Mish Way (White Lung) Talks Losing Your Voice

After a disastrous set at the Pitchfork Festival, a punk rocker learns to respect her instrument.

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I remember Pitchfork festival last year.

It was our night show, an afterparty at Bottom Lounge. I knew my voice was feeling bad. During our show that day, I had barely made it through the set.

My voice had been feeling bad for months. What was my solution? To do as many lines and drink as much whiskey as possible. That would solve it. Occasionally (when airport security didn’t take it away), I would drink an entire bottle of Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, a Chinese herbal cough syrup made for excessive talkers and smokers, before our set and switch from whiskey to vodka because my friend had told me an old wives’ tale that it would work.

My delusional attempt at a quick fix was a failure. In the Chicago dressing room, I painted my face pale green with the side of my Clique concealer stick meant for masking blemishes, then I wrapped a scarf around my head and went on stage and played the worst set of my life.

“This is bullshit,” I screamed into my microphone halfway through, high and so hoarse I could barely get the words out. “You know what losing your voice is like? It’s like, I want to fuck you, but I’m too coked out to get a boner. I feel inadequate. I feel like half a person.”

My band played on and I “sang” when I could. Or a version of “singing,” or whatever pathetic noises were coming out my mouth. The crowd didn’t seem to notice. They didn’t seem to care, but I was so angry, it was taking all my focus not to kick over the drum kit and smash every bottle on the stage. I was mad at myself. I have one job to do on stage, one very, very easy job, and I couldn’t even handle that.

This is the thing about being a “lead, lead singer”: you have the best job in the world. All you have to do is get up there, let yourself go and belt it out. If you don’t have a guitar on you holding you back, you have no restrictions. They’re your songs. You can change the words or the notes and no one (not even a snobby critic) can say you didn’t complete your job — because you wrote the thing, you created it. It’s yours to fuck up if you please. However, because this is your job, you have to provide. Your voice is gone? What else do you have? Nothing.

And the voice is unpredictable. It changes because of the slightest things, like recycled, dirty air on the plane or climate changes or a long night of talking over bar noise. It fails with an allergy attack or one too many cigarettes.  And guess what? You still have to play. There comes a time when you have to be responsible and realize this is what you are paid to do and you should take that seriously.

Recently, in Toronto, I asked the crowd if they were getting their money’s worth. They made a bunch of noise. I was half-kidding, but I do think about this when I’m on stage: Am I doing my job? It’s not so much a thought I have while I’m in it, but when I’m done or when things start to feel like shit. When I feel like I’m phoning it in. I never want to phone it in but sometimes the energy is off. Satan isn’t there or whatever.

After the Pitchfork nightmare, I was ashamed and pissed off. I went home and had a break before the next chunk of tour dates, so instead of wallowing in a solo pity party, I decided to do something about my voice. I went to see my throat doctor.

I hadn’t seen him since he operated on my vocal chords almost ten years previous. When I was 18 years old, the doctor stuck his camera down my throat and discovered I had Freddy Mercury disease. (No, not AIDS.) I had nodules. So he cut the nodules off with a quick surgery and I woke up like the Little Mermaid after Ursula took her voice in exchange for legs: mute. I remained that way for a week and then slowly learned how to sing and speak properly again.

The doctor found a nodule this time too, but now he said I could heal it with vocal therapy and coaching instead of surgery. Surgery (like cortisone injections or any other quick-fix vocal procedures) strips away at the vocal chords and makes them weaker in the future. Just like mental health issues, it’s always better to fix them with therapy than with a cocktail of pills, but we all can’t always afford this. Money and time get in the way.

But I had time and a bit of money and I was determined to never feel that awful coke-dick inadequacy in front of a crowd ever again. My doctor introduced me to a vocal coach whom I worked with for a month straight.  My vocal coach made me a list of exercises to do every day and I stuck to them religiously. It was surprising how quickly my voice recovered. By the time we went on tour again, I felt good and after a week of shows I started to understand how I was going to have to play this to keep things solid. Now I do vocal warm-ups before every show, and if I don’t, I feel the failure. Is it all in my head? Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve found my warm-ups and I have to stick to them every night.

At first, I felt so dorky, because vocal exercises are inherently dorky, but once I embraced the therapy and got over myself I began to restore my voice and more importantly, my confidence.

And that’s the thing: vocals are 90% confidence. It’s mostly in your head and, unfortunately, your head is a powerful space in which to manifest failure before you have even tried. I had spent months believing that my voice was broken. Something was wrong. It was not the same as before. I now believe it probably was the same as before but I had taught myself the opposite and this destructive thought process took it’s toll in my physical performance.

Still, some days on tour I would wake up and I couldn’t talk. So I’d pull a Celine Dion and stay mute until showtime. My voice is the most powerful part of me as a performer, but sometimes it’s as flimsy as tissue paper. I have to respect that.

Then we came home and wrote our new record. I sang in my register. I accepted that I couldn’t do certain things with my voice that I had done in the past, and instead I created power within the new, more limited vocal range. I felt like I had defeated my own head. It felt good.

I have the easiest job in the whole world. And I want to keep it for as long as possible. So I had to learn to take it seriously. I had to learn how to get out of my throat and into my head. It was the best career decision I ever made.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Mish Way is the frontwoman of the band White Lung. Her freelance work can be found in The Guardian, Dazed & Confused, Salon and VICE, amongst others. She prefers writing about sex over music. You can follow her on Twitter here.