The Power of Small-and-Quiet Singers

The Curmudgeon on Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Marie Andrews, Anäis Mitchell & Taylor Swift

Music Features Phoebe Bridgers
The Power of Small-and-Quiet Singers

When a vocalist chooses between big-and-loud or small-and-quiet, the decision is not just musical; it’s also theatrical. It’s theatrical in the sense that the choice determines the scale of the song: is it on a big stage or small stage? With many characters or few? A public declaration for all the world to hear with no secrets held back? Or a private confession, meant only for one pair of ears—a hushed voice invites the listener to lean in.

In these descriptions, “big” and “small” refer to the fullness of vocal tone, while “loud” and “quiet” refer to volume. It’s not as if one approach is better than the other. We all have moments when we want to share a feeling with anyone and everyone who’ll listen. But we also have moments when we want to confide a secret to just one other person we can trust. And we need songs that can help us understand both situations.

This year we’ve been lucky to have terrific albums from four small-and-quiet singers: Phoebe Bridgers, Taylor Swift, Courtney Marie Andrews and Anais Mitchell. Perhaps they were steered to such material by their genetic make-up—all four have smallish sopranos whose warm resonance works best in the whispery intimacy of such songs. Many women possess such voices, but few have written songs as potent and as well suited to this vocal approach as these women have.

These songwriters never make the mistake of confusing small-and-quiet for weakness or submission. Behind the vulnerability of their secrets is a steel wall that lets us know that they can be pushed only so far and no further. And it’s this tension between their susceptibility and their strength that makes their work so powerful. You could hear that in the performances of Joni Mitchell and Sade—behind the cozy invitation of their voices were hints of a fierce stubbornness that warned against any attempt to take advantage.

A similar tension is at work in the best big-and-loud music. In Janis: Her Life and Music, last year’s terrific biography, author Holly George-Warren made clear that underneath Janis Joplin’s boisterous roar there was a vulnerability that made her music special. That bruised tone, born out of countless humiliations in her life, created a tension with her bluesy power that filled her best songs with theatrical conflict. David Ritz makes much the same point in his 2015 biography, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin.

In her sophomore full-length, Punisher, Bridgers uses her hushed, girlish voice to evoke the feeling of being stranded between adolescence and adulthood, between one romance and the next, between doubt and certainty. On the title track, she finds herself walking around East L.A., passing an ex-lover’s house, musing on the architectural influences of Southern California (Disneyland and bungalow stucco), and wondering what he’s up to now.

The hurt and confusion are real, but just when you think she’s sinking into depression, she starts cracking jokes. She describes bars full of trust-fund kids and punishers and wishes she could be sweet to them, but she just can’t. “I swear I’m not angry,” she sings; “that’s just my face.” The punch lines are that much funnier for being delivered in the same gentle purr as the obsessive post-mortem. Here is proof again that the best defense against an ex-lover is not anger but laughter. When you can laugh, you know it’s really over.

Most of the songs strike this uneasy balance between angst and humor. She sings to each of us as if we were sharing the same booth in an all-night diner; she’s leaning over the Formica tabletop so the other customers won’t be offended by her jokes about death (“I hate living by the hospital; the sirens go all night…. Somebody better be dying.”) and spirituality (“I want to believe; instead I look at the sky and feel nothing.”)

The writing is good enough to justify this emotional self-examination, because the seriousness is always challenged by the mockery, and the internal focus is always connected to external reality: a sleeve of saltines, a Goodwill store, a parade float, Halloween costumes, an Eric Clapton song on the radio. The rhymes are minimal, but her voice holds your attention anyway, because her small-and-quiet delivery creates the illusion that it’s finding its way instinctively, sharing phrases with us that she’s only just thought of.

Swift launches the third phase of her career with the new album, Folklore. After conquering the worlds of country-pop and dance-pop, she now tackles indie-chamber-pop with the help of the National’s Aaron Dessner, who produced 11 of the 17 tracks and co-wrote nine of them. This new setting allows Swift to work to her strengths: her mesmerizing small-and-quiet voice and her songwriting gift for emotional ambivalence.

She’s had her moments on such unambivalent, big-and-loud hits such as “Shake It Off” and “Wildest Dreams,” but those got over on Swift’s genius for chorus hooks and musical architecture; they lacked the sizzling oomph of a big-voiced singer like Beyonce.

Swift is at her best at a more intimate scale, and that’s what Dessner provides for her. He clears away all the clutter of her previous records to create open spaces where her words and melodies can do their work. And this new strategy allows Swift to reveal a new maturity. Instead of pursuing adolescent vengeance on her exes; she’s now seeking understanding.

The album begins with “The 1,” where she wonders if on old affair might have endured rather than ending “if one thing had been different.” This is a musing that most of us have had, but Swift finds new ways to look at it. “The greatest films of all time were never made,” she warbles, as if the movies of our lives often run out of funding before the principal photography can be finished. Dessner’s two-chord piano figure echoes like a clock-tower bell, like unstoppable time.

Several other songs tackle the same subject. On “Cardigan,” she wonders if her ex would have left “like a father” if she hadn’t been so unstable in “high heels on cobblestones.” “I didn’t have it in myself to leave with grace,” she confesses over swooning female harmonies on “My Tears Ricochet,” but now perhaps she does. On “August,” over producer Jack Antonoff’s acoustic guitar and drum brushes, she acknowledges both the good (“twisted in bedsheets”) and the bad (“slipped away like a bottle of wine”) of a summertime romance.

On “Exile,” a duet with Justin Vernon, she extends the movie metaphor. Over the string arrangement by Aaron Dessner’s brother Bryce on “Invisible String,” Swift wonders if there were “clues I didn’t see?” Well, yes, of course, it’s always easier to analyze a relationship in retrospect from an older, wiser perspective.

And she applies that viewpoint to current relationships (the dizzying, threatening “Mirrorball”), early childhood (the whispery, wistful “Seven”), unearned wealth (the satiric “The Last Great American Dynasty”) and even death (the remarkable strings-and-synth elegy “Epiphany”). With Folklore, Swift finally enters the mature phase of her career—and for every former listener she loses in the transition, she deserves to gain a new one.

Both Bridgers and Swift work in low-volume, restrained-instrumentation settings that we associate with singer-songwriter folk music. But neither artist displays much of a connection to the musical traditions that preceded them. And both of them would benefit from such a link. For fitting into such a lineage—even as you move it forward into new territory—supplies the strength of a world older and larger than just yourself. That’s especially helpful for artists as focused on themselves as much as Bridgers and Swift are.

Swift started out on a country-music label before she transitioned to dance-pop and now indie-chamber-pop. But she never demonstrated much sense of country-music history older than Tim McGraw, though it would have been helpful if she had. Courtney Marie Andrews has moved in the opposite direction. She started out in indie-rock but has absorbed more and more country influences. And her music has improved dramatically as she has.

Her new album Old Flowers begins with weeping steel and twangy acoustic guitar on “Burlap String,” a promise to pick wildflowers for a bouquet tied in twine if she should ever meet her ex-lover again. This is not a plea to be taken back but rather a pledge to act kindly in the wake of a break that cannot be healed. And the patient, hillbilly piano and Emmylou-like vocal imply that there’s a history to such break-ups and that one can take comfort and strength from one’s predecessors.

As Andrews explains in the press notes, this album is a song cycle inspired by the dissolution of a nine-year relationship, the end of her first big love. “There are a million records and songs about that,” she wrote, “but I did not lie when writing these songs…. It’s about a woman who is alone, but okay with that, if it means truth.” You can hear the echo of another landmark song cycle, because the nervous acoustic-guitar figure from Andrews’ “If I Told,” is lifted directly from the title track for Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. And the country/church piano on Andrews’ title track echoes the backing on Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid” from another song cycle, Harvest.

On “Old Flowers,” Andrews finds an apt metaphor for a fondly remembered past love. Dried flowers are beautiful, but they’re also dead—and no magic or prayer can bring them back to life. Her voice is small and quiet, but it is devastatingly effective on this album’s material. It helps that she can hold onto a single, accurate pitch as her tone waxes and wanes. It helps that she keeps her eye on reality even as her emotions swing this way and that.

There’s no better example of the profit of digging into musical roots than the debut album by the trio Bonny Light Horseman. Anais Mitchell, the folkie singer-songwriter who earlier this year won a well deserved Best Musical Theater Album Grammy for her Broadway hit Hadestown, formed the group with multi-instrumentalist Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats, Shins) and producer-guitarist Josh Kaufman (Josh Ritter, the National). For the recording, Bonny Light Horseman, the threesome collected 10 folk songs from the British and American traditions, messed with the words and music and proved just how powerful those old numbers can be.

The lyrics address the same issues as those on the Bridgers, Swift and Andrews albums: lovers separated by choice or circumstances and young people colliding with adulthood. It’s a reminder that these dilemmas are timeless, and 19th century commentary on these situations can be as valid as anything written today. Perhaps more so, because these reflections have been remembered while so many more have been forgotten.

For all the times that these songs have been sung and recorded, they’re worth hearing once again. The rudiments of voice and acoustic guitar have been tastefully reinforced by Kaufman’s production. The keys, drums, sax and harmonica always enhance the singing and never eclipse it. The intricate harmonies turn the trick of making one perspective echo in many. All three members sing as do guests such as Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon (both from Swift’s album). Johnson is a warm, appealing singer, but the highlights come from Mitchell.

She too has a small-and-quiet voice, one that can relax disarmingly when luring the listener in and then swell with feeling when the climax comes. On “Lowlands,” she laments the loss of her lover to the shipyards of New Orleans, and at first she seems defeated by the departure, an ache underlined by Michael Lewis’s quiet saxophone. But when she declares that she “will cut off all my long black hair” so “no other man will think me fair,” that ache acquires a serrated edge. And all the while the refrain keeps repeating as if reality can’t be altered by wishes and dreams.

Even more powerful is “10,000 Miles,” another tale of separated lovers measured out in sparse but glowing guitar notes. Most powerful of all is the title track, the group’s namesake number, the Napoleonic Era ballad about a lover conscripted for a far-off war. The glacial harmonica intro and circling drum brush are sad enough but not nearly as sad as Mitchell’s hushed whisper of confession.

“Broken-hearted I’ll wander, broken-hearted I’ll remain,” she warbles, “since my bonny light horseman in the war he was slain.” Her humming vocal is mirrored by the saxophone, and her girlish soprano rises through the open spaces of the arrangement to identify the warmonger responsible for all her pain: “Oh, Napoleon Bonaparte, you’re the cause of my woe.” It’s proof that even the smallest and quietest voice can tell us all we need to know about loss in this world.

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