From Nobody to Nobody With an Album (Part 1)

From left to right: musician, musician, some dude, musician, musician.
I’ve mentioned my band before—the band in which I am a vocalist. Now, this isn’t a brazen, shameless plug (official website hereFacebook here, Twitter here) but an actual post. On March 12th, 2013, the debut album of Watercolor Butterfly, “The God Particle”, was released on iTunes and recently I read the first reviews talking about my performance as a vocalist, which made me think. The occasion is rare, so I took the chance to put it down on paper. Electronic paper. Blog paper. Blaper. Don Blaper.

wat

We were recently nominated for Metal Album of the Year.
I want to share the experience. It might not be the most interesting thing in the world, but . . . I don’t know. I guess I’d like to read it from someone else was the experience not my own, so maybe it might stick to someone’s interest.

As you might now, I’m a writer by craft, by interest and by passion—I never thought I’d see my face front and center of a metal band’s professionally produced debut album before seeing my name at the top of a paperback’s cover. Life takes weird spins, and here’s what I’ve learned, and how.

Strap your seatbelts; it’s about to get Real O’Clock (though not really).


2005-2006
Where has the sunlight gone?

I don’t remember exactly how it is that I decided I liked singing. I was 19 years old and had certainly never shown neither interest nor talent for it. In fact I have a very feint memory of someone telling me I had a shitty voice (this is someone who said that to everyone she heard sing, mind you).

I think my oldest memory of singing something that kinda felt “on key” was when I was like 13 years old and I memorized Adam Sandler’s psycho song from “TheWedding Singer”. I remember being able to sing the “PUT A BULLET IN MY HEAD!” notes. After that isolated incident I can barely remember, radio silence.

I vaguely remember that I started singing alone in the usual, casual ways everyone does—shower, car, airplane lavatory, funerals—and finding that I could more or less keep up with some of the songs I heard. Mainly it was the easy to sing stuff like Goo Goo Dolls' “Iris”, or 3 Doors Down's “Here Without You”: songs that sound nice and don’t require a particularly gifted voice to cover.

RIP. I wanted to Ursula this dude's voice so hard.
I guess the surprise of being so comfortable matching my voice to some of the songs I liked made me a bit ambitious, so I started trying more and more, singing whenever I could without being heard, as at this point I still had zero confidence in my voice.

A fun story here is that around this time I was positively obsessed with “The Lion King” (my current favorite movie). The song “Endless Night” from the Broadway musical, among others, was in constant replay in my iPod, which drove me to sing along—again, mostly in a very casual way. I couldn’t really keep up with that one, so I saw it as a challenge.

Today, ~8 years later, I can do a reasonable interpretation of “Endless Night” that wouldn’t embarrass me in Community Theater.

Back to the story. I slowly started finding many different singers and bands whose voices I could match convincingly (at least to my admittedly untrained ears) and the list of bands I had in a “Sing Along” playlist started growing. Tenacious D, 3 Doors Down, Pearl Jam, Opeth (soft), et al. (“Endless Night” didn’t leave that playlist for years).

Have in mind at by this point I had absolutely no interest in death metal vox, and didn’t ever try to growl along a song. That came later, in a weirdly natural way.

I started enjoying singing all these songs so much I would go for drives or take second showers just to sing. This is lame for me to say, but sometimes I even got chills and goosebumps because “Oh man I totally nailed ‘Heaven’s Not Enough’!” (though I probably didn’t).

So the list continued growing more and more because I didn’t really just sing the songs I picked; sometimes I’d be listening to my iPod on shuffle and I’d discover a new song I could add to my repertoire. I was much more confident about my ability, and had gotten some compliments from people who heard me just kinda humming something in school (nothing big, just casual “You have a nice voice”s). I was fairly certain that if I was given a mic at a karaoke, I could do a well above average job. The idea still horrified me, and it would be a while before I actually got the chance to do it.

2007
“Why not take lessons?”

I was in my second year of college. I think there were two constants when I was in college: 1, I hated almost everyone I met there; 2, I sang on the drive to and from campus. I’m not sure how accurate my idea of progression was, but I was pretty sure I was getting better. Suddenly I found myself being able to get every note in “Black” without much problem, and I could almost hold the entire long note of “In Loving Memory” (which I recently discovered I could now hold very easily).

For “training”, other than just singing, I did self-imposed breathing exercises, saw a bunch of YouTube videos with singing lessons, etc.

My mother had heard me singing in the shower (turns out those soulful performances were as private as fucking Facebook) and suggested I took real voice lessons, which she’d be glad to pay for. There were two problems with the concept of voice lessons though:

1. No fucking way.
2. No fucking way.

This.
Why? What for? Singing was something I enjoyed doing casually. I’m a writer. If I somehow became a good singer, what would I do with that skill? The concept of singing in front of people—people with ears—was preposterous and frankly terrifying (though, deep down, I loved the idea of being recognized as a good singer; I was insecure if you couldn’t tell—in many ways I still am).

“No, mom. I really appreciate it, but those are expensive and there’s no real reason to get them.”

Worse still, my theoretical knowledge of music was absolute zero. I didn’t know how to recognize notes in a piano—and my ear for pitch was unprivileged—let alone what the concept of a key or a scale was. I tried learning online but it was a Rubik's cube of conflicting concepts and ideas I couldn't wrap my head around without some kind of teacher.

Around this time, I was hanging out a lot with some of my brothers’ friends, one of whom had an amazing voice and all the confidence in the world to sing. Sometimes, when I got drunk, I’d get the grapes to sing along with this fella who would talk to me “singer to singer”, share stories, give advice, etc. At one point he even gave me the number of his coach. Whether he actually thought I had a good voice, or was just being nice, I’m still not sure.

*insecure*

2008
Plastic instruments and monstrous roars.

At the end of 2007 I started the relationship with my then girlfriend. This meant more driving to and from her house, which meant more practice. A lot of the driving, however, was done in her company, and I wasn’t about to sing in front of her like I did when I was alone (re: like a crazy person).

However, when I did sing, even if in low volumes, she always made a point of mentioning that she really liked my voice. Bless her beautiful heart, but genuine as though she might have been, it’s hard to believe she wasn’t just being nice.

Again. Insecure.

Other than that, the “training” routine remained largely unchanged.

At some point in late 2008 I found what, I stupidly thought, would aid me in learning: “Rock Band”. The video game. I’m serious. I shelled out the big money for “Rock Band” not really because I wanted to play the game’s multiplayer—though I love/d “Guitar Hero III” and am a monster at it, I don’t think I played RB’s multiplayer more than four or five times—but because I knew the “Singer” mode qualified and rated your performance.

I had gotten to be very good at “Guitar Hero” starting from a scratch, so there was no reason why I couldn’t see the same progression as a singer in “Rock Band”. And then it was: “Oh shit I’m nailing these songs! Five stars, fool!”

It took me entirely too long to realize that fucking thing was worthless as far as a veritable vocal training strategies go. I played the entire ‘career’ on Hard and didn’t touch it again—though I kept the microphone, and later you’ll see why I’m still happy I did.

This was more or less the time when I started to get into death and most extreme forms of metal. My ability to growl and scream was one of the principal factors that got me into my band, and frankly what I think I can do well above average, so this is important to include.

Say what you will, but I owe a lot to this album.
My incursion into metal took place between 2004 and 2009. It was a slow affair and I won’t give you the details. It started in my late teens with Slipknot. The angsty rage in the songs catered to angsty angry kids like I was, and I liked thinking that I had discovered something entirely new to me. Slowly from there I moved on to things like Within Temptation or Nightwish—both still favorite bands of mine—then Metallica after my brother’s recommendation. Then soft Opeth. Then hard Opeth and other forms of extreme metal.

Eventually I was listening almost exclusively to metal. From Porcupine Tree to Suffocation and everything in-between. It was beautiful.

The first time I tried to do harsh vocals was singing along to Disturbed’s “Down with the Sickness”. I wanted to sing the clean parts because Draiman and myself have similar voices (though I admire the fuck out of his unparalleled lung control) and like with so many others, I enjoyed singing along. One day, driving to college, I just tried singing the “harsh” bits of the song as kind of a reflex.

“When suddenly it changes! Violently it changes!”

I very distinctly remember doing the “In meeeee!” that leads into the chorus and thinking “For Jeor’s raven! I totally just did that!” That day I played that song on loop several times in the car just to confirm that I really did have the voice to do soft on-key growls. A good discovery, because it changed absolutely everything.

Suddenly the number of songs I could sing tripled. I was singing along to Metallica, Pantera, Slipknot, Killswitch Engage, Demon Hunter (I was into metalcore then) and more. The dynamics of my voice started to change as I discovered new methods—I could sort of deepen them to sound harsher, or make more shrill screams, but still it was nothing special.

One day I was stuck in traffic and Cryptopsy’s “Slit Your Guts” came on. Again, as a reflex, I tried to imitate the voice and woah day. I could do it. Yes, it hurt like a mother fucker, and I couldn’t sing more than three bars, but that was the day I discovered I might be able to do a respectable death metal growl.

It was around this time when I also started to work out to transform my body. This will come into play a bit later but slowly gaining a lot of muscle weight after being certifiably skeletal your entire life does wonders to one’s confidence.

2009
First cherry popped.

Fast forward a bit. Early 2009 was the first time I sang in front of people. It wasn’t a stage, or even a karaoke bar. It was just a karaoke machine in a very small party (nine or ten people) when I was surrounded exclusively by friends.

The anxiety I felt when the machine came out and someone declared “Everyone has to sing one” was fucking unreasonable. Everyone there had already sang in other parties I wasn’t in attendance and no one gave a shit if you didn’t sing well. I almost dropped a fudge dragon when I realized with terror that the stupid machine, like “Rock Band”, measured your pitch and rated your performance in the end.

The reason I was so afraid, I later realized, wasn’t because I was going to sing in public—though that was indeed scarier than it had any right to be—but because, if the machine said I sucked, it would crush any ideas of talent I had made. It was also the one chance I would ever have to surprise these guys. Except for my older brother, who hadn’t really heard me sing much, none of these guys knew I liked singing (the singer friend wasn’t there that day). If I wanted these guys to think I was a good singer, I’d have this chance. Yes, it’s a stupid, unreasonable fear, but most fears are.

A bit of relief when I see the surprisingly vast selection of songs in this guy’s karaoke machine (it was a pretty high end, thing; you could even modulate the key on every song). Turns out they had “Black”, a song I had sang millions of times before—one I was very confident I could do well. I put off my turn for a bit so I could get a pep talk from Jack Daniels, while the others made the parade of karaoke fun. No one was taking it remotely seriously, I knew, but I had to get it right anyway.

And I fucking did! I knew that I only needed to get the first notes out without passing out and then it’d be smooth sailing. It didn’t take long into the song before someone commented on “Oh well he actually can sing!” so then I only felt loosier goosier. The grade came: 75/100. New high score. I get to choose who drinks 3 shots as an award.

Jesus saves.
This “high score” didn’t last long because my then girlfriend, who had a nicer voice than she ever believed, sang something right after me and got an 80. The previous high score was 72 after many attempts by the others in other parties, so I was pretty proud of myself and my girlfriend. I sang another and got a 70 later that night; I didn’t really care. I had already impressed everyone there. They don’t remember today, but I can’t forget it because it was the first time I felt entirely confident in my voice.

All this time, I kept improving my harsh technique. I remember seeing Mikael Akerfeldt, and “Ghost of Perdition” as my goal for growls and roars, whereas the first scream of Killswitch Engage’s “My Curse” was what I was shooting for as far as screams go. I could ape Akerfeldt well, but I couldn’t do the “My Curse” scream. I decided screaming like that just wasn’t my voice. I was wrong. About a month ago I sang that song and nailed it.

Experience, man.

2010
Los Angeles. Second cherry popped.

After graduating college I went to Los Angeles to spend some time there with a heavy heart. I was sure there was something for me there—and after coming back, I’m still not sure if there was or not. I wanted to write (remember I’m a writer) a lot and I would have a great chance to do it there.

Write I did. Another thing I did there was record my vocals for the first time. It took me 5 years to man up and actually record a song. Again, it had to be a cover, because I knew next to zero about songwriting and didn't play any instrument so an original song was completely out of the question.

I lived in an office building in Westwood, a few blocks away from the nearest residential area. This meant that after 5PM, I was in ground zero of an urban wasteland. There was not a soul near me at nights there. I had been meaning to record myself for a long time, had even made quite a collection of instrumental tracks I would like to sing over, but I was a bit embarrassed to do it.

I don’t recall the exact thing that prompted me to grab a secretary’s Logitech headset I found and use it as a microphone. I was in a safe place and completely alone. I could do it, listen to it and just see how I sound. I had the same fear I did when I first sang karaoke. What if it sounds like shit? I thought by then I was a good singer but I was taking it from others’ mouths, because I hadn’t actually listened to myself singing.

Anxiety again as I recorded five covers in a few days:

* “Windowpane” by Opeth.
* “Cry My Name” by Bloodbath.
* “Cloud Connected” by In Flames.
* “Banjo Kazooie” Theme (Death Metal).
* "Duncan Hills Coffee Jingle" by Dethklok.

Wanna hear those exact recordings? Go nuts.



After sharing these on Facebook and getting a bunch of kudos, I recorded several other tracks in Los Angeles, and continued to do so when I came back to Mexico. You can find all of them in that YouTube account.

It was “Cloud Connected” the one that got me the role of lead vocalist in Watercolor Butterfly. In Part 2 of this absurd epic, I’ll tell you about how I was contacted, the horrifying audition, recording of the album and my first live performance. I hope you enjoyed this first bit. I promise part 2 will be more fun to read.



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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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