Voice Notes: How Jehnny Beth honed her ferocious sound
“I try to hold the note as long as I can, so that people think that I'm going to stop," says the Savages singer. "But I never stop."
Voice Notes is a new column where we ask artists how they developed their approach to singing.
For the past nine years, Jehnny Beth has been known as the dynamic, theatrical bandleader of English rock outfit Savages. Together with Gemma Thompson, Ayse Hassan, and Fay Milton, the group has achieved critical acclaim for its British post-punk parallels and live theatrics.
But Beth is now set to temporarily change course with her forthcoming solo debut To Love Is To Live. The move isn’t much of a surprise. The French singer’s tender yet ferocious sound and on-stage energy have long captivated audiences. In setting out on her own, the musician born Camille Berthomier hopes to create a sonic atmosphere beyond her band's work.
“When I was making To Love Is To Live, I was trying to identify when I couldn't recognize my voice, when I hadn't heard it in that way before, and tried to keep those moments [on] the record,” Beth tells EW. “The whole idea for this album was to try not to repeat myself and to go and show more vulnerability.” That vulnerability erupts in creepy, quivering whispers (“Flower”) and in syrupy wails (“Heroine”). But it’s also countered with Beth’s unshakeable confidence, as the singer’s brash roars throttle throughout single “I’m The Man.”
Ahead of the release of To Love Is To Live, Beth reveals the story behind her dynamic vocals and how she maintains them.
Keeping It Fresh
Though she's known for her fierce vocal performances, Jehnny Beth didn't always take care of her most valuable instrument. "I used to go on tour and drink and party and just not even think twice about it," she says. "Then [in 2013] I broke my voice, locked it completely, and had to cancel a tour." Beth sought the help of Adele's doctor to repair it, who told her to avoid talking and eliminate her alcohol, tea, and coffee intake altogether. With the help of breathing exercises and a lot of hot water, Beth’s voice came back three weeks later. "I had never had such a powerful voice," she recalls. "I had completely recovered. But more than that, I had become able to control my voice and do whatever I wanted with it."
Adapting to the Studio
When Beth first started having symptoms of anxiety as a teenager, it would affect her singing. She went from being a child with a quiet, Chet Baker-like voice to struggling with her own sound. “Every time I was singing, it was painful,” she recalls. “When I go in the studio, I tend to feel that anxiety again, and I try to trick myself, so it doesn’t really take over.” Her solution? Bringing her own microphone, one given to her by Apple when she first landed her Beats One radio show, Start Making Sense. “You have to adapt," she says.
The Message Matters
Beth admits that the meaning behind Savages’ music was always more important to her than the way her voice sounded. “In a way that liberated me, because I had something I really, really wanted to say,” she says. She sees the voice as secondary because “it can just be itself, carrying you and your courage.” That’s why Beth remains drawn to Nina Simone’s performances and how her message carried her voice. “It’s almost like the voice is coming out, but the message is there, and the presence of the singer is at the forefront. I'm fascinated by that.”
Coming Alive on Stage
The stage is a sacred space for the Savages' bandleader. She might feel “like a wild animal trapped in a cage” when she’s in the studio, but in concert, she finds escape through her physicality. “It's a place where I stop thinking, and there is no observer at all anymore,” she says. To perform live, Beth relies on her entire body. When it’s activated, she’s able “to sing better, longer, and with more strength.” During a show, the performer envisions her vocal chords as part of a big muscle from head to toe — which is why she keeps up her strength by boxing.
A Careful Whisper
On “Flower,” the lead single off Beth’s debut, her cinematic whisper remains a captivating presence throughout. At the time, Beth didn’t think the song would be on her album — she was planning to give it to St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, instead. “I recorded the voice quickly because I just wanted to show her what I meant,” she says. But the xx’s Romy Madley Croft convinced Beth to hold onto it herself. So, the vocal flourishes have remained unchanged.
Sounding It Out
When Beth first moved to London, at 20, she had a project called John & Jehn with Johnny Hostile. The duo became close with conceptual indie rockers British Sea Power, and Beth soon began mimicking the styles (“especially the screams”) of the band’s vocalist Scott Wilkinson. “He does this thing, I think it comes from punk, it's almost like an ‘oy,’ but more like a ‘ho,’” she says. For Beth, incorporating those “onomatopoeic kind of shouts” also felt like an homage to her own drama school background. “I was staying in the music, reminding people of my presence, even though there were no lyrics at that point,” she says of the filler phrases.
Beth has also been drawn to French singer Édith Piaf for her trembling vocals, and has found herself channeling the stylings of Verity Susman, vocalist for British group Electrelane. “You wouldn’t know if it was a trumpet, or if it was her voice, and I loved that idea,” says Beth of Susman. On the defiant “I’m The Man,” off Beth’s solo record, she tries to replicate that same vocal pattern at the end of the track. “I try to hold the note as long as I can, so that people think that I'm going to stop," she says. "But I never stop."