No matter the style of music they perform, all vocalists share similar triumphs and tribulations when it comes to the art and craft of singing. The seasoned performers we’ve interviewed for this exclusive article––from soul crooner to screamer, from folksinger to blues growler––cover a wide range of topics and offer keen insights and advice to singers everywhere.
With her blend of luxurious soul, alternative pop, and cool jazz, Mozella has earned a reputation as a fresh alternative to formulaic pop artists. A singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, she has toured with the Dave Matthews Band, Lifehouse, Five for Fighting and Colbie Caillat. Several of Mozella’s songs have been featured in hit television shows and national advertising campaigns, including those for Mercedes Benz and Verizon.
Music was always part of me. In fact, my parents told me I sang before I talked. The turning point happened when I was 13 years old. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a singer. I had a need to express my emotions and share them, so I started writing songs. I even tried out for musical theater, but they said I wasn’t good enough. So I formed my own band when I was 14 and played in coffee shops. I had to do it. It’s my life.
Dealing with Nerves
It used to be really bad. I would be nervous all day before a performance. But touring knocks it out of you. Now, I try to get a half hour or so to myself before I go on stage. I need some quiet, peaceful time, time to meditate. I visualize my performance and tell myself, “We (the audience and I) are gonna have a good time. We’re going to get something from each other and share our feelings.” And, when I’m comfortable, the audience is too.
What’s That Lyric?
Oh my god, it happens. Even when it’s your favorite song, you’ll forget the words. I just ask my fans for help. I think they like catching me in a moment of imperfection. It proves to them that I’m not a robotРРI’m human. And they like helping you. It gets them involved and that interaction brings them closer. You almost want to forget some words, so they can participate more.
When you’re the singer everyone counts on you, and that can get really stressful. If you don’t sing, there’s no show. I’m pretty disciplined and try to take care of myself. So I don’t party with the band. They go out after a show while I rest. I don’t do alcohol or smoke. Instead, I drink lots of water and tea. I do it because it’s no fun trying to sing when you’re not feeling your best. That’s when you really have to suck it up and hope it turns out.
Live vs. Studio
They’re the same, but different. Whether you’re singing live or in the studio you want it to sound great. But, when you’re in the studio you get to indulge yourself more. You can try different things and correct mistakes. You also get to try out different microphones, which I really like. You learn which mics work with your voice. Some will give you a better tone than others. And some mics just make your vocals sparkle.
Trust Your Instincts
Everyone has an opinion, but you should trust your instincts. Before following anyone’s advice, you should ask yourself if there’s a personal motive or agenda behind it. If they’re looking out for your best interests, and not their own, you might want to consider it. You have to believe in yourself, but to do that you have to know who you are as an artist. If you do, you should trust yourself and your vision. After all, music may be a business but it’s supposed to be fun.
Regarded as one of the best blue-eyed soul singers ever, and co-founder and lead vocalist of Hall & Oates, Daryl Hall began his career as a session musician. Fusing rock, pop and R&B, Hall & Oates’ Philly soul sound brought them enormous commercial success. In fact, they’ve sold more albums than any other duo in music history. Today, Hall performs solo, as well as with John Oates, and hosts a popular web series, Live from Daryl’s House, in which he interviews and performs with his famous musical friends, old and new.
Born to Sing
I was born to be a singer. My mom was a vocal teacher and taught me how to sing from my diaphragm. That gave me stamina and longevity. I learned how to harmonize from my dad, who was in a vocal group. But just knowing technique does not make a great singer. You have to connect with the song. If you think too hard about technique when you’re singing, you’ll stumble. True art does not involve a process. There should be no filter to your feelings.
Finding a Style
Generally, a singer’s style comes from whatever they were exposed to. As a child, I heard a lot of soul singers. So, naturally, I gravitated toward that.It’s a state of mind rather than a plan. Whatever style you choose, it has to be real and honest. You don’t just pick the one that shows off your chops. When you sing you have to mean it. So you need to find a style that suits you and feels right.
Set It Up
Even though I learned about proper vocal care from my mom, I don’t always warm up before a show. I’ll arrange the set so that my voice warms up while I’m doing it. Singers know which songs have the notes they have to stretch for, so you put them toward the end of the set. That way you’re ready when the song comes up.
Like a Fine Wine
Age does affect your voice. As you get older it changes. Although I’ve lost a little falsetto, I think my vocals have more depth and richness than they did before. Depending on how I’m feeling, might drop a song down a key, if I need to. But, I haven’t noticed that much of a change. In fact, I think my vocals are better now. The only thing that’s changed is that I don’t do as many shows in a row. You use so much energy when you sing, it can be exhausting. Now, I try to keep it down to two days instead of three or four.
Live vs. Studio
I love performing live. There’s more craft involved in the studio and you can get more creative; you can try a lot of different things and see what works. Performing live is much more spontaneous. You have to be open to differences, though. The au-dience, the environment and even the stages change. You just adjust to it, even if it’s out of your comfort zone.
Follow Your Heart
You should be in this business for the right reasons. It has to be what you really want to do. If you want success, you have to work at it. But, luck and timing are also part of it. Being in the right place at the right time made a big difference in my career. But that didn’t always happen by chance. I put myself in situations that created opportunities. You should always be aware and recognize when an opportunity presents itself. Sometimes they even appear without warning.
Sharing the Love
I like trying different styles of music. That’s why I do my show Live from Daryl’s House. You can always learn something from other musicians. And you should be open to that. Doing that show brings me back to why I’m in this business. It’s the love of music and sharing it with other artists. There’s something very pure about it, and you never want to lose that feeling.
Hart’s musical influences include rock, blues and gospel. She is most famous for her hits, “LA Song (Out of This Town)” and “Leave the Light On.” Over the years, this vocal powerhouse has inked several record deals in the U.S. and abroad with both major and indie labels. She also sang the lead role in Love, Janis, a musical based on Janis Joplin’s letters home. Hart’s live performances are so inspiring they’re used in music schools to illustrate vocal dynamics and performance techniques. She is a real road warrior, touring almost constantly in Europe and America.
Keeping It Fresh
It’s hard to keep a fresh approach when you sing the same song over and over. But, your fans want to hear certain songs, especially if they’re hits, and are disappointed if you don’t do them. I get that, but I try to change it up. While on tour, I’ll write a new set list every night and change the order of the songs. I’ll also try to say something different about them to make the songs seem new. You have to be spontaneous when you’re performing and react to the audience’s mood. Their mood can help make it fresh, because each crowd is different.
When you sing a song, you’re telling a story and trying to sell it musically. Technical perfection isn’t necessary to do that. In fact, sometimes technique gets in the way. Being pitchy or off tune isn’t always a bad thing. It’s more like real life; it’s not always on pitch. Some of my favorite singers have been pitchy, like Fiona Apple and Janis Joplin. They’re almost anti-technique, but you really feel what they’re singing. That’s what I try to do. I focus on the words and don’t worry about the notes.
Warming Your Instrument
I always warm up before I perform. It’s like stretch-ing before you exercise. I’ll do buzzing and hum-ming in my lower register to loosen my vocal chords. You have to be gentle at first and work at it. Some singers use the set to do that, but I like to do it before I take the stage, so I’m ready from the get-go. Even then, though, I won’t start big. I work up to the tough songs so I’m ready for them. You don’t want to blow out your voice and get in trouble before the end of your set.
Every singer has performed when they’re not feeling so great. But, canceling a show is not cool. When you’re the singer, everyone depends on you. You have to show up even if you’re throwing up. When I’m feeling sick, I’ll take the songs down a key and try alternate melodies on songs that aren’t as well known. I’ll ask the band to stretch out instrumental parts, or talk to the audience more than usual. That way I save my voice for when it’s needed.
When I’m covering someone else’s songs, I go through a process. I look at the lyrics first and don’t worry about the melody or music. Then I listen to the song over and over and try to understand what’s being said. Once I know who is telling the story and what it’s about, I try to make it my own. You have to find your own connection to it or you’ll end up sounding like a cover artist.
I never thought that I wanted to be a different kind of singer. What happened is that I liked so many different singers, usually soulful ones like Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, that I ended up sounding like all of them put together. I didn’t intentionally try to do that, it just naturally evolved. Mostly, it was about finding my own soul.
Morrell is the lead singer for Emery, a post-hardcore, screamo band on Tooth & Nail’s hardcore/metal division Solid State Records. The group has recorded four studio albums and two EPs. Morrell’s singing style combines high-pitch screams with strong, clean vocals that are almost sweet. The singer also has a side project called I am Waldo that is mostly acoustic. Emery’s latest album, We Do What We Want, says it all regarding the act’s attitude and approach to the music business.
I grew up singing in a choir and was classically trained. My style was operatic. Then a friend turned me on to a new band and it was the first time I ever heard a hardcore, screaming lead singer. My initial thought was, “This is terrible! It’s the worst thing you can ever do to your voice.” But, I didn’t stop listening to it. And after a while I even started to like it and understood what they were doing. That’s when I tried it out for myself.
Our music gives my voice a big workout. So I always warm up about a half hour before a show. I’ll do a few exercises, like blowing air between my lips and making a buzzing sound. I might even sing a little bit. I also like to drink warm water with honey. I don’t drink tea because it tightens my throat. I did find something, though, that works pretty well when my voice feels weak: whiskey--it brings blood right to my vocal chords and warms them up.
Feeling the Force
Our shows are extremely energetic, so I’m always focused on how hard I’m singing. I don’t want to blow out my voice, and if I’m not careful, that’s a possibility. It’s usually the falsetto screams that are the trickiest. If I’m not warmed up enough, I could mess up. If I don’t feel like my voice is there yet, I’ll just drop out for a part or two and try again later. Our music is so intense that most people don’t even notice when I do that.
Monitor Break Down
No matter what you do, it’s bound to happen. It doesn’t matter if you have your own crew and sound guyРРmonitors will go out and you won’t be able to hear yourself. In those situations, most singers have a tendency to over compensate. But that is the worst thing you can do. So I really concentrate and try to make sure I don’t sing too hard. The funny thing is, I’ve played some shows that I thought had the worst possible sound, just terrible. But our fans thought they were our best shows ever.
We played a show in Florida and there was a lot of pollen in the air. Of course, my allergies kicked in. On top of that, I got a sinus infection and the flu. I was running a fever and it really worried me. I wondered how I was going to make the show. It stressed me out. As the lead singer, though, you feel this responsibility to both the fans and your band. So, I asked my bandmates to fill in with more music, and I did the best I could. I also talked to the crowd more and they were sympathetic. But that was a tough gig.
Planning Your Future
We’ve seen a lot of acts come and go, and didn’t want that to happen to us. So we sat down as a group and listed our goals; we even gave them a time limit. We decided on the type of music we wanted to do and drew up a plan to market it.
Then we moved to a music town (Seattle) to pursue our goals. Fortunately, we managed to sur-round ourselves with the right people, and have been a working band for almost 10 years now.
By the age of 15, Negron had recorded his first single and performed at the world famous Apollo Theater with the Rondells. He later co-founded the group, Three Dog Night, whose fusion of R&B, rock and doo-wop made them one of the most successful vocal trios to ever exist. From 1969 to 1974, nobody had more Top 10 hits, moved more records or sold more concert tickets. As a result, Negron’s four-octave range and unique vocal styling became part of the American soundscape. Today, he is still performing on a regular basis, has released four solo CDs and is currently working on his fifth.
Song selection is very important. I’ve noticed that the difference between a good singer and a great singer is often the songs they sing. So I’ve always paid particular attention to the material. If you can find a song that fits you, it can make your career. That’s exactly what I did in the early stages of Three Dog Night, and it paid off big time.
I learned you must be more than just a singer. You must be able to define yourself in some special way and convey that to the audience. For me, it started with Three Dog Night because there were two other lead singers and we were in competition.
Eventually, I developed a signature sound that worked very well for me. Everyone has his in-fluences, but you don’t want to sound like them. A singer needs to find his own style so that he is identifiable just by the sound of his voice.
If you don’t connect emotionally with your songs, they’ll fall flat and no technique in the world will save you. You have to not only feel a song; you have to believe what you’re singing. I look for lyrics I can relate to. Of course, when you write your own material that comes easier.
You also need to identify the character in the song and figure out how you would feel being him or her. By the time I finish doing that, I know the song better than the writer.
There’s something about singing every night that is actually an advantage. If I use my voice properly, and get enough rest, I get better as the tour progresses. It’s like any muscle. If you exercise it, it gets stronger. But, you have to be careful on a long tour. You have to know yourself and your voice. When you’re not feeling up to par, you shouldn’t push it and show off. That could lead to serious problems and hurting your voice.
Pace Your Performance
If you’re doing what you should and giving the audience everything you have, a live performance can be a lot like an athletic event. When you’re on stage, there’s no place to hide. You have to be “on” every second. If you relax too much, you could lose the crowd and you’ll have to work even harder to get them back. You have to pace yourself, and I know that’s not easy. I didn’t always do it when I was younger, and it sometimes caused me problems. I finally realized how important pacing was after I became clean and sober.
Learn the Biz
All artists should know something about the business side of music. You should always be involved with that part of your career. For example, when I learned about the value of master recordings, I negotiated for them, and now they’re worth a lot more. If you just leave business to other people you may miss something, or worse--get burned.