“Singers- nothing sounds like you. For better or worse-there is only 1 of you. Don’t homogenize your sound by making it just like the next.” – Lalah Hathaway
This quote on Twitter by one of my all-time favorite artists, Lalah Hathaway, was shared with me by my manager a couple of days ago. It instantly struck “home” for me. The fact that it was offered by Lalah who arguably possesses one of the most distinctive voices in the music industry carried much weight; but more importantly, this quote reflected a key component of my journey as an artist that continues to this day.
I spent many years comparing myself to various artists whose music played constantly in my home. Every time the thought of pursuing a music career came to mind I shot it down quickly by saying to myself, “I will never sound as good as Luther Vandross, Nancy Wilson or Nat King Cole. Their voices are SO unique. Who am I kidding?” Then when I did perform I would try to channel specific singers to fit the song instead of approaching it in my own original way. I still continued to sing when an opportunity presented itself, but I viewed my singing as a hobby and my talent as mediocre because I did not sound like one of my music heroes. It was a tough pill for me to swallow. Even after completing and releasing my debut album “Anticipation” I held onto this mentality. Plus it didn’t help when people would come up to me after a performance and tell me I sounded just like Will Downing or Al Jarreau. That was the “kiss of death” in my book because I didn’t want to be a carbon copy of another artist, but felt my own voice wasn’t special enough to be labeled as unique.
Fortunately when I moved to San Francisco Bay Area and began taking classes at the California Jazz Conservatory, I discovered a lot about myself as a vocalist and as a person. Not only was I challenged in the classroom by professors, but I was able to work with Raz Kennedy, a phenomenal voice coach, who helped me understand my instrument better. I also met and befriended a lot of talented musicians and vocalists who provided me with inspiration and a supportive community that allowed me to learn and flourish. I began to actually appreciate my tone and phrasing. I started to dig deeper into the nuances of my vocal abilities and experiment with how I approached songs. This vital period of self-discovery shaped my artistry and vocal style infinitely. I emerged from this training ground excited about and more confident in my individualism as an artist. In fact, one reason I am so proud of my latest album “Colors of Life” is because it documents this self-awareness.
Now I recognize why I love those timeless artists that I grew up listening to so much. They were/are originals! There is no one else who sounds like them. Their uniqueness ranged from the timbre of their voices to their phrasing to their various forms of improvisation. Yes….I can sometimes hear the influences of others in these particular artists’ music, but they succeeded in taking the lessons learned from other masters and making it their own such as Little Jimmy Scott’s impact on Nancy Wilson’s vocal style. We, as vocalists, all stand upon the shoulders of others who have gone before us, but it is our duty to define our sound to the listening world. “Thank God” I learned this life-changing lesson early in my career so I could shed the crippling shackles of self-comparison and stay focused on allowing my voice to ring through in all its individual glory!