Do you have to be really tough to make it in a tough industry? Michael Ferraiuolo asks.
It’s almost midnight and I’m sitting at the piano in a recording studio in New York City. I’m recording an original song I’ve performed so many times that I’ve lost count.
I know this tune inside and out so getting it down should be quick.
Oddly, I’m on take six and I still don’t have it. Take eight leaves me frustrated and it’s not until take ten rolls around that I finally put my finger on what’s wrong.
“Give me a few minutes guys” I ask and then step outside to make a phone call.
I dial my ex-girlfriend (the song is about her and our relationship after all).
She answers the phone and offers a wary “hello”.
It’s now well after midnight and we haven’t spoken in months. I ask her “Remind me why we broke up”.
“What”? she asks, her tone noticeably less wary and leaning toward annoyed.
“I can’t remember why it is I broke up with you. Do you remember”? I ask.
“You didn’t break up with me; I broke up with you,” she says in a tone that is now unmistakably annoyed.
We argue for a few minutes over the details of our failed relationship and suddenly a feeling hits me at which point I say “I’ve got it now. Thanks!”
I run back up to the studio and get the song finished on the next take.
It’s About Genuine Feelings
I was experiencing something quite common among singer songwriters. I had essentially built an immunity to my feelings.
The healing effects of time had left me unable to genuinely feel the things I need to feel in order to convey the true meaning of the song.
I needed to reopen the wound and put myself back in the emotional context of when and why I was inspired to write the song that I wrote.
So what’s the take-away here?
You can’t fake it. Give yourself and your audience something real to connect to.
Get Rid of the Skin
I remember being told early on in my career that I needed to have tough skin to make it in the music business.
At first blush that might seem like good advice and on a certain level it can indeed help you deal with the inevitable criticism that you will encounter…at first.
However, I can confidently say after being in this business for over a decade that most people don’t know what they’re talking about.
I’ve seen it happen too many times where a tough skin quickly grows into cynicism and denial. Learning how to deal with criticism is one thing but hiding behind a wall of “tough skin” at the cost of your expression is another.
It is my opinion that you don’t need a tough skin but rather no skin at all.
The more layers that you put up between yourself and the world around you the more difficult it is to connect with your audience, your peers, and yourself.
If you’re writing original material, do your best to write from a genuine place.
Share your honest thoughts and emotions. There’s far too much fluff out there and people want honesty. The more open and honest you are, the easier it is for people to connect with you.
This Works Too If You’re Singing Covers
If you’re singing someone else’s material try to relate each lyric to a specific moment or emotion in your own life. The more specific the better! Here’s an example.
If I sing:
“She packed my bags last night pre-flight. Zero hour 9am”
What I’m really thinking is:
“It was past midnight and I was standing in the doorway of the apartment with a few t-shirts and book she gave me. It was the last time I ever saw that apartment.”
This way, when I’m singing that song, I’m singing Bernie Taupin’s lyrics but I’m fueling them with my own emotional content.
I’m taking specific moments from my life and finding a way to connect them with the lyrics in a way that makes sense.
Things don’t always have to be literal as long they get the emotional job done.
Try “translating” the same lyric for yourself using experiences from your own life and see how it changes the way you sing.
Singing from your own experience and your own emotions is what it takes to turn a good performance into a memorable performance.
I don’t know how much I recommend a late night phone call to your ex…as with anything else, your results may vary.
But I do know that you need to do what it takes to get the emotional job done.
Michael Ferraiuolo is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and the Owner of Iron Works Studios in New York City. As a vocal coach Michael teaches and advocates for artists worldwide. His music has appeared on film, radio, and television and at #1 on the Billboard charts.