Cecilee Linke

I can write you a story, teach you French, sing you a song.

Thing A Week #7 – Spirals

Since Valentine’s Day is this week, I figured I’d share a love song of sorts!

I say a love song because while this does talk about a romance, it’s unfulfilled.

This week’s song, Spirals, was inspired by a story I read in a book about French culture. I think it might’ve been French or Foe. I can’t remember now! I’ve read a lot of books about France! In this book was a story of an American who was visiting France. While he was traveling on a bus, he locked eyes with a beautiful woman who was sitting toward the back of the bus. Without even saying a word to one another, they shared a mutual attraction. Then, the bus stopped, she got off the bus, and he never saw her again. But he always remembered that beautiful woman and the moment they shared together.

So this song is about that fleeting feeling you get when you see someone you find attractive, and you do it all without even saying anything to each other.

Click below to listen to this week’s song! And don’t forget to subscribe!


Thing a Week #6 – Ballerina

Where some songs begin with an interesting word, other songs begin with a picture.

This week’s song, Ballerina, started as a songwriting challenge. Last year, I attended a local chapter meeting of NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International), which some of you reading this (all maybe six or seven of you!) will already be familiar with. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s an organization for songwriters looking to better their craft. You can have your songs evaluated, attend workshops, and all sorts of wonderful benefits all to help you be a better songwriter, whether for yourself or for other people.

That night’s songwriting challenge was to write a verse and chorus for any number of pictures given to us. Six different pictures were laid out on a table and we had fifteen minutes to pick a photo and write about it. The picture that stuck out to me was a black and white photo of a ballerina dancing on a rock in the middle of a calm body of water. I’m not sure what it was that struck me about it, but I ended up choosing to write about that picture. Maybe it’s because I took ballet lessons for a few years when I was a child, so I felt drawn to it.

Either way, I chose that picture. And I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find the picture I used as my inspiration, but I did after poking around on Google Images.

Here it is:

On the back of that month’s meeting syllabus, I began writing the required verse and chorus based on that picture. In fifteen minutes, I wrote in a stream-of-consciousness, and ended up with far more than was required. But that’s how I am (I was the kid in fourth grade who wrote a dozen pages for an assignment when all that was required was one or two pages). I still have the paper I wrote this on, though I’ll have to find it! And what came to mind was a song about standing strong when chaos is going on around you. And no matter what, you continue to be yourself, even when bad things are happening.

When it came time to share what we’d written, Michael King, one of the chapter heads, told me he was sure I was going to pick that ballerina photo. How he was right!

Click below to listen to me talking about this week’s song and to hear my performance. And don’t forget to subscribe!

Thing A Week #5 – Nebulous

Sometimes I’m inspired not by an idea but by a word. How it sounds. What it means. One of my favorite artists, Mylène Farmer, often picks words and phrases because they sound cool.

Everyone has depths that they hide from other people. I come across as pretty open in this blog series and in my videos, but even I have things that I never show other people. It’s those hidden depths in others that fascinate me to no end.

This song is about wanting to reach out to someone. You know someone who seems to hide a lot and you’re just trying to be friendly, not become BFF, just friendly, but they turn you away all the time and so you just give up on them because what’s the use. “You’ll always be……,” as I sang in the song.

I worked with someone whose mysterious nature inspired this song. I never got to know her very well because every time I tried to be friendly, her attitude was really off-putting. She answered in short sentences and wouldn’t even look at me when she did talk to me. Very strange. So much for being her friend. I gave up, but always wondered why she behaved the way she did. Whatever she was going through, I hoped she was OK. I never want the worst for anyone.

This is an instance where the title is NOT in the song itself. I enjoy the music of New Order, an 80s band known for not putting the title anywhere in their lyrics most of the time (songs like Shellshock aside). Blue Monday. Bizarre Love Triangle. Love Vigilantes. None of those titles are anywhere in their respective lyrics. I felt like making the title more like the main idea of the song and using the lyrics to describe someone who is the title, rather than making it the hook. I’m all about trying new things when it comes to music: not putting the title in the lyrics, not having a traditional verse-chorus structure, not having a discernible chorus (I wrote a song recently that has no real chorus!), or even trying to write something in a time signature I’ve never written in before. What’s the point if you aren’t trying something a little different? 🙂

Click below to listen to my story about this song and to watch my performance! And don’t forget to subscribe!

Thing A Week #4 – Amerrir

The first time I ever sang in a non-English language was when I took voice lessons in high school. One of the books that my teacher went through with me was a book of 101 Italian art songs. After Italian songs, we moved to French and German songs. Of course, my favorite songs to sing were the French songs. I hardly ever sang in English. But that’s the nature of classical singing: you learn to sing in languages other than English. Because actually, singing in English is quite difficult, but when you’re a native speaker, you don’t think about it. You’ve been speaking the language since you were a kid, so it’s natural to you. I do notice how difficult English is as a language when I’m watching clips of native French speakers singing English songs on the French version of The Voice. Why they don’t sing in French more often I will never understand (cultural imperialism aside). The contestants sound so much better in French!

But I digress.

Why all this talk about singing in foreign languages? Because this week’s song is in French!

Mais oui!

I wrote so many French-language songs between 2015 and 2017, that I’ve been taking a break from writing in my second language. I do love writing in French. In some ways, I enjoy it more than writing in English. The sounds flow together so beautifully, more than in English, and the overtly nasal sounds lend themselves to singing higher, head voice notes. It’s for that reason that I enjoy singing in French more than I do in English.

When putting together my list of songs for my Thing a Week series, I realized that I only had one French song that I’ve written in the last few months! And it’s this week’s song, so youpi!

But don’t worry, I have included burned-in English subtitles so you can follow along with what I’m saying! It’ll be like a foreign movie, but with me singing!

I wrote this song after I learned a new word while watching an English movie with the French subtitles on: amerrir, which means splash down. It’s usually used to refer to planes making water landings (a Google image search for amerrir brought up a lot of screenshots and promo pictures of the movie Sully, that Tom Hanks movie from a few years ago about the Miracle on the Hudson!) I love how the word literally means “to the sea” (mer meaning “sea”). As I thought on this word, I got this idea of someone who’s always lost in their own emotions, maybe even letting themselves be carried away by them, and this person always has to be brought back down to earth by a loved one as a reminder that “hey, I’m here for you whenever you’re done.”

I don’t write love songs about needing someone desperately, I can’t live if living is without you, etc etc. The sort of “love” songs I write are more about being there for someone. I suppose that makes them more like “friendship” songs, but to me, love is a deeper form of friendship. I know that’s what Andrew and I have.

More often than not, between Andrew and me, I’m usually the one who has to be brought back down to earth. I tend to get lost in my own thoughts. But occasionally, Andrew becomes emotional too. So this is my version of a love song, but one that’s not “ooooh baby I love you and need yoooooooou.” It’s not co-dependent like so many love songs. It’s more realistic, more like a “hey I”m here for you when life gets crappy” kind of song.

Click below to watch and listen to this week’s song! And don’t forget to subscribe too, while you’re at it! 😀

Thing A Week #3 – Hurricane


When compose a song, I don’t think about just the melody and words. I also think about the atmosphere I want to create. Am I writing a happy song? A sad song? Something in between? How can I convey the theme and mood of the song? Am I writing about myself or a character?

To me, a song is more than just words. It’s a story set to music. And they’re like people sometimes. They have ever-changing moods.

Hurricane was something that I wanted to create as a mood piece, something that carried you along with the words, made you feel like you were in the midst of something.

I’ve known a lot of different people who have been exhausting to be around. The kind of people who say hurtful things without realizing what they’re saying, who don’t care about what comes out of their mouths, and who I have grown too old to have in my life as anything more than a passing curiosity. I’ll be friendly when I need to be, but otherwise, I don’t want them around because they’re too negative.

I wrote this in late December 2017. When I wrote this, I’d originally written the lyrics completely differently. They were good, but I wanted to try something different. So I experimented a little with a rhyme scheme and I liked the result! Many of my songs are blank verse; there’s no rhyme scheme to speak of because I find it too restricting. This time, however, I noticed that rhyming brought out other images I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of!

I also wrote this while my husband was sick on the couch downstairs right after Christmas! I remember plugging my keyboard into Logic and my headphones into my computer headphone jack so I could hear the piano and composing the song directly into Logic. I knew this was going to be loud and emotional and I didn’t want to wake him up as I worked on this song.

Also, I’d been listening to a lot of Depeche Mode, and I know that affected my writing in this song! I wanted something moody, that shifts and changes like a hurricane.

And I think I accomplished that!

To listen to my song, click the playlist below. And make sure to subscribe! Many more videos to come (49 more just this year, EEEK! 😀 )

Thing A Week #2 – The Language of Dreams

The Language of Dreams

Not every song I’m doing for this series is a completely new song. Some of these tunes are things I’ve been playing around with for a while but just haven’t done much with yet other than playing them live and watching people’s reactions.

I wrote this in September/October 2016. I remember because it was a chilly fall day when this song came to me, the leaves were changing and so was the relationship I had with the person I wrote this song about. There’s someone on the periphery of my life who I had hoped to become friends with. Unfortunately, they made some hurtful comments about me that I heard about secondhand. Things like, I hum too much, I talk too loudly, I’m too this, too that. Whatever, I’ve heard worse.

But of all those comments, “I don’t know how anyone can stand her,” was the statement that hurt the most. So much for being friends. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life.

I acknowledge that I’m always in my own little world (and the people like me there, what can I say?). I’m a bubbly person and I like that. I’m not going to spend my life wallowing in negativity. I speak my own “language of dreams,” and sometimes people get it (my husband, my close friends, etc), and some people don’t. I think of someone who “speaks the language of dreams” as someone who has their own thing going on that no one else understands. I’ve reached the point of my life where I love who I am, I have people who actually do like me, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to hang around me. I am who I am and I spent years changing that to try and please people. And I’m done with that.

I was a bit meh on this song at first, to be honest. I liked it but I wasn’t sure it was notable enough to show people. But I started playing it out as a way of changing up the rather atmospheric and more thoughtful songs in my repertoire, and I noticed people paying attention.

Click below to watch the introduction and performance of The Language of Dreams, and make sure to subscribe to my channel! Many more videos to come! 😀

Thing A Week #1 – Diving Bell

This year is the start of a huge project: every Friday on my YouTube channel, I’ll be putting a live performance of an original song on my YouTube channel. 52 weeks in a year, and I definitely have more than 52 songs!

Last week was the start of this ambitious project, with a live performance of my personal absolute favorite song Diving Bell.

This song was a turning point in so many ways. I really feel like after this song was written, I became more dynamic with my songs. I put in more stops, starts, and passages that start loud, then soft, then back again.

These days, I go into a trance when I sing this song. I recall so many memories and feelings as the words tumble out of me. This song has taught me a lot.

And yet the inspiration for it was simple: a conversation with one of my closest friends.

My friend Valerie and I have never lived in the same city, so it was by chance that we even met in the first place (that’s a story for another time!). She and I were talking about how our relationships with others, especially loved ones, has changed as we’ve gotten older. That both of us have begun to see people in a different way, we see more of their humanity and we realize that not everyone is completely good or completely bad. Most people are in between. And realizing that makes us realize more about ourselves as humans.

I wish I could always have the kind of inspiration that came with this song. The kind of inspiration where the song comes out fully formed with perfect lyrics and a perfect melody. Most songs I have to work on for weeks or even months to get to this point. Not Diving Bell. That conversation with Valerie immediately got me thinking of a song about seeing the humanity of other people, how my perspective on people has changed as I’ve gotten older. I did my teaching job as usual that day, then came home, and immediately began writing the music to this song. I had the whole thing in a matter of about thirty minutes. I played it for Andrew that afternoon, and he told me it was the best song I’d ever written. He didn’t think it was one of mine. He thought it was something from Charlotte Martin, one of my favorite singer/songwriters and a HUGE inspiration for my own work, one of the biggest compliments he’s ever given me.

I absolutely love this song and I will never tire of singing it.

You can watch the playlist that includes my performance and a short introduction video, right here (and don’t forget to subscribe, many more videos are to come this year!):

Finding Your Own Singing Voice (Part 4)

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.

Even more than having a decent range and writing a decent song, one of the most important elements of singing is a little thing that makes a big difference: confidence.

Singing is about more than just singing notes. It’s about bearing your emotions and letting others into your heart. And if you don’t have the confidence in yourself to believe that you’re good at what you do, you won’t get anywhere. Your audience will be able to tell that you’re not really feeling it. More than that, you won’t sing nearly as well as you could.

I should know.

I loved singing when I was a kid. Then, when I was about sixteen, not long after I joined the choir, I lost my confidence and became shy about singing in front of other people in a solo capacity.

I could’ve quit choir. But I stayed because I could hide behind everyone else. I did sing some solo performances at our yearly talent shows, but those always came with a lot of trepidation. I only did them because I was trying to push through my confidence issues. Unfortunately, I was so into my own head that I didn’t sound great at all, which only led to more frustration at my own abilities.

It took me years of mistakes and growing as a person in order for me to not get scared singing in front of people. I couldn’t even do karaoke until a few years ago. Now, I’m happy to sing to myself, even when other people might be nearby. I can roll the windows down on a nice day and sing with my music without caring what people think. I’ll hum as I’m going about my work at the store too. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally slip and go into a negative spiral. Old habits die hard. As I type this, I’m coming out of one of those. I’m not perfect. Fortunate for me that it only lasts a few days.

It’s been my experience that you could be the worst singer in the world, but if you believe in yourself and THINK you’re great, then you’re going to sound great even when you really aren’t. I’ve seen it at karaoke night. I’ve seen it at open mic nights too. I once listened to a guy whose whiny, nasal voice made the guy from Blink 182 sound like Frank Sinatra. I cringed at and hated his voice. But that guy owned the stage. So it made all the difference, even if I didn’t come away a fan by any stretch of the imagination.

One of the hardest things to do when you’re trying to build up your confidence is getting out of your head. The moment you get on stage and think you’re going to screw up, you will. It’s the power of negative thinking.

When I realized I wanted to get through my confidence issues once and for all, I began taking voice lessons again in 2010. The first song my teacher gave me was Plaisir d’amour. I looked at the sheet music, saw the higher notes in the song, and immediately clammed up. I went, “no way, I can’t sing those high notes, I can’t do it.”

And guess what?

I couldn’t sing those notes very well at all. I believed that I couldn’t do it, and therefore I couldn’t. That first lesson was almost a disaster because I was so into my head and feeling negative about myself that I physically could not sing that note. I’d warmed up past that note, but I couldn’t sing it in a song. My throat always clammed up when I got to that section of the song. It took me months to be able to hit that note with ease.

Most of my problem was that I was always too much in my own head. I was so focused on what I didn’t think I could do that I allowed it to affect my performance. I couldn’t understand how people like Kelly Clarkson or Janis Joplin could get on stage and own it. It took my voice teacher reminding me, “you can sing higher than you think you can, don’t be so scared, you can do it,” practically every week, before it finally set in. It took a while though. Several years.

A way to help you get out of your head is to just know the song or songs inside and out. Know them so well that you could sing it in your sleep. Get the melody well and embedded in your head. Then, as you’re singing, close your eyes and focus on an image to help you convey the song’s message. It will help you to concentrate on something besides yourself. I do this all the time when I’m singing, even when I’m not feeling too much in my own head. Rather, this helps me to emote more. I have a few images in mind when I sing my songs.

You can also pretend that your song is a monologue. Think of what you’re singing about. Are you supposed to be happy? Sad? Languid? Sing that song like you’re an actor giving a monologue in a play. Then emote those lyrics with the emotion you want the audience to feel. If you’re singing a sad song, sound sad. If you’re singing a joyful song, sing with a brighter tone. You may just be surprised at how much more emotion comes out.

Something else that helped me to grow my singing confidence was to practice practice practice. Know those songs inside and out. Sing scales to warm up your voice before going into singing songs. Perfect your singing technique with a teacher who can give you good feedback who knows what they’re talking about. Breathe deeply, drink lots of water, and sit up straight. You won’t sound good all slouched over. Believe me.

You should also be proud and accepting of your own voice. If you don’t like your voice for any reason, it will show on your face and in your body language. Be accepting of your own vocal quirks. Think of all the famous singers who really don’t have great voices, but who own it.

Learning to accept and be proud of my voice was a difficult process. Until a few years ago, I had trouble appreciating what I have. And it showed in my vocal performances. I listen back to my old music and I sounded so timid and strained. I disliked my own voice, and it showed.

Most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. Singing should be fun. Start out singing with a few close friends and family, and when you feel you’re ready, venture out for a night of karaoke. People will be too drunk to care what you sound like. And if someone laughs at you, just shrug it off. Not everyone is going to love what you do, but if you truly enjoy singing, keep doing it. The more you perform, the less you’ll worry about what other people think. If you feel a little nervous, concentrate on people who are truly engaged with your performance.

On that note, if you make a mistake while you’re singing, just keep going. Pretend like it was part of the performance. I mess up all the time, especially if I’m playing a difficult piano part. I’ll play a wrong chord and just keep going. Or if I forget a lyric, especially if it’s in French or another language the crowd doesn’t understand, I’ll just make something up. I screwed up a French song once when I blanked on the lyrics and I sang the French equivalent of, “I can’t remember the lyrics here, but that’s OK, you can’t understand me anyway.” Don’t stop in the middle of the song.

Learning to sing with confidence takes a while. You won’t get better instantaneously. I didn’t. It’s taken years to get to where I am now. But if you’re willing to put in the work, it’s worth it. It’s worth it to be able to have fun singing with friends at a karaoke bar on a Friday night instead of being scared. It’s worth it to have a hobby that you’re proud of. Not to mention that singing offers many great health benefits, as seen here.

No matter what, make sure you’re always having fun with what you do. And the rest will follow!

Finding Your Own Singing Voice (Part 3)

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.

I was about nine or ten when I wrote my first song. I had been writing random poems for a little while at that point, practicing the poetic forms like haiku and acrostics that we had been learning in school. I also knew how to read basic sheet music and the names of musical notes.

However, I had no idea how to put words and music together. How did the people on the radio do it? I had no clue.

One evening, I came to my mom and asked her in that very matter-of-fact way that children usually ask something, “Mom, how do I write a song?”

Mom was always willing to indulge us kids in whatever we were curious about, especially when it came to music. Mom told me to get out some lyrics I had written and then turn on my little Casio keyboard. For the next few hours, she went through my lyrics and showed me how to compose a song, which turned out to be simpler than I thought.

“You make up a melody to go with the lyrics you’ve written,” I remember her telling me. “That’s the key to writing a song.”

Once Mom showed me how to compose a song, I felt like a whole new world had opened up for me. Suddenly, my words could come alive with music. And all of this was done before I even knew how to compose music with chords. I was just using melodies and playing them on the keyboard and singing over them.

Those songs I wrote were very primitive forms of the stuff I write now. But one of the things I learned early on about writing my own music was that I wasn’t trying to sing something written for a voice like Celine Dion’s. I was writing for my own voice and all the quirks that go with it.

When I was a child, I realized that I could sing really low and really high. When playing around with the keyboard one day, I got up to a soprano high C! (the first note in the picture below)

Realizing that I had a wide singing range, I composed songs with impossibly high and low melody parts. Like this one:

These days, I’m less wild when it comes to my melodies, though I do enjoy swooping low and high to illustrate a lyric. That I can go from high to low really easily is something I like to take advantage of when I write.

Once I figured out what my personal style was (“multi-lingual choirgirl surrounded by synthesizers or a piano”), songwriting came even easier because I knew what vowels and sounds would work with my instrument.

Writing my own music also helped me to further develop as an artist and figure out who I was. In writing my own songs, I got to discover what makes my music stand out. What did I have that no one else does?

1) I can speak a foreign language.

Rather early on, I had a penchant for learning languages. Even though I didn’t speak a word of French or German, I would come up with lyrics in English and then try to “translate” them using a dictionary, looking up each word and writing down my new German or French lyrics. I didn’t care that I didn’t speak any of those languages. However, my mom warned me that my method of writing in a foreign language wasn’t correct. “You’re not conjugating the verbs or learning the grammar, so your lyrics probably aren’t correct.”

But that didn’t occur to me as a sixth grader.

Exhibit A: my attempt at writing a Christmas carol “translated” into German from English.

Once I began learning French for real in school, I wrote little poems and things even when I didn’t know much of the language. And I began writing some of my first real French songs, with real and correct French grammar.

I was always wary of sharing my French songs with people because I was worried they’d tune out from not being able to understand the lyrics. These days, I am more willing to share my French compositions. A self-composed French song at an otherwise English-language open mic night is different enough that people actually do listen and seem to get a kick out of hearing a French song, especially one that I wrote myself. You don’t hear French everyday in southeastern Virginia.

2) Being self-taught on the piano

People ask how long I’ve been playing piano.

About six years.

On a whim, I bought a Yamaha DGX keyboard. I’d always wanted to learn piano but never knew how to do anything more complex than the same melody in different octaves on both hands. And I figured it was a better time than any to learn the piano.

It took a while (read: hours of practice and experimenting and listening carefully to piano-based music), but now I can play countermelodies against a different vocal melody. You can thank Tori Amos and Charlotte Martin for their influence in my own piano playing.

The fact that I play piano makes me stick out, especially at an open-mic night. You don’t see as many keyboardists at open mic nights, probably because carrying around a keyboard is rather cumbersome. When I go out to play a song or two, I stick with places that have a real piano so I don’t have to lug my Yamaha with me.

3) My produced music is electronic

Or more specifically, synth pop (and all its subgenres of subgenres of subgrenres….. sigh the complication of electronic music). My peers were into Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. I was blasting Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys on my Walkman instead.

I love 80s music, always have, always will. And the more obscure, the better.

I love electronic sounds and melding them with pure, acoustic sounds like my piano and vocal layers. It makes the song more interesting. Even if it causes some misunderstandings when I describe my produced music (most people hear “electronic” and immediately think “techno”), I do like to fill out my songs with electronic elements. My friend Janae Jean is the only other one I’ve ever met who does electronic music like I do.

So with all of this said…. How do you go about writing your own songs so you can find your own voice?

Pretty easy, actually.

First of all, don’t let anyone tell you that you have to read sheet music in order to compose your own songs. I can read sheet music well, but I don’t use it to notate my songs unless I absolutely have to. I usually write the chord symbol above the lines in my songs so I know what chords go over which lines.

What I would recommend is that you learn the basic chords for a song and go from there. Pick an instrument, any at all, and learn simple chords to help you get started. Guitar, piano, autoharp, ukulele, whatever.

What do I mean by basic song chords?

I’ll let the Axis of Awesome show you what I mean.

Another way to learn how to write a song without sheet music is to look up the guitar chords for your favorite song online (sites and apps like Ultimate Guitar are really helpful) and puzzle your way through the chords as you learn them on your instrument. Then take those chords and try rearranging them and putting them with your own lyrics (so long as you don’t use the same melody as your favorite song, or you could get into copyright trouble). Hum or sing “do” over the chord and figure out what kind of melody would work for the lyrics you’ve written.

Do realize that your first few songs are probably not going to be very good. Songwriting is a skill like anything else. It’s like riding a bike. You are going to fall a few times before you learn to keep your balance when your feet aren’t on the ground.

And like any skill, it takes time.

But the more you write and experiment and practice, the better your songs are going to be.

Trust me.

My first songs written as a child were crap. But I applied myself to writing songs and now I can write a decent song in about an hour!

Writing my own music helps me feel confident in myself, more than when I’m singing someone else’s song, because I wrote those words and that melody. I know how it’s supposed to sound. And most of all, that melody is for me. Sure I’d be thrilled if someone wanted to cover my song (if you ever do want to cover any of my songs, please send me a copy, I’d love to hear it!) but I feel more comfortable with my own music.

And you can feel more comfortable with yourself too when you write your own music. It will take time, but it will be one of the most rewarding things you ever do when it comes to finding your own singing voice.

Stay tuned for the finale, Part 4, where I talk about something that makes all the difference when singing: confidence.

Finding Your Own Singing Voice (Part 2)

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.