Jack Byrne, interview
I realized that my classical training and my rock singing could exist symbiotically
Interview from 2013, edited in 2017 and 2019
Jack Byrne is a versatile musician within many genres. He is a graduate from Longy School of Music in Cambridge (MA) with a Masters of Music in Classical Voice Performance, yet he can also be seen in the greater Boston area performing his original music as a multi-instrumentalist/singer songwriter. (He also happens to be my brother.) Jack has a strong conviction that classical technique benefits singers of all genres, and I wanted to share his insights on this topic. Lastly, I challenge you to listen to his sound - and notice that it doesn't necessarily sound like an "opera singer" performing in a contemporary style, but a very healthy colorful palate with flexibility and control. Let's find out why!
Corrine: How important is singing to you as a person, as an artist and to your career?
Jack: Singing has probably been the most important means to express myself I have had throughout my life. Writing music and lyrics is always a great way to organize my thoughts, and singing is the most powerful and effective way I get to express it. In that way, singing is very important to me as an artist because I think that any important work of art should express emotion, and what better vehicle for conveying emotion is there than the human voice? And the thing that makes us singers so lucky is that we always have text to convey. Everything we sing expresses some emotion or thought which is usually relateable in some way. It is incredible to tap into this as we study text and work on new music for ourselves. It is then wonderful to give this to the audience for them to experience.
Corrine: Your voice drastically changed over the course of your career so far- can you talk about why and how it's affected you?
Jack: The biggest change in my voice is mostly just an ability to access everything my voice can do. When I sing one of my own songs, the inflections and expression that I give the music is very similar to how I've always done it, I just have more control over it now, and I can sing for long periods of time without hurting myself. This has been amazing for me because now I can just focus on the art without worrying if my voice will come along for the ride. The beauty of a strong technical foundation is that you don't have to think about it when you perform, you can just be an artist. Before I started taking lessons, singing was very uncomfortable, and I would usually lose my voice by the end of a concert, and I often felt discouraged and wouldn't even bother making music. The greatest thing that has come from studying voice technique is that I am now able to bring my art to life
Another obvious change is that I have developed my operatic sound a lot more. Pop and Rock allow for a lot of leeway, and you can get away with grittier sounds and still sound idiomatic with what you are doing. With Opera, while you can still hurt yourself doing it, there's less room for poor technique. I love singing classical music, when I warm up with an "operatic" sound, I feel like I am taking vocal vitamins, and even if I go on stage and belt rock music, my throat feels more open, and I am breathing right, and being expressive starts to feel more natural
Corrine: Did you always take your classical voice training seriously? Was there a point in which it started to make more sense to you on the more grand scheme?
Jack: I definitely didn't take classical voice training seriously at first, in fact, I resisted it like the plague for a while. I didn't want anyone changing "my sound" and I certainly didn't want to sound like a snooty classical singer. My first classical voice teacher introduced me to Poulenc, Vaughann Williams, Schumann, Nathalie Stutzmann singing Brahms, and all of these things, and I found so much beauty and real expression in this music. After that it was just a matter of embracing that resonant sound which was foreign to me at that point. The more I imitated good classical singers, the easier it was to access the technical concepts I was being taught, and the more fun it was to explore this new universe of beautiful music. And when I discovered that, not only did my training not "ruin" my Rock/Pop sound, it also made it easier to sound how I wanted to in the first place, and also opened up worlds of new sounds I hadn't thought possible before. I guess that was when it started making more sense, when I realized that my classical training and rock singing could exist symbiotically.
Corrine: Do you feel as though your classical training changed the way you sing other genres?
Jack: Not stylistically, no. I think that classical training has improved my technique and stage deportment across the board, but I still sing Rock the way I'm supposed to. I remember being concerned at first that singing classical music would make me an "uncool" singer, but if anything, I can rock harder now.
Corrine: Is the way you support different or similar?
Jack: The support that you need in classical singing is the support that you need in ALL singing. The muscular training might be more intense for a classical singer, but the concept is the same.
Corrine: What about placement, modification and resonance?
Jack: Placement is pretty similar in both genres as well. The concept of "singing in the mask," is probably the second most cross-overable concept (behind support) that I have learned from classical singing. Pretty much everything I sing in the pop world lives right in the mask. The main difference between pop and classical singing, for me anyway, is that with classical singing I keep that same forward resonance, but with a lot more space in the back. The idea of modification is similar too, but I think in pop I have to modify about a third lower than in classical singing, which I think is because with pop music I am starting with much less space to begin with.
Corrine: Are there draw backs or limitations on your performance quality or conflicts within your classical singing due to your pop singing?
Jack: I actually do find it very difficult to go from singing rock music to then singing classical. I have to constantly remind myself to raise my soft palate, because classical singing requires so much more space.
Corrine: Inversely are there conflicts in your pop singing due to your classical training?
Jack: Nope! Classical singing has only helped my pop singing.
Corrine: Is vocal health an issue that should concern singers of all genres?
Jack: Absolutely, but it should be thought of from a mostly technical standpoint. Overall health and diet are important, of course, like it is for any person, but if you sing right, which is good exercise in and of itself, that is the best way to keep your voice healthy. I've noticed that freaking out about certain dietary details can lead to unnecessary tension/stress. Learn technique and then just live your life and sing, man! That said, I do drink massive amounts of water to counteract all the coffee and beer I drink, so I think being a little neurotic just comes with the territory, for better or worse.
Corrine: You mentioned before how as a pop artist recording and live performance quality varies so much more generally than with classical singers. Do you think there's too much emphasis on vocal recording quality now that live pop and rock vocal performances just can't live up?
Also - How much of this has to do with being trained or not trained to sing and sustain the support to sing and communicate effectively live?
Jack: I do think that there is an incredibly high standard for sound quality in the studio, and live concerts can't live up in the sense of pitch correction and things like that. However, I think the main problem with live performances has more to do with training and ability. I know that it is an epidemic in the Rock world that it is considered the norm if not fashionable to have a "natural" and untrained voice. I know that some vocalists in pop genres do seek training, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. I have heard too many singers whose records I admire sound God-awful live, which is a result of fatigue from singing with poor technique night after night. I have also heard other singers sound as good if not better in concert, so I know that it is possible. The main thing that I think young singers need to understand is that the goal of training your voice is not to change your style or to force you to conform to a sound that isn't true to you, but rather to learn how to do your own thing strongly and consistently.
Corrine: Most importantly, what's your favorite beer right now?
Jack: Rodenbach Grand Cru
Thanks, Jack! Pick up a copy of his album 'ROADS' HERE