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The Eternal Cool of Talk Singing

No, it’s not rap. It’s a vocal style that some of the most heralded rock bands of the year have adopted. (And yes, the Germans have a word for it.) But why is it having a moment?

Ringer illustration

Florence Shaw didn’t know she was auditioning for a band. It was 2017, and Shaw, an illustrator and university lecturer from South East London, was grabbing a drink with an old friend, Tom Dowse, a guitarist who had spent his 20s cycling through short-lived hardcore bands. Dowse had formed a new trio with some mates, calling themselves Dry Cleaning. “I knew all the guys already,” Shaw says. “I had sort of a casual interest, but no sense that I would be involved. It just wasn’t what I was up to in any way.”

Dowse played Shaw one of the demos on his phone. “Ah, these are cool,” Shaw said. When Dowse heard the sound of her dry, even-tempered voice with the music in the background, something slid into place. “A lot of people had been offering to sing with us, but it felt like we’d done all that,” Dowse told Rolling Stone. “We wanted something different.”

Shaw—who had no vocal experience but did have a fierce creative streak, filtered through her surreal cartoons and illustrations—would surely be different. After months of cajoling, she agreed to front the band. “I’d never sang in front of any people, ever,” Shaw says.

Four years later, Shaw’s voice lives at the center of one of 2021’s most compelling rock albums, but “singing” is not the verb that comes to mind. On Dry Cleaning’s sneakily brilliant debut, New Long Leg, Shaw mutters, mumbles, and recites wry one-liners as her bandmates erupt in clanging post-punk abandon. Sometimes her vocals are like hearing one side of a phone conversation; other times her lyrics evince an almost Weird Al–like fixation on food: “I’ve been thinking about eating that hot dog for hours,” Shaw drawls during the brainy, detached “Strong Feelings.” It’s her indifference to melodic convention that makes the music thrilling: She sounds like an unflappable audiobook narrator coolly holding her own while a band rehearses in the same studio due to a scheduling mishap.

If there were a Grammy for Best Talk-Singing Performance, Dry Cleaning would be a shoo-in for a nomination. But this year, the competition would be immense: Many of the best rock albums of the year—from young acts like Los Angeles trio Cheekface to old-timers like Nick Cave and Warren Ellis—blur the line between speaking and singing. (And no, it’s not quite rapping, either.) The style seems to have particularly crystallized around a loosely defined scene of buzzy, politically charged, U.K. post-punk bands who tend to talk more than they sing, reciting lyrics in an alternately disaffected or tightly wound voice. You know the sort: bands like Dry Cleaning, Squid, Shame, Fontaines D.C., and Black Country, New Road, to name a few—all of whom have released highly memorable albums in 2020 or 2021. Talk-singing, it seems, is having a moment.

For Shaw, discovering this cohort of like-minded peers has been disorienting. She wasn’t really aware of those other bands until 2019, when journalists began mentioning them in articles about Dry Cleaning. “When we started the band, we all had our heads in the sand in terms of the current music scene. We were listening to almost nothing that came out after 1982,” Shaw says. “Because of the vocals, we were expecting people to be a bit nonplussed by [us].” Instead, when 4AD released the band’s debut in April, it received widespread acclaim and topped the U.K. Independent Albums Chart. “In large part, it’s thanks to the fact that there is this group of bands who were all investigating the same thing,” Shaw says.

Yet the present state of talk-singing (or “Sprechgesang”—yes, there is a German word for this) is anything but a monolith. Consider the vast array of talk-singing styles on display in the early 2020s. If Shaw sounds ever calm and collected, her peers in the London-based groups Squid and Black Country, New Road sound agitated and distrubed, like Mark E. Smith on steroids, delivering feverish punk monologues coated with rage at the collapsing world around them. (The great eight-minute finale of Squid’s album Bright Green Field, for instance, finds singer Ollie Judge ranting and raving about political propaganda—“Pamphlets through my door / And pamphlets on my floor!”—with mounting hysteria.)

Contrast that with the flirty, winking monotone favored by English duo Wet Leg on their debut single “Chaise Longue,” in which singer Rhian Teasdale cheekily quotes Mean Girls and repeats the phrase “chaise longue” 46 times without breaking a sweat. The ferociously addictive single became an unlikely success: By late September, “Chaise Longue” had amassed nearly 3 million streams on Spotify (The Ringer’s parent company) alone, and Wet Leg announced their first U.S. shows despite having only two songs.

Across the pond, more laid-back, stylized talk-singing approaches have flourished among indie acts like Sneaks (a.k.a. musician Eva Moolchan), whose four albums revel in minimalist post-punk mantras, and the band French Vanilla, whose records French Vanilla and How Am I Not Myself? draw links between the iconic, exaggerated Sprechgesang of early B-52s and the present-day queer-punk scene.

Meanwhile, Greg Katz, the lead singer of indie-rock group Cheekface, channels his anxieties into a dorkier, more conversational mode of talk-singing on 2021’s excellent Emphatically No., employing an untrained voice that evokes everyone from Jonathan Richman (whose stock has risen so much lately that he’s being impersonated at festivals!) to Cake. A typical Cheekface song finds Katz talking his way through the verses, riffing on subjects like climate collapse (“Original Composition”) and smartphone addiction (“Got my old phone replaced / Now I do nothing faster than I did yesterday,” he quips in “Wedding Guests”), before breaking into a singable chorus. He never sounds as cool or detached as, say, Florence Shaw. He sounds like a funny, self-deprecating friend cracking jokes to ward off despair.

Like many talk-singers, Katz has no formal vocal training. He embraced the style more or less by accident. When he and bandmate Amanda Tannen began writing songs together in 2017, they tried various approaches. “The more melodic the songs were, the less excited we were about what we were writing,” Katz says. “Then, as we tried things that were less melodic and more spoken, we just got more and more excited about what we were doing.”

In Katz’s view, his vocal style conveys the jittery emotional landscape of Cheekface’s music as much as the lyrics themselves. “You can tell when your friends get overwhelmed because they start talking so fast, right?” Katz says. “You’re like, ‘Whoa, slow down. You’re tripping.’ And I think that’s something you can do if you’re not concerned about keeping the cadence of the melody the same from line to line and verse to verse. What is the polar opposite of that? It’s a Max Martin song, where he would rather the words have less meaning and the melodies stay symmetrical.”

Yet in recent months, even the upper echelons of pop royalty have dabbled in Sprechgesang. Billie Eilish sexy-mumbles her way through the bleary-eyed Happier Than Ever highlight “Oxytocin,” doing her best Madonna-circa-Erotica impression, while St. Vincent affects a saucier beat-rap delivery in her comeback single “Pay Your Way in Pain.” Back in April, Mick Jagger delivered a rather lackluster brand of shout-singing on his Dave Grohl–assisted lockdown anthem “Eazy Sleazy,” which is disappointing, considering Jagger gave us one of the all-time great, sex-obsessed Sprechgesang performances on 1978’s “Shattered.”

Even Olivia Rodrigo, the newly anointed Gen Z pop queen, unleashes a caustic mode of talk-singing on her song “Brutal”: “I’m not cool, and I’m not smart / And I can’t even parallel park,” Rodrigo snarls, as though she’s too consumed by teen angst to conform to melodic orthodoxy. Curiously, Rodrigo’s song nicks a guitar lick from “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello, which, by Costello’s own admission, borrowed heavily from Bob Dylan’s talk-singing landmark “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which, in turn, took influence from the fast-talking proto-rap of Chuck Berry’s 1956 single “Too Much Monkey Business.” How about that: a talk-singing lineage that directly links Gen Z all the way back to the Greatest Generation.

Yet every talk-singer has their own constellation of influences. Eilish has said hip-hop is her greatest inspiration. Shaw cites her mother’s Last Poets records, Captain Beefheart’s spoken-word oddities—“strange, mundane objects and foods come up a lot in his writing,” she notes—and Grace Jones. (Dry Cleaning’s drummer shared Jones’s cover of “Private Life” with her when he was trying to convince her to join the band; she was quite taken with Jones’s delivery.) Charlie Steen, frontman of the South London band Shame, was inspired by reading stream-of-consciousness literature like Mrs Dalloway and by hearing gravel-voiced vocalists like Bob Dylan and the Fall’s Mark E. Smith. “It’s quite encouraging, isn’t it?” Steen says. “To know you don’t need to be so trained, and you don’t need to be so perfect.”

“For people of one age it’s Bob Dylan, and another it’s the Velvet Underground. Another it’s Modern Lovers, another it’s Talking Heads, another it’s They Might Be Giants, and another it’s Cake,” says Katz. “This is a sound that’s deep in American popular music. … Depending on how old you are, there was someone doing it in the mainstream when you were coming of age.”

True, the best punk singers were always the ones who couldn’t really sing. Lately, though, there’s a halo of cool floating around the vocalists who barely try. Which is ironic, since talk-singers often say their vocal approach is driven by insecurity more than anything else. (To misquote School of Rock, those who can’t do … teach, and those who can’t sing ... talk.)

“I’m not a very capable singer,” Steen says. “I wasn’t trained. And when you’re talking, you have more security in your voice. It’s the most common thing you’ve done up until that point, isn’t it?”

It’s difficult to define talk-singing, except to say you know it when you hear it. It’s not singing in the traditional sense, and it’s not exactly spoken-word; it occupies a nebulous space between forms.

Talk-singing flirts with melody, but isn’t beholden to it. Great talk-singers know how to coax out the melodic, expressive properties of speech itself: “This is not my beautiful wife,” “Crack! That! Whip!”, etc. Or the way Florence Shaw pensively half-speaks/half-sings “Well, well, well” in “Her Hippo.” These aren’t hooks, exactly, but they still lodge themselves in your brain.

Talk-singing is not rapping—it lacks the rhythmic flow and propulsive beats—though there is certainly overlap, like “Hey Ya!” or the Streets or that time Chuck D showed up on a talky Sonic Youth cut. Plenty of talk-singers cite hip-hop as an influence, including Craig Finn of Hold Steady fame. “I’ve always loved the thing of, like, competitive lyricism,” Finn tells me. “Wanting to be the best.”

What Finn’s talky vocal style shares with hip-hop is a certain facility for detail-rich storytelling. A great Hold Steady song makes you feel like you’re crammed in a bar and your pal is telling you a really wild story. “There’s a technique where you kinda use the verses to talk, then get to a chorus that has a little more of a hook,” Finn says. “It frees you up in the verses to be more descriptive, fit words in. And also be more conversational. You can come off more real or something if you’re talking like you would talk to your friend.”

Finn has noticed the recent talk-singing boom. He’s been listening to plenty of Dry Cleaning lately, and he raves that Fontaines D.C. is his favorite band of the past five years. Finn’s own vocal inspirations include Lou Reed’s solo records and the Velvet Underground’s chilling story-song “The Gift.” Although “The Gift” is the rare VU song with vocals by John Cale instead of Reed, its influence can be felt everywhere from Slint’s post-rock, post-singing landmark Spiderland to the mile-a-minute raconteuring of Black Midi’s recent “John L.”

Talk-singing is commonly associated with Reed and the impossibly cool, strung-out delivery he brought to VU tunes like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin,” but in truth, it’s older than rock ’n’ roll itself. Some sources trace Sprechgesang back to Richard Wagner’s “music dramas” of the late 1800s. In 1927, however, one of the earliest recorded examples of talk-singing arrived in the form of “Talking Blues,” a hit record by talkin’ bluesman Chris Bouchillon, who pioneered the form for the same reason countless future talk-singers would embrace it: He couldn’t sing for shit. Bouchillon followed it up with a sequel, 1928’s “New Talking Blues,” as well as an odd tune in which he recounts a visit to the barber shop.

While Bouchillon was white, talking blues may have been heard at an African American minstrel show as early as 1915, according to a journal article published by folksong scholar D. K. Wilgus nearly 45 years later, in 1959. By then, interest in the form had risen majorly: Woody Guthrie did some talkin’ blues of his own on 1940’s Depression-era Dust Bowl Ballads, and singer/folklorist John Greenway devoted a whole album to talking blues in 1958.

Meanwhile, during their 1930s and ’40s heyday, the Black vocal jazz group the Ink Spots pioneered their own distinct brand of talk-singing, whereby the second verse of each tune spotlighted bass singer Hoppy Jones reciting the same lyrics as the first verse in a deep, authoritative rumble. Other talky influences were percolating around this time, such as the musical insult contest known as the Dozens, a popular African American tradition whose origins stretched back to the days of slavery.

In the 1960s, talking blues hit the big time when stars like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash realized the style was well-suited for songs with protest overtones, such as Dylan’s aptly titled “Talkin’ World War III Blues.” Jimi Hendrix, meanwhile, revealed the untapped commercial potential of a talk-singer who possessed limited vocal range but inimitable style.

But in the 1970s, talk-singing exploded in a thousand different directions. Sure, everybody talks about “Walk on the Wild Side” and that first Modern Lovers LP. But you also had the lengthy, outlandishly horned-up intro monologues favored by soul stars like Barry White and Isaac Hayes; the pursed-lip ravings of Mark Mothersbaugh; the beat-poet raps of early Tom Waits; the filthy, low-voiced fantasies of Frank Zappa; the art-punk poetry of Patti Smith; the dramatic, speaking-the-lyrics-at-the-same-time-as-they’re-sung trick favored by Marvin Gaye; the boozed-up country pastiche of Harry Nilsson; the semi-coherent yowlings of Mark E. Smith; and the icy, emotionless murmur of Kraftwerk.

By the ’80s, as rap broke into the mainstream, subverting traditional vocal norms, talk-singing became the purview of the American indie underground: Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, D. Boon of the Minutemen, Black Francis of Pixies, and so on. The dramatic possibilities of Sprechgesang also appealed to vocalists who wished to embody a certain character or disguise: David Byrne mimicking the fervent, fanatical tones of a televangelist preacher in “Once in a Lifetime,” for instance, or Laurie Anderson playing the part of a doomed plane captain in “From the Air.”

What has remained constant, from the days of Dylan’s talking blues through to ’90s anthems like Sonic Youth’s “Youth Against Fascism” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” is the use of talk-singing as a musical vehicle for political discontent. When it comes to addressing politics, “it just feels obvious to say it and not sing it,” says Greg Katz from Cheekface.

That’s true of this new generation of talk-singers as well, from Cheekface’s anxious puns about climate collapse to the more generalized paranoia that permeates recent albums by Squid and Black Country, New Road. In an NPR essay last spring, critic Matthew Perpetua described these latter bands as part of a vibrant “Post-Brexit New Wave” of U.K. acts, arguing that “there’s no getting around how much of this music is a direct response to the social dynamics of post-Brexit England.”

Yet talk-singing can also serve as a conduit for sheer joy and exhilaration. Just consider the deeply unexpected TikTok resurgence of “The Leanover,” the 2001 song by short-lived Scottish cult band Life Without Buildings. Like much of Life Without Buildings’ music, the song is distinguished by the singular vocal style of Sue Tompkins, who sings and talks and emotes in a delirious, childlike rush that knows no distinction between verse, chorus, and bridge. Tompkins tends to repeat simple words or phrases, like at the start of “The Leanover,” when she recites the words “If I lose ya, if I lose ya, if I lose ya” in a rapid-fire burst.

Back in January, the long-defunct band got an unlikely boost when thousands of young TikTok users began uploading videos of themselves dancing and lip-syncing along with Tompkins’s vocals like it was the new “Old Town Road.” Tompkins watched some of the clips and was struck by by how people latched onto the song, particularly its opening 15 seconds or so.

Nine months later, Tompkins still has no clue how the Life Without Buildings TikTok craze got started. “I just thought it was brilliant,” she says. “My daughter’s 13. She was the one who said to me, ‘Oh, Mum!’”

So, what triggered this year of magical talk-singing? Why now?

You could argue that the isolation of the pandemic pushed vocalists away from communal choruses and toward lonely internal monologues, but in fairness, the talk-singing boom was already apparent way back in 2019.

Among notable talk-singers, theories differ. Both Greg Katz and Florence Shaw acknowledge the massive influence of hip-hop, which continues to overtake rock as a cultural force. “It’s impossible to discount that as an overarching influence on young bands being interested in spoken vocals,” says Shaw, who cites rap artists Noname and Brother May as personal favorites. “They never seem to get talked about in the same breath, but I do think there’s definitely a conversation going on between the two genres.”

Katz agrees. He also believes the popularity of talk-singing suggests a reaction against the blurry, ethereal vocals favored by Beach House, Washed Out, and other acts who specialize in vocals that seem to have been recorded underwater. “A lot of the great indie-rock bands of 10 years ago were swamped in reverb and effects,” Katz says. “And I love that music. But as a songwriter, it, maybe subconsciously, just felt played out.” (Donald Fagen seems to agree: the Steely Dan singer formulated a Marxist argument against reverb in a recent interview.)

Other theories abound. Craig Finn speculates about the intermingling of music and podcasts. Recent research shows that podcast listenership is at an all-time high, with more than 60 percent of American adults in the 18-to-34 age range listening to podcasts monthly. “I walk around listening to music and kind of narrate my life,” Finn says. “I wonder if that is sort of the modern condition.”

Meanwhile, Ned Green, the frontman for the London group Legss, isn’t convinced spoken vocals are having a moment. “What’s changed is the popularity of predominantly British and Irish guitar-based music in the press and with the public,” Green argues. “Spoken word has always been a prominent part of [post-punk]. What I think has changed is public taste towards that type of music.”

As these bands continue to rise in stature and acclaim, it’s uncertain whether they’ll retain their talky style or pivot to a more melodic approach. The question has been on Shaw’s mind lately: Dry Cleaning are at work writing their second album, and Shaw has unexpectedly begun to enjoy the challenge of fitting words and melody together, she tells me.

Then, a small reassurance. “I’m sure it’ll still be majority spoken,” she says. “My spoken vocals are very close to my heart, and I don’t really anticipate ever leaving them behind.”

Zach Schonfeld is a freelance journalist and writer based in New York. He was formerly a senior writer at Newsweek. His first book, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, was published by the 33 1/3 series in 2020.

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