Imagine if John Legend became the new front man for Mötley Crüe or Miley Cyrus joined Mumford and Sons. While these are clearly disastrous singer/group combinations, the not-so-obvious scenario may be the very band you’re rehearsing with tonight. Often, we singers become complacent in situations which do not highlight our assets. Either we don’t want to rock the boat or don’t think enough of our talent to search for something better. A common misconception is that if you’re good, you should be able to sing in any situation. The truth is that it takes the right circumstance, matching personality with genre and vocal quality with instrumentation, to make a so-so singer sound good or a good singer great. To find your perfect formula, all it takes is a little musical alchemy and a willingness to shake things up.
First bands are formed by friends. Your best bud picks up the guitar and knows a guy down the street who got a drum set for his birthday. So you dub yourself a singer and announce to the family that you’re arena bound (as soon as a bass player moves onto the block). If you’re extremely lucky, your new band will create a sound which complements all that is unique about your voice. U2 is a good example of this; they began as a bunch of neighborhood wanna-be’s who just happened to provide Bono with the perfect musical backdrop. I’m not suggesting he alone made them famous, simply that the band’s sound allowed him to shine — and no project is going anywhere unless the singer shines. Unfortunately, odds are that you and your neighbors are not the next U2, which means you need to venture beyond the familiar. It means leaving the convenience of rehearsing down the street and using the drummer’s van for gigs. It means being demonized by your friends for breaking up the band and branded an egomaniac for thinking that the music should revolve around you. Well, it should.
The only way to find your sound is to experiment. Do you feel more comfortable singing with acoustic or electric guitars? Does a piano complement your tone better than an organ? How about rapping over congas and cowbells instead of drum loops? These are questions that need to be answered before you consider who’s available to play with. There is no substitute for the lift provided when singer and band complement rather than compete. A student of mine in Los Angeles looked for an entire year before finding a cellist to join her band (she fell in love with the sound while recording). It would have taken twice that time to stir up the buzz she is now enjoying had she compromised. It is equally important that bands looking for vocalists wait for the singer rather than a singer. Simon Apple, a highly acclaimed band from Pennsylvania, has searched nationwide for months without success. With over 500 submissions so far, there have been plenty of good singers — just not the right singer (if you’re interested, they can contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org) Meanwhile, the drummer for Godsmack became so frustrated during their singer search that he took the position and found a new drummer instead. Their refusal to settle has obviously paid off.
Do not confuse this chemistry with a roommate search. This is the quest for an inspiring blend of sounds, something which propels you as a singer. If you happen upon some nice people along the way, consider it a bonus. I know a lot is written about the importance of surrounding yourself with good people, but I’ve never seen the evidence. Every legendary band has legendary internal rifts. If the music is good, or the money, people will always find a way to work things out. It’s also tough to leave when there’s a friend involved. My first band was formed just like the one I described above. One guy in particular had become my best friend. That was many years ago and we are still best friends (there was a few months of hurt feelings). We write, we jam, we’re just not in the same band anymore. If someone cannot support your need to find the best vocal environment, than he or she is not a friend. As a performer, you have the potential to take the audience anywhere you want. When the ingredients between you and the music are just right, your voice will be free to explore. Don’t let your soul be boxed in. Don’t let complacency kill the chemistry.