3 Ways Nina Simone Was Unique (And What She Can Teach Us)

It might be stupid to ask, “What was so special about Nina Simone?”

DIY musician tips
Nina Simone (photo via NPR)

The real question is, “What wasn’t special about her?”

But just to set the record straight, here are the three main reasons why Simone stood out and was a tidal wave of influence in the music industry and society as a whole.

Her unique tone

That full, strong voice that could jump an octave and still keep a rapid vibrato — that’s really what made Nina Simone special. It’s what made her stand out among her peers. No one had a voice like her, and we won’t hear another voice like hers for a long time.

And she wasn’t just born with an amazing voice — she worked hard.

She attended Juilliard School of Music in New York (she dropped out for financial reasons). She practiced, and that practice led to her timeless voice.

She was a Civil Rights singer

Simone wasn’t just a singer, she was a Civil Rights singer. She became known as the voice of the Civil Rights Movement in the music world.

Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was in direct response to the 1963 assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans and the bombing at the Birmingham church.

And after the 1968 murder of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Simone’s bassist wrote “Why (The King of Love Is Dead)” and Simone performed it with her band at the Westbury Music Festival.

These are only a couple examples of how she was a voice for a lot of African-American folks in the 50s and 60s.

She was versatile

Not only did she have great vocal range, but she sang more than just one genre of music as a lot of singers often do.

She could sing jazz, blues, and folk music, even covering Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun.”

But in everything she did, her classical training shined through.

But still, people saw her as a soul singer, often calling her the “High Priestess of Soul,” even though she hated that nickname.

“If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing,” she wrote in her autobiography, according to Biography.com.

Simone is someone every aspiring singer should study.

What can DIY musicians learn from her?

This: if you want to be good, you gotta learn your craft, practice a ton, stand for something good, and be open to different types of music.


I first wrote a version of this article for iSing Magazine.

Bob Dylan Is Not His Real Name (And Why That Matters To Musicians)

Just like a Russian spy, Bob Dylan is not his real name. It’s just an alias.

Bob Dylan aka Robert Zimmerman
Bob Dylan aka Robert Zimmerman (photo via GQ.com)

Early on in his career, Robert Zimmerman (later to be called Dylan) introduced himself as Elston Gunn at concerts. But in his autobiography, Chronicles, he said that name was just temporary.

Once he left his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, he was going to call himself Robert Allen, saying “that was who I was.”

But then he decided he liked the spelling Allyn better. Then he saw some poems by Dylan Thomas and thought the name Robert Dylan would be cool.

So he ended up at a crossroads, trying to decide between Robert Allyn, Robert Dylan, Bob Allyn, or Bob Dylan.

His sub-conscience made the decision for him.

“The first time I was asked my name in the Twin Cities, I instinctively and automatically without thinking simply said, ‘Bob Dylan,’” he writes. “Now, I had to get used to people calling me Bob. I’d never been called that before, and it took me some time to respond to people who called me that.”

But it stuck. And it worked out for him.

In 2004, a 60 Minutes interviewer asked him why he changed his name in the first place. His answer was so Dylan-esque.

“Some people — you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents,” Dylan said. “I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

The moral of this story: put a lot of thought into your stage name or band name, but ultimately, it’ll come down to your gut feeling.

For example, when my bandmates and I were trying to decide on a name, some of the “options” included Shark Farts, The Immediate Regret, and other terrible ideas that I’m too embarrassed to type.

Fortunately, I went with my gut and chose Caleb J. Murphy and The Bright Future.

 


I originally wrote a version of this article for Crazy4Rock

How To Get Better At Songwriting

For those of us who love songwriting, we find it frustrating. Sometimes it’s just the worst.

Songwriting
How songwriting feels sometimes

It’s difficult, but practice is what makes us better at spitting rhymes and stringing together melodies.

Professional lyric and songwriters didn’t start there — they, like a lot of us, started as amateurs. So with that in mind, here are four tips on how to become a pro at writing song lyrics.

Study The Pros

Songwriting
Leonard Cohen

The greats learned from the greats, and so should you. Study the best of the best, print off their lyrics, break down their phrasing, rhyming, imagery, and storytelling. Use their techniques.

Some pros you could start studying are Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and John Lennon — these guys knew how to put words together in a beautiful way.

It’s time to become a student again and stay one until you’re done writing songs (which should be never).

Copy The Pros

Songwriting
Bob Dylan

Austin Kleon is an artist and author who wrote a book called Steal Like An Artist. The whole idea of the book is to take ideas from others (i.e. the pros), add your own spice, and create something of your own.

For example, if you, just for fun, rewrite “Like A Rolling Stone” by Dylan, you’ll get a better feel for how he structures his words, how he describes things, and his storytelling process.

Then jot down what you’ve learned and try using the same methods on your own song.

Be Consistent Like The Pros

Songwriting
Paul Simon

Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling, deep-thinking author who does meticulous journalistic research, writes in his book Outliers  that “ten thousand hours [of practice] is the magic number of greatness.”

He cites Bill Gates, who started coding as a teenager, and The Beatles, who played an extremely high number of gigs before becoming stars in the States.

The point is, practice songwriting like heck. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. You’re not born amazing, you have to earn it.

RELATED: How To Write A Song In 5 Simple Steps

Re-write

Songwriting
Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway writes in his book A Moveable Feast, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” And, boy, that’s true.

The first thing you put down on paper is not always the best. The first draft is almost never the last. Rewriting your lyrics is part of the songwriting process.


I first wrote a version of this article for iSing Magazine