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Sirens of Summer: Jhené Aiko, Mila J, HTDW and Tinashe Share Their Singing Secrets


From the magazine: ISSUE 92, June/July 2014

Whether you’re wiling away the afternoon at a rooftop BBQ, cooling off at the beach or looking to soundtrack that once-in-a-lifetime weekend fling, summer is prime time for pour-your-heart out vocal jams. Here, to honor the spirit of summer R&B, we spoke to four of our favorite crooners—Tinashe, How to Dress Well and sisters Jhene Aiko and Mika J—about keeping their instruments in tip-top shape and surviving the season’s festival circuit without missing a note.

JHENÉ AIKO
Pre-Show Rituals:
I’m usually getting ready until the last minute. I like to do my own hair and makeup because 1) I know how I like it, and 2) it keeps me busy and calm before a show. Right before I go out, I like to go in the bathroom and tell myself a few encouraging words in the mirror. A prayer with my band and a glass of wine are also things I do before stepping on the stage.

Favorite Warm-Up:
As I get ready, I like to listen to Cudi and sing along. I like to shout a few times right before I go on stage and go up and down the scale a few times.

Pre-Show Beverage:
A shot of Hennessy paired with hot water, lemon and honey.

Vocal Care:
I go for long periods of time not speaking—sitting in silence—so it's sorta like vocal rest. I try to stay hydrated on show days. All in all, I don't do anything specific, though I probably should. For me, singing is about expressing my thoughts and feelings, not sounding perfect .

Range:
Alto.

Biggest Inspiration:
My biggest vocal influence growing up was Brandy. I've always loved her smooth tone and runs.

Favorite Song to Sing:
"Midnight" by Coko from SWV.

Onstage Strategy:
When I'm singing, I'm freeing myself of everything I'm talking about: no worries, no pains, no joys. I just let it flow out without thinking twice.

MILA J

Pre-Show Rituals:
I pray and then I have a Pepsi.

Favorite Warm-Up:
I do my scales while making a motorboat sound with my lips. It opens the air flow and really warms up the facial muscles.

Pre-Show Beverage:
Ideally, warm green or herbal tea with a touch of honey. Otherwise, water always works!

Vocal Care:
I have a vocal coach, and to build my stamina, I exercise while singing.

Range:
I don’t know, technically, but it’s not what people assume. You guys should come check out my live show to find out. I consider myself an alto.

Biggest Inspiration:
I love Mary J. Blige and her rawness and emotional singing style. That’s what I want people to hear when I’m singing, too: my emotions and my realness.

Favorite Song to Sing:
Well, I love Tank, so any of his songs. But I also love Brandy.

Onstage Strategy:
Honestly, I let go of any thoughts and just feel the music.


HOW TO DRESS WELL

Pre-Show Rituals:
I mostly just try to focus, to prepare myself to go inside and become more of a voice than a person.

Favorite Warm-Up:
Actually, I often write melodies while I’m warming up. I’ll just be letting loose and getting a sense of where my body is at, and then I’ll find that I feel really good tracking some ascending melody. Then I’ll record that melody on my phone and return to it the next morning to see if it should be a song.

Pre-Show Beverage:
Throat Coat tea about 30 minutes before show. Whiskey about 30 seconds before.

Vocal Care:
I'm not too worried, for better or worse, about this stuff. Like, Mariah, apparently, never speaks above a whisper before noon or some shit. I don’t know—that’s just not my thing.

Range:
I just looked on YouTube and I can sing everything in the baritone instruction vids, all the way [up] to most of the stuff in the mezzo soprano vids. Honestly, I've never really thought about it. I just try to sing in a way that mirrors the affects I’m trying to conjure.

Biggest Inspiration:
I remember singing Babyface and 112 in the car once, and my dad was like, “You’re a really nice singer!” It made me so happy. My mom always sang around the house. She loved to sing Smokey Robinson.

Favorite Song to Sing:
In a totally non-hubristic way, my song “Suicide Dream 1” is my favorite. Every time I sing it I feel a closeness in my heart to a friend I lost too young. It just electrifies my spirit. It’s this weird thing where that song just sits perfectly in my range and allows me to move from incredibly tender to really booming. The cadence of the tune and the dynamic shifts just destroy me every time.

Onstage Strategy:
If I find myself thinking about anything—whether I look cool, or am dancing enough or whatever—I know I’m doing it wrong. I want to disappear into the song.


TINASHE

Pre-show Rituals:
I try to listen to music that gets me excited and pumped up, and then, right before I go on, I like to take a minute to myself to just visualize having a really good show.

Favorite Warm-Up:
I put something on that I love to vibe-out to, and just dance around and warm-up my body and my voice and my mind all at the same time.

Pre-Show Beverage:
Definitely water. You just have to really stay hydrated to keep your voice hydrated. But I think my second favorite thing to drink is always tea. Peppermint tea with honey.

Vocal Care:
For me, it’s about being aware of your body. Just like any other muscle in your body, you have to make sure not to overwork your voice, not to abuse it. Another thing is just to keep up good stamina. I like to run a lot, and I think that really helps me with my breathing, so that when I sing I’m not straining my voice.

Range:
I’m not exactly sure. I’ve been utilizing a lot of soprano techniques in my music, but then I can go and sing very low, and I think that makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

Biggest Inspiration:
Growing up, I think my biggest vocal inspiration was Christina Aguilera, because she really taught me how to do runs. She was almost over-excessive with it, but I really admired the way that she could do all of that stuff with her voice. I would mimic her songs all the time, and it was really good training.

Favorite Song to Sing:
My song, “Midnight Sun”: it has a big range, so it’s fun to warm up to.

Onstage Strategy:
I usually don’t zone out too much. I try to enjoy everything that’s going on around me, cause that’s my favorite thing to do. I try to take in the audience and their reactions and put on a really great show and just live.


Sirens of Summer: Jhené Aiko, Mila J, HTDW and Tinashe Share Their Singing Secrets