Carlyn Bezic (Jane Inc.) and Evan J. Cartwright (Cola) on How They Use Their Voices

A deep-diving conversation about Madonna, a Tim Hortons commercial, and the craft of singing.

Carlyn Bezic is a Toronto-based artist who performs as Jane Inc; Evan J. Cartwright is a Toronto-based drummer who plays in Cola and has worked with artists like The Weather Station and Brodie West. The two have worked together as members of U.S. Girls, and each now have solo albums forthcoming — Jane Inc’s Faster Than I Can Take is out this Friday on Telephone Explosion and Evan’s bit by bit was just released last week by Idée Fixe Records. To celebrate, the two sat down to explore their approaches to singing as a craft.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Carlyn Bezic: How are you?

Evan J. Cartwright: Good, How are you doing?

Carlyn: Good. 

Evan: Where are you? Your apartment.

Carlyn: I’m at home, yeah. I went to the dentist this morning.

Evan: I went to the dentist the other day, too!

Carlyn: It’s an important thing to do! And I was thinking about thing we’re talking about today — the voice — because when I came home, a little bit before we started this call, I was just singing. You know, just singing in my house, not in any serious way. And I felt like my range was so much bigger than normal, and I was like, I wonder if this is because I spent two hours stretching my mouth open this morning?

Evan: [Laughs.] Yeah, big mouth equals big range.

Carlyn: But it’s true! And I grind my teeth, so I think I have really tight mouth muscles. So I found these stretches on YouTube to help with teeth grinding, and whenever I do them I can feel the resonance in my voice is so much deeper and fuller. It’s crazy.

Evan: Hm. I also grind my teeth, and another funny thing is, I have a very big mouth — like in the literal sense. And I saw this dentist, and when I opened my mouth, he was like, “Wow.” He was impressed with how big my mouth was.

Carlyn: [Laughs.] That’s crazy. You don’t live in my mind as a big mouth person.

Evan: [Laughs.] Oh, I just have never shown you. But my vocal range isn’t actually that big. So Carlyn, I might be kind of squishing your hypothesis here.

Carlyn: Damn, OK. Big mouth: good for eating a club sandwich, actually doesn’t matter for singing.

Evan: But maybe the stretches you were doing really were like the secret sauce.

Carlyn: Yeah. I mean, I wonder how dependent it is on the bones of your face, because sometimes I feel like I’ve had a weird pet theory in my mind that certain facial types end up being better singers in certain ways. Like when you see a face like Dionne Warwick’s, how she has these very high cheekbones and this sort of specifically-placed nose. And Joni Mitchell kind of has a face like that.

Evan: It makes sense, because I feel like the vocal tone is all about the resonant frequency, and bone structure would be the shape of the resonant cavity. Right? This is just wild science we’re talking about. [Laughs.] 

Carlyn: Yeah. I guess it’s also kind of superstition. I heard Freddie Mercury never wanted to change his teeth because he felt like it was the key to his voice being the way it was. Or Lady Gaga never wanted to get a nose job, which I guess people were expecting her to get for some reason.

Evan: I wonder if you have this experience, on the topic of teeth and singing: Sometimes when I’m singing, I hit a note that is the resonant frequency of a filling in my tooth, and I feel the filling vibrate. 

Carlyn: Woah!

Evan: It’s not a nice feeling.

Carlyn: Wow, crazy. That’s never happened to me with a filling, but there are certain notes that I can feel the vibration in my nose and sinus area really intensely. I wanted to ask you, too, because you have a very specific way of singing — maybe I’m just drawing conclusions because you’re a drummer, but it feels very percussive to me. I wonder if the way you sing feels like an extension of your drumming?

Evan: Yeah, I think you’re onto something. There were a bunch of years where I was practicing this kind of drumming thing along to a drone and trying to sing these notes right as I would hit the drum, so it would be be in tune with the drone.

Carlyn: Just as a self-made practicing tool, or was this something that you learned from somewhere?

Evan: Well, I learned the drumming part from a few drum teachers, which they were like, “Look, you need to practice playing very slowly.” And so that was my drumming practice for a bunch of years, and when you practice really slowly, there are these long spaces, and I thought I should learn to fill that with a tone from my voice. Just to be even more mindful, maybe, of the space, because I need to not only regulate the time, but then also kind of regulate tone in that time. Somehow, I just made sense to me as a good extension of the exercise.

Carlyn: Interesting. In the little press release that you had with your album when you sent it to me, it talked about your voice being like a trumpet on your album and that felt pretty spot on to me. The voice is a wind instrument, I guess, and a trumpet is a very specific sounding wind instrument. You sit on the tone in a very definitive way— you don’t have a lot of vibrato and you don’t tend to extend vocal lines. You’re kind of really placing the words into the song. Does that makes sense? 

Evan: Yeah, that sounds like how I do it. I definitely often think about drums and the voice a lot. For instance, let’s talk hand drums — or a drum where you’re kind of beating the drum and you’re not hearing the fundamental note ring out, and then an open stroke where you’re hearing the fundamental note ring out, and you’re also hearing the high end attack of hitting the drum. That’s just like the difference between certain consonants in human language. Like the difference between an S sound and a Z sound is really just that you’re activating your vocal cords, right? With the Z sound, you activate your vocal cords, with the S sound, you’re doing the exact same thing with your whole mouth only there’s no chord activation. 

So I think about that all the time with drums. Depending how close to the rim you’re hitting the drum, the higher the frequencial information in the note is. It’s kind of like with the consonants that we do way in the back of our throat — like the K sound is a bit further back than that S sound. The K sound is a lot lower, the sound is so much brighter, higher in frequency. And drums just have that with how close to the center you’re playing. 

Carlyn: Wow, that’s so interesting. That’s also clarifying some vocal warm ups and exercises that I do for getting really high notes. If you don’t want to strain, to warm up with a “guh” sound makes it easier to kind of shoot it from the back of your throat or something.

But it also makes me think of this thing that my sister told me the other day. She went to theater school, and when they would prepare to do an emotional scene, you would read Shakespeare’s sonnets that used a lot of “ooh” sounds. He purposefully wrote into these sonnets, when someone is experiencing a lot of sadness, emotion, being really forlorn or longing, a lot of “ooh words.” And then if someone is plotting or if there’s a lot of information coming out, they’re sort of thickening the plot, it’s a lot of hard consonants.

That kind of blew my mind, because I think about how when I’m writing, before the lyrics come, I sometimes have a rhyme scheme that feels natural — like I’m just singing a melody, and I know that I want it to end in “ooh” or something, and then I usually try to fit the words into that. When she told me that I was like, Oh shit, maybe I’m tapping into some essential, emotive quality to different consonants, different ways of opening your mouth.

Evan: That’s fascinating. All I can think about is how if “ooh” evokes sadness, no wonder we say, “boo hoo.” 

Carlyn: Yeah, that’s Shakespeare’s famous sonnet, “Boo hoo, I have boo boo.” [Laughs.]  “You doth gave me boo boo.”

Evan: [Laughs.] I think that’s cool. I’m going to try and make some little observations about what vowel sounds I’m leaning on. I wonder if you did the same, we could compare notes.

Carlyn: Yeah, sometimes I think it’s also like, some vowel sounds are just easier to sing, so you’re more inclined to choose something like that.

Evan: Something else I was really wanting to share in this talk is that, something that really, really excites me is recognizing someone’s voice. It’s so much different from recognizing a face. Like if you’ve met someone before and then you see their face, you’re like, Oh yeah, it’s that person. But say you were to be at the dentist’s office and you could hear another patient in another cubicle and you were like, Oh, my god, that’s this person I know. I would feel so excited to recognize them by their voice. I don’t know if you share that at all. 

Carlyn: It’s interesting that you bring it up because right before this phone call, I was reminded of when I was a teenager — my mom is an actor and I came home from school and turned on the TV, and a Tim Hortons commercial came on and it was my mom doing the voiceover. And so it was my mom’s voice, and she was going, “Apple turnovers, apple fritters — and even apple cookies!” It was unsettling. It was bizarre because it was so distinctively her voice. And I think your mother’s voice is probably the voice you would recognize the most immediately, but she was putting on a sort of a commercial voice talking about desserts.

Evan: [Laughs.] Oh my gosh.

Carlyn: I’m pretty good at recognizing a voice in an animated film or something. I can usually place it after a little bit. I watched an interview with Dan Castellaneta, the guy who voices Homer Simpson — and The Simpsons basically raised me, they’re so deeply embedded in the way I talked and my sense of humor. Hearing him speak, it was like the rhythm and the cadence was so exactly Homer, but it was some other guy talking. It was interesting how you could immediately recognize him as the person who voices Homer, but it’s not like Homer Simpson’s voice. And then also on top of that, how I recognize in myself and my brother and sister — we employ those same rhythms when we’re talking. 

It’s actually kind of blowing my mind right now, because I’m also thinking about the voice as an instrument, but also the voice as an instrument that’s so deeply connected with your emotional self, and in a way like it’s also so deeply symbolic. I was thinking about how, kind of around the time that we were doing a lot of practicing for the U.S. Girls shows, I felt as if I unlocked something in my voice. Which I knew came partially just from practicing so much, and practicing together, which I hadn’t spent much time singing with a group of people and you have to really tune your ear in a specific way to do that. But I also felt like that was a time when I had kind of broken open some things in therapy, and it was like I was able to access my physical voice as I was accessing my symbolic voice, or my artistic voice. I’m kind of jumping all over here, but are you picking up what I’m throwing down?

Evan: Yeah, I’m picking it right up. I’m really on on board with that analysis. There’s a real connection between our voice and what we do with our voice and emotionally what’s going on with us. When we have maybe a blockage or something, some way that we’ve limited ourselves emotionally, the same limitation kind of exists in our in our voice. If we haven’t learned to name a certain emotion that we deal with in our bodies, similarly, it might be because of the fact that we haven’t found a certain sound in our voice. 

I hate to sound like a hippie or something, but clearly, there’s a lot of information in vibration. Depending on the range of frequency, or the sound wave or the type of wave, maybe electromagnetic, that’s kind of a language that our body as an organism uses to communicate with itself. It feels like everything except our nose, the language it uses is just one of vibration and frequency. So it really makes sense to me that learning how to hit a certain note, the vibrational information that we’re inputting, the brain might take that information and use it in a whole new way. 

Carlyn: Yeah. I often feel self-conscious and worried that I can be too easily seduced by like, quote-unquote “hippie shit,” but I also just did this dream workshop, if you want to talk about some hippie shit that rocks. It’s sort of like somatic work, like body work, and at the beginning of every session you’re lying down and you put on a drone and you just kind of make open vowel sounds, whatever feels good. The person who was running the workshop was like, “I really encourage you to start every day making some open vowel sounds.” And there’s something about activating that sort of non-verbal but still communicative and symbolic aspect of yourself that does actually unlock something. I’m putting it in print to just say to everyone, you should start your day making open vowel sounds, because honestly, it’s helpful. [Laughs.] You’ll find your voice. I mean, not that I feel like I’ve found mine, actually. It’s an ongoing process.

Evan: While we’re preaching to the masses, I gotta encourage everybody also to find someone to harmonize with. 

Carlyn: True! That’s interesting that you bring that up, because I feel like that is something that was particularly special about  those U.S. Girls, practices. When I think back on it, I get a little stab of pain — I’m just like, Oh, I wish we could have just kept singing for a million more shows. Because that was so transformative and educational in this way that I have a hard time articulating, but I felt like it unlocked some stuff for me. 

Evan: I feel the same way.

Carlyn: Do you like your voice?

Evan: [Laughs.] I mean, short answer, no. But I’m very grateful to have it.

Carlyn: That’s also a good sentiment. Same. It feels so good to sing, but it’s such a bizarre experience hearing yourself recorded back. It’s very easy to zero in on all the problems, or feel like you’re being pitchy when you’re not, or feel like you’re being pitchy and it’s bad when actually maybe the pitchiness adds a kind of warm human element to whatever you’re doing. I guess I also just wish I had a bigger range, you know, because sometimes I hear things in my head that I want to do — and this is with like every instrument — but then you’re forced to contend with your own limitations.

Evan: In the dentist’s office — I wish I could remember the artist, but it was some late ‘80s pop singer, and I was sitting there getting this work done and I was like, Oh, wow, this is pretty pitchy in a way that you just do not hear in pop music right now. They’ve gotten so good with the Auto-Tune algorithm that you don’t hear it like you used to, like slotting into place. Nowadays, you don’t hear pop music where somebody’s not perfectly in tune. But this was kind of pitchy, and that’s what made it just so good. I was sitting there, with my huge mouth open, being like, Why don’t we hear pop music like this anymore where it’s a little more raw? I hate to be the guy who’s like, “They don’t make it like they used to!”

Carlyn: No, I get it. A person I think about, and who I was listening to a lot of when I was making Faster Than I Could Take, is Madonna. Partially because she went through the sort of “Ray of Light” phase, or “Don’t Tell Me,” where her vocals are so dry. It’s such an amazing sound and I really wanted to do that in most of Faster. But then another thing I think a lot about Madonna is that she’s really not an amazing singer, and I just fucking love that. I saw Truth or Dare for the first time, and there’s this clip in it where she’s talking to her dancers on tour and she’s like, “Sometimes when I go back to my hotel room and I’m alone, I’m just picturing you guys talking in the other room being like, ‘Who did this bitch think she is? She’s not the best singer. She’s not the best dancer. Why does she have this massive world tour?’ And I was like, Man, relatable, but also Big Diva Energy at the same time. It was just so inspiring to me.

Evan: I love that.

Carlyn: That’s sometimes how it feels when you sing. I think if you’re an artist or if you’re a creative person, you have this deep need to express yourself and make the world hear your voice. But then I think I’m also always constantly being like, Everyone is wondering who this bitch thinks she is. [Laughs.] Which I guess is also why the voice can be so powerful, because it’s just deeply vulnerable. You’re expressing this need while also just putting yourself out there.

Evan: Yeah. Why is the voice more vulnerable than the face? I think this might tie into my weird thing about loving recognizing people for their voice. 

Carlyn: Well, one thing I was thinking about when I was thinking about hearing my mom’s voice in that commercial was that it felt like when you smell something that triggers a memory, or a sense that reminds you of someone. There’s something maybe about sound and music that can trigger memory, so in that way, it kind of can hit harder. Because I can still hear a song that I was obsessed with 10 years ago, and it brings you right back to that spot you were when you were obsessed with it. I wonder if there’s something related there.

(Photo Credit: right, Collin Medley)

Jane Inc is the project of Carlyn Bezic (US Girls). Her record Faster Than I Can Take is out April 22, 2022 on Telephone Explosion.