Why I sing in English

Jeannette and Reg
Performing with Reg in the Netherlands in the year of the VW van

As a very young singer, travelling with my family in southern Spain, I developed a habit of listening to and singing along with flamenco music. To this day I still warm up my voice and practice by singing flamenco in Spanish or fado in Portugese very loudly. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t ever try performing these in public but as vocal exercises they are ideal for me as they combine strong emotion with acrobatic vocal techniques, beautiful melodies. And it gives me some privacy while practicing as everyone runs away.

I live in Montréal and believe me, there is a lot of social and economic pressure here to sing in French. And I can do it, as I speak French pretty well and am raising a couple of bilingual boys. Oh the French I’ve learned in school meetings! And even as I tick off “English mother tongue” on forms, my mother’s tongue was always Dutch. Despite all these languages in my life, my preference is to sing in English, even if that means singing great classics in translation. English is the language in which I’ve devoured big, complex novels. And when I choose to write endless scribbled notes, lyrics, poems and blog posts, I write in English.

That choice has to do with how I want to convey my energy and where I want to place my attention when I sing. While singing, I tend to let my mind travel to a place of imagination and rich imagery. I don’t want the music I’m creating to be about how I am enunciating or worrying about how to pronounce the next phrase. Can we hear that in a song? I think so and for that reason, I don’t want to be confined there, in that place of thinking first, expressing second. I want to be free to travel around within a song. And hopefully, this added focus will somehow get entangled with the sound and the music and carry the song’s story in a cinematic way in the listener. I once asked Michel and Reg if they do this too, try to send imagery while performing and they both looked at me very blankly. Perhaps this melding of the psychic and the musical in this particular way is my own thang or something from the lost languages of my ancestry. I don’t really know – I just know it is very important to me.

I’ve tried singing the Jacques Brel classic Ne me quitte pas in French and also sang along with the Flemish version which is excellent, btw, and worth seeking out. I love the poetry of the song and am not sure it is can be perfectly translated. But I found this translation which I enjoy a lot and so recorded it for my album Born to Be Blue.

At Francis Cabrel’s concert at Place des Arts

Recently I went to hear the great French singer/songwriter Francis Cabrel perform here in Montreal. It reminded me that I’d spent some time working on a translation of his wonderful song Octobre many years ago while living in France. I think Cabrel was probably working on translating Otis Redding around that time, back when Michel and I were dashing around the Riviera in our little Fiat, alternating between blasting both Cabrel and Otis Redding from the little car speakers. The Otis Redding cd was on sale at Auchan that year, practically free! Both of these artists are also great for vocal practice, actually. I floored my father-in-law by arriving in Québec from France able to mimic a Provencal accent pretty well as long as I was singing along with Cabrel.

Working with this idea of conveying imagery and mood instead of creating an actual, literal translation, here is my interpretation of Octobre, recorded with Reg earlier this month.

My album Genius Loci Mixtape contains several songs based on poetry translated into English from Spanish or Catalan. Can we carry the imagery through and share it from one song to another, regardless of language? That’s something I’ve set out to find out!