How to Sound Like Sam Smith / Adele / John Legend
What makes stars like Sam Smith, Adele and John Legend sound so unique and interesting?
Some say it’s genetics.
Others say that they’ve taken a ton of voice lessons.
I believe the truth is somewhere in between.
Superstars like Sam Smith and Adele have found the intersection of phenomenal vocal genetics and vocal technique.
How can you imitate their voices successfully?
There are plenty of vocal techniques out there that will claim to show you how to create these sounds.
For me, I have found that one of the best and unexpected benefits of voice lessons has been understanding and developing my own unique voice.
Today, we explore the phenomenon of unique voices and what you need to do in order to sound like the best version of yourself!
Trying to imitate another singer’s voice and style is a common goal among new students.
They ask: “Can you teach me to sing like Adele“, or “My friends say I sound like Sam Smith. Can you help me sound more like him?”
There is no better time for a fresh start and perspective on your voice than when taking singing lessons.
A huge part of what we do in voice lessons is get to your “real” voice; that beautiful you-ness underneath the garbage of imitation.
Think that sounds harsh? I’ve been there.
Today, I wanted talk about how I spent years trying to imitate my favorite singer/songwriter and how that just held me back.
Then I discuss some tools to help you find your voice so you don’t make the same mistake.
Why We Imitate Singers
Back in 2011, I would get up every morning at 6AM to be at the BART train station before the morning rush.
I would haul my heavy guitar case down the alley ways for blocks to get there in time to be the first one in a popular spot.
Then, if no one else had grabbed it, I would set my guitar case down next to the escalators and sing for two hours or more.
At this time, I hadn’t started taking voice lessons and I didn’t know much about my own voice so I just did my best to imitate others.
My favorite singer/songwriter was Elliott Smith (caution: some adult language).
He had this haunting, yet beautiful approach to singing and songwriting that just fit me perfectly.
Unfortunately, Elliott wasn’t a big hit in the train station.
This wasn’t due to the quality of his songs, but rather, it had to do with my singing.
Because I wasn’t self aware of my own voice, I consciously imitated Elliott’s breathy and lofty voice.
It simply didn’t project through the massive station (even though the acoustics were really great).
Everything changed when I began taking singing lessons.
My teacher told me “I feel like you’re trying to sound like a 14-year-old boy.
Sing like the man you are now.”
It hurt. It felt like he was trashing me AND my favorite singer/songwriter. But he was right.
Once I began to look at his feedback from a critical viewpoint, I realized my voice and Elliott’s are completely different.
They’re not even in the same world. About the only thing we have in common is the fact we’re both tenors.
Thanks to him, I was able to take an approach to these songs that was more authentic to my own voice.
It was an important first step to defining and refining my own style.
Do you struggle with imitation?
Do you find yourself trying to sing like your favorite artist?
Do you wonder what your own true voice sounds like?
There are so many amazing benefits to the Institute for Vocal Advancement technique that I teach.
From bringing vocal balance to the voice, to reducing strain, it’s a truly amazing vocal practice.
But one of my favorite things about teaching the IVA technique is that in our voice lessons, we will get to work with your voice exactly as it is, without any imitation or cover up.
By working with unfinished sounds first (these are the funny sounds that are good for balancing the voice; like the bratty or dopey sounds) and then working on more finished sounds (more like spoken words; like “Mum” or “Gee”) we are kind of bringing the voice back to a neutral gear.
After all, how can you sing a “Mum” like Ed Sheeran? How would you know what his “Mum” sounds like?
You can only produce a “Mum” in your own voice.
Whether or not the “Mum” is pure and without strain is another matter.
That’s why you take voice lessons from me. I act as the unbiased listener.
But seriously, how cool is it that you have to sing some of these sounds in your own voice first?
Then what happens?
We apply those sounds to your favorite song of course!
So instead of singing the lyrics to your favorite Jessie J song, we have you sing “Mum” on the melody.
This “Mum” is still your natural voice. Because again, how can you sing “Mum” just like Jessie J?
Finally, we proceed to sing lyrics with the same feeling as we were getting with “Mum” on the melody.
And voila! You have successfully sung the lyrics to a song you love in your own voice!
Trust me, this process is much easier said than done which is another reason why you need a trained professional to teach voice lessons, but the facts are simple.
Unfinished and finished sounds will balance your voice.
Applying that balance to the melody will keep your voice sounding natural.
Finally replacing the sounds with actual words allows you to stay balanced and sing in your own voice!
But perhaps you worry that your natural speaking or singing voice is not beautiful and that’s why you imitate your favorite artists.
I believe that while you can never sing in a voice that is not your own, there is a lot of work we can do to improve the natural voice you already have.
You can always strengthen the voice (power), increase it’s flexibility (range), and add beauty with vibrato, sustain and pure vowels.
From an artistic perspective, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to sing in your own voice.
In my experience, I know how important it is to have heroes.
They will be there all the time.
Let them inspire you, but do not try to imitate them.
Imitation is, at best, a crutch for a developing singer.
But it is totally natural because by imitating our vocal heroes, we are deciding what we appreciate musically and what good singing sounds like.
But what are we really working towards?
What does your voice actually sound like?
What Do I Actually Sound Like?
One of the most important aspects of my job as a voice teacher is to help students understand their voice so they know what to expect.
My hope is that by understanding their voice better, my students can make better decisions about the kinds of songs they pick, parts to audition for and maybe understand a bit about their unique vocal style.
Self awareness is hugely important in a beginning singer and I’m always asking my students for feedback about how a certain exercise feels or how a note sounds in order to grow their ear.
But let’s say that you haven’t taken lessons yet, here are a few ways that you can begin to understand your voice and what it can sound like to other people.
1. Analyze the Music You’re Drawn To
Take a look at the music that you love to listen to and sing.
Are there any commonalities between the singers?
If you listen (like I did) to Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley and David Bowie for example, you could note that all three of these singers are tenors who can hit high notes without falsetto and sing in a clean tone.
This is really important to know and understand about these singers.
Even though they sing different genres and styles of music, their voices are all capable of accessing the higher registers and they spend a lot of time up there.
If I enjoy singing this music, it could be possible that I would want to work on keeping a smooth, clean tone from the bottom to the top of my voice.
These amazing singers would fit more of a mezzo-soprano category and are characterized by huge belty voices.
For these voices, you want to feel the power and fiery emotion of the song, so while a smooth transition is beneficial, we would work on developing strength and stamina in the voice.
2. Record Yourself
A great activity for any singer is to record themselves singing.
Ideally, you want to do this in an environment where you feel safe to make some noise and you’re not going to disturb anyone.
Recording yourself can be a very humbling exercise but it can also be a great marker to measure your progress by.
If for instance, you sound exactly the same a year into taking voice lessons, you might consider finding another teacher.
You should be noticing progress!
In terms of listening to your voice, train your ear to hear what your voice’s strengths and weaknesses are.
Do you always sing flat on a high note?
Or are you singing in a whisper even on low notes?
Compare this with your favorite singers and see how you measure up.
This can be very helpful in setting goals for your vocal progress.
3. Ask a Few Friends to Critique Your Voice
This is for the brave ones out there.
Either play a recording or sing in front of a few trusted friends and ask for their feedback on your voice.
Obviously, your friends will be able to give you appropriate feedback that isn’t going to crush your soul but also won’t sugar-coat the issues that they hear.
Just be careful that for every piece of feedback they give, make sure they are giving you something you can work on, rather than systematic flaws you can’t fix.
For instance, “I just don’t like the sound of your voice” is a blanket term that won’t help you change anything about your voice, whereas “The low parts of your voice are very strong, can you make those high notes stronger also?”.
4. Take Singing Lessons
As always, it’s best to have a trained professional listen to your voice to give an unbiased assessment.
Make sure this professional is able to give you a lesson plan to achieve your desired goals so that you always know what you’re working on.
Most voice teachers have heard hundreds of voices in their career, so the odds of them helping you understand your voice and what you can sound like are much higher than a “backseat” vocal coach who just knows what they like and dislike.
In the end, finding what you sound like is one of the most rewarding experiences that a developing singer can have.
It’s something that goes far beyond your 60-minute lesson and once you have a good feel for your voice, you’ll never lose it.
Try instead to be grateful that you have your own beautiful voice waiting to be explored.
If you’re curious to learn more, consider booking a trial free voice lesson to find your own style.