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Vocal Distortion: Finding Your Writing Range

I owe music many things, like the background to my first kiss, the soundtrack that makes dishes and laundry incrementally better, and how I discovered I had a voice as a writer. I was listening to tunes in my shower think-tank when the “writer voice” concept first struck.

I equate it to a guitar. There’s the instrument itself, which are the easy-to-explain writing concepts: for example, plot, character, and point-of-view. These are the neck, the body, and the strings. I can grab on to them, turn them over in my hands, and pluck at them. It’s easy to take a novice and point out the hardware.

But, to hand someone the guitar and say, “here’s your voice?” That’s the sound that comes out, the musicality. It’s the way their fingers feel, or how their body grooves. I’ve always struggled with that one: how would I know when my plucking transformed into music?

To better illustrate this point, my inner-music fanatic felt it best to pay homage to two of the greats, Dave Grohl and Mike Patton.

For starters, an introduction: Dave Grohl is Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Them Crooked Vultures, parts of Queens of the Stone Age, and an early group called Scream that kickstarted his career. Mike Patton is best known for his work with Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, the metal supergroup Fantômas, among others, and television, film and video game work.

On pondering voice in the shower, I was listening to Mr. Bungle’s, Carousel.” Voice, often described as a writer’s identifiable style or quality, is a slippery little monster. Trying to hold to that idea can be like squeezing a bar of soap.

For years, I wondered, “is this my voice? Am I there yet?” Only to realize, if I was still asking the question, the answer was most likely, “no.” That writer was the novice musician, the terrified, questioning fan of Patton leading Fantômas in the surgery-style album, Delirium Cordia. (The album that sounds like Halloween in an operating room.)

Who was that version of Patton? He’s Mr. Bungle, the “make-my-own-rules” guy that vocally tumbles down the trippy, eclectic rabbit hole. He’s “Epic” and the hard “Malpractice,” but he’s also the thoughtful “Take this Bottle,” all dressed up as Faith No More. He’s operatic Italian orchestra. How is he all these things, but still quantifiably, unquestionably, him?

Here’s the answer: he’s confident that he can be expansive. He moves fluidly around what he wants to do, but stays within the range of his own voice. It’s what I’ve equated to a writer’s vocal distortion. It’s what keeps things interesting, but gives the writer the power and freedom to explore the highs and lows of their chosen range.

Maybe as writers, we’re not comfortably there yet. Let’s revisit the inimitable Dave Grohl, shall we? I’m going to stick with the Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters fame, because that’s where he hones his voice. Now, this band has been around for a long time, and that’s because they have staying power. They’re formulaic; predictable; dependable. "Learn to Fly?" "The Pretender?" "My Hero?" Massive hits. However, let’s say we have a friend that’s never heard them. How many Grohl albums should said friend listen to before they get a solid idea of his sound? One. The answer is one.

Is one bad? No! Are the Foo Fighters good? I personally think so. But, they’ve found the voice that works for them and they revisit it time and again. Grohl doesn’t have nearly the same level of distortion within his range. Maybe that’s our approach as writers, and that works, too.

That’s in stark contrast to Patton. You want to give a friend an idea of what Patton “sounds like?” Get comfortable, it’s going to be a while. Both musicians have identified their music voices. Both have millions of fans. One has the equivalent of a writer’s vocal distortion that swings wide; the other works within a small, formulaic window. Is either bad? No. Do they both work? Yes.

I owe music many things, including the ability to think critically about what I’m trying to accomplish in my writing. “Finding my voice” didn’t mean creating one definitive sound, although it can. I think I knew I was there when my words started singing to me. Some days my words are rock, some days they are alternative and others they’re metal, jam, or folk. Although I’m not singing catchy lyrics, I’m still hoping one day I write a phrase that sticks in someone’s head.

Writer’s vocal distortion, anyone?

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