Saturday, January 06, 2007

Why I Like Girlyman

This post is not about my sexual orientation. Girlyman is a band. Whether or not Girlyman's music particularly does it for you, anyone with even a little bit of musical training or choral experience will have to admit that the band is technically brilliant. Their music is way more complex, interesting and varied than that of most popular bands.

People have compared their style to Indigo Girls, and it's true there are some similarities. But, let's face it: Even though a couple generations of dykes have grown up on them, Indigo Girls' melodies and arragements sound pretty much the same now as they did 20 years ago. I'm not dissing Indigo Girls. They're great at what they do. I really like most of their stuff. I'm just saying, musically, Girlyman is better.

But brilliant technique is not the whole story. Many professional musicians have good technique, and they don't all grab at the emotion and imagination like Girlyman. So what is it?

The band's website says, "Girlyman's harmony-driven style veers from contemporary folk to country rock to pop." Yup. It's the "harmony-driven" part that gets me every time.

In many Girlyman songs, it's not obvious who's singing lead. The three members all sing most of the time. Sometimes different people sing lead on different verses of the same song. Their vocal ranges overlap by enough that any one of them might be heard singing low harmony or high counter-melody for anyone else, sex/gender differences notwithstanding. Their voices weave around each other until you're not even sure who's who. And the harmonies are tight and unexpected - far from the standard major thirds of way too many pop-folks songs.

Once when I was in high school, I let slip to my mostly-straight best friend that, "Singing a good duet is like having good sex." We didn't sing together for a few weeks after that. Oops. Still, it's true. Girlyman reminds me that harmony is sexy.

To sing together, well, is very intimate. First of all, singing is physical. It is not just in your throat; it involves your breath, posture and heart beat, and engages your back and abdominal muscles among others. So we're not just talking about voices, we're talking about bodies.

Also, when singing in a group, singers have to pay incredibly close attention to each other. Singers modify their sound to match each others' - or not match, depending on the effect they're going for, like if the lead part ought to stand out from background harmonies. To do that, you can't just pay attention to your own voice, because then you might mess up the balance by singing too loud or too soft. And you can't just pay attention to the other singers, because then you might slack off on your own vocal technique and not sound as nice. You have to pay attention to your own body, the other singers' bodies, and how they're working together, all at once. Great ensemble singers are constantly tuned in to each other - their bodies communicating, sharing space, adjusting in instant response to each other to create the desired effect. Sexy, right?

Consider just one tiny aspect of a singer's performance: the shape of the vowels. Vowels are tricky. The "same" sound can be pronounced in almost infinite ways. Even if two people grew up together, speaking the same dialect of American English, their pronunciation of vowel sounds may differ in minute ways. For two singers to blend, their vowels have to match.

Now, I don't know what makes my "ahh" sound different than someone else's. Is it in the larynx, the soft palate, the breath? Who knows? I do know that when I sing with someone for the first time, we usually don't match perfectly. It doesn't sound awful, but there's something not quite right about it. When we've sung together a few times, or if I'm trying particularly hard to blend well, I can adjust my to make my "ahh" sound just like theirs. I don't know what exactly I'm adjusting, but, I'm doing it. If they're also singing well, they're adjusting their sound, too, reaching to meet me even as I reach to meet them. We know things about each others' bodies in that moment that we couldn't explain if asked - we just kind of feel it. And that's only one of the zillions of factors that good musicians are paying attention to.

Imagine being in that kind of intimate contact, where you know what the other person's body is feeling. Now imagine that it's not just two singers, but three musicians, each participating with instruments as well as their own bodies' voices. Imagine Doris actually feels Ty's palms making contact with the djembe, even as Nate feels the vibrations in Doris's throat when she crests the descant, and Ty feels the guitar strings vibrate under Nate's fingertips. Or, heck, imagine they're not that good - nobody's perfect! But imagine they're all striving for that with everything they've got.

That's why I like Girlyman. When Girlyman performs, their bodies make music that echoes in my body. I get to participate, in some small way, in the intimate experience of their music-making. Even when I listen to a recording, I can sing along and imagine having a level of musical intimacy that is beyond my skill, not just with one other person - rare enough! - but with three amazing artists. It is a heartwarming and heartwrenching experience. I highly reccomend it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I so agree with what you wrote. Eighteen months ago – inspired by groups like Girlyman and the Indigo Girls – I started a band. We, too, are "harmony-driven," performing contemporary folk music in 3- and 4-part harmony. And it is a very physical and sexy experience. You hit the proverbial nail on the head! Thank you for taking the time to write.