The changing sound of normality + feeling
Martha Storey
11:22 8th November 2022

The choice mode of the singer-songwriter has shifted many times; from troubadour Bob Dylan to the razor-sharp wit of Fiona Apple. The past year or so has seen a marked shift in style for today’s singer-songwriters. Instead of the more traditional choices of guitar or piano, we are seeing artists gravitate towards a more produced approach, taking to synths and drum machines, as well as greater production and sonic manipulation. While the sad girls of two or three years ago stuck to guitars on albums like Soccer Mommy’s Collection or Mitski’s Puberty 2, today, artists like these have begun to gravitate towards a smoother and more produced sound.

Phoebe Bridgers perhaps epitomises the modern singer-songwriter. Having shot to success with her very much indie-rock single ‘Motion Sickness’, her latest single ‘Sidelines’ sees her move towards a synth oriented approach. Beyond a mere switch of instruments, the song seems hard to even imagine played on guitars. Instead, we have a simple, echoing motif which opens up into a luscious soundscape for the chorus, all washed over with a kind of tonal glisten from the lush production on show. The song also sees Bridgers try on a host of vocal effects too, moving her further from her alt-folk roots towards a more produced or manicured version of her songwriting. Despite its video still reliably depicting a woodland scene, ‘Sidelines’ shows Bridgers shifting her sound away from a traditional folk setting and embracing voice and sound manipulation alike.

This trend is particularly felt in the kind of sad-girl indie that Bridgers has become the epitome of. Gone are the days of guitar being a sad girl’s go-to; it seems that now, it’s the synth’s time to shine. For instance, Snail Mail’s 2021 album Valentine features tracks like ‘Forever (Sailing)’ and ‘Valentine’ which stand in stark contrast to the jangly guitars of her early work. Even Warpaint, who made their name firmly as a guitar outfit, have taken a more engineered approach to their work, layering guitars digitally to construct an album that, at times, sounds like it had never seen the instrument.

This departure is seen on a larger scale, most recently in Taylor Swift’s Midnights, which acts as a great metric of how far the style has travelled sonically. Contrasted with 2020’s folklore and evermore, Swift’s latest output is pretty much guitar-free, leaning on vintage Moog synthesisers to background her night-time musings. Despite the departure from the rural soundscape of her former era, Swift’s vocal lines often lean away from the stadium power-pop of her previous albums and instead revert back to the simpler and more devastating melodies that folklore traded in. The whispered opening of ‘Labyrinth’ or the rise and fall of ‘Anti-Hero’s’ verses could easily sit atop plucked guitars; instead, on Midnights they are paired with layers and voice-manipulation, mirroring the distortion of sense that the songs depict. Doubling down on the fact with an even more synth-heavy collab with Jack Antonoff's band Bleachers, it's clear she's waded deep into the stream. Swift isn’t a stranger to a synth ballad, sneaking several in on her otherwise feisty Reputation and swooning follow-up Lover. But on Midnights she embraces the style wholeheartedly, making each track sound like it could soundtrack the moment of self-realisation in a coming-of-age movie.

This shift leans into a trend towards genre-blending, providing a convenient mid-way between outright pop and a more DIY or bedroom indie feel. Streaming has led to genres bleeding into each other, and teetering on the brink of a few can be beneficial. In the past year, though, it feels like the singer-songwriter genre has fully embraced the range of sounds and emotions that electronics can stir, even those who are firmly on this side of pop. The influence of artists who are firmly synth-users is clear to hear. Christine and the Queens was an early populariser of the slow synth ballad, with his debut Chaleur Humaine receiving universal critical acclaim . You can hear the influence of his swooping vocal lines over simple chords on tracks from Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Jupiter 4’ to Alice Boman and Perfume Genius’s ‘Feels Like A Dream’. As genres bleed into one another, and as artists like Christine and the Queens continue to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be a pop musician, it seems natural that the singer-songwriter form will naturally expand.

"Shifting the familiar singer-songwriter genre also seems to mirror a lot of what we are seeing in the world around us. Times are tumultuous if you hadn’t noticed..."

This move towards synths gives artists opportunities to explore sonically, taking their sound to new, sometimes stranger places as they experiment with the different tones and moods that can be created. To some extent, this is symptomatic of a greater impulse to control every aspect of one’s music, to tweak away at the tone or vibrato of a synth, or layer and filter one’s voice.

Shifting the familiar singer-songwriter genre also seems to mirror a lot of what we are seeing in the world around us. Times are tumultuous if you hadn’t noticed, and this shift alters what normally is a comforting and candid genre to be something a bit more unpredictable. The tried-and-tested guitar outfit feels somewhat out of step with a world in which nothing seems fixed. Distorting a voice or adding digital layering pushes an ordinary song into something more unexpected or intriguing, reflecting the instability that the post-covid years represent for many people.

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Photo: Press