By Cari Cole
As a singer-songwriter, defining your “sound” and “style” is essential to your success. Not doing so could cost you your career. Often, young singers tell me they have trouble choosing a genre when they like to sing different kinds of music – and emerging artists can easily miss nailing the sound that could take them all the way to the top. The truth is, it takes a lot of energy to break a new artist, so you will need all the help you can get in identifying your signature sound. And what better time to start then right before the new year begins?!
So how do you create a signature sound as a singer-songwriter? It starts with your songs. When I was developing as an artist, I sang everything from R & B to Jazz, Rock and folk and even some country. I too was confused for a long time. And while it’s important to sing everything so you understand the components of style in each genre, when it comes to emerging as an artist, finding your pulse and signature is key. What’s important is finding a style and genre that is natural to you – one that best fits your personality and your voice.
When I work with a singer-songwriter or a budding singer, the first thing I do is have a few conversations. I want to find out who you are so that I can hone the raw material of your life into something unique, something special. This raw material of the artist – negative and positive – provides the foundation for lyrics, your signature message.
Next is defining the music, genre, and style. I want to know what your musical influences are– who did you listen to and who are you listening to now? What are your favorite songs? We take all these threads and weave them together into the “sound” of you the singer-songwriter. We take the first part – the message and personal vision – and mix it with the second part, the musical styling, and choices – to create an authentic standout-from-the-pack musical approach. To stand out means to truly encounter who you are more than you ever thought you could, and then amplify that in your music.
This is where a signature song comes in. A signature song fits you like a glove – and can have such an impact that the world grabs onto it and the artist becomes known with that song. It’s a mix of fabulous songwriting and stylistic singing and has brought many artists to fame as their signature sound affected people so deeply. Great examples: Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen), What’s Love Got To Do With It (Tina Turner) or Come Away With Me (Nora Jones) – to name just a few.
Here Are My Top Tips for Creating Your Signature Sound for the New Year:
1. Authenticity is Key.
That means: Writing signature songs – lyrics that speak what you have to say; making music that YOU want to hear (as Christine Aguilera’s producer Linda Perry said to KT Tunstall during the making of Tiger Suit), and singing with your own style and in a way that features your vocal strengths.
2. Be Truthful.
When you write from your life and use real stories (the best are your own), those lyrics are going to be the most powerful.
3. Don’t be a Copycat.
It’s fine if you look at artists whose songs rock you and check out how they do their lyrics, their melody lines, chord progressions, and style of vocals because there is much to learn. But if what you create is exactly like theirs, you’re going to end up with a generic sound – not your own unique style which is what you must create for success.
4. Phrase it Your Way.
To create your own personal phrasing, you’ll want to sing a lot of blues, rock and roll and R & B (old stuff). There is a lot to learn from other singers and it is the best way to take a crash course in phrasing. The coolest way to improve your phrasing is to learn a song that is challenging for you – study the vocal – learn it exactly. Once you learn it and know it note by note, then sing it your own way. Analyze how your voice sounds best and sing the way you want to hear it. With original songs, the process is more difficult because you are not copying the work another singer had to do to style the vocal. I highly recommend working with a professional vocal coach who can help you style it for your voice. Never try to do what your voice can’t do.
5. Vary Your Melody.
Use different melody in the chorus from the verse; otherwise, it can become really monotonous. Build melody with dynamic that goes to crescendo. (By the way, choruses usually go up in melody and not go down.) Remember, at some level, music is all about tension followed by release. If you don’t build up the dynamic, you won’t create enough dynamic to move your audience. On the other hand, too much variety and you’ll lose us. Repeating your melodic themes in the right places is the art of writing great melodies.
6. Use Your Influences, but Do It Your Way.
As you write and record, find your influences and use them in your music – but only threads, not all of the influence. By doing this, you will be led even deeper into finding your own sound (as opposed to sounding like someone else).
7. Create Your Vocal Signature.
A generic sound is kind of blah. When you over-do it on mimicking other singers, your style gets lost. Remember, it’s often your flaws and imperfections that create your unique sound and style. Trying to be too ‘perfect’ can be the kiss of death. This is a place where the right vocal coach can really make all the difference by helping you define and deepen your vocal signature and style. In fact, it often makes or breaks young and aspiring artists.
Okay, now go out and do it. I truly believe and know – from my experience as singer-songwriter and from all the artists I’ve worked with, that if you go in the direction that is yours – you will find your unique signature there. Take advantage of the momentum leading up to the new year to redifine your sound and direction.
And give me a holler here (I mean comment) and let me know what’s working for you, what’s challenging for you, as you pursue your quest for your ‘signature.’