How To Tell Your Singer He’s Ruining the Band

singer_suck.jpgAfter listening to the last three U2 albums (especially the most recent one), I came to one simple and stark conclusion about the band: Bono is single-handedly ruining their legacy.  U2 is without a doubt an incredible band whose musical contributions will outweigh any and all drivel they leak out from now until each member is dead and rotting in the grave, but it’s getting REALLY bad.    Last week we had an article on the philosophy of “Don’t Tell Me How To Play My Instrument…” but let’s make it clear that this also applies to singers.  


In most bands, as in the case of mine, one person sings; lead vocals,
backups and lyrics are often the same person.  If you’re not a singer
(or a lyricist), it is often difficult to explain what you might think
works better for vocals.  Most people who don’t sing are scared to death
to try and usually just default to the goon who actually showed up for choir practice a few times in middle school.  Some bands are gifted
with someone with a natural sense of melody or is who simply a great
lyricist, but some bands must suffer with the guy who just happened to
be the loudest or least afraid to play center stage (or worse, perhaps his dad is the only one who would spring for a PA when you were kids).

Despite all the trust my band gives me as a singer/lyricist, I have one band member who
usually gives it to me straight, typically with comments like “the
verse isn’t your catchiest melody, I like your chorus better” or “the
verse is just too sappy, I don’t like it”.  Even this sort of grunted
feedback is better than none because singers often have no one to
relate to and few people to provide them with feedback.  No musician is
beyond reproach and no one can operate in a vacuum, even great
singers (anyone been paying attention to what Thom Yorke and
Ryan Adams have been writing lately?) need perspective.  If you feel
you aren’t qualified to critique your singer, try having another band’s
singer, someone they respect/trust or even your engineer talk to the man behind the mic and make
suggestions. 

Further, it might help if you tried some singing/writing
lyrics yourself.  Most people can sing and write (a little) with some
practice and having an alternate voice in the band can be a great
addition (think Fugazi) and it might help you understand the alienation
your singer feels being the lone gunman (in addition to showing you
some of the pressure he/sher is often under).  Learning to sing a little yourself can also help you understand the language of singing so that you can better communicate your ideas.  If you aren’t literate enough to
suggest lyrical changes, try and suggest song subjects or even titles.  
As a singer, I like for everyone to feel involved in my band so if I
can get someone else to contribute, I’m always game.

Lyrics can prove to be an even more difficult thing to tackle.  In this matter, my band
usually gives me a good deal of liberty (ahem, or doesn’t pay attention to what I have to say). 
Personally, I take a lot of responsibility and keep one thought constantly
in the back of my mind: I’m not just representing myself when I sing
and write lyrics, it’s the whole band who suffers when I become
self-indulgent or fail to deliver my best.  This is what keeps me from writing an ENTIRE album
about my ex-girlfriend (lucky for them just half the record ends up
that way).  Fortunately,  I’ve known my mates long enough to be able to read their reactions when I’m laying down the sap a little thick with my vocals.  Not all bands have that sort of rapport and more formal critiques are necessary. 

When making critiques, the key is to offer alternate suggestions and PRAISE what
you do like.  As we discussed in last week’s songwriting article, bands
critiquing each other’s playing is a very positive thing, but negativity
is not the way to go and will turn others off to your ideas before
you can even get them out there.  The point is to start sentences with
things like: “I like it when you,” “It sounded great when you did,”
“That chorus where you had an uptempo chant last time was awesome.”  
This gets the ball rolling in a positive way and doesn’t encourage the
things you’re NOT looking for.  

Your singer might not ever pen a classic song like “With Or Without You” or
“Love is Blindness”, but this might keep them from writing particularly
trite drivel like some of Bono’s recent blunders: Who’s to say where the wind will take you? Who’s to
say what it is will break you? I don’t know, where the wind will blow
 
(from “Kite”).  Perhaps he’s become of a student of the Lenny Kravitz school of lyricism (read: a child’s rhyming dictionary)?