Finding the right vocalist for a song

One of the most important yet difficult parts of my work is finding the right vocalist for a song. Unless I wrote the song with/for a particular artist, I can expect to go through 200+ demos before finding the right vocalist. Why be so picky?

How a song is sung can bring it to life or kill it dead in its tracks. Look up covers on YouTube for a popular song and you are guaranteed to find some that are wonderful and others that will make a dog howl and a cat screech. Would the song have been as popular as it was if the original vocal performance was closer to the latter case?

The very basic ingredients for a vocal performance is pitch and rhythm. Arguably these aren’t mandatory anymore with tools like Melodyne and Autotune, but if you are producing a more delicate or natural sounding piece, such as a piano ballad, then there is only a very limited amount of these tools that you can use.

Some vocalists assume that if they have pitch and rhythm, they can sing anything. Artists will send me their demos with a note that they can ‘sing anything’ ‘in any genre’. I have yet to encounter a vocalist who can pull this off. Yes, you can sing in any genre, but to what standard?

What separates a mediocre and great vocal performance for a specific song are: 1) suitable timbre, 2) vocal expression, and 3) inflections. Recording vocals without these ingredients is like baking a cake without the baking soda and seasoning. You’ll end up with a product that is flat and lifeless.

A voice is no different than an instrument in a symphonic orchestra. Different instruments can hit the same note but a composer selects specific instruments for certain passages because of their ability to convey certain emotions better. Each vocalist is, to some extent, a different instrument with their own timbre and need to be treated as such.

A great contemporary example where the timbre of an artist’s voice gels really well with the song is Pat Benatar’s We Belong.

I have, to this day, never heard a cover that comes close to Pat’s rendition. Her voice has an inexplicable vulnerability in the verses that explodes into a pleading intensity in the chorus’ which (IMO) resonates with the song melodically and lyrically. There is something inherent in Pat’s voice that makes it an ideal fit for her. It feels like her song and I think this, in part, comes from the timbre of her voice.

[NB: There could be an element of the “I heard this version first” effect, to be covered in a later post.]

The final two ingredients for a great song are related but slightly different. Expression is the raw emotional intensity in how a song is sung. Can the singer pull off a convincing pleading voice? What about subtle sarcasm?  It’s the emotional intent coming across. The audience isn’t going to feel the emotion just from the lyrics or melody so you have to be sure the vocalist can convey the emotion, preferably without exaggerating.

Inflections are a more specific form of expression and deal with specific ways in which the voice is manipulated to produce an effect. A good example of this is the pronunciation of ‘tokyo’ in the chorus of Iggy Azalea’s Fancy ft Charli XCX.

The ‘o’ sound is exaggerated in a way that makes it memorable. It was the one part of the song that made an impression on my first listen. Each genre will have a vocabulary of inflections that has been used in the past that an audience will recognize, some of which may be specific to an artist. The right vocalist for a song will have the appropriate inflections in their repertoire to give your song some flavour. An even better situation is if the vocalist can come up with new inflections that will be memorable but sound ‘in genre’.

To summarize, the vocalist is the front and center presentation of the song, and the best vocalist for a song is one that can animate the words on the page such that the emotional message comes equally from the delivery, and from the lyrics and melody. To demonstrate this point, I will leave you with an anecdote that I heard at a writing class in London, given by an experienced song writer.

The writer was in Italy and there was a song on the radio. He had no idea what the vocalist was singing (it was in Italian) but it made him think of memories of days gone past, perhaps tinged with some regret of what had happened. He eventually managed to get someone to translate the song, and his interpretation was on the money.

A great song does not make a great recording…the vocalist is one of, if not the, most important elements to get your song across. Make sure its got all the right ingredients to have the same (or better) impact to others as it had to you when you wrote it.