Developing Vocal Style with Jess Baldwin

As Kelly mentioned in last week’s post, it’s important to sound like YOU when singing in your own style. But what if you don’t know what your style is yet? How do you start to develop it?

Your style can be influenced consciously as well as subconsciously. Subconscious style influences can include the music your family listens to, the music at your place of worship, the music played by members of your peer group, etc. Even though you may not be choosing any of this music, it may be affecting the way you sing. For me, subconscious style influences were the songs my mother chose for the high school choir she directed, the musicals she directed and listened to, my Presbyterian church hymns, my grandmother’s church’s Southern gospel music, my parents’ love of Motown, soul, R&B, and jazz, and all the music I sang in school and church choirs. I had no control over these music choices. I sang all of this music, and it showed up in my singing styles without me consciously putting it there.

Conscious style development means you are choosing to purposefully take your voice in a particular direction. This happens through listening and imitating. It’s no different than what you were probably doing unconsciously…it’s just that you have complete control over what direction you’re wanting to go. The music I chose to sing along with in my bedroom growing up was lots of R&B and pop and soul and funk and disco and bit of musical theatre. I listened and imitated. A lot of that stuff showed up in my singing styles.

At some point, we have to start finding a style that is ours and ours alone. We can’t sound exactly like another artist unless we intend to become a tribute artist. If we only imitate Regina Spektor all of the time, that might be a cute party trick, but in performance, people are only going to think of us as the girl who sounds like Regina Spektor. Our identity will be eclipsed by hers.

Austin Kleon puts it this way in his book Steal Like an Artist:

“First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second, you have to figure out what to copy.

Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes—the people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be. The songwriter Nick Lowe says, ‘You start out by rewriting your hero’s catalog.’ And you don’t just steal from one of your heroes, you steal from all of them. The writer Wilson Mizner said if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research. I once heard the cartoonist Gary Panter say, ‘If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!’

What to copy is a little bit trickier. Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.

The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. That’s what you really want—to internalize their way of looking at the world. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.”

— Kleon, Austin. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

I think Kleon has a great tool for helping artists figure out how to develop their own style. It’s the Artist Family Tree:

 From  Steal Like an Artist , Austin Kleon From Steal Like an Artist , Austin Kleon

You, in a sense, are the artistic offspring of your favorite artists, except that unlike biological parents, you get to choose which parts of their DNA you want to mix together to create yourself. Try taking three of your favorite musical influences and create a vocal style/song that sounds like they got mixed together. Repeat this multiple times. You’ll start finding vocal styles and songs that feel like you.

I reverse this exercise for students who are obsessed with one particular artist and have moved into tribute artist territory with their style. The student creates a family tree for that artist by looking up interviews where the artist has discussed their influences. They listen to those influences and pick three they want to imitate. After they complete that, they pick one of those three artists and do the same thing, going up another level in the artist family tree. During this process, they tend to find other artists they enjoy that they’d never heard of. It just expands their listening and gets their style unstuck from the original artist they were idolizing. Then they can do the exercise above, where they start to mix influences together.

Ultimately, people want to hear the you that’s between the cracks of the artists you’re emulating. It’s okay if you’re not sure what that is right now. The more artists you mix together, the more you’ll start to emerge.

I’ll end with this great quote from Kleon:

“So: Copy your heroes. Examine where you fall short. What’s in there that makes you different? That’s what you should amplify and transform into your own work. In the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.”

— Kleon, Austin. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

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