This post is one for all you singer-songwriters out there.
Whether or not you're a regular performer and even if when you write your songs, you put your whole heart and soul into them, there comes a time when you're playing live and you're just not in the right headspace to be expressing what the song needs to say. Maybe you're on tour, and the last thing you want to be thinking about was that hard breakup, when you've been underfed and under-rested for the past two weeks. Or maybe you've been sick with a fever but you just can't give up the opportunity to play that career-making gig. Either way, there's some cheats to get around this, and make the song sound (roughly) as meaningful as if you'd written it yesterday. And this is what you've gotta do:
1. Change or specify the meaning.
What I mean by this, is you need to actively take a seat and write down what you can make the song about. You don't want to do this all the time, but if the song is about something that's too outdated, painful, generalised or silly for you to get the vibe of on stage, you need to make the song be about something else, that you can identify with easily. Make a note, draw a picture, do whatever you gotta do. When you're on stage, having something specific to express is pretty vital.
2. Map out your song.
Now if you're like me, this might feel a bit silly, but I guarantee you it will make your performance come out 100% better. First thing to do is print off or write down your lyrics, so you've got something to look at. Now, pretend that you're communicating the song's sentiment to someone and literally read the lyrics aloud. That's right, in your speaking voice.
Now there's certain things to be garnered from this exercise. One is that your voice's natural prosody has a lot of clues in it. Prosody is just the way your voice rises and falls (intonation), the way it emphasises certain words (dynamic), and the speed at which you say certain phrases (rhythm). Your speaking voice is already very musical.
Now if there are certain words or phrases that you emphasise more than others, underline them. Likewise, if there are any noteable changes in intonation or rhythm in your speech, make a note of them too. This is your performance cheat sheet. If you can add some or all of these spoken elements to your song's melody, then your voice will sound like you mean it. Even if you're playing to an audience of 5 in a city you hate with a drunk hooligan trying to storm the stage, your voice will still retain all the hallmarks of meaningful communication.
It's some extra homework, but the results are definitely worth it. I also recommend this technique if you're recording take after take and are feeling like the results are a little lackluster. Try it out and let me know how it goes!