‘It feels like acting,” says Florence Shaw, frontwoman – not singer – of the London indie band Dry Cleaning. “Speaking your lyrics is acting, more than singing is. Everyone knows what it sounds like in a person’s voice when they are irritated, or when they are in love. The voice changes, and it doesn’t whack you in the face – it can be quite subtle and creep up on you more.”
If you spend any time in small British venues, it is likely you have noticed there are quite a few bands like Dry Cleaning around at the moment – bands that don’t employ a singer so much as someone who declaims their words, and that are getting noticed. Do Nothing and Black Country, New Road have been winning admirers; Talk Show have been signed by Felix White, late of the Maccabees, to his Yala! Records label; Sinead O’Brien’s new single is on Chess Club, the label that brought the world Mumford & Sons, MØ, Wolf Alice, Sundara Karma and more.
It is not a complete surprise that all these artists are operating in that part of the musical spectrum marked, broadly, as post-punk. The late 70s and early 80s were when sprechgesang – literally, “spoken singing” – flourished as a means of expression, in part because of the embrace of musical limitations, in part because it was a clear point of difference from traditional rock music, and in part because it was ideal for conveying the scorn, sarcasm and disgust that performers such as John Lydon and Mark E Smith dealt in.
Smith, especially, is an inspiration for O’Brien, even if her style – poetic and allusive, with an often flowing and melodic backing – is more akin to early Patti Smith (she even started in the same way as the latter, reciting poetry to the accompaniment of a guitar). “Mark E Smith showed it’s not about perfection,” O’Brien says. “Every piece I ever listen to by the Fall can sound like a whole different mood board on another day. It completely transforms, and I’m stopped in my tracks.”
That sense of confrontation Lydon and Smith brought remains important to many of these new groups. They are all still playing small rooms, where eye contact is unavoidable, and there is something uniquely discomfiting about being singled out from a crowd to be spoken at by someone on a stage.
“There are people, understandably, who are cringed out by spoken-word stuff,” says Isaac Wood of Black Country, New Road. “It’s too direct. They think it’s like an open mic slam poetry night or something. But if you are in any way inclined towards it, it is less easy to ignore, because there are conversational elements to it. It’s more direct.” Like Dry Cleaning, whose breakthrough track was about Meghan Markle, Wood’s lyrical references to Kendall Jenner and Kanye West make him feel all the more immediate.
“They hate it,” says Do Nothing’s Chris Bailey of his own audiences. “They feel super-weird and wrong. A lot of the time I’ll stare one person down, and usually they just look away. If I’m playing a character, it makes it feel like theatre. Breaking the fourth wall always makes people uncomfortable.”
“I love being able to stand a metre away from someone and just stare at them,” says Talk Show’s Harrison Swann. “It’s really visceral and the most real thing you can get. You can’t shy away or hide behind a melody. It’s great as a performer; it’s really immediate.”
Unsurprisingly, sprechgesang did not come about as a means to enable scratchy indie bands to make their audiences feel uncomfortable. It was first used by Arnold Schoenberg in 1912, when he set 21 poems by Albert Giraud to music as Pierrot Lunaire. (Strictly, what he was doing, and what these bands are doing, was sprechstimme – which emphasises speech above melody – but outside classical music, the two terms are all but interchangeable, and sprechgesang is the one that has stuck.) Brecht and Weill developed it further, but it was never more than a novelty in rock until the post-punk years (you might make an argument that Bob Dylan deals in it, or you might say he isn’t a very good singer).
But what about hip-hop? Surely the fact that the most popular music in the world features talking over music must be an influence on these artists? Perhaps not. Swann claims it has nothing to do with what he does, while O’Brien says: “I can’t like it very much; that’s just in my gut.”
But this baffles Shaw. “When people talk to us about the vocals, they are inevitably mentioning bands that stopped putting out records before I was born,” she says. “What I was listening to when I was a kid was P Diddy. It’s possible the delivery owes more to So Solid Crew than the Fall. I was 12 when 21 Seconds came out and that was so exciting – all those amazing characters with such distinctive styles. It was talking in a way that was so exciting. I love all the post-punk music and that kind of delivery, but it’s absolutely bonkers to ignore the fact that the dominant pop music since I was six has been rap. It’s really strange that people don’t acknowledge it.”
Beyond the directness of talking to your audience, are there any other benefits? Bailey thinks it’s a great way to get across sarcasm (“you can’t sing sarcastically”). “I’m trying to develop a weird character on stage,” he says, “an exaggerated version of myself, like Stewart Lee does. But who also says things that aren’t a million miles from what he really probably thinks.” One choice lyric of his, from the song Gangs, runs: “Leave people in the dark long enough and they’re bound to start fucking each other.”
“There’s probably more emotional versatility in speaking,” Swann says. “Jacques Brel is a perfect example of how that’s possible: he’s so varied in what he expresses, from tiny gestures to huge swells of emotion.”
For O’Brien, it all began with putting words on paper: “I didn’t have a band. It was a very solitary act at the beginning. I had just moved to Paris after graduating, and in my spare time I was starting to write about what I was seeing around me. I could almost feel some music in the pieces, and I would always listen to music when I was writing, because that was my on switch.”
Shaw’s reason was more primal. “I was quite shy about performing. I get quite nervous. At the beginning, it served as a stepping stone to possibly singing, to mark out some vocals – to just open my mouth and make a sound. It felt like the most accessible thing for me. But then we all liked how it sounded, and I enjoyed it and it came to shape the words.”
And with all these groups, it is the words that really count. Their shared love of language is what really unites them. Nothing, after all, speaks louder than words.