Other Voices


We live in a time when details about the private lives of writers and musicians threaten to overshadow their work. This is even more true in rock ‘n’ roll, where, as Neil Young tells us, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” When the lives of cult heroes are brief and tragic, as in the case of Nick Drake for instance, or Ian Curtis, it’s even harder to tell the singer from the song.

Many artists play into this state of affairs by choosing a confessional mode of song-writing, sometimes producing works of genius by transforming their personal experiences into art. Everyone now knows that Joni Mitchell’s Green concerns the birth of the child she gave up for adoption as a very young woman. Everybody knows that Leonard Cohen wrote Chelsea Hotel #2 about his relationship with Janis Joplin, and knowing these things gives us a feeling of power, of sharing in an intimate secret.

And so the songs of Randy Newman come as a sublime shock: they are often written from a first-person perspective, but we are not meant to identify with these voices, at least not in any comfortable way. “No one likes us - I don’t know why”, the speaker in Political Science begins, speaking for a disgruntled America, and concludes: “They all hate us anyhow / So let’s drop the big one now.” In God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind), the God-speaker turns out to be a sadist, and the charming salesman of Sail Away, the album from which all these examples are taken, is a slave-trader (“You just sing about Jesus, drink wine all day / It’s great to be an American”).

What makes these songs so compelling is the way Newman creates multi-dimensional characters: for a moment the argument of Political Science seems so reasonable; God’s contempt of gullible mankind seems almost justified.

The result is that we do feel an affinity with such characters, but we are disturbed by our understanding of them. It is as if we are seeing ourselves through a mirror that exaggerates our fear and prejudice.

Tom Waits is another Los Angeles songwriter who has literally explored other voices, often by expanding his own into a Babel of shouts, whispers and everything in between. This enables him to speak for characters from the margins of society, often from surprising angles: on 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, the aching tenderness of Soldier’s Things, which describes the contents of a box of goods, feels almost shockingly innocent, while the matter-of-factness of Frank’s Wild Years, which ends with the respectable Frank driving away and putting on top 40 station after having torched his house and watched it burn, seems to pass without a tremor, which makes it all the more impossible to forget.

Songs such as these don’t make us feel in control. They invite us into worlds full of shadows and distorting mirrors. After listening to them for a while, even the most sincerely confessional song will be hard to trust. All great songwriters are ventriloquists to a greater or lesser extent, and who can say whose voice comes through when they say “I?” It could be a version of yours or mine.



This might seem a strange admission from a classically trained singer, but most of my favourite singers have voices that are an acquired taste by most people’s standards.

In Leonard Cohen’s wonderful Tower of Song, there is a joke at the beginning of the third verse, as he whispers: I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice …” Cohen knows as well as we do that he does not have the kind of voice that is traditionally referred to by this epithet, nor has he become rich as a result of it.

And yet Cohen undoubtedly possesses one of the most unforgettable voices in the music business, and over the past four decades that voice has become indistinguishable from the words it has crafted and sung.

Other favourites of this blog – Dylan, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Nick Cave – have similarly received reluctant praise for their singing at times, yet each of them is a great singer.

This has everything to do with the way in which they move the listener. They do this by evoking and creating complex emotional realities out there and inside us. When Waits sings, “Anywhere, anywhere I lay my head / I call my home”, he sounds more wasted than any human being should ever sound, but there is something triumphant in his voice, and this is borne out by the change of tone at the end of the song, when a New Orleans-style marching band suggests the exuberance of funeral processions.

Nick Drake is another, very different example of this quality: his ethereal voice floats above the faultless guitar playing that grounds it in a way that suggests that he is both earthbound and somehow not of this world.

Then there is Mary Gauthier’s I Drink, in which the protagonist sums up the state of the world in the chorus with a resigned shrug: “Fish swim, birds fly / Mamas yell, daddies cry / Old men sit and think / I drink.” Gauthier’s voice, smoky and no doubt altered by years of hard living, can cut through the stoniest heart. It manages to summon an irretrievable loss at the centre of the song which gives the lie to that shrug and yet somehow contains it.

There is a huge gap at the centre of our experience – a gap between what we are and what we might be, what we would like to be but cannot reach. In the voices and songs of great singers it feels, for a moment, as if we can touch all these possibilities in ourselves at the same time. The pleasure they give us is like vertigo, but we cannot help looking down.

Maybe that is why we forgive them when they sometimes sing between the notes.

No Man’s Land


Is it my imagination, or are a great many South African singers today singing with American accents irrespective of the kind of material they are performing?

It makes some kind of cultural sense for local singers to try to evoke an American voice and landscape – the US, after all, is where rock ‘n roll was born, and most of the blues most South Africans know originated from there also, even if the music of African slaves was largely responsible for its development.

But on another level it often doesn’t ring true, unless it is done self-consciously to create a character or a persona.

Music must evoke something if it is to convince – a place, an atmosphere, a mood. It uses melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics to do this. But there should be more: there has to be a willingness for something uniquely personal to come to the fore, something more personal than mere technique, say, or the ability to imitate a master.

A young Bobby Womack once asked the great soul singer Sam Cooke about the young Bob Dylan’s vocal technique, which he didn’t understand. Cooke responded that from now on the most important thing would no longer be whether a voice was pretty or not, but whether or not it was telling the truth.

In Dylan’s case, that “truth” doesn’t primarily refer to his early, overt social commentary. It relates to something one can hear in his voice, a willingness to inhabit his own songs and those of others. It is that generosity that strikes one about the early Dylan, and it is a quality his work has retained to this day, much as the voice itself has changed. Where it has failed him, it is immediately obvious, even to the most diehard of fans.

Songs have to be inhabited, to be lived in before they become believable. This is equally true of the most trite pop song and the most obscure opus. It is this no-man’s-land the singer must make inhabitable for the listener.

When we refer to our eclectic listening fare as popular or semi-popular music, we probably mean that it is accessible to a mass audience, often but not exclusively of young people, in ways that music hadn’t been in previous centuries. Its defining moments are everywhere around us. We quote lines from our favourite songs and hum phrases from them, try to mimick the accents and clothing of our favourite artists.

But these moments, these songs, are also in a sense nowhere. They invite us to places that are on no maps of the known world. They are from a no-man’s-land where two worlds of experience – that of a performer and of a listener – meet for a moment in a place without a name, and something real and inimitable is exchanged.



One of the first things that interested me as a singer was mimicry – sounding as close as possible to the original singer performing the song on the record or on the radio. I can still clearly remember mimicking every inflection in the voice of Dylan as he sneered his way through Just Like a Woman, or of Joni Mitchell as she soared through River. I must have hoped that the same strange forces that had possessed them would possess me also. Even today sometimes I have to make a conscious effort not to fall into step behind the original singer of a song.

My years of classical voice training challenged this tendency to an extent. In classical singing one tries to create a sound as pure as possible, and in that pure resonance one already hears one’s own voice, not that of a master.

Another revelation came slowly over the years as I kept hearing singers doing different versions of their own songs, Dylan being a good example. Hearing his electric version of I Don’t Believe You after knowing the “original” acoustic version for years was extraordinary: I thought I knew the song, but obviously Dylan had found a different form for it, a different sonic centre to the song, while I was still at its periphery.

I have had many similar revelations over the years. One afternoon a friend played me Joan Baez’ version of Long Black Veil, followed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version of the same song before asking me to choose which one I preferred. I think at the time I felt that Cave had strayed too far from the original. I hadn’t learned that that was precisely the point. And there was John Cale’s desolate version of Heartbreak Hotel on his acoustic Fragments of a Rainy Season album, and Randy Newman’s naked piano accompanying him on the ironic Lonely at the Top, and many, many others.

But I think I came of age musically while performing a Dylan cover show with Johann Kotze at the Baxter Theatre in 1999. By then I was haltingly accompanying myself on piano, which immediately made the songs sound unfamiliar, while Johann’s guitar – sometimes strummed, sometimes sliding up and down the fret board – made them sound as if they were all our own. All Along the Watchtower started in a slow, low key waltz time for the first two verses and reached a mid-song climax before loping into the more usual time signature. It Ain’t Me, Babe sounded like a reggae tune in spite of only being accompanied by one acoustic guitar. One More Cup of Coffee slipped into three-four time in its choruses.

Johann self-effacingly said that he couldn’t play the songs in their original form. Perhaps that was true, but in the process he taught me something that my own listening life had suggested for some time: that the original version of a song is no more or less important than any other, that originality has to do with finding a new way into an old song and making it your own, whether you wrote it or not.

The only disadvantage of this discovery was that three quarters of the pub rock and smooth jazz I had been able to listen to up to that point then became pointless, even irritating – mere repetition of what we already knew.

So now, when people ask me about one of the songs on the new Red Earth & Rust album, “How are you going to do that live?” it doesn’t bother me. I know that the song is never the same from one performance to another, and that adventure is the mother of beauty.



Subscribe to our Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog and be kept in the loop