Nirvana is one of the most iconic acts in rock and roll history. The band’s unique blend of raging riffs and vulnerable lyrics saw them sell millions of albums and play to fans around the world.
Frontman Kurt Cobain’s intense and volatile voice is almost instantly recognizable when heard and many singers aspire to mimic his powerful vocal delivery. There are a few key elements to Cobain’s voice.
In today’s article, I’m going to share some insights about his vocal techniques so that you can get as close as possible to singing like Kurt Cobain.
Preparing the Voice
It’s very important to understand that it is practically impossible to sound exactly like another singer. Trying to emulate some of Kurt’s tricky vocal habits can be too intense for some and may cause injury or strain. Here are few tips to make sure your voice stays in check:
- Get into a routine of doing daily vocal warmups and exercises before doing any strenuous singing. The voice is a muscle and training will ensure that you lower the risk of injury.
- Keep your larynx well lubricated with water or tea. Dry vocal cords have a higher chance of straining when used incorrectly.
- Record audio or video of yourself singing. Our voice sounds different to us when played back through speakers. Listening to yourself sing will give you a fresh perspective on how your voice sounds, and what your habits are.
The Vocal Fry
What most like people in Kurt’s vocals is the scratchiness that sits on top of his voice. Even when singing considerably relaxed and lower notes, he still manages to give his vocal a creaky nature that makes it sound kind of broken.
You can hear various versions of his scratchy tones in songs like “You Know You’re Right” and “Heart-Shaped Box”.
Most vocal trainers refer to this technique as vocal frying. The technique is quite commonly used by heavy metal vocalists like Avenged Sevenfold. As the name suggests, the idea is to take your regular singing voice and add a “fry” or distortion to the top end.
Building the Base
A vocal fry begins with finding your regular singing voice. Sing a phrase with long vowels and try to pay attention to the texture of your voice when sustaining the vowels.
Keep most of the focus on projecting your voice up and outward from your diaphragm. Establish a comfortable base with your voice and understand how your diaphragm acts to support this type of projection.
Repeat your phrase a few times and sing slightly slower with each repetition. You want to imagine the vowels being slowly pulled apart like an elastic band.
The frying element takes place in your nasal area. Try to move the core of your vocal projection from your chest and up through your nasal cavity. You want to try and emulate the sound of a cat’s extended meow, reaching up into your higher register as you do so.
Lift your cheekbones as you let your voice exit through your nasal passage and mouth. Try to discern the difference between how your voice sounds coming from your chest and how it sounds when you move it up into the nasal area.
Once you’ve established the balance between your chest voice and nasal voice, you’ll need to practice switching from one to the other, as well as blending them together to create the fry that made Kurt’s vocal so striking.
While many vocalists try to add extra distortion or ‘’fry’’ as they increase volume, this is one of the common causes of vocal strain. Instead, consider that your fry should remain somewhat consistent regardless of your change in volume level.
Your chest voice will determine your vocal’s overall power, but the nasal area can add different characteristics and tones with practice.
Singing with Feeling
Finally, remember that Kurt used emotion alongside a lot of his vocal habits. One of his most memorable examples is the irreplaceable “Smells Like Teen Spirit” where you can hear Cobain’s anger and frustrations with the world and the record industry.
The voice is most powerful when it is sincere. If you understand where to reach from in your emotional spectrum when singing, it will make you a much more effective and powerful vocalist.
Your vocal fry may not give you the exact delivery that Kurt has, but it’s crucial to remember that you probably don’t have an identical voice to Cobain’s. When trying to sing Nirvana songs, try to engage (you can also check out my article on singing with soul) and sustain your vocal fry along with Kurt instead of trying to sculpt your voice into his.
While the world may never have the pleasure of seeing or hearing another Kurt Cobain, we are so lucky to still have access to his life-changing body of work to learn from and enjoy.
It’s important to remember that Kurt Cobain tried his best to be true to himself as an artist, and I encourage the very same thing for you. Take care and have fun singing!