Dear Jeffy (Go Ask Susie): Frontal Lobe

Advice on Vocals, Confidence & Band Names

You might remember that a few weeks ago, I asked everyone to share some questions about areas and situations in your life where you might need advice. As I said then, I planned to find a few that I felt like I had some solid advice for, and then ask my wife Susie to share her take as well. You you weren't just getting advice from a dummy.  

Well, the questions really poured in. So in an effort to more easily wrap our heads around the task of picking and choosing from all of the sincere requests for guidance—triage, if you will—we decided to group our responses together into a few categories.

So to start, we're sharing three queries that all relate to music and performing. Did Susie agree with the Captain? Does Susie even acknowledge that I've done anything to warrant the rank of Captain? Take a look below to see. The answers may surprise you.

This series will continue as long as we’re all enjoying it. But consider subscribing if you’d like to be an active participant. In the future, questions/comments will only be accepted from paying clients.

Ed asks: Hey Jeff and Susie! I’ve wanted to ask this question forever so thanks for the chance! Jeff, how did you work on expanding your vocal range? It’s quite a bit different to listen to your vocals on AM compared to more recent releases. It seems like you keep expanding your range even higher even as you get older. And you really use that higher range effectively for conveying vulnerability. How did you start expanding your range and how do you keep that upper range as you age while other singers lose some range? It’s sort of advice-related as I struggle myself to push my vocals higher. Thanks!  

Jeff: Hi Ed,

First of all, thank you for thinking of me as a singer with any type of vocal range. I wasn’t aware there were any of you out there. Seriously, I’m flattered.

The sad truth is I have no idea why my voice has changed the way it has. I do know that I feel much more in control of what comes out of my mouth when I open it these days than I did when I was, say, 25. The only explanation I have is that I’ve grown to have a comfort and familiarity with what I sound like over the years. So when I sing today, those feelings allow me to stay focused on what I’m trying to say instead of being overly concerned with the traditional criteria of “good” singing—pitch, note duration, whatnot.

So the only advice I feel strongly enough about to advocate for here would be to get comfortable with hearing yourself sing and make peace with the way your voice sounds. Then sing all the time. Actually, THAT’S the only real advice I have. Sing as loud and as often as you can, and everything else will work itself out.

Susie: Hi Ed, 

Susie here. I think Jeff’s advice is very good and I agree with everything he said. Whoa…that felt weird to say. I need a minute. 

I will just add a couple of points…

Jeff was practically a baby when AM was made. His frontal lobe was still developing, and probably his vocal cords were, too. #science 

Ok, not really science, but he really was still growing and maturing. He was kind of a late bloomer. Back then he didn’t even have chest hair yet, so…

Also, although Jeff didn’t use the word confidence above, it’s what he meant. He didn’t have very much of it way back when and that, along with his frontal lobe and vocal cords, grew a lot with age.

And finally, and this won’t apply to you Ed, but several years after AM came out, Jeff had to get sinus surgery. That surgery changed his voice A LOT. So while I definitely agree that his growing confidence has had a huge impact on his voice sounding so different...that surgery also changed something. 

That all being said…you are right, Ed. Jeff is old AF now and he doesn’t seem to be losing vocal range. Weird. 

Andy asks: When the pandemic first hit, I was an “essential worker” and my coping mechanism was songwriting. Especially after John Prine died, I felt like I desperately needed this outlet to make sense of an increasingly nonsensical world. So I wrote a ton…

Cut forward to a little over a year later…bars and clubs were reopening and I had the idea that I wanted to share a couple of songs at an open mic. I approached the owner of one of my favorite small venues that happened to host a sort of open mic format and asked him if I could play. He enthusiastically said yes and I practiced for the night.

The problem was, I woefully underestimated the condition of my guitar. I was ready. It was not. My performance was disastrous. Try as I might, my guitar would not stay in tune and my confidence plummeted.

I’ve since been back to said bar, but I can’t help think about that terrible letdown of a night every time I walk in. And though I still write songs, it’s been harder to connect to the process like I did before. It felt like I tarnished something personal and pure.

So my question to you -- and please go ask Susie too -- is how do I move forward? I’ve since gotten my guitar fixed and it sounds beautiful, but do I dare ask the owner if I can play again? He’s a cool musician type and I felt slightly intimidated before, but now I’m mortified by the thought of asking. But part of me wants to be like, maybe it’d be healthy to play it the way I wanted. Or do I try again first somewhere else? But honestly, before I share with anyone again, I’d just like to feel okay about what happened. How have you gotten over the disappointment of a gig you wanted to go so well, but didn’t?

Jeff: Hi Andy,

Trust me on this, bad shows suck but they are only very rarely fatal. I’ve had enough bad shows now that it’s pretty easy to remind myself of that fact.

Which leads me to my advice. I’d try not put so much weight on performing as a validation for the part of you that found your creative side to be a source of consolation during a difficult time. To me that’s way more helpful to you in the long run than having command of any stage.

That being said, if you can find a way to separate the two impulses a little more you might find a better balance. Performing is difficult for a lot of people and there have been many great songwriters who never found any comfort on the stage. And while I definitely recommend getting back on the proverbial horse, I’d also caution against putting too much weight on turning yourself into a performer overnight. It takes time. It takes a lot of “bad" gigs and then a bunch of “ok” gigs and then maybe a “Gee! I didn’t know I could do that!” kind of gig before you'll really know if performing is the type of thing that brings you any real joy. Keep writing regardless. 

Susie: Hi Andy, 

Listen, stuff like that happens all the time. And my guess is that it bothered you wayyyyyyyy more than it bothered anyone else. People understand that shit happens. And they also don’t even remember it later!

I know it’s easier said than done, but you should try and forget about that gig, and just move on and do it again. Also, there is something actually endearing about mistakes and problems on stage. People love when Jeff messes up. I don’t even know how to explain it, but it feels very human and like a bonding experience to all go through it together.

But Jeff is right (ew)…try not to put so much pressure on yourself!  

Sam asks: Hi Jeff, I need a name for my new band as all the ones I’ve come up with so far are rubbish. Can you help me please?

Jeff: Here are three: More or Less, Fort Sam, The Tryangles (I looked it up, there already was an Aussie band Triangles with an ‘I”).

Susie: Dear Sam, 

These are not good. Don’t listen to Jeff.