"See, a lot of cats don’t work on their rhythm enough, and if you don’t have rhythm, you might as well take up needlepoint or something. I can’t stress it enough. The next thing is pitch. That’s universal. You’re either in tune or you ain’t. When you get these things down, then you can learn how to solo.” Prince, Guitar Player 2004.
We ain't in tune.
"Have you ever taken singing lessons?" asked Chris Tucker, our producer, last Saturday during our work session.
My heart hit the floor. I took years and years of singing lessons, mostly with musical theatre style teachers who were helping me get a "belt" sound for auditions. I got scars, man. I sang in so many shows that I got polyps on my cords and endured months of vocal rest. This ain't this cat's first rodeo.
But no matter how many rodeos I've clocked, it's clear that these pitch problems, while starting to improve, are not going anywhere fast. Using microphones just amplifies the problem (ha?). It's hard for me to describe how much I want to sing super sweet, rich harmonies with Justin. The desire lives way down deep in my gut. It comes from singing with Shelby, my sister. As kids, our voices were similar to the point that we could trick our parents on the phone. If we sang notes a half step apart, the dog would start to freak and the cat would run outside. Our powers of sonic pain were tangible. Applied to hymns and musical theatre songs, our harmonies lived in the pocket. She always sang lead and I always sang alto. I never questioned the fact that we were in tune. We just were. It's a tall order, but I want that for The Fremonts.
Justin and I went to see our good friend, Mark Shue, play at the Summit Theatre with Guided By Voices on Saturday night. In the car as a joke, I googled "How to sing in tune." The interwebs said, "Relax. Relax your jaw. Relax your throat. Breathe." I read these ideas to Justin. "That's dumb," I said. "I took class with Kristin Linklater (famous master vocal instructor)," Justin said. "Come on."
The concert was awesome and Mark's thrill to be playing with this band just glowed all over the place. We went backstage to hang out after the show and couldn't stop giggling. Mark was so happy making this great music and traveling with this creative group of people. The contact high was incredible. Our music is totally different than theirs, but that's the kind of joy we seek.
In the rehearsal room the next day, I said in my best mocking-a-professional vocalist voice, "Justin, relax. Relax your jaw. Relax your throat. Breeeeeaaaaaathe." We sang the first song. Both of us were breathing. It was easy. "It's physical," said Justin. "I can feel it when we're in tune. We haven't been breathing." Laughter. Followed by hope. Followed by realizing that we're assholes.
There is a room on the 15th floor of the tower at Riverside Church in the upper west side of New York City. It is wind-shaken in the winter, sun-bleached in the spring and summer and perfect in the fall. Jersey to the west, ocean to the east and three floors down through a window in the nursery is a great balcony to go have a smoke and look out on the horizon. I spent 9 hours a week in this tower for about three years in the early zeroes with a randy Scottish woman who had a booming voice, an affinity for Famous Grouse and a way of looking at me that said, “I see you for what you are, even if you don’t yet know who that is.” She taught me how to breathe.
For a moment, sit. Turn off the TV. Close your laptop. Put down your book. Throw your phone to the floor. Drop your hands to your sides. Take a breath. But really, Take. A. Breath. I don’t do this enough. I don’t do it well. I don’t do it mindfully.
Often I will think on my time up in the tower and say, “Jesus, I paid money to do that? What a waste.” Then the spectre of that woman will show up, punch me in the stomach, leave me on the ground gasping for air, look down at me and say, “Breathe.”
We met with Chris again recently and spoke briefly about how frustrating it was to put in so much work on our tuning only to listen to a recording of the show afterwards to find that we were still not singing in tune as often as we wanted to. In the search for our sound, Steph and I continue to agree that we are nothing without the harmonies and they have to be tight. There is no wiggle room. Chris suggested we rehearse a bit more with mics so that we can get used to the sound of our voices coming through amplification. So we do, we record it and we have a listen.
The tuning is not there. If you’ve been reading up on our journey this far, you’ll know that the tuning issues fall mostly on my head. I’ll spare you the details, but know this: it’s a pretty serious problem. Sure, we can go into the studio and autotune the crap out of my voice but neither of us want that. So Steph goes to the great and powerful Google with a simple phrase: Tips for singing in tune. Right there at the top of every list, every blog, every think-piece is one word, “breathe.”
A day later, we’re back in our practice/guest room (our neighbors probably love us) and we’re about to record a run of our set. I keep thinking, “Of course I know how to breathe. I learned how to breathe." So, for this run of the set, I try paying attention to it. I start running through all the stuff that the Scottish woman drove into my skull, the stream of thoughts is never ending, but it’s all focused on my breath. I listen to some of the recording of that run the next day and sure enough, there is something in it. It’s not perfect. It’s dusty. It’s got a lot of waking up to do. But there is something there.
There is rarely mastery. There is only work. There is never a moment to sit back and say, “I have arrived.” But there is the journey. Because once you master something, you’ve got to work to keep it. Once you learn something, you’ve got to keep it alive.
A kick to my chest, I fall back to the hard ground and feel my throat close up. The shadow of a woman stands over me. A smirk sneaks onto my asphyxiated lips as I hear the words bursting forth from the shadow, “Breathe”.