Music Matters: Singing My Life Back To Me

(Neko Case, “This Tornado Loves You,” lyrics here.)

I can’t sing.

When I was a kid, I wound up in chorus rather than regular music classes by dint of having been in theater—which of course in elementary school is always musical theater for some reason. I got doubly screwed by this, actually—the chorus teacher couldn’t be bothered to actually help me learn to sing better, so he’d just tell me to mouth the words on notes I couldn’t reach (you know, most of them).

So I blame him for my undeveloped acting talents. But I digress (often)!

I still love to sing, and the one thing that I really miss about my car, which I sold when I moved to New York for work, is having a place to sing without an audience. I miss cranking up the volume and belting whatever it was that I was listening to, no one there to hear me, not even able to hear myself.

It doesn’t have the same effect in an echoing apartment, and the dog tends to look at me funny.

I’ve replaced singing along with the car radio with dancing to my headphones in elevators, hallways, and even in my office when I happen to be the only one there in the evenings. But I still wish I could sing.

In that way that some people (read: me) obsessively decide which three wishes they’d choose if they had three wishes, I have considered carefully whose voice I would want if some fairy godmother appeared and granted me the power to actually not sound like a squawking turkey when I sing. The choice gets tougher, though, between the top two.

For years and years, it was Fiona Apple alone that I wanted to sound like. I remember when she blew onto the scene in the 90s, this skinny girl with this giant voice that sounded like every bit of energy and weight she had had gone into constructing it. “Shadowboxer” and then “Criminal” were these giant things, these world-weary beauties of songs that spoke of years of pain and aching that this twig of a teenager could never have experienced, right?

(Fiona Apple, “Criminal,” with lyrics in video. Original video here, for those who still love it.)

I loved to sing along with “Criminal” well before I’d ever broken anyone’s heart. There’s a strange power in the apology in that song that I wanted to have—the power to break someone, a power I thought at that age I’d never have. I’m older now and I know better and yet I still love to sing along to it.

I like deep voices on men and women, it’s true. Maybe because I could never reach the high notes, so I like to sing along with people who are in my range, but also because the weight of them fills me with something strange and beautiful, in a way no reedy-voiced indie rocker or trilling pop starlet can.

I don’t remember exactly when I discovered Neko Case, but I do remember that I was living in South Carolina again and I bought The Tigers Have Spoken unheard and from the first strains of “If You Knew” I was hooked. Here was a big voice, country-tinged and always just a little mournful but booming and light at the same time.

I discovered Neko solo first and I still can’t listen to the New Pornographers as much because it just isn’t enough of her. I want that voice front and center, and I want to sing along.

And so it was Neko’s voice for a while, until Fiona came back with the right cross that was Extraordinary Machine, a grown woman’s breakup record and just what I needed at that particular moment. Fiona was there for me when I was a teenager, but she’s grown up too and she and Neko have more, richer, deeper meanings for me now than they ever did.

So I go back and forth, channel one and then the other, and if Neko has the unfair advantage of releasing more records in that period of time then Fiona gets the benefit of every rumor and YouTube video (like the one below) carrying triple the weight. So the rumor of a new album coming in 2011 has me thrilled and planning ways to land an interview (I am available, editors! I have nothing BUT time if you want me to speak to Fiona Apple and write about it!).

I might even have to borrow a car, to drive around in and sing along.

(Fiona Apple, “So Sleepy,” 2010 one-off, lyrics here)

by Sarah Jaffe
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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Two of my favorite singers

I love both Neko and Fiona. Beautiful, talented, tough and tender. All the things I long to be.

I'm drawn to singers with

I'm drawn to singers with deep voices, too. I have low, contralto with very little range (actually, I think I'm a little lower than alto and can handle tenor pretty well, but it's been twenty years since I've had a music class -- I have no idea where my "real" voice is anymore), and can't sing pop songs except, er, old Cher songs. The 90s was a good decade for women with deep, smoky voices -- Fiona Apple, Chan Marshall, Liz Phair, even Courtney Love, who's a better vocalist than she's given credit for. I still dig back to singers from previous generations, though, especially Joan Armatrading, Nina Simone, and Marianne Faithfull.

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