a glove. The lyric must say exactly what you want to express, and the melody must be made for your voice.
Now you need to ask, “What do I want to say? How am I so special that an audience will buy my records?” Most singers look for answers in the records they love, the artists who have influenced them. While imitation feels safe, art is not imitation. You need to take your own experiences, your own vision and your own voice and create a unique and personal statement. Let’s look at some artists who have done just that.
Bruce Springsteen, though he was influenced by other artists and by what was going on around him as he was coming up through the ranks in New Jersey, created his own sound and made his vision of the working class hero popular to the masses. His voice was unique and reflected his attitudes–a rough, gritty sound with lots of energy, clearly a man who has had to struggle up form the streets. He rarely sang with vibrato or a sweet, round tone because these translate to the listener as relaxed or easy. In Springsteen’s voice we heard the tension and conflict of his life.
All of the elements of his music and performance reflected his vision. Working class values were not the normal topic of song lyrics. Sax and organ sounds were considered passe. He re-invigorated roots rock by bringing his very personal, poetic vision to a style of music he loved. He made this vision real to his audience by showing us his experiences through detailed stories from his life. In “My Hometown” his father puts him up behind the wheel of the car to look around at the town. Even though I never had that experience, the image is so strong that the event comes to life for me. This is the job of the artist–to create a personal imagery which is so vivid that it rings for us all.
Personal imagery is found not only in lyrics but in every aspect of your presentation. Is the music driving or sweet? Are you excitable or calm? Do you wear spurs or army boots? Every detail adds up to the total picture your audience will have of you down to the flyers you mail out for the gigs. These elements will evolve as your concept becomes clearer.
Written by Lis Lewis
Lis Lewis has been training singers for the music profession for over twenty years. Her clients include artists on all major record labels as well as independents. The Lis Lewis Singers’ Workshop offers lessons and workshops in every aspect of singing from vocal technique to music business to performance. Lewis is the author of a book called The Singer’s First Aid Kit, which includes The Vocal Warm-up Tape, a sixty minute tape designed to pop in your car stereo on your way to a rehearsal or gig.