Canadian/American singer-songwriter and poet Vera Sola (born Danielle Aykroyd, as in daughter of actor Dan Aykroyd) makes sorrowful and sweet country-tinged indie folk forefronting her sense of moody, mercurial lyricism and her rich, sonorous singing voice. Ironically, then, in this curated playlist, Vera Sola chooses to focus on songs where it’s the background vocals, whether through harmony or counterpoint or layering effects, that do the heavy work.
Vera Sola says:
“I’ve been haunted by this one sort of sound my whole life. For a while I wasn’t sure what it was. I’ve described it in the past as the tuning up of demonic orchestra. Or some kind of dysfunctional organ. The closest approximation I’d found, until recently, was a broken mellotron—the decaying of the choir tapes. But that still didn’t quite nail it. It wasn’t till I entered the studio to record my first album (Out now! Called ‘Shades’!) that I realized it was my own voice in harmony or discord with itself. Many tracks layered and panned and pitted against one-another.
That discovery got me thinking about my particular love of songs that are “made” by their background vocals. Especially ones with backing vox or harmonies that don’t quite fit the mood of a song. Or arrangements that blend backgrounds with other sonic elements so they become as one. Or, even better, sound like or perform the function of other instruments entirely. Whether it’s a voice that sounds like a trumpet, or a deep growl that becomes percussion.
This concept was built around my obsession with a song called El Pauling’s “Cool Teenager”—which employs a twisted choir to chilling effect, to kick the shit out of an otherwise pretty standard 50’s teeny-bopper tune. But gah! That’s been removed from Spotify! So go find it wherever you can.
This is a playlist, that’s, like me, all over the place in mood and genre. But what the songs have in common is the wonder of what’s going on with the human voices that aren’t right at the fore. Some of them are just straight-forwardly beautiful, or exciting, or just particularly moving. Others are strange, unsettling, confusing to the ear. What instrument is that? If it’s on this playlist, and you can’t quite pin it down, it’s probably someone singing.
It opens and closes with the Mills Brothers, whose early records feature just one guitar—everything else is a humanvoice. Woven between the brothers you’ll find the masterful gang vocals of prisoners chopping wood on a Lomax field recording, the strange soprano counter-melody in Sam Cooke’s version of Summertime, some shape note singing, and the brilliant sampling of Bill Withers’ humming at the beginning of ‘Grandma’s Hands’ that makes up the backbone of 90’s classic ‘No Diggity.’ (Hip Hop and Rap artists took this concept to a new level—it felt overwhelming to choose, and worthy of a whole ‘nother playlist. Check out Wu Tang’s 36 Chambers for example, after example.) And then of course there’s the do-wop, the cowboy, the folk and its iterations, as well as some punk thrown in. I know I’ve left off so many. But Spotify’s lacking some key ones and I maxed out on songs. Got a particularly weird one I missed? Write me. Let me know.”