You’d be a star if it weren’t for your voice”. Searing words, hurled across the desk from my music publisher after a showcase, stung like a slap in the face. The fact that I couldn’t shake them off, disagree with her then walk out of her office head held high made me cower even more beneath my skin. Instead, I thought “yeah, you’re probably right”. She wasn’t the first one or the last to point out candidly what was to them, obvious. My voice was Unmarketable, Unbeautiful.
I’ve been singing most of my life. I first started gigging in little dive bars with my parents when I was 14. Learned to sing harmony with my mother who had a stunning, sultry, velvety voice. I loved singing with her. I was a kid then and didn’t care what I sounded like. I only knew I loved the feeling of emotion, words, the stuff of life, moving as air across my vocal chords creating resonate vibration. It was the only thing I wanted to do when I grew up. My parents were incredibly supportive, always encouraging me to sing.
Moved to Nashville then later Los Angeles immersing myself in songwriting culture and the business of music. Made a living for several years as a professional songwriter and sang my own demos. Worked for some great publishers who shopped my recordings to record labels, but door after door closed. It was always the voice. I had something. Some kind of energy that people were drawn to…. until I opened my mouth. I would frequently hear “you’re talking voice doesn’t sound like your singing voice” or “you don’t sound like I thought you would”.
Year after year of rejection – sometimes gentle, sometimes cruel – completely wore me down. I started abusing my voice, trying to get it to do what I thought “They” wanted it to do. I remember one night breaking down in my apartment in LA screaming until it hurt too much to even talk, beating up my vocal chords because they didn’t have the tone or texture or control that “They” wanted. That I wanted and needed to succeed in the life I had chosen. Finally, I dropped out of the corporate music machine, vowing to never sing again.
That was 7 years, 2 albums and a bit of touring ago. I still don’t have the vocal control or acrobatics I’ve always longed for. I have air. Lots of air moving across my chords. Singing has never been easy or effortless. It takes a lot of focus to not break in the middle of a note, hold a note long or stay relaxed in my upper range. I hear trapeze and tight rope melodies in my head. Makes me a good songwriter. Frustrates me as a singer.
Not long ago I was on tour with another songwriter performing as a duo, weaving harmonies and songs throughout the night. After the show, I was on stage wrapping cords, she was casing her guitar. A handful of people fluttered to the stage including a man who leaned past me with a secret to tell, and said directly to my duo partner “you have an amazing, beautiful voice”. The very first thought in my head was “I guess I have an Ugly voice”. The second thought “Naaah…..just a very unique one.”