Melody. But is it a girl thing, or a boy thing? It goes up (The Beatles), it goes down (Nick Cave), sometimes it just flatlines (Lou Reed).
Paul Kelly and Rebecca Barnard sing a duet, Now That Our Babies Have Grown, on Pesky Bones Volume One. Its composer, Peter Farnan, asks ‘when should a melody jump all over the place and when should it just settle down and let the singer, or singers, do the work?’
Rikky Rooksby writes ‘how to’ books about songwriting. In How To Write Songs On Guitar he says that female voices, when carving out a melodic line, typically traverse a wider range than male voices. That is, that the female melodic contour (the up-and-down line a melody creates) is wider than that of the male, which is flatter and less inclined to leap around the place. This could be taken to mean that guys are more emotionally taciturn and therefore less inclined to showy displays of emotion via melody.
But male voices can sometimes soar to great heights (Bono, Bruce Dickinson, those guys from Yes and Supertramp). When Tracey Thorn in her marvellous book, Naked At The Albert Hall, refers to ‘rock screamers’ we all know what she means. She also suggests that some male singers try to subvert their swooping beauty by mangling their diction and burying their voices under effects, as if agile melodicism undermines their male authenticity. Thom Yorke: guilty.
There are many exceptions to the rule of the ‘flat-male-melodic-affect’. Paul McCartney, with Mozart’s gift for melody, is pop music’s prime example of male melodic expressivity. Although many peg Neil Finn as a Lennon man, his gift for carving out memorable melodic contours owes much to Macca. Lennon was typically male: ‘I am he is you are we …’ is almost one note.
Listen to the melody from the verse of Smells Like Teen Spirit; a classic example of wide, memorable intervallic leaps, and disjunct (ie non-step-like) motion. Kurt was a Beatles fan. James Mercer from the Shins sounds almost manically energised by melody. Given his lyrics are often a montage of opaque poetic effects, melody becomes a winged vehicle for his lyrical riddles. While Eliot Smith’s music has a tragically downcast temperament, his melodies are alive with emotional movement.
McCartney and the Beatles cast such a vast shadow over pop music that any melody that moves about, sung by a boy and accompanied by twangy guitars fits into a category known as Beatle-esque. Oasis, Jellyfish, Guided By Voices, ELO, Michael Penn, XTC, even the Rembrants (the theme from Friends for god’s sake) all inflate melody as an expressive realm. Will we ever escape the gravitational pull of the Beatles?
But back to those melodically taciturn men. If a male possesses a voice of reedy keenness, a timbre of import, and/or a characterful gravitas, he may not need to exploit melody. We are bewitched by Leonard Cohen’s portentous intonements. Nick Cave takes modest steps up and down the stairway of the musical scale but it’s a stairway to heaven and/or hell; it’s not the journey that matters but the destination, the intent.
The list of melodic under-sellers includes luminaries such as Tom Waits and Bill Callahan. Melodic contour isn’t that important in old school soul music – it’s about the groove, the spirit, the underlying impulse, the urge.
The late ‘70s earnest electro new-wave baritone is almost an archetype of melodic understatement; remember Phil Oakey singing Love Action with mock seriousness? Blue Monday? How does it feel? There’s even the genre of speak-singing; spoken intonation, given the slightest of modulated lilt. Lou Reed could barely carry a tune but who cared? Of particular note is William Shattner taking the piss out of himself and speak-singing on I Can’t Get Behind That with Henry Rollins.
As a songwriter I have used melody to compensate for my own competent but not interesting voice. Sometimes I didn’t need to. Boom Crash Opera had a distinctive singer in Dale Ryder. I suspect I sometimes drove him crazy, insisting on precise melodic articulation while his voice was an effect in and of itself. Put a phone book in front of a great singer etc.
On Pesky Bones Volume One I wanted to write a duet. This necessitated leaving my options open. A too-athletic melody might limit who I could ask to sing and distract from the main feature of a duet, which is the pairing of two individuals. But I was afraid of being dull. If the male voice was not negotiating my usual melodic twists and turns what takes over as a focus? A characterful voice and decent lyrics might help.
In composing Now That Our Babies Have Grown I relied on two factors to swing it. The first was that, being a duet, I could use the female voice to ‘sweeten the deal’. The second was suggested by a couple of renowned duets composed by Lee Hazlewood, where the female role was taken by Nancy Sinatra; Something Stupid (with her dad, Frank) and Jackson (with Hazlewood himself – another male of the flat vocal affect). Both these songs have the two voices quite distant from each other, at the musical interval of a 6th.
Usually harmonies are added close together, at the interval of a 3rd (Bye Bye Love by the Everly Brothers). If you have a keyboard play a middle C then count up two white notes and add an E; that’s a 3rd. It’s the go-to option for all harmonisers down through the ages. Vika and Linda Bull make it sound sublime. You can, however,sing the next highest C which is six white notes above the E. That is a 6th.
The 6th has its own distinctive character. In a duet, because the notes are at some distance from each other, it gives the voices their own space to assert their individuality. It emphasises difference while also facilitating ‘sameness’ (because the two voices are singing the same melody in harmony after all). The two Everly Brothers singing at a 3rd sound like one entity. Nancy and Frank on Something Stupid, at the 6th, while singing together, are quite distinct.
Now, I had my Nancy in mind. I knew that Rebecca Barnard had her own distinctive, visceral timbre but was also a ‘professional blender’ (able to slip her voice behind and around other artists). Rebecca’s commitment to the song provided the incentive for the ever-active and participatory Paul Kelly: ‘Love to sing something with Rebecca’ was nearly all the email said. Their voices are so utterly different yet sonically married. The song gives the impression of being melodically expressive but there’s not much melodic action at all. It’s pretty static. The character of the voices, both singularly and blended, is doing the heavy lifting. And what character both those voices have! If there was more melodic action it might’ve detracted from the clear and sustained mood and intent that these two artists bring to my song.
It’s often said by songwriters that songs just happen. ‘I don’t know where it came from – it just passed through me’. This is a potent feeling – I’ve experienced it myself. Often, however, I find that some of my instinctive moves can be decoded and a logical train of thought can be abstracted. I’m just working so fast that it seems like instinct. And I know how other songs have worked and I can bring those analyses and strategies to bear. There’s still no magic formula but it’s not all chance ‘gift-from-god’ stuff. And then there’s my luck at getting two great singers in the same room at the same time, facing each other, and nailing a song. Now, that’s a gift.