From The Desk Of The Flat Five: Listening

In music, a flat five is a passing chord that harmonizes well with almost any sound. The singers in Chicago’s Flat Five—Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall—are as versatile as the name of their group implies. They’re all well-known songwriters, musicians and side-persons in their own right, but when they sing as the Flat Five, they touch on something transcendent. Their complex, intertwining harmonies bring to mind the shimmering sounds of the Four Freshmen, Beach Boys, Lambert, Hendricks And Ross, Harry Nilsson and the Everly Brothers—singers who could create breathtaking emotional effects using nothing but their voices. The Flat Five will be guest editing all week. Read our brand-new feature with them.

O’Connor: When I think back to my earliest years of singing, it takes me to the front seat of the station wagon in the driveway listening to the radio. I would spend a good part of a day spinning back and forth between two or three FM stations and a couple of AM stations just wishing for “Afternoon Delight,” “Help,” “Baby What A Big Surprise,” and the list goes on. It was always the harmonies in these songs that I was drawn to—harmonies that are so embedded in my DNA that I probably couldn’t sing the melody if I tried.

All I had was radio—and records and record players all over the house. My brothers had one in their room, my sister and I had our own (with an eight-track player), and one more in the basement. As the youngest, I devoured whatever records my brothers, sister, and cousins brought home—Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, the Temptations, ELO, America, Steely Dan, Steve Miller Band, the Doobie Brothers, Journey, Barry Manilow, Elton John, Crosby Stills Nash And Young. I devoured it all.

On the south side of Chicago where I lived, I used to deliver a little local classified ad newspaper called The Pennysaver to Pumpkin Studios where Styx recorded—it was right down the street from my house. So I was really big on Styx, too, since we were neighbors and all.

I would listen over and over again to these artists, completely burrowing into the harmonies and noticing how they would weave around the melody and meet up with it from time to time. I learned how harmonies came in many different forms. They can be words or big beautiful beds of “ooh”s and “aah”s or “bop bop bop”s. I somehow knew at a very early age that to sing the harmony is to support the melody—to listen and observe and deliver what the song needs.

Later, I sang in the choir and did musical theater all through high school. Today, when I scroll through my memories of these songs, I hear all the counter parts that lift up the melody like a loving friend.

In college, I was in a band called Immigrant Fleas (sorry, we were pretty high … ), and we spent hours upon hours learning CSN&Y, America and Beatles songs. When I wasn’t in class, I would seek out bluegrass jam sessions in the woods of southern Illinois where I learned how to play guitar and sing country and bluegrass harmonies. This is when I really learned how to dissect the vocals of a song down to its bones.

It takes a super special singer to sing their own harmonies on their records, too. Not everyone can do that. Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell and Elvis Costello nail it—and sibling singers? Don’t get me started. Phew. The Roches? Yes, please. A good back-up singer captures the sounds, the restraint and the moves.

And there is a certain feeling you get when you are singing two- , three- or four-part harmony—and we have that in the Flat Five on almost every song. My voice is such that I usually get the tough middle harmonies, which is a challenge I love. Mostly with our band, we fall into place pretty intuitively. I’ve found my bliss again with this band. I love these people!

Recently, I was watching the Sharon Jones documentary (rest in peace and love, oh powerful Sharon Jones) and her longtime friend and back-up singer said, “I just listen and learn, and you watch and you do.” That’s so true—and a great way to describe harmony singing. Harmonies are all about listening.