I love music. I always have. All kinds of music. I remember spending long hours locked away in my bedroom, flipping albums over and reading along with the lyrics and liner notes in time to the music. Looking back, I'm sure my dad's downstairs neighbors had to have loved INXS's Listen Like Thieves as much as I did, right? And no one has ever sounded better singing along with Michael Hutchence. (I so totally should've won Rock Star:INXS.)
Music was a big deal in my house from a very early age. I was raised on daily doses of the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, Elton John (before he sucked), Billy Joel (before he was an ass) and Linda Rondstadt. I loved nothing more than choosing the albums for the day at home with my mom, stacking them on the turntable, and singing my little strawberry blonde heart out. The first song I remember singing is "Bennie and the Jets", though all I knew was the "B-b-b-bennie and the Jetssssss!" I knew all the words to "Hotel California" long before I ever knew what a colita was. And my grandmother famously tells of how I spent hours one summer on her front porch--my concrete stage--serenading her suburban Atlanta neighborhood with the repetitive strains of "Delta Dawn". (I'm so sorry, Kennesaw!)
I did my first performance at an All-County music festival in the 6th grade, moved on to choir in junior high where I performed with the grade level choirs, the girls' choir, and the smaller 16-person chamber choir. I did a short stint in choir in high school but found that singing melancholy songs of teenage angst in my bedroom was much more fulfilling to my tortured psyche than any six-part Latin piece would ever be. I did a couple of homegrown musical theatre performances and even toyed with the idea of taking opera lessons. But I can tell you from experience that it's really hard to sing scales for hours on end when you're hung-over. And nothing will make your tongue trip over 1-3-5-3-1-5-1 interval patterns like cotton mouth.
I still spend hours listening to music, picking apart the bass line, or comparing how the countermelody of the guitar syncs with the singer's voice. For me it's always about the lyrics and the vocals, so intimately tied together. But good lyrics can overcome a less-than-perfected vocal talent, a là Leonard Cohen or Greg Dulli, both of whom I adore unconditionally.
And then there are the harmonies.
I'm firmly planted, vocally, in the alto camp. I can remember many times of having to lip sync lyrics in group performances because my line would traipse into first soprano territory. I have been moved into the tenor section on more than one occasion, when they were lacking boys whose voices had settled yet, or just because it was a better vocal fit. So I have spent a lot of time singing harmony. I like to pick the harmony line out of my favorite songs, or sometimes I will make up my own. As Adam Taylor expressed to me recently, you feel like you're helping the singer and the music, making it richer and more complicated.
So imagine my surprise when I lost my voice. Oh, yeah. After my second son was born in 2004, I never felt quite right. At my one-year check-up, my OB/GYN found a growth on my thyroid. Two months later I was having a partial thyroidectomy, to remove the right lobe. Apparently my thyroid sat very, very close to the laryngeal nerve, and the only way for the surgeon to make sure the nerve was intact was to move it. It was moved a lot. The nerve went into shock and didn't work for three months.
There I was with 5-year-old and 1-year-old boys, each raising their own kind of hell, and no way to yell at them. I didn't just need to yell at them to stop torturing the cat or to keep their voices down. I needed to be able to get their attention in a parking lot or on the playground. I needed to call for help across the house when a diaper had unexpectedly ruptured.
And I needed to sing. By that point in time, early 2006, those years of singing and practice had reduced me to singing "The Wheels on the Bus" 342 times a day, almost exclusively in the car. When my elder son was 18-months-old, we took our first family vacation to Gulf Shores. He was so agitated from the onset of toddlerdom and the Benadryl we foolishly slipped into his apple juice, he screamed from Greenville, Alabama, to Birmingham. I had to sit in the back seat with him and sing every word of the Dragon Tales soundtrack CD to keep him quiet. When my throat was too parched to continue, I resorted to singing to my husband, "Ple-ase, we neeeed to get some w-a-a-a-teeerrr...."
For three months I did my best to not lose control when I could only stage whisper. I could barely talk, let alone sing. Eventually the nerve started to work again. The surgeon warned me that sometimes the voice was not the same, though not everyone would be able to hear the difference. He was right, of course, which is why he was the most sought-after thyroid surgeon in Birmingham.
I was reluctant to even attempt to sing, afraid of what I would find. The range had dropped, both on the top and bottom, by a couple of notes. The timbre was a little different, though perhaps a bit richer. I stuck with the easy melodies I knew best, the ones that were least taxing on my stagnated vocal chords. Eventually I did move back to the harmonies I love: Johnette Napolitano on "(You're the Only One) Can Make Me Cry", Elaine Summers on Pete Droge's "Straylin Street", and anything else I could find to wrap my voice around.
Recently I had the distinct and wonderful chance to sing my current favorite song, "Silly Thing" by the Gracious Few, at the Double Door in Chicago, with the ever-delightful Kevin Martin. He'd been sweet and sung with me at a show a few weeks before in Atlanta. He knew how much I loved the song, the entire album, and pulled me into the song from the edge of the stage. I started fine, we had great fun; he left me to do his regular show but then came back before the song was over. I was nervous and excited and drunk. I decided to go for the harmony on the full chorus. Apparently so did Kevin. I knew at the time it was off, but not until I saw the video a few days later did I know how awful it was. I was so caught up in the interval of the harmony that I stayed on it, moving from wherever the heck Kevin's voice was. I can laugh about it, because it's really funny and I'm that kind of self-deprecating girl. But it was also a little heart-wrenching, that I had this moment to shine and barely glittered.
Since I had the boys, it seems there's been a constant search for my voice. I can hear it now, though it doesn't always sound to others the same way it does to me. Ultimately, though, it's my voice. I can't rely on anyone else to define it for me, to lead me to use it in any certain way. Sometimes I may be forced to sing for the Red Queen, but I will sing it in my own style, even if it costs me my head.