It's not all about pitch, posture, pacing, control, breathing, delivery. It doesn't matter if it misses the odd high C. It's certainly not about reproducing faithfully a vocal style that someone else has invented. All you have to do is be unique. They must know you instantly, from the precious first few bars. The voice must sound like no one else but you.
It takes guts to stand up in front of a hoard of strangers, open your lungs and sing. It is perhaps one of the hardest things to do. Shows such as the X factor and Britain's Got Talent have deluded the masses into thinking that anyone can do it; that musical stardom is everyone's oyster, ours for the taking. It's not. I have always admired those who give it a go, because I cannot do it. Never could. I did my share of warbling in the back row in my school choir, and once made it as far as the stage of the Fairfield Halls. I even put myself through an all-female barber-shop convention in Miami, once - not for a dare, for a magazine feature - and did a bit of backing-vocalling when I was living in LA. Not that I was desperate to 'get good' at it. I knew I never would. I just wanted to know what it felt like from the other side of the lights. I still break out in a cold sweat at the thought.
There is a lot of talk these days about the '10,000 hours': the time it takes to become any good at something we love. This arose out of ground-breaking work done by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at the Florida State University. Bob Lefsetz often refers to it in his challenging music business letter (www.lefsetz.com/) You've got to put the hours in before you even start trying to get a deal, is the gist. While I don't disagree with the premise, I have issues with its implication, having pondered it.
10,000 hours equals 417 days. It doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot. There are only 168 hours in a week (and we spend, on average, around 50 of those just sleeping). If we devote, say, 40 hours a week to trying to get good at something, that's a little over 2,000 hours per year. At that rate, it's going to take 5 years to become a master of your craft. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You gotta practise.
Anyone can spend the time. What makes the difference is the talent. It's not practise that makes perfect, either. It's perfect practise that makes perfect. Think about it. Get a guitar for Christmas or your birthday, hone a few tunes, give it a shot with the best of them, they're no better than you, is the 21st century message. It's not true. Most can't. Most are better off fantasising, singing 'Stand By Your Man' or 'The Power of Love' into a hairbrush in the bedroom after a hard day's wine. Or equivalent.
Not all, but many of our greatest modern musicians had the benefit of a classical training. That's not easy, for a start. But the likes of Rick Wakeman and Elton John stuck at it until their bitten fingertips festered. They got their Grade VIII, wept through weeks and months of Music Theory, spent more time at their keyboards than they did at life. It makes them eccentric, sure. But rock stars are nothing if not extreme creatives. They do wondrous things with their minds, hands and voices that we commoners will never comprehend. Not all of them went this route - Paul McCartney for one. No one is arguing with the talent there. There is no recipe ... and if there were, it wouldn't necessarily be the answer. Anyone can buy the latest celebrity chef cookbook, assemble the ingredients and follow the instructions to the letter. Doesn't mean our doughnuts will turn out like Fanny's.
So what's the point in trying, my youngest two children ask. One has been learning the guitar for years, the other is studying piano. Both have singing lessons. They attend extremely academic schools, so these are extra-curriculars. Day after day I find myself nagging them to practise. It's not quite a kicking and screaming scenario, but it's not far off. My kids are never going to make it big in the music business, because they can't be arsed. But what all these lessons have given them is a respect for real musicians, an appreciation of how difficult it is to do it, and a sense of awe whenever they see and hear it done live. They know first-hand how hard it is.
Last Friday night, I joined my friend Sharon Dean, the magical Judie Tzuke, her talented daughters Bailey and Tallulah and a small throng of others at a Crystal Palace showcase for Sharon's protege, new artist Goran Kay. The evening was opened by Jamie Wisker - a young guy I'd stood talking to at the back when I first arrived. He had a face like a satellite dish, it was all going on. He had come all the way from somewhere near Watford, and he'd brought his guitar. We chewed some cud before he nipped out to the back stairs for a final fag. Then he got up and sang.
Jamie blew me away. Not because the songs he delivered were unlike anything I'd heard before - but because of his voice. This was Elvis curdled with Orbison in the burnt-out years, a swallowed gargle gagging with pain and despair. He can't be more than 25, I thought, where's all this coming from? Then, between songs, he offered snips of the facts of his life ... how his wife had left him for a bit, then came back; how he'd been taunted for living in a council house; what his little daughter means to him. The guy had lived a whole lifetime in a few short adult years. He had found a way to process his emotion, and was channelling it. He was proud of himself. He was dignified. No expensive music lessons for Jamie, this was all his own work. The room stood still.
Not forgetting that it was Goran's night. The chalk, then the cheese.
Goran is one of those guys who sweats charisma. He and his little brother (who accompanies him admirably on piano) moved to England from Switzerland when his parents came to work in the UK. Classically trained on piano since the age of 7, he has soaked up everything from Chopin to Carole King, from Jacques Brel to Ella Fitzgerald. He speaks 6 languages fluently, and started writing songs when he was 13. His first break came when he was asked to co-write for G4's second album. He is writing with Judie Tzuke too. There is something utterly inevitable about his voice.
The sound wasn't great in that little rehearsal studio on Friday. It didn't matter. It reminded me of something George Martin once said, another lifetime ago, when we all worked in the Chrysalis Records building in Stratford Place. 'I'm no one, the Fifth Beatle insisted, when asked about the importance of the producer in the scheme of things. 'The song itself has got to be good enough to throttle you in its most basic form. All the producer does is style it and shape it, and add the frills. I don't write the songs, and I couldn't write the songs. My job is simply to make the best of other people's'.
Classic George, heart-ripping understatement. But we know what he means.
Not forgetting the voice.
Jamie and Goran? By George, they've got it. It's always such a thing to witness, when you think you've heard it all.
www.tzuke.com - Judie's incredible new album 'One Tree Less' is out now.