Thursday, 6 November 2008

An Anatomy of 'Feel', by Robbie Williams

"NEEEYAAA!" says Dean.
"NeeEEIIiiyaaaa," I repeat.

I should explain.

Last weekend, I led, to a substantial degree, the worship at Fixed, the 5pm youth-orientated service at Christ Church Cockfosters. Aiming to appeal to teenagers and students but by no means excluding adults, this is church with a difference: loud rock band, flashy lights, big-screen videos and everybody comfortable on bean bags. Thing was, I wasn't supposed to lead: I was due to play in the band but only the day before received a phone call saying that Judith, who plays the piano, sings and generally runs the show extremely well, was ill, and would I be able to take the reins?

Part of me was very excited - I've led songs before, having talked my way into becoming a singer and guitarist for the band. But on those previous occasions I've had the full band with me: now I was going to be the principal musician, and co-lead singer, for songs I really didn't know very well.

I was most worried about Feel, by Robbie Williams.

For the easily confused, Feel is not a worship song and, to the best of my knowledge, isn't intended to be Christian. However, Fixed have recently been running a series called It's Not Complicated, in which, among other features, a modern song is used each week to start the service. A line from the lyrics of the song is then used to provide a theme for the week. First they used Coldplay's Vida la Viva; on another occasion they used Oasis' Wonderwall; and on my last band appearance I sang The Fray's How to Save a Life, from which the line "and pray to God He hears you" was used.

"Come on take my hand,
I want to contact the living"

The problem with Feel is that it is piano based, and we had just lost our pianist.

Conveniently for me, my housemate Dean is a guitar teacher and is incredibly talented - within two to three minutes he had the introduction, solo and solo chords converted for the guitar, and within another few minutes he'd corrected the faulty tabulature that I had downloaded and calculated the bass line throughout. Now I had to learn it.

I have never had a singing lesson in my life. Until my good friend Nelly made me, I never knew that I could sing and certainly would never have done in public. Inconveniently, there is a part of Feel that is just beyond my break, and not knowing how to hit those notes, I simply wasn't trying. A 'break' is something Nelly used to talk about when we played in Birmingham and Sidmouth, but she seemed to know how to get around hers, leaving me to sing within my comfortable range. But to stay within my range in Feel sounded rubbish, killing the momentum that I could achieve at the beginning of the chorus. So Dean and I proceeded to anatomically break down the song, to work out how Robbie, not known for difficult vocals, managed to pull it off.

Thus began a study of breathing techniques, stomach movements, nasal tones and the fabled break note of A sharp. The first observation was that Robbie cheats, only marginally hitting the required notes at times (your mind fills in the gaps); second that the lines immediately preceding the problematic lyric are sung with a different breathing pattern - this is obvious in the record, but I had always assumed it to be a deliberate, perhaps computerized patch used for effect. Instead, Robbie is changing from his chest voice to his head voice, becoming deliberately husky in preparation for the next line which, in the absence of any ability to use musical parlance, simply needs to be "belted out". (The lines are: "'Cause I got too much life, running through my veins, going to waste", and the one to belt out is "And I need to feel real love, and a life ever after".)

Knowing all of this, and learning more about my limits, my throat's capabilities, it was simply a matter of practice until I could do it. What followed was about an hour of Dean and I screaming, using head voices (usually horrendously out of tune), first learning what to do with my mouth and throat muscles to stop my natural urge to cough when exerting myself, and running through scales in a Sound of Music fashion, only above my break and in the style of the Bee Gees.

"NEEEYAAA!" says Dean.
"NeeEEIIiiyaaaa," I repeat.
And repeat. Again and again until I could pull off a clean "NEEEYAAA!", at which point Dean will make me go higher, or change to a "WAAAAAA!", which comes out as "WAAAAeeeeEEEEEaaaaa!", as if I'm going through puberty all over again. It is highly embarassing, I'm really not used to making noises like this. I'm usually too reserved. But he got me started, and knowing that nobody was listening, I went for it.

By the end of the evening I could consistently keep above my break for the entire section, without my throat seizing up, without the need to cough. I could keep the momentum. Heck, if I had been in tune I might even say that I could do it.

My throat hurt, though.

And so to 5pm the next day. We've shortened Feel to two verses, two choruses and a bit of instrumental. In the end, I didn't try to hit those notes, as they were still coming out out of tune. The rest of the set seemed to work brilliantly: new song Great is the Lord had been stripped down to make it simpler for the congregation to learn (which meant it was just me and my guitar for the first minute and a half); The Splendour of the King featured a vocal solo from me and an a capella outro duet (co-vocalist Steph doing a much better job than me); and Hallelujah (Worthy of our Praise)*, which I didn't know before I arrived, came out as an extremely exciting funked up piece of pure rock - not quite what the organisers had in mind but we had fun.

My thanks go to Steph, Johnny and Jarrett, who are all extremely talented and were the real talent in the band.

I shall be joining the worship team again in two weeks.

*by Ben Cantelon (our version didn't sound anything like this)

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