Sometimes, when I’m feeling way too much of something – too stressed, too sad, too anxious – I put on my headphones and listen to one of my go-to favorites for relaxing sad bastard music. Folk music, to me, is the boyfriend you never get tired of. You just want it to be there 24/7 while you’re working, driving, or sleeping. Its presence is felt without being too imposing. It rests comfortably in the middle of the spectrum in that it stimulates you without demanding too much from you. You get it.
So here’s my list, in no particular order, of the most calming singing voices for you to put a pin on and go back to whenever you need it. Female edition to follow!
A unique artist who is the quieter equivalent of Matt Berninger, Bill Callahan’s baritone voice floats between speaking and whispering. He makes the kind of music you could play at a campfire, like someone’s telling you a story. This is what Stephin Merritt would sound like with a bit more restraint.
The original quiet troubadour was Nick Drake of course. Even after all these years, his hauntingly beautiful poetry dwells within the hearts of many. Even today, the purity of his voice and his music compares to no one else’s and kids like me who weren’t even alive back then know about his music and truly enjoy it. His whole catalogue is worthy of being revisited again and again.
What kind of list would this be without Sufjan? He could sing names and numbers off a phone book and still make it sound disgustingly beautiful. From his indie folk roots with noteworthy releases Seven Swans and Michigan, to his current electro-rap project Sisyphus, for such a soft and gentle voice, he sure displays enormous versatility. For those who are just getting into his music, here is a rather outdated primer I did.
I can’t tell you how many mountains I’ve seen with Benoît Pioulard (aka Thomas Meluch) playing in the background. My last trip to the Redwoods was accompanied by his brilliant 2010 release Lasted and it definitely made it more magical. There’s just a solemn quality to his voice that I can’t quite explain. Watch him play “I walked into the blackness and built a fire” at a train station in Vienna here.
My love affair with Jose Gonzalez began many, many years ago with his breathtaking cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats”. Just like everyone else on this list, his voice is calm. However, I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as soft. There’s a mechanical and emotionless quality to it when paired with the sharp arrangements present in his material with Junip. But when stripped down to just a guitar and his voice, he could make you feel and see things. His music is appropriate for listening on full blast.
Even though Wild Beasts makes mostly catchy indie rock music, they have some standout quiet tracks like “Invisible” from their excellent 2011 release Smother in which Tom Fleming’s rich, earthy voice takes center stage. It’s one that I always have to replay again and again because I can’t get enough of it. Also try: “Deeper” (Smother, 2011) and “A Dog’s Life” (Present Tense, 2014)
I’d just written in detail about why S. Carey’s latest record Range of Light is perfection. His singing voice is a cross between Jose Gonzalez and Sufjan Stevens and his beautifully layered music illustrates admirable folk and pastoral sensibilities. Put them together and you have music you’d want to set your life to. His voice could seriously put me to deep and peaceful sleep at night.
Iron & Wine
Samuel Beam aka Iron & Wine was brought to the world to bring us wonderful folk songs of love, loss, and everything else in between. His entire catalogue is consistently on point (I guess, save for 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, but that’s beside the point), but if I had to choose just one song to use as a solid example, it would be the achingly beautiful “Naked As We Came”. Depending on your state of mind, its beautiful lyrics about death could make you cry.
The Scottish genius behind Belle and Sebastian is of course Stuart Murdoch who could sing lines like “You need a man who’s either rich or losing a screw,” and still make it sound less cruel than it actually is. He is the original twee poet with an innocent voice and a sharp tongue. It’s truly a lethal combination.
Aah, William Fitzsimmons. Before the beard came the voice. Sometimes, when I’m listening to him, I am tempted to email him “Why? Why do you sound so sad?” When he’s performing live, he is actually really witty so in between songs, it’s kind of a weird transition for the concertgoer going from a song like “If You Would Come Back Home”, which is heavy as fuck, to laughing. But that’s part of his charm.
Did I miss anyone? Let me know on Twitter!