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.

How To Mix Vocals: A Guide For DIY Musicians

Mixing — it sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it? That’s always something I’ve left to the professionals. But the truth is, you can’t always afford the professionals.

That’s why learning how to mix vocals is an important skill to have as a DIY singer or musician.

how to mix vocals

After reading some articles, watching a crap ton of YouTube videos, and pulling from my (minimal) experience, here’s what I’ve found to be some great tips for DIY musicians.

Before you mix, you have to get a really good recording of your voice. You can’t just “fix it in the mix,” as inexperienced artists say.

RELATED: 3 Of The Best (And Cheapest) Microphones For Home Recording

After you’ve gotten the best possible sound in the recording studio (or bedroom, basement, garage, etc.), you’ll enter the mixing phase. This is when you need to know when, if at all, to process your vocal sound.

Professional engineers know exactly how to mix vocals for the perfect sound, both in quality and in context of the song. And chances are, you’re not a pro engineer (or you wouldn’t be reading this article). But, thanks to some killer plugins for the current DAWs (digital audio workstations), you can get pretty close to pro level quality.

RELATED: My favorite (cheap) recording programs

When you mix instruments, you typically start with EQ and compression (in that order). Unless you have a really good preamp, you’ll want to start with EQ when mixing your vocals — it is an instrument after all! One thing I do is start with a plugins’ presets and modify the EQ from there to fit my liking.

In terms of compression on your vocals, if you’re recording jazz, folk, or classical music, experts say you should skip the compression. For pop and rock music, start by using 2-4 dB of compressions and a slow attack — this will help keep the natural sound of your voice.

After EQ and compression, you may want to consider these additional effects:

  • A parametric EQ (helps cut unneeded frequencies and make others pop)
  • More than one compressor
  • A de-esser (neutralizes mouth sounds like “s”, “z” and “sh”)
  • Multiple types of delays (with different lengths for different parts of the song)
  • Reverb

Ultimately, it comes down to your keen ear. As you work with EQ, compression, and these other effects, adjust the settings until it sounds good to you.

You’re in charge — you’re the DIY musician. The mix isn’t finished until you say it is.

Stay motivated, manage your time, and move toward your picture of success — grab the One-Thing-A-Day chart for FREE…

A version of this article was first published in iSing Magazine

My Neighbor Said I Sound Like “A F#*@ing Dying Cat” And I Still Didn’t Quit

One day I was sitting on my porch jamming on my guitar and singing. But apparently I sounded like a dying feline.

Caleb J. Murphy music
photo credit: Touchfaster

It was a beautiful day, so I was enjoying the freedom I had to sit on my porch and make music. I don’t remember the song I was playing, but I do remember it was in my upper register.

For those of you who sing, you know that the higher the note is, the louder your voice tends to get.

As I played and sang, I saw my neighbor stick his head out from around the bushes that separated our houses (about 25 yards away). I stopped playing, waved and smiled. He quickly waved and disappeared behind the bushes.

I didn’t think anything of it and continued playing guitar and singing.

Maybe 15 minutes later, I was helping this neighbor and his wife, both in their 60s or 70s, load something out of their car.

“Was that you over there?” my neighbor asked me, as the three of us stood at the trunk of their car.

“Yeah,” I said with a smile, waiting for the compliments to rain down upon my head.

“Oh, I was wondering what that was,” he said with a smirk. “It sounded like a f#*@ing dying cat.”

His wife hit him in the arm and gave me some reassuring words.

But I wasn’t bothered by it.

“I could come over and play for you sometime,” I said, returning his smirk with my own.

This is a true story. And look, I didn’t give up on music.

My point is, you have to learn how to take criticism — both constructive and destructive — without letting it crush you. If you want to get better as a songwriter, guitar player, singer, or whatever, you have to build up a thick skin and look at things realistically.

Even if people say you sound like a f#*@ing dying cat.

RELATED: Dear Musician, Watch A Video Of Yourself Performing


Dear Musician, Watch A Video Of Yourself Performing

I promise I don’t sit around watching videos of myself performing. 

But sometimes the videos just end up in front of my face. And I don’t regret it.

My wife and I recently held a fundraising event for our adoption fund — we had an art auction and my band and I played the music. The weather was perfect, we had a nice sound system and a helpful sound guy, tons of people came, and there were no glaring issues.

But then my wife showed me a video of us performing my song “Play A Little.” And, man, my voice was so flat.

I’m not looking for reassuring compliments and I’m not being fakely humble. I actually hear the flatness in a lot of my notes.

This is a common occurrence after I play a show — someone will post a video of us playing, I’ll watch it, and quickly turn it off when I hear how off my voice gets at points.

For example, at this concert, we jumped into the bridge of “Be Like Friends,” and the note I hit was WAY off. I couldn’t find the right melody, so I said, “Let’s just skip this part of the song,” and we moved on to the verse as people laughed.

Now, some people might think watching a video of yourself is egotistical, and they’d be right — it can be. But it might not be. It depends on your motive. Ask yourself: why am I watching this video of myself?

For me, I wouldn’t know how to improve my singing, stage presence, or guitar playing if I don’t look at things realistically.

And that’s what videos provide — a dose of reality.

RELATED: As A Musician, Stage Presence Is Crucial

If I hadn’t seen this video (or the many videos before this one), I would go on thinking my voice sounded flawless and that we just put on the most amazing performance that people will be talking about for years, telling their children and grandchildren about the time they saw Caleb J. Murphy the Great.


That’s why musicians (like me) should watch videos of themselves performing. Not to build their ego but to break down their often false perception of themselves.

That way, they can begin to rebuild, strengthening their performance skills.