A ramble on Bono, singer’s doubts, blue notes, etc.

Fuck… where do I even start with this… well, how about a screen shot?

This came up a couple days ago, I guess. I haven’t heard the actual podcast it’s from yet, but I guess Bono went into some depth about the various doubts he has about the sound of his voice and the songs he’s written, etc.

My first reaction was something along the lines of “shit, really? Him too?”

Well, realistically, I think it’s all of us, but for Bono to come out and say it is I think rather important, as I remarked elsewhere on Instagram today:

I’ve been reading and re-reading Julia Cameron’s books on creativity and artistic blocks the last couple years, and I know it’s something she’s said a bunch of times about how that inner critic never goes away and you just have to ignore the bastard and do your thing anyway. But still: when it hits you, it sure as Hell feels like it’s just talking to you and everyone else doesn’t have those crippling doubts. Especially very successful artists on Bono’s level.

And we as a culture have this weird thing where on the one hand we condemn any sign of weakness or self-doubt and discount the value of art so if you have the doubts you should just quit and get a real job, but then we also deify our more famous artists, but on the third hand we can’t wait to tear those idols down and destroy them so that we can feel justified in our own cowardice in quitting and getting a real job or not even trying in the first place.

So like I said in the screen-cap comment, I think it’s really good that Bono came out and said he has those doubts, too.

It’s interesting to me that I saw a couple comments on a couple different U2 fan accounts expressing concern that these remarks will be used by U2’s haters.

Well… here’s the thing (and I know, because I used to be one of those): the people who hate Bono and U2 hate him anyway. They might crow a little bit like “hurr durr even Bono agrees he sucks” (except that’s not what he said). But really it doesn’t matter what he says.

And it’s gone through my head several times over the last year or so that I’ve been a fan that maybe if I’d known more about U2 and their whole creative process back when I was pursuing music 10 years ago, it might have been rather inspiring. I had that thought for sure in reading the first bits of U2 by U2 where they’re talking about not really knowing how to write or play music “properly” so they had to be inventive and that’s a huge part of why Edge’s guitarwork sounds the way it does. Etc.

And I think most singers hate the sound of their own voice. For one thing, it never sounds the way we hear it because we hear it through the bones of our own skulls straight to our inner ears, not through the air.

Actually, there was a discussion of that amongst a few of my Facebook friends a month or two ago, complete with memes… I can’t find that thread now, but apparently there’s a whole bunch of memes about hearing the sound of your own voice and hating it, so I’ll just slap this one from Google results up so you get the drift:

Friends who have never done any recording nor, apparently, heard themselves on an answering machine or voicemail, were surprised to know it doesn’t sound the way they think it sounds. The rest of us all had a knowing resignation.

Point is, it’s everyone. And apparently not just us plebs, but even rock stars.

Now that I think of it, I don’t know why I’m surprised. I knew someone who used to record with Trent Reznor and he told me about Trent being nervous to record vocals back in the early 90s (ie, shit that went on to become huge singles). Trent used to record all his own vocals and comp them so no one would ever hear his mistakes… I did that shit for years, too.

Another former associate had worked with Marilyn Manson and Manson’s anxiety about his voice was so severe that it delayed the completion of several records (including ones that had big hits on them, ie, not shitty songs and not shitty vocal takes) and it was like pulling teeth to get the vocal takes done.

And now we hear Bono has the same doubts.

And yet we all still think we’re the only ones with the doubts and we have them because that nasty little voice in our heads is right and we suck and everyone else is cool.

I think it’s worse for what I once heard referred to as “emotional singers.” (I think that’s from a book called The Rock N Roll Singer’s Survival Manual that I read years and years ago.) Technical singers vs emotional singers… I always wished I was a technical singer but I’m not. And emotional singers get a lot more of a rawness in the performance and the power comes from vulnerability but that also means more anxiety and needing to be in that headspace for a good take, but then that also means risking the nasty choking lump in the throat, etc.

All 3 of the men I just listed are emotional singers, especially Bono and Trent. But I knew emotional singers who were into opera and other more technical realms… one was a classmate at UBC who was an opera major and while he was a brilliant singer, he got so worked up over a stupid little sight-singing quiz in theory class that he forgot to breathe and passed out in the middle of it… and conked his head on the prof’s desk on the way down.

The actual musical passage to be sung was one a retarded chimp like me could manage and shouldn’t have been an issue.

For emotional singers, pressure is both the fuel and the enemy. And a guy like Bono has far more riding on his voice on any given show night or studio date than my pal had on that quiz. And getting back to the question of fuel for the haters, well, I think it’s backwards. I bet the shit from the haters has far more effect on his doubts than his admission of having the doubts has on the haters.

We all have this idealized version of what we do and what we sound like, and it’s the nature of life that we can never quite match it, no matter who we are. And it’s a bitch to manage to just shrug and take it and go “fuck it, that’s what I sound like, cool.”

An old interview with Izzy Stradlin popped into my head. The journalist was kinda being a dick in asking him about his voice, which is noteably scratchy and imperfect and sometimes he’s out of key and doesn’t really give a fuck. (I’ve read that they used to call him the One Take King or something like that in the GNR days, not so much that he necessarily nailed it, but that he takes the philosophy that rock n roll is about energy and it’s a better take if it’s raw and has feeling than if it’s perfect and has none.)

Izzy snapped back (and I’m paraphrasing because I’m too lazy to go dig in the massive stash of GNR memorabilia to locate the magazine and quote directly): “I like it. Because it’s mine.”

Shit like that is why I loved Izzy so much in 2013 when I was backing away from the hardcore industrial shit, because while I never polished my songs to sound machine-perfect, I was criticized for the imperfections I left. And Izzy having the “go to Hell” attitude he had felt like a roadsign on the path to liberation.

See… not too long before I read that old magazine (one of many back issues having to do with GNR and Izzy’s solo stuff that I procured on eBay in that era), I had a nasty little interaction with someone we’ll call JC, who worked for a certain producer I had been going to hire to do a maQLu album (though by the time this incident happened, I’d decided I didn’t want to work with him because he’s a prick, and so I’d stopped trying to get in touch with him and decided to just DIY it like all the other EPs I’d done that had landed me on the Canadian college radio charts without Asshole’s help).

JC messaged me out of the blue on Facebook and said Asshole had told him to do a song with me.

I figured this was going nowhere, but thought I’d spend an hour or two playing along.

It became very clear that JC had apparently never heard an industrial vocal in his life, nor even a punk one… hell, I wonder if he’s ever actually listened to the Rolling Stones, because people used to always point out that Mick was a little out of tune always (what a former mentor of mine used to call “a good rub”, vs. if you’re completely terrible it’s a “bad rub”. A good rub helps the vocal stand out more in a rock mix.)

Anyway, JC started spewing a bunch of shit at me about vocal tuning. Amongst the shit was that he questioned whether or not I was tone deaf. Which is funny, because the song I sent him was one I knew I had Autotuned, so the vocal was actually exactly in tune.

Side note: What I noticed over the years, playing with Autotune: I actually like melodies with a lot of blue notes, which is to say quarter tones. And I sing those too. They’re common in blues-based music, so chalk up another genre JC apparently didn’t know shit about. I would frequently find certain notes of the key were always exactly straight down the middle between key tones when viewed on the graph mode in Autotune. (I haven’t got any screencaps of this since it was years ago.) And if I shifted the note up, it sounded completely wrong and horrible, but if I shifted the note down, it sounded completely wrong and horrible. So I got into the habit of leaving those particular notes as-is.

Also, I learned over the years that often the vocal will sound fine with certain instruments, but add in a given synth line, and boom, now it all sounds fucked and the vocal sounds out of tune. I learned to cut out the offending synth line, no matter how cool it sounded on its own, and leave the vocals.

I also tend to agree with what this discussion talks about in regards to the equal temperment tuning we use in the West being unnatural. Guess what Autotune is based on? And MIDI? And synths? Yep.

But back to JC: even at the time it seemed to me like JC was saying shit designed more to poison me with self-doubt than to establish a good working relationship. Which just further solidified me in my determination to not hire either one of these pricks, but I guess JC didn’t notice because he asked budget and I deliberately gave him a number which I knew he wouldn’t like (but which was fair based on what the indie label I used to work for paid for equivalent work… actually, it was way too high considering the SOB had just insulted me and also demonstrated that he knew absolutely nothing about the kind of music I was making) and he flipped out, but said he’d think about it. And we never spoke again and that suited me just fine.

Fuck you, JC.

(To give some idea, the price JC wanted me to pay him would have been equivalent to me paying Randy Staub or Mike Fraser book rate to mix the song at The Warehouse Studios in Vancouver. Randy Staub, in case you don’t know, was the recording engineer on Metallica’s black album and has mixed a very large portion of the rock radio hits you hear all the time. Including Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” and various other Nickelback songs everyone pretends to hate but obviously millions of you love ’em or else Chad Kroeger wouldn’t have as many Lamborghinis as he does. Mike Fraser has also mixed a shitload of rock radio hits, including ones by Mötley Crüe and AC/DC. JC, on the other hand, has not… but thought I ought to pay him as if he had. Also, I met Randy and Mike a bunch of times back then. Aside from their tremendous talents, they’re also nice guys who would be great to work with. JC, not so much, as evidenced by the Facebook bullshit.)

Where was I going with all this? Oh yeah. Izzy and the “I like it, it’s mine” attitude towards his voice. Basically, I remember reading that interview and flashed back to the JC incident. The important thing was that I was happy with my vocals, at least on the song I’d sent. And I remember thinking that it’s particularly evil and insidious to make really disparaging comments to a singer about their voice, especially when you work in a business where you know how much most singers struggle with that shit.

Ah… anyway, I could go on about these topics, but I guess I’ve written a long enough essay for now.

TL;DR: Good for Bono for being honest about that shit. Also, fuck you still, JC.