Heart on a Wire: An Interview with Americana Chanteuse Taylor Whitaker

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I sat down with smoky-voiced Americana artist Taylor Whitaker to discuss her debut EP, Heart on a Wire, her inspirations, and how she landed in Nashville. Heart on a Wire is an earnest, hopeful collection of songs that marries Whitaker’s gentle, poetic lyrics with a pop-influenced folk sound. Whitaker’s powerful, rich voice anchors the album in emotional honesty, and her skill with melody is on full display in every song. In person, she’s alternately eloquent and self-deprecatingly hilarious. Take a listen as you get to know Taylor below!

You just released Heart on a Wire in November of last year—was that your first EP?

Yes, it was a labor of love. I’ve had the songs for probably three or four years, and I’ve never had the opportunity to record, so we actually moved to Nashville to record this and start doing music.

From Wisconsin [where she’s from]?

From Washington, DC. My husband was in the army, and he was stationed at Walter Reed Medical Center, and after I graduated I flew out to live with him. That was after we eloped, and didn’t tell anybody. So we eloped, I finished, I flew out there! It was a very big secret, only my roommate knew in college, pretty much.

So you’ve been married a long time now!

Yeah, almost five years. It’s going good!

So what was the inspiration for the songs on the album?

Most of them are about my relationship. There was about two years where we only saw each other for maybe three months, so a lot of them songs are—one of them is “800 Miles,” which is the distance from Wisconsin to DC, driving. And the other one is called, “Frost of Spring.” It’s just a love letter back and forth, asking how you are, are the people nice, you know, like a conversation. It’s been nice to be done with it, just because I feel like I’ve wanted to have these songs recorded for so long, and now I can move on. Like the baby’s done, I can move on and grow in my writing.

I hear several different stylistic elements in your music—how would you describe your style?

I guess to blanket it, it would be Americana folk. But some of them have an alternative edge to them. But I think there’s a lot of—a lot of them are really simple, the melodies and the lyrics, and then the instrumentals are what builds it out. So there’s a lot of 60s folk in my mind when I’m writing it, but also with “Heart on a Wire,” it’s more 40s-50s to me, like watching an old movie or something like that.

How long have you been writing?

Since I was in college. UW Milwaukee has this really great guitar program, it’s fingerstyle, classical, and jazz. So there are guitar players that come from around the world to study there, and I had all these friends that were playing guitar. And so, you know, I knew chords, but then I ended up taking a fingerstyle class, and there’s a picking pattern, PIMA, and I wrote a song to learn the pattern. And that’s when I kinda started writing. We did this show called “Shenanigans” for our opera theater class, and it was really just like a talent show at the college level [laughs]. And so I ended up playing that song, and got really good feedback from it, and just wanted to keep writing.

Have you always known that music was the thing you wanted to do?

Yes. Even my parents knew. I was the kid at the end of a Disney movie that would go sing and dance at the screen after it was over, and they would let me! And I would tell stories to everybody, I would sing all the time, and to be honest I never really did it in school—I went to a Lutheran school and they didn’t really have a music program. And I was getting bullied, and I asked my mom to take me out, probably in like 7th grade. I transferred to a public school, and they had a music program, it alternated music/gym. And the music teacher there, Barry Craig, he’s the one who started it all [laughs]. So he was the one who started giving me arias to sing and putting me in state competitions and he got me voice lessons and it just kinda grew from there. And he was always very supportive, and believed in me. And even my parents, they owned properties, so when they couldn’t afford voice lessons, they would do services for my voice teacher, like change out her windows so that I could have lessons. So I feel like everybody really believed in it. And I just, you know, I love singing, so I went along with it. You know, looking back, I was not as grateful as I should have been. [laughs] I am now!

Since my blog is focused on women, I’m curious what does it mean to you to be a woman in this industry? Are there certain challenges you’ve faced?

Okay, so I’ve had a long life of being bullied, called names, put down. And I think that in college, really after I met my husband is when I started to get self-confidence. So now I’m like, I don’t care what you say to me, I’m a person and I’m strong. I try to keep myself surrounded by really positive musicians that believe in what I’m writing and what I’m doing, which is why I always send them music before I’m say, let’s write together. You know, I want to make sure that everybody feels strongly about what we’re creating. But I love seeing other women perform in Nashville. It can be very male-dominated. Which is fine! But we [women] have such a spectrum of emotion, you know, we go through so many things that a man can’t experience, and we have so much to say. And so it’s nice to be able to support that for each other.

If there’s a message that you want people to get from your music, what do think that might be?

Well, with “Under Fire,” I get asked if it’s a political song, and it’s not. It was a single release, and it really was written at a time when I’d moved here to pursue this dream and I just felt like I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I was good enough, I didn’t know if people were interested, I wasn’t having a good time with trying to find a job, and it was written to say, keep your head up. So even though some of my songs can seem very sad, I feel like there’s always a silver lining, you know, you just gotta stay positive. A lot of the reason why I write is that it’s therapy to get it out of me and into a song, so that I can continue to live my best life. And hopefully if somebody else hears it, it helps them through what they’re going through.

Lightning round! Peanut butter—creamy or chunky?

Creamy.

Wine—white or red?

White, but I’m not big wine drinker.

What do you like instead?

Whiskey. Whiskey and Wisconsin beers.

Vinyl or CD or cassette?

Vinyl. I have a great collection, but my favorite is a Valerie June signed copy of her first release.

Favorite animal?

I’m sorry to my dogs, I mean, they’re my favorite animals, but I would say the elephant.

Ooh! Mine’s the hippo, ours could be friends! Favorite childhood TV show?

Rocko’s Modern Life. Now watching it, like I can’t watch it now, it’s so annoying and I feel bad for my parents, but I loved that show.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

I have this conversation with my husband every now and then. I’d say invisibility. I’d love to just people watch and move around and have nobody know. I don’t know if I’d want to read other people’s minds. I’m a really honest person, and I’d have to call them out (laughs). Maybe being able to touch something and turn it into something else, that’d be a cool superpower.

[her phone rings] Yeah, that’s the Downton Abbey theme song. [laughs]

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BRIGHTON: The Shondes’ Brand of Feminist Pop-Punk Has an Optimistic Edge

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I love when I find a band that simultaneously rocks and makes me smile. Brooklyn’s The Shondes bring a unique outlook to their music—a feminist, Jewish punk band with catchy melodies, soaring violin, epic lyrics and earnest hopefulness. Their lead single, “Everything Good,” from their most recent album, Brighton, exemplifies this style. The lyrics are sweet and optimistic, supported by the romantic violin, but the energetic drums, fuzzy guitar, and lead singer Louisa Solomon’s powerful vocals give the song a punk edge.

The entire album is filled with incredibly tuneful melodies, a particular strength of the band’s songwriting, and the energy is overall a little 80s without the cheesy synths, reminiscent of Blondie, the Pretenders, and even anthem rock like Bruce Springsteen. Solomon’s voice in particular reminds me of Chrissie Hynde, with its ability to somehow be passionate and cool at the same time. And Elijah Oberman’s violin touches are always thoughtful and always strong—I especially love the pizzicato in “Wrong Kind,” a sing-along pop-punk anthem.

Other standouts on the album include “True North,” featuring a nod to their Jewish influences with the lyric “next year in Jerusalem” and an epic breakdown at the end; “Unstill Ones,” which is impossible not to sing along to between the background “oohs” and the “fuck that noise” refrain; and “Nightwatch,” perhaps their most adventurous offering. The guitar is gorgeous, the lyrics sweet and earnest, and the layering of ambient wails, violin, and sparse drums is tasteful and satisfyingly builds to the end. There is much to love about The Shondes and Brighton, from their inclusive and celebratory message to their catchy punk style—but ultimately, they simply make me happy and I like them. To me, that’s the joy of reviewing and discovering new music, and I’m thrilled to have found them.

SOUND: Catchy, energetic punk rock, with a little anthem rock thrown in; similar to Joan Jett, Blondie, The Pretenders, The Bangles, Bruce Springsteen

LISTEN TO: “Everything Good,” “Unstill Ones,” “Nightwatch”

Buy the album on Bandcamp

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Watch their video for “Everything Good:”

POST-ROMANTIC STRESS DISORDER: An Interview with Soul-Jazz Artist Hanorah

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Hanorah hails from Montreal, Canada and is releasing the first part of her second album, Post-Romantic Stress Disorder, on August 30th. The depth and beauty of her writing is arresting and staggeringly personal, and her voice is a raw, glorious instrument. I got the chance to preview the new album (it’s crazy good) and ask Hanorah a few questions about her work in the interview below. You can preview a song from the album, “Clementine,” here on Hanorah’s Reverbnation page, and stay tuned on her social media for updates on her album!          

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You released your debut album, Unstuck, in 2015. What inspired you to start writing and releasing your own music?

Three years before I recorded anything, I was sexually assaulted. It completely ripped me apart from the world and I felt so completely alone and crazy. I lost friends, alienated myself from my family, and stopped leaving the house except for school (I was studying fine arts). It was a really difficult time, and I think my feelings were just spilling over into poems because I couldn’t talk to people about them yet.

I always sang around the house when everything got to be too much, and my mom always encouraged me to do something with music. I always had doubts and was also terrified of going out in the world, but one day I saw that Shia Laboeuf “Just Do It” video and realized that I was the only thing standing in my way. So I found a producer, Sookz, and improvized melodies over my poems and the music we created together.

How do you feel your sound has evolved in Post-Romantic Stress Disorder?

I’m much more sure of my voice now, and have found what I’m good at. I gravitate towards certain harmonies, melodies and phrasing, so I try to change it up if I find myself getting repetitive. Most of what I do is just listening and allowing myself to feel and respond.

The music itself is also more polished, and I’ve become more aware of how one can challenge pop song structures without disregarding a structure completely. “Clementine” is probably the best example of that.

Your voice is so bold, raw, and mellow, and I love how you layer it almost like an instrument in your work. Who are your major vocal influences? And how do you approach your vocal layering in the studio?

I learned a lot about singing by listening to Etta James, Joss Stone, Adele (her album 19 changed my life), Amy Winehouse and Ella Fitzgerald. I used to listen to my favorite songs like “Fool That I Am” and sing them over and over again, trying to find different tones in my own voice that were pleasing or interesting.

When it comes to vocal arrangement, it’s hard to say where that came from. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the rock stuff my dad played when I was a kid must have given me an ear for harmonies. Looking back, as young as 8 years old I was trying to pick out all the different notes in songs by Yes, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and The Beatles. I also had a Bob Marley phase and a gospel phase thanks to mom. I think I just liked the feeling of adding something to the songs I loved so much.

I also took piano lessons briefly as a kid and thought the only “good” harmonies had to be do-mi-sol; but my dad would show me stuff like “I Don’t Mind” by Moke, for example, where they sneak in extra notes to give it a different flavor. Then I learned about tritones and that was a whole other discovery! I have a long way to go.

You collaborate with a lot of talented musicians–how do those collaborations inspire your work?

Aside from my short stint playing piano rather badly, I don’t have musical training. Everyone I work with is a teacher in some way, whether it’s music theory or more abstract philosophical thinking. They inspire me so much; they’re like endless libraries of information and inspiration. I believe they move me forward and don’t allow me to get stuck on any one thing. They’re also incredibly supportive of my catharsis.

 

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I find your story so personal and so important–do you find that sharing yourself so openly in your music helps you connect with listeners who may have gone through similar situations?

I’d say the most important thing for me is that people hear the music and go, “Oh wow I feel the same way.” It’s not necessarily that my story involves rape that makes it important, although it is important, but it’s my quest for honesty and understanding that keeps me going. When people hear my stuff and know where it stems from and approach me saying a similar thing happened to them, it’s almost like looking in a mirror– I know I’m not alone, they know they’re not alone. But I think anyone can find something for them in these songs.

I imagine it must be difficult to be so straightforward about a traumatic event in your life and make sure that it doesn’t become the ONLY focus of your work in the minds of others–how have you dealt with talking about your rape but presenting yourself as a whole?

The rape was the “élément déclencheur” for me, but it is not my entire identity. Some of the songs are literally about the incident itself, but most of them describe my life and how I’ve been changing since it happened. They are snapshots of a personal revolution. People can write songs because they were cheated on, or lied to, abandoned, physically abused, or high on acid. I don’t think the specific origins of the content are necessarily the only way to appreciate or relate to a song. A good example is “13 35” by Dillon. It’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful and sad, and you don’t need to know that it’s about a miscarriage to love it. Knowing why she wrote it just closes the circle.

For me, I will talk about the assault whenever people ask because I remember how awful I felt during those years. I know it happens so often and affects more people than we can imagine so I’m happy to come forward with it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want anyone else listening to my music.

I want to know a couple of rapid-fire favorites! Tell me:

Peanut butter: creamy or chunky?

Creamy! It’s easier to spread.

Vinyl or digital? Or both!

Vinyl is great because listening to music becomes an active experience. Every note, every lyrics, every beat becomes an essential part of a message across time.

Beyonce or Rihanna?

I’ve never really been a huge fan of either. Beyonce’s got crazy vocal chops, and Rihanna has a unique tone in her voice. I admire them both as entrepreneurs.

R&B: Old-school or new-school?

That’s hard to say! Old school embodies an organic approach to expression and music-making that I really relate to. But because I’m making music today, the programs and techniques a lot of us have available makes for pieces of music that are like bits of art.

Old Star Wars or New Star Wars?

Old!

Finding Nemo or Finding Dory?

I loved Nemo but I haven’t seen Dory yet! Looking forward to it.

Finally–what is the main thing you hope listeners take away from your album?

Just that there’s always someone out there who understands, and everything will be okay no matter how bad things may seem. There’s always a way to heal or to make the best of a situation.

The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, Part 2: So What Do We Do Now?

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To read part 1 of The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, click here!

Okay, so here’s the big question—what do we do about indie pop voice? The trend is clearly very popular and not showing signs of letting up anytime soon, and as such exerts a huge influence on young singers and their vocal habits. As singers, should we use it? And as voice teachers, should we encourage it in our students or quash it? You’re about to hear my opinion, so I’ll openly admit my bias—I’m not really a fan of the accent in its current form, especially when I hear certain words, like “one” or “just,” repeatedly getting the exact same strange treatment from singers. So I came at this article fully expecting to condemn it. But I won’t, at least not completely—and here’s why.

As a voice teacher, I like to let my students craft their own sound as naturally as possible. So, I don’t really impose a lot of value judgements on them, but I let them make their own decisions about how they sound, provided they do three things:

  • Sing healthily—meaning without extra tension and with adequate breath support. Pretty much everything else is not really considered health for my students and me, but style/aesthetic.
  • Allow the way they speak to influence the way they sing—usually in terms of pronunciation and phrasing. From there, if they’d like, they can change things up and experiment to find the sounds they like best and that they feel are most beautiful and evocative in their voices.
  • Eschew imitation at all costs—a singer’s bread and butter is her uniqueness, which usually springs from allowing her speaking voice, which is uniquely her, to be slightly heightened to become singing.

So let’s examine indie pop voice using each of the above points—I can’t find any signs that it’s unhealthy, as it’s purely a pronunciation/resonance issue. It may not comport to the classical-derived standards of singing on the purest, most open vowels possible, but we’re not singing classically, so we’re good there. As to the second point, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that we speak this way—except there MIGHT BE. It’s tough to find recordings of people speaking and pinpoint examples, so this is purely anecdotal evidence, but I have noticed lately that when I ask people how they’re doing, sometimes they say, “guoid!” just like Selena Gomez. What if we do talk this way? Who am I to say we don’t? And if you talk this way, sing this way, by all means!

The third point is the most important—if you sing this way in order to sound like someone else, or because it’s becoming so popular, you should stop. Your voice is your honesty, your point of view—your voice is you, and it’s not believable coming from you if it sounds like somebody else. And maybe you’re subconsciously employing indie pop voice, possibly because you’ve heard it so much, and there’s nothing exactly wrong with that… except now you know. So notice whether you employ this accent, and if you do, ask yourself why! Do you do it because you talk that way and it feels very you? If so, great. Do you do it because it’s kinda fun and you can honestly say you do it differently than everyone else? That’s cool too. Do you do it because you’re trying to sound like Adele or Amy Winehouse, or because you think it makes you unique? If you sound like any of the above people, it certainly does not make you unique, and that should give you pause.

There’s another major reason that I won’t issue a blanket statement that people should stop using indie pop voice, and it’s that there is inherent sexism in the way a lot of people talk about this trend. The mere fact that so many people online call it “indie girl voice” is a clear indicator of that, but that’s just the beginning. Except for the Buzzfeed article, I’ve only seen discussions of women using the trend with no mention of any men. I’ve seen it condemned as annoying, fake, and often babyish in various message boards; even Carson Daly said it reminded him of baby talk. I can’t decide if he’s reacting to the treatment of vowels or to the prevalence of breathiness and head voice in this style; it might be a combination. But I’ll point out that baby talk can be consciously done and a powerful, influential tool, as Paris Hilton will tell you. Some commenters even say indie pop voice reminds them of vocal fry—I’m honestly not sure how that could be possible, unless they’re getting it mixed up with another technique like breathiness or rasp. Vocal fry is a register that occurs below chest voice, and though some voice teachers use it as an exercise to combat hyperfunctional singing, I really can’t think of any singers that actually use vocal fry when they perform. The only link I can see is that it’s another speech trend that people condemn women for using and not men. So yes, indie pop voice is more prevalent among women than men, and yes, it is everywhere—but if those facts alone make it more annoying than, say, every male punk singer trying to sound like Billie Joe Armstrong, who was trying to sound like Joe Strummer, then that’s probably caused by a sexist undercurrent, because they’re very similar phenomena.

In short, I really hate to be another person telling women how they should speak/sing—between uptalking, vocal fry, and now “indie girl voice,” we really get harped at from all sides. So I won’t tell you, if you sing this way, whether you should continue or not; as with all my students, I leave it to you to craft your own sound. Clearly, indie pop voice comes from a long line of employment by incredible singers, so if you use it, you’re in good company. Bottom line: you should be do what feels the most naturally, honestly YOU. If that’s indie pop voice, well I think that’s all “guoid!”

The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, Part 1: Where Did It Come From?

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Pop music vocalists have always had their share of unusual pronunciation and accents, and the most recent trend is so-called “indie girl voice,” or more generally, “indie pop voice.” This vine star parodies it, and even Buzzfeed has noticed it. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, definitely check out the above links—I think you’ll recognize it once you hear it. I notice this accent A LOT in artists like Taylor Swift, ZZ Ward, Halsey, and Adele, as well as in the young singers I teach. All this leads me to ask: where did this trend come from? What should we call it? And what should we, as singers and/or teachers of singing, do about it?

I first noticed the trend a couple of years ago, and it seemed to only affect certain words. Notice the way Kesha and Joy Williams of the Civil Wars each say “one” in the following, each from 2013:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHUbLv4ThOo (start at about 0:18)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnkM_ebv9BI (start at about 0:56)

What you’re hearing is a diphthong, which is essentially two vowels one right after the other within the same syllable. There are lots of diphthongs that occur naturally in the English language, like the “ah-ee” of the word “I” or “oh-ee” of the word “boy.” In fact, most American English speakers would treat the vowel “oh” as a diphthong of “oh-oo,” especially at the end of a word (say the word “hello” while looking in a mirror, and notice how your lips close to an “oo” shape at the very end).

But the word “one” as sung above contains what you might call a manufactured diphthong, or one that doesn’t occur naturally in our language. A lot of diphthongs may be brought on by accent, a southern twang or a Cockney clip. This accent, the “indie pop voice,” is a product not of a geographic region, but of the virtual, musical region of “indie.” Mostly, indie pop voice is characterized by sustaining the second vowel of an existing diphthong as opposed to the first (the way Adele says the word “hello” in her recent hit of the same name), and also by adding an “ee” or “ih” sound to the end of pure vowels like “oh,” “uh,” or even “ae” like “back.” This would explain words like “good,” “just,” and “touch” mentioned in the Buzzfeed article above; “good” becomes “guoid,” “just becomes “juist,” and “touch” turns to “touich.” The accent also calls for closure to “ee” before and after singable consonants like “n” and “r,” which explains the words “one” that I noticed or the “stare” and “care” examples in the Buzzfeed article. Adele also exemplifies the “ee and r” phenomenon in “Hello:” listen to the way she sings the very last word of the song, “anymore,” and it’s almost “anymoreeeeeeeeee.”

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As for the origins of this trendy accent, there are a few good theories that I’ve mostly culled from other voice professionals and random commenters online—it’s not a well-researched topic thus far, to be honest (by the way, it seems most people online are calling it “indie girl” as opposed to “indie pop”). The one that pinpoints the most recent possible origin is the Adele/Amy Winehouse theory, and it makes sense. Those two singers cropped up late in the last decade, when the singers who are coming up now would have probably been in middle or high school. Thus their popularity may have profoundly influenced the next generation’s singing style. Adele’s recent use of the accent is well documented above, and you can hear it in her earliest hit, “Chasing Pavements” and throughout her work (start at 0:20 and listen to “lust” and “I”).

Amy Winehouse preceded Adele, and uses indie pop voice in early hits like “Stronger than Me” (start at 0:33 and listen to “through” and “care”) and later ones like “Back to Black” (start at 0:15 and listen to “regret,” “wet,” and “bet”).

Others claim Regina Spektor, Bjork, or Kate Bush are the cause of the accent’s inception, and I think it’s important to note that all these women have very particular natural accents in their speech that may influence their singing (Adele, Winehouse, and Bush are all British, while Spektor is Russian American and Bjork is Icelandic). But perhaps the most important similarity to note between these women is that they all count jazz among their main influences, especially Winehouse and Spektor. Indeed, I hear little evidence of the “indie pop voice” as it exists today in Bjork’s sound except in her version of “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a Betty Hutton cover. So are these more current singers the originators of the totally invented “indie girl voice” accent, or did they adapt it from the jazz/big band singers who influenced them? Listening to Betty Hutton’s version of “It’s Oh So Quiet” lends credence to the idea that she influenced Bjork’s pronunciation, and the way the White Christmas crew sings the word “snow” is a toned-down version of the current accent. Even Ella, in the way she closes to the “ee” in “skies” and the “r” in birds, seems to have been an inspiration for this trend, along with Billie Holiday, with her long “l” on “I’ll” and her “ih” at the ends of “you” and “through.”

So it’s most likely that this is less of a current trend and more of an evolution, through jazz and blues to singer-songwriter through the years and now, to so-called indie girls. At this point, I think it’s important to note that the trend is not limited to women; Shawn Mendes, mentioned in the Buzzfeed article, has maybe the most exaggerated version of this accent I’ve ever heard, and Great Big World (starting at 2:26) does the same thing to “one” that the female artists do. But it does seem particularly prevalent in women, perhaps because of the Adele/Amy Winehouse influence. Still, I’d really prefer not to call it the “indie girl voice,” since guys can and do use it. “Indie pop voice” seems like a slightly better, or at least more PC, term for it. The term still doesn’t really acknowledge the trend’s likely jazz origins, but it speaks to both to the fact that this is an accent, rather than a vocal technique like vibrato or voice breaks, and the accent’s main current use in indie pop.

There’s the origin story of indie pop voice—stay tuned next week as I discuss how we handle the phenomenon as singers and voice teachers!

To read Part 2 of The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, click here!