Learn to Sing
||Justin Hawkins is best known for his contribution to The Darkness with the single hit “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”. He grew up in Surrey, England and studied Music Technology at Huddersfield Technical College. He is a singer and multi-instrumentalist (he plays guitar, piano, keyboards, sitar, synthesizer, mini-moog and hammond organ) whose name is often associated with falsetto and an over-the-top, vibrant stage personality. He left The Darkness in 2006 for artistic reasons and created British Whale shortly after. Over the last few years, Justin has collaborated with different artists such as Def Leppard, Metal Skool, BBC’s Mantyz and notably Beverlei Brown for a UK Eurovision Song Contest competition. His current band is|
Hot Leg. It is all about glam metal, stretch jeans or spandex and good
fun. Hot Leg is currently touring with
Extreme until the end of November 2008. Listen to their singles “Trojan Guitar” and “I met Jesus” on their Myspace.com/TeamHotLeg .
|Interview by: Valerie Bastien|
It looks like guitar and
comedy came first in your life. I read that it wasn’t until
your brother heard you sing a song by Queen that he pushed you into
becoming a singer?
Justin: Kind of. It’s always been the story around about the Darkness but it’s not necessarily true. The first singing I did was… I used to do this impromptu, completely ad lib thing with me and the guitar. A solid jam began and then I would just sing and play guitar and I would just make it up. There would be nothing written. And I’d do that as a warm-up when I played in bands. That’s when I was like fifteen or sixteen. Then, I sang in a couple of grunge bands in the late 80’s. I’ve always kinda done it but I never really did it in a serious capacity until The Darkness.
Valerie: So why do you think it took you so long to realize you had that potential as a singer rather than with other instruments?
Justin: I used to see singers as the good-looking guys and the older people who were starting bands when I was in school, they would always choose the best looking person to be the singer.
Valerie: What, you’re a good-looking guy, too! [laughs]
Justin: Well, [laughs] I think that’s definitely an acquired taste! It’s very kind of you to say that but I mean at the time, there were more people around that were more soothed to that role. Also, if you’re gonna be a singer, there are other demands on you that you need to have in your character. Like a different experience to the rest of the band. The focus in definitely on the singer no matter what band it is. You have to flick a switch inside you to do singing properly and consider yourself as a singer in a different way of approaching music.
Valerie: Yeah, because you’re always in the spotlight, much more than other band members.
Justin: Also with interviews, people always want to speak to the singer unless you have a specialist guitar magazine. Then you can’t really get away from it. But I don’t mind that. Actually that’s one of the things I enjoy now.
Valerie: After that happened, how did you develop your singing? Did you take vocal lessons?
Justin: No, I’ve never had vocal lessons. I’ve never really had a problem with my voice except for maybe acid reflux and those kinds of issues. So I’ve never actually been trained. I think I’ve always just worked on the strongest parts of where my range are because I have to sing along loud guitars so I tend to choose the most powerful parts of my range to take those notes and it happens to be this upper head and falsetto.
Valerie: That was actually my next question. You really embrace the falsetto voice; it’s actually your trademark. I think people recognize you for that. You actually have a very distinct colourful falsetto, which I really like. I want to know if you have any specific exercises that you do to strengthen it because it’s still strong. It doesn’t sound weak at all.
Justin: Yeah, it is so much more powerful than my main voice. It’s always been the most comfortable area to sing in. I don’t know why that’s the case really… When I warm-up, I tend to concentrate on my lower area. Because even today I know that if I’m gonna be having any problems, I’m still gonna be able to sing high. But I worry about not being able to control the middle range.
Valerie: Oh, maybe it’s just connecting the two registers. The chest voice and… Your falsetto does become full voice because yesterday when I was listening to you, it really did not sound like a weak… Well, you know sometimes people associate falsetto with a weak tone but you did not sound weak at all.
Justin: I can do it weak and fragile if I need it to but I just end up belting it out, really. I used to have a curious, little extra kind of voice above the falsetto like that Mariah Carey little squeak…
Valerie: The whistle voice?
Justin: Yeah, the whistle voice! But that’s gone now. I think I’ve worn that one out!
Valerie: You can get it back.
Justin: Yeah, maybe. I’ve changed my lifestyle a lot in the last couple years: I’ve given up smoking and drinking and I don’t do any drugs and I’m a bit more careful about what I eat so it has affected my voice. I mean, the way I’m living now is much better, but at the same time, I’m ill tonight so I’m gonna struggle… It’s still a lot better than it could have been.
Valerie: You will do your best. If you try your best, it’s good enough for me! You can’t be perfect all the time.
Justin: That’s true!
Valerie: And that’s what I think is the challenge: with singers, compared to any other instrument, people will always criticize you twice as much for how you perform. But your instrument is also in your body, so sometimes you have no control over whether you’re gonna be sick. And that won’t ever happen with the guitar. You would have to get a very, very, very bad flu not to be able to play a night, right?
Justin: That’s true, it’s hard. It always seems to be the singer that causes the cancellations, unless there is an injury to a drummer’s foot! That’s the only thing I can think of!
Valerie: So do you have any tips on how to maintain your voice, keep your voice hydrated and things like that?
Justin: Well, I always do the warm-up with the lip bubbles because I think it’s a good way to see how the larynx is performing without forcing it too hard; you can’t physically push that much air through when you’re doing that. That’s the only one I really do… I don’t worry too much about what I putting in my body because it’s never gonna be as bad as it was a couple years ago… I’m clean. Drinking is bad; it doesn’t help anybody in the long run! I’ve also heard that you should avoid laughing but I do a lot of laughing ’cause we have a lot of laughs… [laughs]
Valerie: Well, you’re a funny person to start with, right?! [laughs]
Justin: The whole band likes to.
Valerie: I can tell!
Justin: We can’t do a whole conversation without laughing! So I should laugh for my voice.
Valerie: Maybe you can redirect your laughing voice in the mask because laughing is an extension of laughing. For example, I have a newsletter every month for the teaching community and I remember in one of my newsletters the topic was “Find Your Voice on a Laugh” (http://voiceyourselfintheclassroom.com/newsletter1mar08.html)! If you laugh on a high pitch, it sends your voice forward. If you laugh very low and it’s in the throat then that is not so good…
Justin: That’s my problem; I laugh in my middle range so that’s why it’s wearing out…
Valerie: You should practice laughing like Santa Claus: Ho! Ho! Ho!
Justin: Ho! Ho! Ho! People might think that I actually didn’t find it funny if I do that! No, I’m just being sarcastic! But yeah, that works… It brings it forward!
Valerie: Now a question from my friend Jaime Vendera, the owner of The Voice Connection: I hear a little reflection of Freddy Mercury in your voice. Was he a big influence?
Justin: Yeah, he is, but the higher voice in the Queen stuff is actually the drummer. They all sang on these records and he did the really high stuff. So Freddy tended to be the upper-middle voice with the drummer singing over him. Yeah, I love Queen records.
Valerie: Who else do you look up to?
Justin: I love Steven Tyler. I love Bon Scott and Myles Kennedy is great—amazing! He does things I can’t do. I always wished that my voice sounded like that, really.
Valerie: But you have your own personality.
Justin: Well, I’ve come to realize that it’s a good thing you know.
Valerie: Yeah, because it makes you stand out.
Justin: That’s the only reason we’re here now having this conversation. Because without that kind of signature we wouldn’t have ever become successful so I’m grateful for that now. But for a long time I was disappointed that I didn’t have that more masculine kind of protein growl.
Valerie: Don’t be!
Justin: I’m not now!
Valerie: Be yourself, everybody else is taken!
Justin: Yeah! [laughs] That’s good advice.
Valerie: You also studied music in college.
Justin: I studied music technology.
Valerie: Did it still help with your singing and guitar playing somehow?
Justin: It helped for arrangement stuff. On the records that I’ve played over the years, I sing every part of the big back-up harmonies so it helped me to work out who should be doing what. Being able to play the piano and guitar also really helps with that and how to pick a part or a chord and make good arrangements. I think without the education that would be much more difficult. I still can’t read music but I know when I hear something how it’s done. .
Valerie: I wanted to ask you because on our website, we have a forum and a lot of our young readers ask if it’s worthwhile to study music since there is a lot of insecurity associated with the music business.
Justin: Well, the thing about the music trade is that—Not the record industry; it’s falling apart, but the music trade is still vibrant and strong and if you have a qualification in music, that can only be a good thing. The people I work with now in Hot Leg are all able to sight-read and they are amazing musicians for it. So when I tell them to play something, they know exactly what I’m talking about. They know all of the technical vocabulary; more than I do. I know how something should sound and I can sing and play with it but they have all the technical vocabulary and that’s really, really important for them to be able to step in and do awesome music.
Valerie: That’s good; you can learn from each other! So you were saying earlier that people perceive singers as needing different personality traits in a band compared to playing guitar, for example. So what traits do you have now that you have developed that make you a great band leader?
Justin: It’s almost like a bottleneck situation where you’re in the middle and you’ve got everything that the band is trying to get across and everything that the crowd is trying to get across. So you have to be able to communicate with everybody on the stage and everybody offstage and in the building at the same time. It’s communication, really!
Valerie: On a different topic now, Hot Leg reminds me of another band from LA: Metal Skool. Have you heard of them?
Justin: Yeah, I’ve sung with them! They’ve changed their name to Steel Phanters and they signed this ridiculous Universal deal with a movie and an album and I sang on their album. When I was in LA in June, I went and performed with them and when they played in Las Vegas, I sang with them there, too.
Valerie: Cool! Is it on YouTube?
Justin: It probably is.
Valerie: look it up! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnD8hjr-dWs)
Justin: They’re really nice people. I’ve gotten along really well with the bass player particularly, Lexxi Foxxx. Me and him text each other all the time!
Valerie: Cool! The next question is really appropriate with what we were saying earlier. Singing is not only about the voice. It’s also about conveying ideas and communicating with an audience. What makes you unique as a songwriter and performer is how you use your sense of humour. What is the biggest challenge in writing rock music that will also make people laugh? How do you come up with the themes of your songs?
Justin: Some of the song themes are actually quite poetic humour. Whenever I write lyric, I always try to do them conversationally. They’re not shrouded in faux poetry self-importance. I always try to lose that. Once you’ve done that, you can get much more personality across. I’ve always been good at English. It was pretty much my strongest subject in school. I don’t do anything that’s obviously a parody in terms of the actual writing. With a foundation of what could very well easily be interpreted as a serious song, it’s easier to put a comical inflection without ruining the whole experience. You need to have a kernel of something that people can grab a hold of and then my goal is to ultimately have people not know whether I’m taking the picks or not. I want them to wonder. Because the more debate there is in that area, the most interest there is in what I do. So I never like to confirm or deny whether I’m serious or not.
Valerie: Well, there’s always a message.
Justin: Always! And it’s always from personal experience as well. I never write anything just for the sake of writing it. I never just write a story. It’s always about real stuff. You’ve got two ways of approaching everything in life: One of them is to charge them head on and laugh about it and the other way is to stand in the corner with no clothes on crying. And I do a little bit of both, to be honest. But music is the area where you have to challenge yourself and people sometimes. I love doing that. And people who really love what I’m doing understand that it’s my personality to make it sound funny. It’s just something that I’ve got a little bit of therapy over the years with and they always say that build a comic façade to disguise the way I’m really feeling but a lot of people do that to protect themselves. So that’s just me, that’s my personality but it doesn’t mean that I’m joking.
Valerie: Yeah, I know what you mean! That was a great answer. You are best known for your hit “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”. How has your time in The Darkness affected your song-writing for your new band, Hot Leg?
Justin: : The time in The Darkness was mostly collaborative with my brother. Anything I wrote on my own, I kinda held back anyway because it’s very difficult to ask a band to play something that they haven’t written. Especially like The Darkness which, towards the end, was a little bit more motivated by money and is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to be in it anymore. Some of the songs that we’re doing in the set now have been around for a while. I’ve been writing songs all my life! The collaborative stuff that I do with Hot Leg is from full musicians, totally focused, totally sober, enjoying the music and I don’t think that the whole time in The Darkness made me realize how not to approach songwriting; there always something cynical about The Darkness in that I’d be trying to write about personal experience and write about this little place where I used to live and my brother and the band would always be trying to make it more global. They would be saying, “You gotta make it more universal so the people on the other side of the world can relate to it.” And I was thinking, “Well, just because you’re naming a place, you’re feeling something, there’s something about that experience that everybody can relate to. Just because you haven’t been to that place, doesn’t make a difference. That place existed anyway and you can name it because that’s what it is.” It gives you something to rhyme with and something true to ground in.
Valerie: It’s more authentic.
Justin: Absolutely! I would always use to fight for that. Equally, when I wrote “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”—I pretty much wrote that whole song. There are a couple of chords that my brother wrote in the bridge but the rest is all me. I had to really fight for that chord. He was like, “You can’t just have a chord that does that; that’s just a regular rock chord!” and I was like, “Yeah!”
Valerie: And that’s what made it a hit!
Justin: : It’s so silly! It’s kind of really instant and immediate; a quick fix. It’s like fast food listening; that’s all it was ever supposed to be. It was just a bit of fun! Now I don’t have to fight for those things. Say I wanna do a radio rock song; I can just do it now. Everyone is on the same page and agrees it’s a good thing to do. If I wanna do something that’s a bit more earnest or whatever I need to do, it’s much easier to communicate now because it’s more important to do something good than to do something big and successful. We’re just trying to be the best that we can be rather than just the biggest.
Valerie: So would you be OK with Hot Leg not achieving the same success?
Justin: Yeah, definitely! In a way, I think it’d be nicer because it feels like we’re achieving in the sense that the work that we do is better. The response that we get from the people that understand what we’re doing is better. The reviews are still mixed but that’s kind of what it’s all about. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t really matter what I do; people are gonna write good and bad about it.
Justin: I just make sure that I’m happy and that’s much more rewarding.
Valerie: Definitely! Can you tell us about your new band Hot Leg, your first single, “Trojan Guitar” and the upcoming Christmas song “I Met Jesus”. Can you introduce us?
Justin: Yeah! [laughs] “I Met Jesus” is not really a traditional Christmas song. It doesn’t have children singing or anything like that; it’s just challenging the whole vibe. I didn’t actually write the lyrics on that song. They were written by my friend Chad, who’s gonna be here tonight. He’s quite involved in the church. He preaches sermons on Sundays and he’s also an advertising executive. He used to write music for the church. I used to be a jingle writer before. That’s how I met him and I write songs with him occasionally. “Trojan Guitar” is just a 5 ½ minute allegory. I usually don’t like talking about the subject matter of a song because sometimes it slows the experience of listening to it.
Valerie: OK, that’s fine!
Justin: But it’s got a 2 minute guitar solo so…
Valerie: It’s a fun song; it’s really catchy! Well, that was my last question, so to conclude the interview can you tell us what you’re doing after you’re done touring with Alter Bridge?
Justin: We’re touring in the same kind of venue but with Extreme. Then, we will do our own tour next year. We will probably come into America in March and it’d` be nice to tour in Canada as well.
Valerie: Well, if you come to Toronto, I will be there for sure! Thank you very much for you time. This was an excellent interview!
Justin: Thank you!
Valerie Bastien is a vocal coach, teacher, musician and freelance journalist.
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