The sore throat/lost voice I developed immediately after the show Wednesday has yet to abate, so I’ve been taking it easy, drinking lots of throat coat tea and peeing clear. I had the thought that I might try to finish a song I’d been sitting on for a few weeks, then record and post it here–it would be nice if I could harness the compulsory writing schedule here to increase my artistic output–but found it hard to write without singing the parts aloud. So instead I decided to work on my website, which right now is kind of a mess (enough that I don’t really feel the need to link to it here, though of course it can be found). See, I have this urge do-it-myself with a lot of artistic things, sometimes gaining a greater sense of control but sacrificing overall quality, such as my determination to record my own album in 2004.
Setting aside my reasons for coding my own website by hand, there’s one major element in my work that I’ve long wrestled with whether I should do it myself or outsource it to someone with more ability and stick to what I’m best at. I’m talking about my singing, which since at least middle school is something I’ve always done really loudly and exuberantly. I figured out pretty quick that my voice was not naturally strong or particularly pleasant, and though I was always driven to sing for the joy of it, I often felt that I needed to belt in an deliberately obnoxious manner so that it would fit with my general spazzy adolescent persona (which, for those of you who didn’t know me then, was just on a whole ‘nother level from the way I act now) and so that I could somewhat own my bad singing and feel less embarrassed that I was rubbish at something I enjoyed so much.
I sang a wimpy lead in my high school band Clockwork, and bless their hearts, they literally and figuratively stood behind me. Things started to get better once I stopped trying to sing like Thom Yorke, which was simply never going to happen. But even after having obtained a degree in music, singing well is still a challenge for me, especially in terms of pitch accuracy; I sometimes feel like a sharpshooter with decent eyesight but shaky hands.
As a life philosophy, I believe, as Amanda Palmer does, that everyone who can speak should also sing, for themselves and for the world. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that I should be the performer, the principal vehicle for my songs and my words to reach the people who might need to hear them. Certainly there are those who have gotten away with singing their own material, even if they weren’t the best man for the job–Bob Dylan and Conor Oberst spring immediately to mind–and there are also those who find it impossible to listen to these unimpeachable songwriters for that very reason. Bringing us to the far larger dilemma of how much an artist should alter their work to reach a greater audience, and at what point do they stop being true to themselves.
I’ve made the decision to continue singing my own songs, for the time being at least, for a few reasons. Firstly, I haven’t found anyone I would rather handle them. I’ve learned through my experiments over the last year with different musicians that simply because someone may be technically gifted doesn’t mean that they’re the right person to execute your work, and even if I feel like I owe it to my art to find the best people to present it, I also owe it to myself to not give it over to the wrong person. Much of my work is also deeply personal, whether by calling out six people I’ve been romantically linked to by name, or by relating to Barack Obama because of our shared experience of having lost our immigrant father at a young age. I also just have to follow my gut instinct about what I appreciate as a listener. On Conor Oberst (to whom I get compared a lot, for better or worse) and the Mystic Valley Band’s record Outer South, nearly half the songs are penned and sung by other members of the band, and I don’t think there’s really a question as to who’s the least competent vocalist in the group; it’s clearly Conor himself. Yet for the life of me I wouldn’t want to hear any of those other dudes singing his songs.