Musical Space: Weird Voices

Oct 10, 2017

Joanna Newsom
Credit Sung Kim

This is Joanna Newsom, singing her song “Sprout and Bean.” It’s a beautiful tune, but let’s face it: she has a weird voice: unschooled, childlike, amateurish. Her singing is not bad, it’s in tune, you can understand the words, but it still sounds weird.

Her quiet harp accompaniment does little to hide the idiosyncrasies, and there’s not a lot of studio magic that can make Joanna Newsom sound like more mainstream singers. But part of the reason I like the song and the performance is the strangeness of her voice.

It’s rare to hear a singer willing to be so individual. There’s a bravery in doing things your own way, a certain naughtiness to breaking the rules that makes the listener feel like they’re privy to something real and personal. Weird is not the same as ugly; there’s beauty in her simple delivery. Often the meaning of a song doesn’t call for the trappings of what we think of as “good” singing: high notes, wide vibrato, long-held fermatas.

That’s the way I feel about Bob Dylan’s singing. Everyone complains about his voice, but I don’t think a trained opera singer would be able to make “Like a Rolling Stone” any more meaningful than he does.

Sometimes it’s the weirdness that makes good music good.

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Listening list

Dave Frishberg, “My Attorney Bernie,” Written in the early 80’s. Wrote “I’m Just a Bill” for Schoolhouse Rock

Blossom Dearie, “I’m Hip” (By Dave Frishberg), Blossom Time at Ronnie Scott's 1966

Mose Allison, “Your Molecular Structure,” I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’ (1968)

B52s, “Rock Lobster,” The B-52’s (1979)


Three weird vocalists: Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson

Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “Da Mystery of Chess Boxin’,” Wu-Tang Clan, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
Sounds like a demented street preacher

Tom Waits, “Reeperbahn,” Alice (2002)
his voice has been described as "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car." 
Album of songs written for a play by Robert Wilson

Johnny Whitney (Blood Brothers)
Jaguar Love, “Highways of Gold,” Take Me to the Sea, (2008)

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