Hearing Voices

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In last week’s blog I mentioned my admiration for the voice of Roy Orbison, a man who could reputedly scale nearly 4 octaves with apparent ease (those tight trousers paid off in the end). But somewhere amongst the superlatives perhaps I failed in my attempts to describe just why I find it so special.  “Distinctive” was the simple word I was searching for.  Because when you hear a Roy Orbison record in whatever context, there is no denying that it’s Roy Orbison.  And yet it’s hard to put a finger on just why his vocals connected so deeply with listeners over the years: maybe the tone, maybe the phrasing, maybe just the sheer heavenly quality of the high notes he seemed to have a habit of hitting effortlessly from single to single.  All of these elements (and many more besides) were the making of the man and, more importantly, the voice.

So, when we took to the air on Thursday night, prompted by our celebration of Roy and his work I casually posed the question: “Who owns your favourite and most distinctive voice in song?”.  Cue a veritable tsunami of thoughts and musings.  From Bon Iver to Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell to Mark Linkous, it turns out you know and love your unusual voices too, which naturally makes me leap with joy and unbridled ecstasy.  My own voice of note from recent years would have to be Matt Berninger of The National – a sort of indie Leonard Cohen, pouring a magnificently bottled baritone over his band’s songs like sweet honey.  I’m not alone in my appreciation of his talent, but I’ve met a fair few people who just can’t stomach his low growling vocals.  And yet it seems a truism that everyone who hears his voice can’t forget it.  It has that elusive beast about it: character.

Because whilst technical ability is all fine and well, give me Bob Dylan over Mariah Carey any day of the week.  Being pitch perfect is overrated anyway – we’ve all come up against those accomplished singers at our local karaoke nights, and they always spoil our drunken fun.  What really matters is the ability to connect on some sort of primal level with an audience – to actually make them feel something.  And invariably that can only be done by the simple act of being human in song: a crack of fragility, a touch of tenderness, a hint of anger, a shot of compassion.  Whatever it may be that adds the more unusual of qualities to a voice, it is character that breeds distinctiveness.  And distinctiveness is what brings us back to our favourite artists, time after time. 

And talking unforgettable voices, this week we lost another great singer in George Jones.  I’ll hold my hands up and say I was never overly familiar with the work, but I was familiar with the voice.  Frequently referred to as one of the greatest country singers of all time, his was a set of vocal chords that screamed pure emotion and so I’m thankful that we’ll have the chance to investigate and celebrate this purveyor of perfect phrasing on the show this week.  Add in the 80 year old Willie Nelson (we’ll pay tribute as a taster to what Ricky has in store on Friday’s Another Country), and a host of great artists on the block with new material – including Vampire Weekend, The Staves, and Daughter – and you have a whole choir of characters to immerse yourself in.  To hear our voices of choice all you have to do is turn the dial this Thursday at 10.05pm on BBC Radio Scotland.

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