“Its the way my voice kinda portrays what I’m saying in the lyrics so nicely – that’s the real gift. It makes the song more binding. When I’m singing there’s never any conscious memorizing process going on with the lyrics. When I sing, I don’t think, ‘What does this mean?’ Its somehow already a part of me and the voice just takes over.”
Roy Orbison, from “‘God’s got his plans and I’ve got mine’ The Last Testament of Roy Orbison,” by Nick Kent
When I first started writing songs, the way I worked out whether a song lyric was good enough was by singing it out loud and imagining myself singing it to other human beings. If it was just too embarrassing or it just didn’t sound right then I figured the lyric probably wasn’t good enough. I don’t use this consciously so much anymore but it still registers at the back of my head when I write a truly god awful lazy lyric that I couldn’t actually sing to anyone without blushing. Then ideally I try and write a more interesting one. Obviously if you listen to my songs and hear loads of terrible lyrics then this system isn’t working so well. Generally I hope that my own internal censorship means that if I’m able to stand and deliver a song to someone then it must at least be worth a listen.
I like the way that Orbison acknowledges how crucial his own singing voice is to the formation of his songs. It is the vessel that gets his thoughts out into the world. This has made me think about the way my songs are written inside and outside my head. They have to be out loud to be real and finished and without my voice they would never get out at all. This proves how important performance is to my songwriting . I don’t really consider a song a finished thing until someone else has heard it. Until that point its just a concept but when someone hears it, it becomes a tangible thing. I put an awful lot of value into the first time I play a song to someone. If they just sort of shrug I’ll probably never play the song again. People’s reactions to my songs are an integral part of what shapes my concept of them.
Orbison’s words also make me think about how limited by my voice my songs are. I can only write songs that sound right for my voice. I hope that as I get more experienced at singing and songwriting I might be able to sing and write songs I never dreamed of when I was 17. For instance, I’ve still never written a song with swearing in because I think it sounds stupid when I do it. Even though I swear almost constantly in real life. But I’m assuming that one day I’ll be able to write some really filthy explicit lyrics.
For a short while a few years ago I tried to write songs that made my voice sound nicer. I noticed that some songs seemed to really accentuate certain qualities in my voice. But then trying to think about that and all the other things involved in songwriting didn’t suit me so well. It made me far too self concious. I guess I prefer to leave things like that as happy accidents.
So I suppose Orbison’s quote mostly makes me think about how, if you’re a singer songwriter, having a good understanding of your own tools, your voice, is crucial. But at the same time, you can’t get too hung up on stuff like that. It just is what it is. In all the best songs “the voice just takes over” and you get some kind of echo of what’s in your head out into the world. That’s all we can hope for I think.