Over the last two decades TV shows such as American Idol and it’s sleeker copycat The Voice have enraptured American audiences. Part of the success of these programs is the underlying implication that the viewer gets a voice in choosing who the next radio star might be. Millions of talented singers have auditioned for these shows and performed their hearts out to cheering crowds in the hopes of winning their ticket to musical stardom. However, as should be fairly apparent, most of the winners of American Idol and The Voice rarely become the radio stars of tomorrow, or even sleeper stars in their own right. How is it that the same incredible singers lauded by the world one year often fade to relative obscurity the very next year despite the high-level recording contract they just won?
The answer is simple: there is a lot more to being a great artist than having a great voice. Don’t get me wrong, a good voice definitely helps, but it has never been the be-all-end-all of an artist’s success. To illustrate this, let’s contrast the plight of these TV Show contest winners with the plight of country music legend Willie Nelson. Like many country singers, Willie Nelson got his start in Nashville, Tennessee, but unlike our friends from American Idol he didn’t get his start as a singer, but as a songwriter writing songs for other people. Nelson’s goal was to be a singer/songwriter, but in the notoriously competitive Nashville music industry he was told that he didn’t have a good enough voice to hold his own as an artist. In fact, it was not until he moved from Nashville to Austin, Texas that he was finally allowed to pursue his artistic endeavors. The rest, of course, is history. Willie Nelson is now a 12-time Grammy winner and one of the most recognizable names in country music, building a longstanding career off the prowess of his writing voice despite early criticism of his singing voice.
The same trait that held true for Willie 50 years ago still holds true today: a strong writing voice makes up a lot of ground if your singing voice isn’t quite at Tina Turner levels. Most people don’t care about the ins and outs of your vocal technique so long as you’re hitting the notes (and many people don’t even care if you hit the notes in today’s musical landscape), so long as you’re adept at finding catchy melodies or writing lyrics that demand attention. The only way to be truly effective at either of those things is by spending time developing and maturing your writing voice.
Let’s back up for a moment and define what we mean by the term “writing voice.” An author’s, or here, songwriter’s writing voice is their writing style: what makes their specific work recognizable and determines the character, attitude, and perspective of their music. Each voice is unique to each individual writer and when exercised, or perhaps more accurately, when released properly sets the work of a given writer apart from other writers. When this is done well it not only makes your music more distinct, but it also makes it more relatable. One of the biggest mistakes that many young artists make is trying to make their art more universal by making it less personal. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more you try to make something that everyone can relate to the less relatable, less impactful, and ironically, the less universal your art usually becomes. The reason for this is that all people are personal and experience themselves as a person both through introspection and through interaction with the everyday world around them. Thus, when you write a song that talks about your own life, emotions, interests, and interactions in a way that only you would think to do, it becomes immediately relatable even if the listener has never had the exact same thought or experience, because when immersed in your song they simultaneously see the world through your eyes and their own eyes.
What I am not suggesting is that all impactful art is confessional. That is another trap that many young artists find themselves in, where songwriting becomes solely an exercise for confessing their darkest fears and insecurities. Although these kinds of songs are often relatable and emotionally impactful, they relay only one part of your experience as a person (no-one, no matter how traumatic their lives is limited only to traumatic experience). What’s more, not every song has to confess something introspective, but in fact can profess something about the larger world the artist lives in. When an artist’s writing voice becomes a fluid extension of his/her own character and perspective he/she can both confess any internal, emotional experience and profess anything he/she believes or experiences externally without ever sacrificing context. When this is paired with an ear for melodies that naturally complement the emotional contour of the lyrics, one’s vocal aptitude becomes less and less of a concern. For this reason, I would argue that developing one’s writing voice is the most important part of growing your craft as an artist.