In order to sing like Billie Holiday, you have to use your voice in specific ways. Billie Holiday is one of the most prolific jazz singers of all time. She has such a unique style and voice that you automatically know it’s her. I first learned to imitate other artists by mimicking her, so she remains my favorite artist to “play pretend.” I’m going to show you how I do it, and hopefully you’ll walk away from this able to imitate Billie Holiday yourself!
How to Sound Like Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday is a fascinating person. There is a movie about her life and she also wrote an autobiography. If you’re interested in her life, I highly recommend both! For this post, we’ll be focusing solely on her voice. If you’re stuck on this and need personal help, please feel free to tweet me and let me know!Help – I'm learning how to sing like Billie Holiday! Click To Tweet
I think a video is the best way to explain this, so I’m going to put it here for you:
If you’re wondering “why would I want to imitate someone else?” I’ll let her break it down for you:
Billie Holiday found her own voice through imitating others, and I think you’ll find the same is true. Plus, learning the pros’ techniques can help you add to your repertoire, and it’s just fun to do impressions!
If you learn better through reading, here are my steps broken down for you:
IMPORTANT NOTE: Please do not ever do anything vocally that hurts!
You should absolutely NEVER be in physical pain when singing. Stop immediately, go on vocal rest for at least 24 hours, and see a vocal coach. Everything I’m about to say is under the assumption that you can do this comfortably and correctly.
1). Keep your voice very thin
No “belting” needed here. Even in her strongest, most powerful moments, Billie Holiday had a very thin voice. The way to keep your voice thin is to just use very little air and focus on your placement (which we’ll discuss in a bit). You DO want to make sure that your breath is supported and healthy, just don’t use a lot of it.
2). Use a Lot of Vibrato
Heads up vibrato kings and queens, this is our chance to shine. There is no such thing as “too much vibrato” when it comes to singing like Billie Holiday.
Not sure how to use vibrato? My friend Matt Ramsey has a great video on this:
3). Keep Your Placement in Your Nose & Back of Throat
SAFELY, though. I cannot stress that enough. Your placement is basically where you picture your sound coming from. Take a moment and envision your sound coming straight out of your nose. Now picture it sitting in the back of your throat. If you can do both of those at different times, you’ve got Billie Holiday’s placement down.
Again, this should not hurt! If it does, please do not keep going.
4). Use a Lot of Vocal Fry
Vocal fry is controversial, with many people thinking it’s “bad for your voice.” When done correctly, it isn’t bad or hurtful and can add a lot of character. I highly doubt Billie Holiday used vocal fry correctly (or even sang correctly at all), but you can use it to add to your impersonation!
It’s difficult to explain how to do vocal fry, but here is a video that may help:
5). Vary Your Vowel Sounds
When Holiday is singing, notice how she forms each vowel, each time. She tends to lean into the harshest part of the sounds. For example, the word “in” is pronounced “eeeeeeeen.” This is typically the opposite of what singers are told to do! You almost need to un-learn some things you’ve been taught. In general, her vowels were very drawn out and focused on the harshest way to pronounce them. Even just listening to one of her songs should give you a good idea of how she forms her vowels.
6). Don’t Try Too Hard
Autotune didn’t exist back then, and although Holiday could certainly sing, hitting notes perfectly was never her goal. You can be as playful as you want with your voice. Just keep it light and thin! You’re allowed to be as creative and expressive here as you want.
Final Important Note: It’s Important to Be Yourself Vocally! I’m not recommending that you fully copy anyone’s vocal style. We are all unique and have our own voice. These tips are just for if you’re curious on how to sing like Billie Holiday, you’re doing an impersonation contest or something, or if you’re a session singer like me and got a request to sing like her. Hopefully these tips will help!