On Friday, November 24, during his “My Effin’ Life In Conversation” tour to promote his recent memoir, Rush vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee shared the stage of the Moore Theatre in Seattle with former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.
It has been noted that during the show, Novoselic asked questions that had been submitted by audience members, while Lee read selected extracts from his book. One amusing section of Lee’s text was devoted to his musings upon his idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable singing voice.
“I liked singing from a young age, and I wasn’t insecure about it,” he read via Loudersound. “I sang in a choir for a short time in public school, and later when I did my Bar-Mitzvah Haftorah I was told I had a beautiful voice. ‘You should be a cantor!’ my mom’s friends would say. Uh, no thanks. At that point I wasn’t screaming like ‘the damned howling in Hades’ as my reputation would later have it.
“I would soon be singing Cream songs and blues songs in a sort of tenor soprano, or if you prefer a soprano castrato-style: I was a fan of guys with a higher range, like Steve Marriot in The Small Faces and Humble Pie. Humble Pie’s Live at the Filmore was a hugely influential record to me and most of my peers, I Don’t Need No Doctor was a huge song to me, and you can hear its influence in my early singing in Rush. I would later often be compared to Robert Plant, and while he certainly pushed me into higher registers, I think a comparison with Marriott would be a bit more accurate. He had a soulful voice and a strong vibrato but he rocked.
“And soon [Yes vocalist] Jon Anderson’s mellifluous singing would affect me too. He had a high range but his voice wasn’t scratchy or abrasive, it was beautiful and soulful and emotive, not unlike a school boy chorister. I really wanted to sing like that. Another singer who impressed me was Roger Hodgson on the early Supertramp records, and I also liked Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell a lot. Through the years, there were of course many others: I was a fan a huge fan of Bjork later in life – it’s her birthday today by the way – but no one would think to make that connection. But there are certain words I sing in Rush in a very Bjork-like manner… but I’m not going to tell you what those are, you have to find them for yourself.
“I wasn’t aiming for raspiness, I just responded intuitively: where my voice went out was out of necessity, relating to what we were writing, and the key we were writing it in, and when we were young we weren’t very savvy about keys. If the key we wrote a song in felt right musically, I would just have to make it work. What we came to learn was that in certain lower registers my voice lacked power, but when I booted up an octave there was the power.
“Watching the movie Coda recently I was struck by the scene in which the choir teacher tries to bring out his student’s inner frustrations, coaxing her to sing from the gut. She’s the only hearing member of a deaf family. ‘Even if it’s an ugly sound,’ he says, ‘It will feel good: turn your angst into power.’ And it dawned on me that my earliest vocal style may also have been rooted in my childhood, listening to the stories of what my parents had endured in the concentration camps, suffering all that bullying and alienation, so that when I began to sing it all came rushing out like a screaming banshee. I was releasing all those suppressed emotions just by stepping up to the mic and screaming, Yeah! Ohhhhh yeah! Of course then I had to learn how to actually sing…
Referencing some of the more unkind critiques his vocals have been subjected to, Lee continues:
“John Griffin once wrote in the Montreal Gazette that I sounded like ‘a guinea pig with an amphetamine habit.’ In Circus, Dan Nouker said ‘If Lee’s voice were any higher and raspier, his audience would consist exclusively of dogs and extraterrestrial’… I kind of like that!”