Turns out the woman I was having lunch with is a voice teacher. I had mentioned something about being a musician and it set us off talking about the differences between operatic singing and the kind of singing that I do (call it rock, on any given day, or folk, or even pop). Her main point was that regardless of the style, there is a "correct" way to sing, that properly uses all the muscles in your torso and protects your vocal cords. A voice virtuoso uses that control of the lungs and all of those muscles to get incredible volume and sustained tone, but even if you're not going for that, you don't want to shred your vocal cords.
I've never had a great vocal instrument, and while I know about the things that she was talking about, I'm not great about putting them into practice, although I think I've gotten better and more disciplined over the years. But I can still get overexcited and strain my voice -- as I've done on a couple of Pigs gigs. It frustrates me when I do that, because I also know that when I am paying attention I can sing for hours and hours without running into any problems.
These days, in anticipation of the spring gigs, I've been trying to get down to my practice room for at least half an hour or forty-five minutes every day. I've been working on a few new songs, and I'm always trying to find a better approach to the ones I've been doing regularly for years.
For the kind of singing that I do, expressivity, phrasing, and emotional tone are what matters. The actual tone color of the voice is least important. Somewhere, recently, I was talking with somebody who mentioned how badly Joni Mitchell's voice had degraded and what a shame it was. I was polite and said nothing, but I think she's singing better now than ever before. While it's true that her voice doesn't have the sheer beauty that it did twenty-five years ago, the age in it (and the life wisdom that she can bring to a song) gets her deeper into the songs than she was capable of when she was much younger.
That's the endless debate about Dylan as a vocalist. Lots of people think he's a terrible singer because they can't get past the tone color. It doesn't sound like they think a singing voice ought to sound. Then there are people like me who think that he is one of the best rock singers ever, and that he can pack more emotional punch into his delivery than just about anybody who has ever hoisted a guitar behind a microphone. And as his voice has gotten older and weirder his singing just gets better and better. Of course, I think Tom Waits is an excellent singer as well, and even I find him difficult to listen to on some cuts.
Dylan is tough to cover because he's so distinctive. I've been working on "Thunder On The Mountain." It's a long process. There are enough similarities between our voices that it's very easy for me to fall into the trap of simply mimicking his delivery. He teases with the melody on virtually every line, so no verse is sung in quite the same way. I have to figure out what the underlying consistent melody actually is, and then find my own way into the song so that I can be expressive and interpretive without just doing a pale copy. I'm getting there.
Sometimes it takes a very long time to find my way into a song. The first time I heard the Lucinda Williams album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road I was particularly taken with the song "Can't Let Go" (ironically, one that she didn't write). So I tried to figure out an approach to it, but I couldn't quite find my way -- everything I tried sounded too forced and off. Periodically over the years (the album came out nine years ago!) I'd come across that lyric sheet and give it another try. Same thing. Then, a week or so ago, while I was sorting through the song sheets it came up again and I nailed it. Now I've been singing it every day and I feel comfortable with it and like it's finally my own.
That's always the goal. To make the delivery so real and so true to the song, that it's as if I'd written it myself. There is nothing that pleases me more than to have a song that I typically do come up on the radio or the iPod in its original version and have Lynn listen to it and say, "Not bad. But I think your version is better." Sometimes I even agree with her.