I’ve always been a binge listener. I’m incapable of listening to music casually; any time a song comes on, my attention gets diverted and I lose myself in the world of it. The same goes for when I come across a new artist I like… I remember spending weeks immersed in Ani DiFranco, Damien Rice, and Jill Scott… running their melodies over and over again until I not only knew, but embodied them.
Most recently I’ve been devouring Brandi Carlile’s voice and music. And my goodness, what a delicious feast. Her talent as a songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, her willingness to so boldly share herself, her song The Mother… I could go on and on.
Yet what compelled me to write– what made me shift from working on a puzzle with my own 6 year-old– is a single choice she makes in her latest release The Joke.
* * *
Musical trends come and go. I grew up in the 80s listening to Julie Andrews and Whitney Houston and, along with my friends, spent hours learning and imitating their every note and nuance. We’d sing and harmonize endlessly… playing with whether we could sound a little sweeter, hold our notes a little longer, sing a little higher…
When Mariah Carey came around, we worked hard to emulate her register shifts and flute tones, and all of that movement. And in time, our muscles and voices complied, figuring out agility as we learned and ran her runs and riffs over and over and over.
Now 25 years into my professional journey of working with singers, I no longer have to listen to the latest releases to know what the new artists sound like… I hear them in the voices of my colleagues and clients.
For most of that time, the stylistic trends for women– and increasingly for men– have included a demand for super high chest notes, which have only gotten higher over the years. If Celine Dion, Idina Menzel, and Tituss Burgess can hit them, then everyone else should be able to as well.
The trouble is that these notes aren’t physically available to every singer. Anyone can learn agility, style, and how to sustain notes. But voices and registers– while somewhat flexible– do have limits, thanks to instrument type and design.
Some singers, Norah Jones for example, are happy exceptions to the rule. Unable or unwilling to play the game, they choose to create on the lower and quieter end of the spectrum with great success. Yet the majority necessarily strive to nail the current notes de jour, leading to diminished confidence, discomfort, and even damage in the cases of those who can’t.
Something is off when a single note sung a certain way can hinder or even halt an otherwise terrific career. Which is why, when I first heard Brandi shift into her head voice on the highest pitch of The Joke– the most ‘important’ moment of the song, the money note– I shot out of my chair.
* * *
Ten years before The Joke came out, Brandi was belting Eb (5)’s in her breakout song, The Story… a half step above The Joke’s top note. And recently, in her 2019 Grammy performance of The Joke, after using her head voice again in the choruses, she slammed out a glorious, chesty D (5) in the outro. So it’s clear that she’s got the notes.
Which makes her choice of head voice– whatever her artistic, personal, or vocal reasons– even more amazing in my eyes. Rather than change the melody, lower the key, or force her vocal approach to sound how she is ‘supposed to’– rather than alter herself– Brandi chose to stay where she was. She did what she wanted. She sang her song.
And we, by tacit cultural association, are being encouraged to do the same. Her choice is an ushering out of the ‘highest belted note’ era of expectation in commercial music. And a bold announcing of a new trend: it’s no longer how you and your voice are made, but what you do with them artistically– what you choose to do– that matters most.
No more bending and breaking in order to fit the mold of what culture and others deem ‘in’, beautiful, and marketable. It’s time to sing– and be– whatever and however you feel and please. And if, like Brandi, you do it with heart and soul, people will clamor to listen to you.