Why Do You Sing Like That?
“Imagine Keb’ Mo’ on an ominous bender desperately in need of a box of throat lozenges.”
Over the years, probably hundreds of different reviewers have done their colorful best to describe my voice. That quote in the sub-header above is just one of the many examples. Here’s another one:
“Preacher Boy’s credibility lies in his voice, which sounds (and we mean this in the most complimentary way possible) like an angry giant gargling rock salt.”
I’ve been thinking about my voice—and people’s reactions to it—quite a bit lately. I was triggered into this by a comment someone made to me after a recent performance. It was a well-meaning comment, and not at all malicious, but it’s been stuck in my craw all the same ever since. Not because what the person said was offensive — it wasn’t. All they said was that they couldn’t make out what I was singing; in other words, they couldn’t understand the lyrics.
I was polite in the moment, and just kind of laughed it off. Then, I went and got my lyric book and hefted it onto their table for them to read.
“… most notable for the strange voice of Preacher Boy, who makes Louis Armstrong sound like a tenor …”
Later on, I had to admit to myself that I’d had a reaction. Something about that comment had gotten to me. I was irritated. I didn’t like that.
So, I played devil’s advocate to myself, and put myself through a grilling.
So, what about it? Why don’t you just enunciate more? Why DO you sing like that? Isn’t that why you write the lyrics, so people will be moved by them? Well, they can’t very well be moved by them if they can’t understand them, can they? What’s the point of writing lyrics, and singing lyrics, if no one can understand them?
That’s pretty much how the self-inquisition went. And I had to admit, I made some good points.
As anyone who knows me knows, I pay a lot of attention to lyrics. I work hard on them, and most of my songs have LOTS of them, and I place a great deal of importance upon them. So, isn’t it ultimately counterproductive (I asked myself), and even self-sabotaging, to deliver the lyrics in a way that people can’t understand them?
“… a voice that sounds as though he gargles broken glass every morning …”
The answer would seem obvious, and yet, I found myself really wanting to stick to the guns of my own approach. Why? Well, after much soul-searching, I realized I do have an answer to the question, but it’s not the obvious one.
The thing is, words in a song have a sound. Not just a melody. Not just a rhythm. Not even just a timbre. They have a sound. A lyric is more than just words. A lyric is an experience. And an experience is multi-sensory. It’s immersive. It’s multi-layered, and complex, and the full measure of its meaning only reveals itself over time.
Think about abstract art. When you look at the canvas, it might not be immediately apparent what it is that you’re looking at. There’s something compelling there, you’re drawn to it, but you don’t know what it is right away. You have to live with it. Part of the magic of the experience is that you’re drawn into it for reasons other than the representational caliber of the image. Something about the shape, something about the color, something about the placement — you don’t even know what it is. But you’re drawn in. And you live with it, and you start to realize what it is you’re looking at, and an image starts to take form for you, and suddenly you find a bird, or a halo, or a corpse, or a hill, or a shovel—whatever it may be.
“ … the vocal equivalent of a bulldozer … ”
Listening to a singer deliver their lyrics should be the same thing. I’ve listened to Bukka White sang “Pinebluff, Arkansas” for literally decades, and I’m still not sure I can figure out every word. But I love that song so much. I had to listen to Son House records over and over again, Charlie Patton records over and over again, Howlin’ Wolf records over and over again, before I could even begin to figure out what on earth it was they were saying.
They slurred, they stumbled, they stuttered, they mumbled, they used colloquialisms I’ve never heard of, referenced places I’ve never heard of, and and it was all so amazing and beautiful and I was so captivated. Mance Lipscomb has this amazing habit of humming in between all his words in a sort of low-key, stutteringly jittery kind of way; Mose Allison does the same thing. And that thing that Bukka White does, that strange slurring growl—Tom Waits does the same thing in the opening of “Union Square”—what are those words he’s saying??? You don’t KNOW what they are, but they’re amazing! Think about Jacques Brel singing “Amsterdam.” I barely remember any French words at all. But I hear that song, and I cry. Every time.
So that’s the thing for me. When I sing, I believe I’m telling stories, and there are stories written in the lyrics, and those stories are conveyed through sound. Not just words. Not just lyrics. Not just melody. Sound.
“…he sings his whiskey-sodden, broken-down blues with a phlegmy croak that sounds like Lee Marvin burping…”
Look, I know I’m not a great singer, not by any stretch of the imagination. But over the years, I think I’ve been able to create, develop, and mature the voice that’s right for my songs.
I don’t mean to suggest it’s all been by design, mind you. I’ve labored under—and been daunted by—the idea that I had a prohibitively weird voice from virtually day one. The first time I can clearly recall being called out for my voice was first grade. I was in my classroom before class started. Three friends and I were listening to 45s on a plastic turntable with four headphones. We were singing along at the tops of our voices. In our heads, we were IN the music. To those in the room who couldn’t hear the music, it was just our voices. When it was time to start class, we took our headphones off, and headed to our seats. My three friends went uninterrupted. Not me. My teacher stopped me, told me I had a weird voice, and recommended that I try another activity besides singing. It was probably two decades before I ever fully opened my throat again. When I did, out came this voice of mine.
Anyhow, I believe the way I sing them is the way these stories should be told. And if you can’t understand them the first time you hear them, well, that’s OK. Stay with me. Live with me. Live with my songs. Spend some time with them, and you’ll start to learn their language.
It’s like when you move to the south, or you move overseas, or you move to the west of Ireland—you have to get used to people’s accents. You can’t understand a word they’re saying sometimes, but you live with them, and you get used to them, and you start to understand what they’re saying. You don’t give up on them! Go to Scotland. Go to Kansas. You’ll be there for months before you can figure out what anybody’s saying. And that’s the thing with a Preacher Boy song. You have to stay with the song for a while. You have to learn its accent.
“ … makes Louis Armstrong sound like a tenor …”
Sure, you could just read the lyrics. Honestly, I’m such a pill, I’ll probably print them all out and distribute them at the next show. But that’s not really how I’d prefer you to experience them. I realize I’m not the boss of you, so I can’t control your listening behavior for you. I’m not allowed to do that. Once the song is out there, I’m not the boss of it anymore, and I’m not the boss of you. But, if I had my druthers, I wouldn’t give you the lyrics. Instead, I’d ask you to just listen. And stay with me, live with me, live with my song, live with my voice, live with my delivery. It’s not just the words I’m singing, not just the melodies I’m choosing, it’s not even just the timbre of my voice, or the phrasing. It’s something about the experience. Try to listen to the experience of my voice. Please. I’d really appreciate it. I like to think you’ll find something there, if you’re just patient. If you just let yourself kind of go with it.
Have you ever listened to Blind Willie Johnson sing “God Moves on the Water?” It’s one of the most powerful, most beautiful, most incredible songs ever in the history of anything. But I defy you to pick out every word on the first listen. I also defy you to stop after one listen. You can’t! It’s too compelling.
Now, of course, I’m no Blind Willie Johnson. But I am trying to strive for something similar. I’m trying to paint an aural picture. I’m trying to create a three-dimensional story for you, and I want you to come inside its house. I want you to come to my song’s neighborhood. I want you to meet the people on its block. I want you to learn our accents, eat our food. I want you to smell our smells, I want you to know what our corner store looks like, what it sells. I want you to know whose dog that is, whose car this is. I want you to hear people talking, and I want you to get used to the way we talk, until you even start to talk like we do. That’s what living inside a song is like.
And I guess that’s why I don’t enunciate very well. Why I bark, and holler, and slur, and scream, and growl, and weep, and scowl, and grumble, and mumble, and caterwaul, and howl, and whisper, and grimace, and shout, brother, shout. Because that’s how we do it in my neighborhood.
This is one of my favorite reviews I’ve ever received. It’s got a pretty funny description of my voice, but I think it also does a lovely job of introducing you to the neighborhood of my songs:
“Preacher Boy stands at the crossroads of the blues, country, rock, and rockabilly, howling his tales into the void of human misery, folly, and (possible) redemption. Preacher Boy is Christopher Watkins, a one-man band of epic proportions, playing virtually everything — shy a few drums and keyboards — on “The Devil’s Buttermilk,” his fourth album. Indeed, “epic” may best describe Watkins’ collection of tales that blends the intimacy of a front-porch jam with themes of universal import. With a voice that sounds like he’s been gargling gravel and an eclectic grab bag of music that draws on virtually everything with organic roots, Preacher Boy covers a remarkable amount of territory in 14 songs. Misfits, dead friends, brilliant barflies, preachers, lovers, and a whole panoply of losers all stumble, walk, and wail through his songs. Watkins adds mandolin, national steel guitar, accordion, harmonica, and other instruments to the usual collections of guitars, keyboards, and drums. “On and On It Goes” kicks off with a organ-fueled rocking beat before warping through changes that take it to the near operatic and back again — and that’s only the first track. From there the journey goes through dusty blues, dark folk laments, country shuffles, the lovely, Leonard Cohen stylings of “This Morning,” and a dash of Celtic before ending up somewhere near the local cocktail lounge with “It’s Cold Tonight.” One can only hope that the absurdly talented Preacher Boy gets a least some of the recognition he so richly deserves. — Carl Hanni”
As Lyle Lovett so beautifully said (by way of Guy Clark), step inside this house. And stay a while.