I didn’t sing on my own for a long time. Aged eight, I sang Kylie songs into a hairbrush in front of the mirror with my best friend.
I sang along to my dad’s Fairport Convention, The Beatles and country music tapes in the car. I loved being an alto in my church choir, getting to sing something more interesting than the tune. On the odd occasion I had to do a little solo, my teenage voice shook violently, as did my body – I remember being grasped by the elbow by my choir buddy in a concert, stopping me from collapsing in terror.
The University of York changed everything. I volunteered to sing in Berio’s Sinfonia – a tricksy second-alto line in an audacious, large-scale piece – and realised how brilliant it was not just to sing conventionally, but speak, shout and laugh. I co-formed small ensembles, arranging medieval and pop music, and performed poetry with jazz musicians. I listened to Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, hip hop, Ella Fitzgerald and Sheila Chandra’s genre-straddling drones, English folk and konnakol, a South Indian art form based on tabla rhythm-learning.
Discovering Meredith Monk was an epiphany. Here was a composer who trained in dance and didn’t notate her music. She has made films, operas and theatre pieces, almost entirely centred on the voice. She rarely sets a text, preferring repetitive wordless gestures that suggest vocal traditions from around the world but which she insists come purely from within. With Monk, the voice produces every sound you can possibly need. I transcribed her Volcano Songs, and sang (growled, panted) them in my Masters year with Sarah Dacey, and somehow wasn’t in the slightest bit scared.
In 2001, I wrote luna-cy, a piece for myself, Sarah and Anna Snow, directly inspired by Monk. We three rapidly formed into Juice Vocal Ensemble, commissioning countless new pieces and influenced by most genres, improvisation, electronica and theatre. Singing with the girls gave me a huge amount of confidence in using my voice, and eventually I fancied trying my own thing out, too. I bagged myself a loop station, and explored spoken word and left-field pop, before finding that traditional songs suited me well. This became my alt-folk guise, You Are Wolf.
‘I’m unapologetic about my need for words in everything I make. It’s who I am.’
I’ve always loved words and stories as much as music. It’s why traditional songs appeal, too; I tend to go for the narrative ballads. Text can suggest musical material often instantly, and I’ve always joked that that’s why I like to write so much vocal music: how the hell else could I compose?
When I compose, I record all vocal material and sometimes sing the instrumental parts, too. I spend several days combing over and re-ordering the text, and singing whatever comes instinctively. It’s a skill choosing words that demand to be sung. I set ballads, poems, prose, articles, words by young participants, or my own words, which shift and change as a piece is written, songwriter-style.
Words, composing and singing have interwoven and prodded each other along in my work. I’ve decided to be unapologetic about my need for words in everything I make. It’s who I am. I now consider myself a writer almost as much as a musician, with my debut novel Swansong published this year. And these days, I love to sing on my own. Sometimes there are nerves, but mostly I’m pretty shameless. And singing still means the other stuff too – harmonics, yelps, whistling and beatboxing (quite badly). Whatever I’m creating, it’s always in my voice.