I’m going to start this off by saying that by no means am I a professional voice teacher. I haven’t gone to school and studied voice like many professionals. I’m merely an enthusiast with a ton of practice and experience who wants to impart that knowledge to others.
Anyone who’s ever done karaoke can tell you how much fun it is going out with friends, getting a little buzzed, and then singing a favorite pop song for an equally buzzed crowd. I like karaoke too. It’s more about having fun than sounding like a pro. When one of my good friends Jennifer is in town, we like to visit Plaza del Sol in Norfolk for their weekly Friday karaoke night and sing some songs for the crowd. Jennifer sings “Payphone,” I get to warble through “Girls on Film” and other 80s favorites.
It took me years to get any confidence in standing up for a crowd at a karaoke night. I’d come from the world of formal singing recitals, where you practice a song over and over again for weeks beforehand. Getting up in front of a room of people with no preparation, even in front of people who are too drunk to care how you sound, scared the living daylights out of me.
What helped me in gaining my confidence in singing karaoke was doing something you might not expect for karaoke: I sing the song like myself, thus making the song my own, rather than trying to imitate the original singer.
In the world of performing musicians, I’m not a cover artist. I have nothing against artists who sing other people’s songs. I just prefer to write and sing my own songs. I’ve written those words and that melody, so I know how it’s supposed to sound, and I know what I was feeling when I wrote it. It’s more personal.
However, during a show or an open mic set, if the crowd looks like they might want something a little more familiar, I do like to sing my own versions of some favorite 80s songs they might know. I used to do a dubsteppy version of “Broken Wings.” You wouldn’t expect to hear that song done in that way, but I did it as an experiment in Logic one day and liked what I heard, so I pull it out during a Launchpad show. My girl and a piano version of “Blue Monday” goes over well too. That’s another song I like to do in my own style, this time without the electronics and just going on the melody and chords. Because a good song is a good song, no matter how you do it.
It’s important to first find your own style and what works well for your own voice. Then, you can use that knowledge to help you make a cover song your own.
If I cover a song, it’s usually a song I have some sort of connection with. “Blue Monday” is one of my absolute favorite 80s songs, one I listened to a lot on my Walkman as I navigated the hallways in my high school. I have to bob my head when that distinctive kick starts the song.
“Heartache Feeds Heartache,” done by the group A Drop in the Gray in 1985, was one of the first new wave songs I paid attention to thanks to the website New Wave Outpost. I listened to A Drop in the Gray’s lone album Certain Sculptures over and over again in my first year of college. I liked the moodiness and the gorgeous lyrics. Because it holds a lot of importance for me, I like to cover that song as well, both as a girl-and-a-piano and with my Launchpad.
So if you want to cover a song, pick something you like. Make it something that would be worth your time to learn. Otherwise, it’s a waste. I can tell when someone I’m listening to at an open mic night is just not that into a song.
Something else I like to do when making a song my own is to choose a song that you wouldn’t expect to hear with just voice and whatever instrument you play, if you play a musical instrument in addition to singing.
I tend to gravitate to artists who take a song in one style and do it in their own way. One of my favorite music artists is Eliza Rickman. When she covers a song, she makes it her own in a way that really inspires me when I come up with my own arrangements for cover songs. It’s quite something to hear a super produced 80s song like “Slave to Love” being turned into her own vocal-layered, acoustic style. “Moon River,” done with either voice and toy piano or voice and xylophone played with a cello bow (whoa cool!!), is another one of my favorite covers she’s ever done.
Charlotte Martin is another great example of someone who makes a song her own. She’s a piano player as well as a singer, so when she covers a song, she’ll either strip it to piano and voice (“Black Hole Sun,” “Running Up That Hill,” “Just Like Heaven”) or she’ll make it in her own electronically produced style but different in some way (“Bizarre Love Triangle”).
Tori Amos is another artist who makes a song her own. I don’t always like the songs she covers or the way she does it (her version of “Do It Again” is one of my least favorite Tori covers), but when she does something I like, it holds my attention. Her version of “Purple Rain,” done girl-and-a-piano style, is really awesome, as is her take on “Losing My Religion” and “Ring My Bell.”
My instrument of choice is the piano. So if I cover a song, it’s usually either in a piano-voice style or it’s fully produced with other instruments in Logic. And I’ll pick something like “Blue Monday,” a song best known for its use of synthesizers and drum machine, and take it to just piano and voice. Or a song like “Wishing” by A Flock of Seagulls, done with piano and voice, where it originally relied on electronic instrumentation.
Even if you don’t play a musical instrument and all you do is sing, you can still make a song your own by layering it using a loop pedal or just singing it in a different style a cappella. If the song is strong enough to stand on just the melody, do that!
Now, say you have a song you want to do but it doesn’t seem to quite fit your voice because you either have to sing too low or sing too high. That’s when you can try something I have to do all the time: change the key of the song, or transpose, to better fit your voice if needed. This requires you to have some music knowledge, even better if you play an instrument. If you have a friend who can transpose something, have them help you. If you can find the song chords on something like Ultimate Guitar, there’s an option to transpose the song to lower or higher keys.
I have to transpose a lot of songs. See, I like a lot of dude songs. And for me to sing a song originally sung by a guy, I have to change the key. Otherwise, I’m stuck singing way too low or having to jump way too high. I haven’t ever performed it for a live show, but I learned “Shake the Disease” by Depeche Mode a few months ago. That song is originally in D minor and it ended up being way too low and then suddenly way too high for me. So I moved it to A minor and it fit my voice a LOT better. It also had a different sound to it, even moodier than the original, if that’s possible!
“Catch the Wind” is another favorite song that I like to play, and depending on the crowd at the show or open mic night, it’s familiar to a lot of people. The original key is Eb and while I can sing it in that key, it ends up sounding too high. So I moved it down to Bb major for my own version so that it will work better with my voice. And it does!
One of the last things I do when making a song my own is change the melody when I want to emphasize something in the lyrics that the original singer didn’t do. When I sing “Danny Boy,” I tend to run a little bit on a few of the words. I don’t do Mariah Carey-level melisma (melisma: a fancy word for all those excessive “ooooooooohs” that pop singers tend to sing across many different notes), but just several notes around a syllable
Being confident enough in a song to change the melody a little to make it more my own was probably one of the hardest things for me to learn. For years, I was supposed to sing what was on the page and nothing more. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t sound uniform with everyone else in the choir. Also, I used to audition for various local choirs and those auditions involved sight-reading music (I shiver just thinking about sight-reading; I’m still not good at it). The judges put sheet music in front of you and expect you to sing what’s on the page without hearing the notes first. If you were one note out of place from what was on that sheet music, BAM. You lost points with the judges. Being in the choir gave me tons of experience in singing with others and how to layer voices, but it was less about creation and more about blending rather than sticking out and doing your own thing.
Some years ago, I was learning someone else’s song, back before my songs were actually any good, and I kept singing it too much like the original artist. I don’t even remember what the song and its artist were. I couldn’t get away from what was on the page. Andrew, my husband, told me, “Stop singing it the way it’s written on the page and just sing. Do your own thing with it.”
So that’s what I do now. He was right. As soon as I stopped chaining myself to the melody on the page, I became that much more confident in my abilities.
And I sounded even better!
Stay tuned for Part 3, where I’ll talk about my history in writing my own music and how that helped me to find my own voice.