Nicole Hart: A Marvelous Instrument
By the time I was in third grade, my father had become the choir director and, I hope it wasn't nepotism, but I was given my first solo. From there I went onto study madrigal and a capella singing in school, moving into all state, all region and national choir groups singing Handel and Copland in up to eight-part harmony. I loved it! It threw down in a different way from the popular music that I also loved.
AAJ: Were you not also classically trained as a singer?
NH: Yes, I went to university as a coloratura soprano.
AAJ: What are several of the key things you learn in such training? Can you share your learning experience, the techniques used to teach you to sing?
NH: Absolutely. I learned how to phonate properly, that is, to produce sound in a healthy way which has been serving me in good stead when I have many gigs in a row (which has been often lately!). It prepared me for presenting and communicating lyrics to the audience and, I'm sure, helped me to develop my stage presence. But I have also learned a lot by studying privately with more pop- and R&B- oriented teachers.
I have also learned a lot about how to care for the voice from study on my own, as wellI've done a lot of research and a lot of trial and error. I drink at least a gallon of water the day before and the day of a show (and usually, every day anywaythis keeps you lubricated from the inside out!), as well as incorporate a lot of herbs into my diet. The voice is a physical instrument, as well as being spiritual and cerebral. As such, it needs more care than, say, a guitar or keyboard or an amplifier, just by nature of its physiology and it being a part of the human body subject to everyday living. For instance, if I don't get a good night's rest, I think that shows up in the vocal chords faster than it does with an instrumentalist (i.e. it can limit range and flexibility, and make the voice hoarse much more quickly.)
AAJ: Did this experience make you any more aware as to how others sing?
NH: Of course. I would liken it to the way a movie director watches movies or an actor watches others act. I have such a deep appreciation for all kinds of vocalists in all genres...some I probably wouldn't know how to appreciate if I didn't understand the mechanics of vocalization. However, having said that, I think communication comes first...for instance, someone such as Bob Dylan or even [The Pretenders'] Chrissie Hynde may not be considered a great vocalist per se, but they understand implicitly how to use their voices to communicate the emotion behind their material. This is a real gift, the real "x factor.
AAJ: What are some of the biggest mistakes others make in singing?
NH: Oh, God. Well, smoking I think is just a sin, and I know from personal experience because I used to do it years ago. When I finally snapped out of it, which was relatively quickly, thankfully, my voice went up two whole steps in range immediately. It has only gotten stronger from there.
Also, I learned never to drink when I sing. This is something I think a lot of singers learn the hard way. Classically trained vocalists know this, as their genre is very, very demanding and really, you can't get away with much as an opera singer. However, popular singers who make their living gigging in night clubs or on the road know that alcohol is inherent to the environment. I love singing too much to limit my ability at a performance by drinking alcohol. Technically, vocalists really shouldn't drink at all, but I don't see that happening among many of my peers. You know, you gotta live a little. I'm no saint, but when it comes to singing, I'm pretty well-behaved.
AAJ: Considering how so many vocalists torture their voices in the blues, understanding that you define your music as blues/funk/soul, what drew you to perform this kind of music?
NH: I made my living for many years being a chameleon. The more genres of music I could aptly perform, the more work that was potentially available to me as a professional vocalist. I was a singer for hire, both in live performance as well as in the studio. However, I made a decision about six years ago that if a song didn't mean something to me, I wouldn't perform it. For instance, I was contracted to record a disco song for a French label, and half way through the session I just said to the engineer, "I'm sorry, I can't do this, and walked out. I just couldn't get behind the song, or see myself living with having recorded it and it being played on radio. I didn't respect what I was singing.
I have been a happier human being and artist since that day. It is a fascinating and never-ending journey to get to know myself as an artist; much more satisfying than just making a buck by singing. Now I make a buck and it means something to me. And I just find myself always drawn to anything that is really soulful, be it blues, fnk, R&B or soul music. It's what moves me.