Q&A | how to grunt and growl
With Vocal Coach Monica Janssen
THE ERA OF VIKINGS
This summer we all were flabbergasted by the grunting performance of 9-year-old Nova Huijben in the Dutch TV show Game of Talents. Grunting, or growling, is nothing new in the metal music scene, but a girl of such a young age doing it, isn’t something you hear every day on a global scale.
The use of extreme vocals has been going through an evolution for decades and they even say that growled vocals may have been a part of Viking music. From the sixties, here and there a premature form of harsh vocals started to appear in “mainstream” music. It developed during the seventies rock and got its own identity from the early 80s and snowballing the rise of various extreme metal subgenres where extreme vocals became an important trademark.
Since then harsh vocals never left the scene again and even is used in other metal subgenres as well. But what is grunting exactly? How does a singer do that? Can everybody learn grunting and how is it possible a young kid can produce such hellish sounds?
To find out, I asked all these questions to Dutch singer, grunter and vocal coach Monica Janssen. Monica is a trained vocalist and very experienced musician who you might know from the bands X-Tinxion and Downcast Collision. We ended up not only talking about the grunt vocal technique but also about her involvement in Magic O Metal, her own company “Wisselkind-Creative Coaching” and personal philosophy.
BARKING LIKE A DOG
How exactly does grunting work?
,,The term grunting is mostly used in the Netherlands, whereas in some other parts of the world they use the term growling for the same effect. Although some say that growling is a “lower/darker” and softer sounding effect and grunting has sharper sounding edge to it. There are many forms of vocal effects. Most used terms are grunts, growls, screams, distortion, rattle and most recently also fry screams. I won’t bore you with the anatomical details, but dark grunt-growls are made with a deep breathy roar. Think of mimicking a big dog barking “WOOOF”. [smiling]”
What is the best way to learn grunting and how long does it take to be able to do it properly?
,,When I teach people to use metal effects, it varies a bit. Some people pick up grunting easily, while others think screaming comes more naturally. It takes a short amount of time to find some kind of effect, usually, but it takes an awful lot more time to control the sound and tweak it to perfection. Or to tweak it to how you want it to sound. Of course this is dependent on someone’s own taste and likes. Effects take a lot of stamina and control of breath verses pressure/compression. It takes years to master.’’
What defines a good grunter?
,,Again, the sound depends on taste. But a good grunter/growler/screamer, according to my own taste is someone who can keep a roar going, can use different sounds and different variations in vocal effects, and does so in a healthy way.’’
Can everybody learn grunting, even an 80-year-old enthusiast?
,,I would say yes, although stamina might be difficult for someone with longue- or breathing problems.’’
What happens if you don’t use the right technique?
,,A singer might strain their voice and this could also happen when you use any kind of effect. You might lose your voice if you don’t use it in a healthy way. Mind you, this could even happen when you talk. There is always a risk of going too loud, or using too much compression. If you don’t rest your voice once it goes hoarse, this could lead to more serious problems. This goes for singing as well as grunt-growling and effects.’’
If you do not only want to grunt but also want to do screams and growls and even do clean vocals as well. Do you need different vocal technique for that?
,,These techniques are all slightly different. However, in my experience, someone who has learned to master one kind of effect can learn another more easily. Also singers are used to training their voices in a healthy way and this helps if you want to learn to master effects. Different types of singing are also all slightly different. You need to use your vocal system differently for singing opera, for instance, compared to singing very soft and poppy “whispery” songs. The Universal Voice System that I use (by the Universal Voice Institute) is perfect for teaching all those basics and variations.’’
What is the biggest misconception about grunt and extreme vocals?
,,That it should be extremely loud. It’s not always loud, especially compared to a singing technique like “belting”, for instance.’’
What most people probably don’t know about grunt?
,,We all grunt-growl sometimes and we all scream. It is in our natural and primal ways of using our voice. I dare say it might come more naturally then singing. And it can easily be achieved in a healthy way. Especially if you have someone teaching it the right way. Just listen to kids in a schoolyard playing. The sounds they produce are awesome! And they hardly ever lose their voice.’’
A 9-YEAR OLD GRUNTER
You are the vocal coach of the 9-year old grunter Nova Huijben, who made a huge impression on Dutch national TV in the tv show Game Of Talents with Arch Enemy’s song ,,The Eagle Flies Alone’’. First of all, how did you two met?
,,I was tagged by a former student of mine in a message by Nova’s mother asking for a teacher. I sent her a personal message after that. We first met online and hit it off right away. Nova is such a cool kid, with a great sense of humour!’’
What impressed you the most about Nova?
,,She is a very quick learner and picked it up quite fast. Also, she doesn’t hold back and is enthusiastic. We just enjoy ourselves together so much. She isn’t afraid of doing something wrong and doesn’t feel any shame or uncertainty about what she does, which is great.’’
Nova being 9-year-old, did you use a different learning method than you would use for an adult?
,,The method is exactly the same, but the approach is quite different for children. They aren’t interested in how it works and understand things instinctively. Adults sometimes need a bit of explaining. For everyone, young or old, a good mix of playfulness and kindness, sometimes sternness are required. The route of achieving the desired sound is sometimes a bit different per person, so I always take the individual into account. Different people need different things.’’
What do you like the most about working with such young talent?
,,I am amazed at the sound Nova produces. It is always a bit weird seeing someone young and small sound like something big and dangerous.’’ [smiling]
How old were you when you started singing and grunting yourself and why do you like to express yourself via extreme vocals?
,,I always liked singing, but thought I wasn’t any good. At the age of 18 I wanted so desperately to be in a band that I started auditioning for punk and metal bands, because I liked metal so much and thought that punk didn’t require for me to have a good singing voice. When I was 19 years old I joined my first band, which started as a punk-metal crossover and ended after 11 years as a progressive metal band. During that time I found out how wrong I initially was.
I discovered what the grunting sound might be when I was playing basketball with my friends at 18. I accidently grunted something in the heat of the game. Then I became obsessed with reproducing that sound and started tweaking it, seeing how far I could push myself. Afterwards I think I was lucky that I didn’t strain my voice. I started taking some singing classes at the age of 20 or so, but was never properly trained as a singer until I started studying at the Universal Voice Institute 3 years ago.
It was hard work for me to try and work it all out by myself. And at that time there were no teachers teaching effects and hardly any women doing anything metal. To me metal is the ultimate (vocal) expression. I love the technical part of it and also the melody. I love the extremeness and the amount of effort it costs. Doing what I do is like athleticism for my voice. It’s a vocal work-out like no other. And I love how lyrics are important, cause I have always been a bit of a poet.’’
Who do you think are the best grunters of all time and why?
,,I don’t think I will ever be able to answer this question. I very much like the sound of Michael Åkerfeldt [Opeth]. My first role model in grunting was the Dutch grunter George Oosthoek [Orphanage, MaYaN], because he has a mean, but also deep sounding grunt. I like grunters that use a bit of melody and have a balance in a darkness and sharpness. Also the amount of rattle, which is another vocal effect you can put over singing or over another effect, is important to me. But there are so many vocalists I admire, too many to name. I used to only have male role models, but the women are getting better and better at it.
What I don’t like are grunt-growls that sound really breathy, because they have a tendency to flip. Somehow a lot of women who try to sound low and dark have this “problem”. But that is such personal taste, and also depends on the kind of music it is used in. So who am I to judge, when so many people love that particular sound. When people come to me to learn something they think is cool, I always keep my personal taste out of it and just try to analyse the sound. Most of the time, that brings me a new found respect for things I don’t like at first listen.’’
MAGIC O METAL
You are also one of the musicians that work with Magic O Metal. How do you feel about this initiative in general?
,,It is awesome! Just check it out.’’
What is your contribution to Magic O Metal specifically and how is the experience so far?
,,I have written the vocal melody and lyrics for a Magic O Metal song to come, which will be a sort of duet with Nova and myself. I know Sander Gommans [former After Forever, HDK] and Menno Kappe of Magic O Metal personally and think Scott is a great artist. So, I try to help them with whatever I can when they want it.
There is a project I did with a young woman who wanted to learn how to sing a particular song, we will record the process and the joy of learning to sing under the flag of Magic o Metal. I have also done a vlog on grunting-growling for Magic o Metal. I just know we will keep collaborating with my company Wisselkind and Magic O Metal, because our goals are so compatible. We are somewhat in love, I dare say.’’
What is your advice and motivation to children to discover the world of heavy metal or even music in general?
,,There is so much imagination and playfulness in metal. Fantasy is really hot. Just think of tv-series like “Stranger Things”. But also, I know so many young kids that love horror. Man!, those things scream metal all-over! It is a shame metal is not more known. I think that because it is so underground in Holland, getting to choose to like this music genre, is only for the lucky few. Let’s change that!’’
FEELING OUT OF PLACE
What can you tell us about your own company Wisselkind-Creative Coaching? What is it that you do?
,,Wisselkind is the Dutch word for “Changeling”, because as a child and also a lot of my years as a grown-up I have felt out of place. I was the weird kid. It took me a long time to figure out that creativity is redemption. Creativity is also the thing that binds us as humans. My company is for creative coaching in a broader sense than just music. I am an art-teacher and vocal coach by profession and I have taught Drama and Social Skills as well as Art and school bands in schools for 17 years. And I have been a vocalist myself in different bands for 25 years.
I am a certificated learning-coach and have recently gained the Universal Voice Master Teacher title. Anyone wanting to learn how to use their creativity, whether for singing, drawing, art, for fun, professionally or just need some push along the way, can come to Wisselkind. Bands that need help presenting themselves, schools or companies that want a creative workshop, individuals that need some social or creative guidance, and of course singers that want some coaching: that is what Wisselkind does.’’
What is your main philosophy as a teacher, coach and musician?
,,Be yourself and do what you love! I know it sounds simple, but so many people judge before knowing. And so many people do things because others tell them it should be that way. So many people are stuck doing something that is not really them. I have also been there. It is like a modern disease to have an opinion without proper knowledge, even about oneself.
I do what I do from the heart and I am not afraid to show my care and appreciation for the people I have been privileged to meet. They will always teach me, maybe even more than I can teach them. Learning is a social event that cuts both ways. I sound like a hippy, don’t I? LOL’’
Finally. With whom would you like to grunt or do a nice duet one day?
,,I am a major Bruce Dickinson fan. So a duet with him is a dream. He is like a super human, don’t know how anyone could have the energy to do all those things and still go strong…. I have done a long-dreamed grunt-duet for my band X-Tinxion on the song ,,The Divine” in 2016 with George Oosthoek [check the live video below] which was really cool! And also with Nova for Magic O Metal.
For my band Downcast Collision I would like to do a duet with Marcela Bovio, although I haven’t figured out which song yet. Marcela has a beautiful voice and is one of the best vocalists in the Netherlands, in my opinion. I haven’t told the band yet, so now they know, lol…I also haven’t asked Marcella yet, so hopefully I haven’t fucked things up by answering your question. [smiling]’’
Musicians from our world embark on an adventure with magical creatures from The Metal Dimension, a world where fantasy becomes reality. There is a passion that all our heroes share: METAL!