Developing Vocal Style // Jess Baldwin

As Kelly mentioned in last week’s post, it’s important to sound like YOU when singing in your own style. But what if you don’t know what your style is yet? How do you start to develop it?

Your style can be influenced consciously as well as subconsciously. Subconscious style influences can include the music your family listens to, the music at your place of worship, the music played by members of your peer group, etc. Even though you may not be choosing any of this music, it may be affecting the way you sing. For me, subconscious style influences were the songs my mother chose for the high school choir she directed, the musicals she directed and listened to, my Presbyterian church hymns, my grandmother’s church’s Southern gospel music, my parents’ love of Motown, soul, R&B, and jazz, and all the music I sang in school and church choirs. I had no control over these music choices. I sang all of this music, and it showed up in my singing styles without me consciously putting it there.

Conscious style development means you are choosing to purposefully take your voice in a particular direction. This happens through listening and imitating. It’s no different than what you were probably doing unconsciously…it’s just that you have complete control over what direction you’re wanting to go. The music I chose to sing along with in my bedroom growing up was lots of R&B and pop and soul and funk and disco and bit of musical theatre. I listened and imitated. A lot of that stuff showed up in my singing styles.

At some point, we have to start finding a style that is ours and ours alone. We can’t sound exactly like another artist unless we intend to become a tribute artist. If we only imitate Regina Spektor all of the time, that might be a cute party trick, but in performance, people are only going to think of us as the girl who sounds like Regina Spektor. Our identity will be eclipsed by hers.

Austin Kleon puts it this way in his book Steal Like an Artist:

“First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second, you have to figure out what to copy.

Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes—the people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be. The songwriter Nick Lowe says, ‘You start out by rewriting your hero’s catalog.’ And you don’t just steal from one of your heroes, you steal from all of them. The writer Wilson Mizner said if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research. I once heard the cartoonist Gary Panter say, ‘If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!’

— Kleon, Austin. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

You, in a sense, are the artistic offspring of your favorite artists, except that unlike biological parents, you get to choose which parts of their DNA you want to mix together to create yourself.

Practical Application

Style Blender

Choose three of your favorite musical influences and pick a favorite song by each.

Sing each song in the original artist’s style as exactly as possible.

Shuffle. Sing all of the songs in one artist’s style. Repeat until you’ve sung all three songs in the style of all three artists.

For each song, choose your favorite elements/moments from each of the three artist’s styles and blend them together. Maybe you like the riffs of one artist, with the breathiness in the low range of another, and the rhythm and phrasing choices of another. See what happens when you put them all together.

Artist Family Tree

I use this exercise for students who are obsessed with one particular artist and have moved into tribute artist territory with their style.

Create a family tree for by looking up interviews where your biggest musical influences have discussed their biggest influences.

Listen to those influences and pick three that you like. Go up another level in the artist family tree with the same process.

During this process, students tend to find other artists they enjoy that they’d never heard of. It just expands their listening and gets their style unstuck from the original artist they were idolizing. Then they can do the Style Blender exercise above.

Get Inside Their Heads

What to copy is a little bit trickier. Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.

The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. That’s what you really want—to internalize their way of looking at the world. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.”

— Kleon, Austin. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

Pick one song from one of your favorite artists. Why did they write/sing that song? What were they trying to say? What did they need to share? Why did they pick those chords? That beat?

Now put yourself in that headspace. How would you go saying what they wanted to say? Feeling how they felt? Sharing what they shared? How would you use your voice? What chords would you use? What beat would you want?

See what emerges when you sing and play from their head and heart space without trying to imitate their exact sound.

Pick Some Cover Songs

The best cover songs tend to be from artists who sound different enough from you that you’re not going to be mistaken for the original artist. You’re sharing your music taste (which tells your audience a bit about who you are) by singing the song, not showing them how well you can imitate that artist.

Pick a song you love from a different genre. For instance, if you’re an R&B singer, see if you can find a rock song that you really love the words and melody to (they’re the only thing you really have to keep, except maybe some essential instrumental hooks), and try it with the vocal style, chords, rhythms, and instrumentation you usually gravitate toward. Use some loops or programming to help you get out of the original song’s style, or give your pianist or guitar player a chord chart with no words, and without telling them what the song is, ask them to play the chords based on the feeling you want to convey. Then try singing over it.


Ultimately, people want to hear the you that’s between the cracks of the artists you’re emulating. It’s okay if you’re not sure what that is right now. The more artists you mix together, the more you’ll start to emerge.

I’ll end with this great quote from Kleon:

“So: Copy your heroes. Examine where you fall short. What’s in there that makes you different? That’s what you should amplify and transform into your own work. In the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.”

— Kleon, Austin. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

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