“Ask not what your song can do for you – ask what you can do for your song”

Have you ever had a moment when you’re listing to a song and you wonder “what’s he saying? I can barely hear him,” and then you think “who cares, I love it”. If you have had this experience, you’ve probably been listening to an inside singer.

You’ll never catch one of these guys complaining to the studio engineer or sound guy that they can’t hear themselves in the mix. They lack the LSD (Lead Singer Disease) gene that initiates that sort of behavior.

Inside singing requires lots of mumbling, whispering, and sighing, and most importantly a desire to be a part of the song, but not the main part.

Inside singers serve the song, sometimes cresting above the music – but never for long – and then retreating back into the mix, finding their safe place amongst the din of guitars and rhythm section.

Seeing inside singers live can be problematic. Your first thought may be “I can’t hear him”. It’s confusing, as we are conditioned to pay attention the singer in a band. So now what do you do? You become disoriented…who do you watch? Solution: watch them all, or better yet close your eyes – that’s when inside singing starts to make sense.

Here are some classic inside singers…listen closely…

Michael Stipe

Michael Stipe

First and foremost is the king of mumbling, Mr. Indecipherable himself, Michael Stipe. The title of R.E.M.’s first album is “Murmur” and that is exactly what Stipe did throughout the record. You can catch word here or there, but for the most part his voice is hidden by chiming guitars or, more often, by his own intention. When you are able to discern a word or a verse it is satisfying, like finding a pearl in murky waters. It’s this very device that makes R.E.M.’s early albums so engaging — you feel his words without understanding them. Interestingly, though, on the band’s highest charting albums (Document, Green, Out Of Time and Automatic for the People) Stipe’s voice is way out front, articulate and audible.

Recommended listening: Murmur, Reckoning, Life’s Rich Pageant (R.E.M.)

Ian Brown

Ian Brown

The Stone Roses’ first album sparked a Brit Pop invasion, bringing the spotlight back to Manchester and inspiring Noel Gallagher to write at least two good Oasis albums. Listening to Brown sing is like hearing someone whispering to their friend from across the room. You can hear almost everything they’re saying, so you wonder “why whisper?” When Brown is not whispering he is sighing. Whether he’s pleading “I wanna be adored” or confirming “I am the resurrection,” he is doing it underneath John Squire’s psychedelic, funky guitar. His hushed tones and sighs create that beautiful melancholy the British do so well…

Recommended listening: The Stone Roses (self titled).
Second Coming is such a disappointment.

Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore

Thurston has an easygoing, quiet, conversational delivery. He sings just loud enough that you can hear him, but his voice is often in the background of the song, almost an afterthought. Not a lot of dynamics in his singing, kind of a lazy monotone. He hides behind and blends into the beauty and the beastly sounds that Sonic Youth create.

Recommended listening: any Sonic Youth album as long as Thurston is singing.
Note: Kim Gordon is not an inside singer

Julian Casablancas

Julian Casablancas

Julian uses lots of effects that help his voice fit into the mix. He always sounds kind of fuzzy and static, as if he’s singing though a broken microphone. His delivery is disinterested and droning. I get the feeling he is directing his voice to the ground. A classic inside singer move: sing to ground, don’t sing to the sky — it will carry. He also has a great quiet scream, just loud enough to fit in between the drums and guitars, rarely rising above.

Recommended listening: Room On Fire (The Strokes)

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2 responses to ““Ask not what your song can do for you – ask what you can do for your song”

  • whyskeletonwhy

    I’d nominate J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. At times you’re uncertain whether he’s singing or his stomach’s rumbling into a mic. “Start Choppin'” off Where You Been and “The Wagon” off Green Mind are favourites.

    • spencer

      Yeah, J Mascis for sure! I nominate Jim Reid (The Jesus & Mary Chain). He basically sings almost the same lyrics in every song, buried deep beneath the feedback.

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