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October 24, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Indie Girl Voice

This article is out of date! Please read the updated version here!

Have you ever heard anybody complain about “Indie Voice”? That “indie singers all sound alike”? Have you ever seen a vine called "Indie girl introduces us to her kitchen" where a man wails “walcome to my keetchen; we have banahnies and avocadies”? All of these are related to the topic of this Dialect Dissection: Indie Girl Voice.

Indie Voice, also known as “Indie Girl Voice,” is not really one thing, but rather a series of interrelated phenomena that occur in different genres of music that have at one time or another been called “indie.” Since the aforementioned “bananhnies and avocadies” clip became popular, people have really started paying attention to it. Some good articles have been written on the subject by Kelly Hoppenjans, MTV, and most famously Buzzfeed. However, I wanted to go more in-depth into what the linguistic features that make up indie voice are, where they came from, and how artists as different as Joanna Newsom, Adele, and Selena Gomez can be accused of having “indie voice.”

Defining Indie Voice

Indie Voice can be broadly defined as a style of singing that is associated with several genres that have, at some point or another, been called "indie." Indie Voice is also known as "indie girl voice" because most of the people who use it are women. This is not surprising, as women tend to be on the vanguard of language innovation. The earliest reference online to "indie girl voice" that I could find was this thread from the Straight Dope, posted January 2, 2014.

Is there a name for this hyper-annoying singing style? I'd like to be able to more easily dismiss it.
It seems every indie/faux-indie singer-songwriter girl under the age of 30 is singing with a remarkably annoying, breathy voice with an unnecessary twang in it that is at times punctuated with scratchiness. They sing softly and every vowel sounds like "ow," as though the singer is suffering as much as I am every time I hear it. - MeanOldLady
Meiko wearing a ruffled blouse and playing a guitar

The poster gives some examples, almost all of them leading to folk pop songs. Other posters start replying, giving their agreement on how “annoying” the singing style is, and listing songs that they found to have this same style. Almost all of the songs linked to in this thread for the first year are folk songs. Many of these songs were released around 2013, and many of the posters report hearing these types of songs in commercials. This suggests that this Indie Voice was at peak saturation by 2013, but was likely swirling around for years before appearing in cat commercials aimed at baby boomers. We are going to call this variety of Indie Voice "Folk Indie Voice."

This type of indie girl voice doesn't seem to be quite what the "banahnies and avocadies" vine is making fun of. That vine came out in 2015, the same year that Buzzfeed wrote its own article explaining indie voice. Almost all the examples in the Buzzfeed article came out in 2015, but none of them sound like the soft, waifish folk songs that you hear about in the Straight Dope thread. They are instead more pop-oriented songs, with a stronger electronic influence. We are going to call this one "Pop Indie Voice."

Now that we've laid out the general boundaries of what Indie Girl Voice is, what are the specifics? There are multiple criteria that go into determining whether a given singer demonstrates "indie voice." You do not need to have all the criteria, and indeed very few singers will demonstrate all the features. The following are the most important. One of the features is musical: indie voice is associated with a limited tessitura. You do not get incredibly feats of vocal acrobatic with indie voice. Another clue is phonetic. Both types of Indie Voice make careful use of two types of phonation - creaky voice (also known as vocal fry), which results in a crackling noise, and murmur (also known as breathy voice), where the extra air results in an airy sighing sound. These two phonation types are located closer to the extremes of glottal closure (creaky voice) and glottal opening (breathy voice). You can hear both creaky and breathy voice at play in this relative latecomer to the indie voice game, Billie Eilish.

Billie Eilish - you should see me in a crown (2018)

"Count my cards, watch them fall, blood on a marble wall."

For the most part, the above features are sufficient to get someone accused of having "indie voice." Of course, the context of indie voice is important. Mariah Carey may sing with a breathy voice and limited tessitura on songs like "Touch My Body," but the genre of the song is r&b. Nevertheless, we could stop here and probably round up a lot of people who are considered to have Indie Voice.

However, there is an additional quirk to Indie Voice that makes it of interest to a linguist: both versions of Indie Voice have some particular recurring pronunciations. The most notable of these is diphthongization, which is when a single vowel is pronounced as having two vowels. The Buzzfeed article pays a lot of attention to this diphthongization. Moreover, people notice these pronunciations and post about it. That means this isn't some microphonetic detail you can only find with an acoustic analysis, but something that laymen listeners are pointing out on social media! We're going to dive into these pronunciations and see if we can't explain where they came from.

Quote from the Straight Dope member Wile E. It's not so much the breathiness but the mispronounciation of words that drives me nuts. Here's the lyrics. I must confess when I wear this dress, I feel like dancing the whole night with you, 'Cause you are the one I could see having fun with, Not just for the night but for the rest of my life,Doo doo doo... On 'confess' and 'this' she stretches out the 's' sounds so it sounds like she's a singing snake. Then 'dress' which normally rhymes with 'confess' is pronounced 'drey-ess'

If you want to get straight to the good stuff, scroll past this paragraph. For those of you who want the boring nerd details, my methodology was as follows: I listened to as many of the songs on the Straight Dope thread as I could, and also listened to the songs from the Buzzfeed and Kelly Hoppenjams article. If someone noted that a song had a distinct pronunciation, I tried to listen for that pronunciation in the song; if I heard it myself, I included it and if I did not, I left it out. I also included some songs that some informants told me were examples of indie voice (such as Halsey's cover of "Love Yourself") or potential progenitors of indie voice that I found shared characteristics with the other songs (Adele and Amy Winehouse). I also included a song that I do not consider to have "indie voice" overall but had a notable pronunciation that was very similar to another "indie voice" pronunciation ("What Kind of Man" by Florence + the Machine).

ADDENDUM: A lot of people have asked why most of these examples are of women. I have written a post explaining why most of the examples are women, even though there are men who do Indie Voice as well. If you are interested in learning more about the methodology and how it ended up biasing the result, please read the addendum and let me know your examples of men who have linguistic Indie Voice.

Features of Indie Voice

The transcriptions below will include both ad hoc spellings (e.g. "cheIst") and International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions ([tʃɛɪst]).

  • /ʌ/ 🔊 → [a] 🔊 . The vowel in words like butt and STRUT is pronounced higher, like 'a' in Spanish. This is found in older varieties of Received Pronunciation (Wells 1982:291-292).
    • "This is lav [lav] bat [bat]" (love [lʌv] but [bʌt]) Adele – Chasing Pavements (2008)
    • "Acting ap [ap]" (up [ʌp]) PomplamooseMusic – Single Ladies (2009)
    • "Lacky [laki], lucky me" (lucky [lʌki]) Kat Edmonson – Lucky (2012)
    • "You are not abav me" (above [əbʌv]) Allie Goertz – The Room Song (2013)
    • "You still hit my phone ap [ap]" (up [ʌp]) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
  • Dipthongization. This is one of the most distinctive features of Indie Voice – turning monophthongs into diphthongs. These diphthongs are closing diphthongs – they go from a low vowel to a high vowel. The one exception is /ʊ/ → [ʊɪ].
      /ɛ/ 🔊 → [ɛɪ] 🔊 . The vowel in words like "dress" has a short 'ih' added to it at the end.
    • "nearly put to deIth [dɛɪθ]" (death [dɛθ]) CocoRosie – Lemonade (live) (2010)
    • "I must confeiss [kənfɛɪs], when I wear this dreiss [drɛɪs]" (confess [kənfɛs] dress [drɛs]) Meiko – Stuck On You (2013)
    • "I don't ever think about deIth [dɛɪθ]" (death [dɛθ]) Lorde – Glory & Gore (2013)
    • "Carves into my hollow cheIst [tʃɛɪst]" (chest [tʃɛst]) Halsey – Drive (2015)
    • "...My freIndz [frɛɪnz]" (friends [frɛnds]) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
      /ʌ/ 🔊 → [ʌɪ] 🔊 . The vowel in words like "just" has a short 'ih' added to it at the end.
    • "Buit [bʌɪt] ships are fallible, I say" (but [bʌt]) Joanna Newsom – Bridges and Balloons (2004)
    • "I cannot ruh-in [rʌɪn] now" (run [rʌn]) Amy Winehouse – Wake Up Alone (2006)
    • "She's up all night for good fuIn [fʌɪn]" (fun [fʌn]) Daughter – Get Lucky (2013)
    • "I’ll be the wuIn [wʌɪn]" (one [wʌn]) Pitbull ft Kesha – Timber (2013)
    • "JuIst [dʒʌɪst] let me be" (just [dʒʌst]) Bebe Rexha – I Don’t Wanna Grow Up (2015)
    • "...cold to the tuItch [tʌɪtʃ]" (touch [tʌtʃ]) Shawn Mendes – Stitches (2015)
    • " look that muitch [mʌɪtʃ]" (much [mʌtʃ]) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
      Other: /ʊ/ 🔊 → [ʊɪ] 🔊 , /ɑ/ 🔊 → [ɑɪ] 🔊 , /ɔ/ 🔊 → [ɔɪ] 🔊 . The vowels in "book," "spa," and "caught" respectively have a short 'ih' added on to them at the end. Note that "on" appears here with two different representations because the singers have different pronunciations.
    • "I just wanna look guid [gʊɪd] for you" (good [gʊd]) Selena Gomez – Good For You (2015)
    • "then you swore oIn [ɑɪn]" (on [ɑn]) MisterWives – Our Own House (2015)
    • "If you think that I'm still holding oIn [ɔɪn] [...] and baby I be moving oIn [ɔɪn]" (on [ɔn]) Halsey – Love Yourself (2016)
  • /eɪ/ 🔊 → [æɪ] 🔊 . This feature is also found in Cockney English (Wells 1982:307) and some Southern American accents.
    • "They were inflAEimed [flæɪmz]" (flames [fleɪmz]) CocoRosie – Lemonade (live) (2010)
    • "That boy's got my heart in a silver cAEige [kæɪdʒ]" (cage [keɪdʒ]) Flight Facilities – Crave you ft. Giselle (2010)
    • "The rules of the gAEime [gæɪm]" (game [geɪm]) Grace Vanderwaal – I Don't Know My Name (2016)
  • R-Vocalization. Here, the r sound is replaced with an 'ee' [i] or 'ih' [ɪ] sound. This is unusual and not found in any accent that I am aware of.
    • "Even if it leads no-wey [noʊwɛi]" (nowhere [noʊwɛə]) Adele – Chasing Pavements (2008)
    • "Never saw you befoi [bəfɔɪ] [...] let me show you the doi [dɔɪ]" Allie Goertz (before [bəfɔ:] door [dɔ:]) – The Room Song (2013)
  • /ɪ/ 🔊 -> [i] 🔊 . The lax 'ih' sound is turned into the tense 'ee' sound, so that words like "kit" sound more like "keet." This is a curious one: these singers do not have Indie Voice, but you can hear the Chrish vine has "keechen" as pronunciation of "kitchen," which suggests it is part of the Indie Voice.
    • "Moon speelin' [spilɪn] in" (spillin' [spɪlɪn]) Amy Winehouse - Wake Up Alone (2006)
    • "Thees [ðis] is love [...] I am in love weeth [wiθ] you" (this [ðɪs] with [wɪθ]) Adele - Chasing Pavements (2008)
    • "What kind of man loves like thees [ðis]?" (this [ðɪs]) Florence + the Machine - What Kind of Man (2015)
  • /aɪ/ 🔊 -> [ɑɪ] 🔊 . The first element in the diphthong in words like RIDE is pronounced lower. This can be found in London English (Wells 1982:308) and some New York accents.
    • "I've been so caught up in mah-y [mɑɪ] job" (my) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
    • "If love is a lie [lɑɪ]" (lie [laɪ]) Bebe Rexha - I Don't Wanna Grow Up (2015)
    • "Mai [mɑɪ] sister's friend" (my [maɪ]) Grace Vanderwaal – I Don't Know My Name (2016)

Origins of Indie Voice

Who started indie voice? I've seen a lot of people say that artists as diverse as Regina Spektor, Bjork, Kate Bush, and Connie Rae Bailey were the inspiration. These are post-hoc explanations by people on the outside talking about indie voice. I've done a cursory look at the musicians mentioned in this article to see if there was some musician that they all say influenced them, but there were no real recurring names. There are examples of indie voice without the distinct sound changes in 2005, which suggests that the singing style itself dates back to that time.

As for the sound changes, the earliest example of diphthongization happening in Folk Indie Voice back in 2004. This is a pretty isolated example - I had a hard time finding pre-2010 examples of Indie Voice sound changes, so these pronunciations may not have yet been common at the time. Some examples that do not have the Indie voice but do demonstrate the sound changes are from this period: Amy Winehouse and Adele. Taken as a whole, this period of Indie Voice has a lot less diphthongization, more STRUT-raising, and more /eɪ/ → [æɪ].

  • "Buit ships are fallible, I say, " Joanna Newsom – Bridges and Balloons (2004)
  • "moon speeling in / I cannot ruin now" Amy Winehouse – Wake Up Alone (2006)
  • "Thees is lav bat /no wey" Adele – Chasing Pavements (2008)
  • "Acting ap, drink in my cup" PomplamooseMusic – Single Ladies (2009)
  • "They were in flAEims / nearly put to deIth" CocoRosie – Lemonade (live) (2010)
  • "In a silver cAEige [AEi]" Flight Facilities – Crave you ft. Giselle (2010)
  • "Lacky lucky me" Kat Edmonson – Lucky (2012)
  • "Never saw you befoi/let me show you the doi/you are not abav me" Allie Goertz – The Room Song (2013)
  • "ɑi started to cry" Nataly Dawn and Lauren O’Connell – I Started A Joke (2013)
  • “I must confeIss, when I wear this dreIss” Meiko – Stuck On You (2013)
  • "Good fuIn" Daughter – Get Lucky (2013)

Around 2013 seems to be when Folk Indie Voice starts crossing over to pop music and creating its own thing, the Pop Indie Voice. As mentioned above, the voice becomes thinner and more spread out compared to the breathy, waifish Folk Indie Voice.

  • "I’ll be the wuIn" Pitbull ft Kesha – Timber (2013)
  • "Guid for you" Selena Gomez – Good For You (2015)
  • "Hollow cheIst" Halsey – Drive (2015)
  • "JuIst let me be" Bebe Rexha – I Don’t Wanna Grow Up (2015)
  • "Then you swore oIn" MisterWives – Our Own House (2015)
  • "TuItch" Shawn Mendes – Stitches (2015)
  • "What kind of man loves like thees?" Florence + the Machine - What Kind of Man (2015)
  • "Rules of the gaeim/mai sister's friend" Grace Vanderwaal - I Don't Know My Name (2016)

Explaining Indie Voice

Linguistically, there is no singular source of Indie Voice. A handful of these changes (/aɪ/ -> ɑɪ, /eɪ/ → [æɪ], /ʌ/ → [a]) appear in London English or Received Pronunciation. It is therefore possible that many indie singers were influenced by some earlier singer(s) from England who sang with their native accent. This explanation is complicated by the fact that these sound changes aren't unique to London English. /aɪ/ -> ɑɪ also appears in New York City English, and /eɪ/ → [æɪ] appears in Southern American English. The simpler explanation is that there was a single source for all three instead of each pronunciation coming from a different source.

The most distinctive feature of indie voice, the diphthongization, has no ready analogue in varieties of English. It does have an interesting pattern: diphthongization often happens when a single-syllable word is being sung in two syllables, and the second syllable is higher in pitch. Moreover, the consonants following the diphthongized vowel are alveolar consonants, near the alveolar ridge. The ‘i’ in these diphthongs is a close front vowel, meaning it’s near the alveolar ridge. It’s possible that this diphthongization developed as a side effect of trying to reach the higher note while staying on the same word and then moving to an alveolar consonants. The starting point of the diphthongs are almost all low in the mouth, meaning that the tongue would have to travel farther to get to the alveolar consonant. This may also explain the very unusual R-vocalization found in the “The Room Song” and “Chasing Pavements.”

It is notable that the diphthongization found in folk indie songs and early pop songs, to my ears, sounds subtler compared to the diphthongization found in the later pop indie songs. The "buit" from Joanna Newsom and "deith" from Lorde sound much less pronounced next to the "tuitch" of Shawn Mendes and the "guid" of Selena Gomez. The diphthongization may be something that became more exaggerated with time.

As for /ɪ/ -> [i], your guess is as good as mine.

Why Did Indie Voice Develop?

It's all good and well to document the history of indie voice and to note the sound changes associated with it. But I am certain many of you are still left with the question of why Indie Voice exists in the first place. Why do singers continue to sing in this style?

Some commenters, such as Kelly Hoppenjams and Rachael Lawrence, have suggested that Indie Voice is a matter of “trying to sound different” – the idea being that pronouncing things a little unusually will cause people to remember you, even if it is as “that singer who says guId.” The problem is that, as demonstrated by the fact that we can identify all these singers as Indie Voice singers, it doesn’t really help them stand out as much as it helps them blend into a style that already exists.

Perhaps the best way to understand Indie Voice is that it's really about fitting into the requirements of a musical genre. As mentioned above, some of the characteristics do appear in English English - we can speculate that some of these pronunciations may have originated with an English English singer, and then other singers copied that singing style. It bears repeating that the indie girl voice is a phenomenon restricted to singing, not speaking. Grace Vanderwaal, who was 12 at the time of this recording, can be heard speaking in General American before launching into her song.

If someone spoke like this, we would find it unusual because it does not correspond to any known variety of English. But when they come together in song, they form an immediately recognizable pattern that tells us what type of music the singer is trying to fit into. If you listen to and like singers with Indie Voice, you may be influenced by them and reproduce Indie Voice in your own singing. This is similar to singers who sing "babay" and "it's gonna be may". I doubt that pop singers singing "you're sweet to may" are consciously aware that they are doing these pronunciations or where they come from. It's just part of the register of pop singing at this point. The same seems to apply to Indie Voice. The exact origins of it may not be clear; trying to figure out why some changes stick and others fade away is, as John McWhorter says, the equivalent of trying to predict where bubbles appear in one’s soup.

Moving Forward from Banahnies and Avocaydies

Indie Voice is a divisive and distinctive style of singing, but it's been around in some form or other for 15 years. It would be interesting to see if this trend continues into the future, changes into something else, or disappears entirely. Moreover, what other distinctive registers can be found in music, which is more permissive of unusual pronunciations than regular speech? Understanding the trajectory of the Indie Voice helps us understand how new genre registers form in music, how quickly they are adopted, and what happens to them in the future.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see more long-form articles like this in the future, you can support me by buying me a coffee at Ko-Fi! ☕️

Works Cited

  • Wells, John 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  1. Wondering if there are subtle beginnings in Emily Haines (Metric) and Feist, going back to 2004.

  2. This phenomenon is something that is really interesting to me. A video I found very informative is by Aimee Nolte titled "Why Do Pop Singers Sound SO WEIRD??" ( In it she lays out the fact that singers in jazz, rock and pop have always sung vowels in odd ways. The difference in todays pop is that people are copying this much more frequently. Something I found interesting is the fact that two of the modern examples she uses are songs written by Sia, Chandelier and Diamonds (recorded by Rihanna). As a massive Sia fan I'm very much used to hearing words weirdly pronounced, but has never found it irritating or really that strange, in fact I loved it. She might also be one of the more "extreme" cases of this kind of singing, especially during her live performances.

    In a recent article on NPR "Sia Is The 21st Century's Most Resilient Songwriter" things gets even more interesting (I suggest reading the whole article for full context). The writer says this describing Sia's singing on Chandelier- "On the verses she trips across syllables like skipping stones and chews vowels like gum"- which I found to be both funny and accurate. But besides her own songs, Sia is also a very prolific songwriter who records a lot of demos, and singers have been known to completely copy the melodies and sound. In the case of "Diamonds" Sia first thought her own vocal was on the final recording by Rihanna. And personally after having listened to so much of Sia's music I can often recognize if other artists' songs are written by her. The most recent example being Rihannas Sledgehammer (a song from the Star Trek soundtrack), which I could detect was a "Sia song" after hearing just the first second of her singing.

    The most interesting part in the article (having to to with this subject) is this: "Even artists who don't record Sia demos sound like her: You hear her voice in the splayed syllables of Alessia Cara, Halsey and Julia Michaels, or non-songwriters like Selena Gomez who imitate them. And the influence goes back far. In 2008, Sia told Rolling Stone about setting up a collaboration with Amy Winehouse, she of the hundreds of blue-eyed soul imitators. "No way," Winehouse reportedly said. "I'm intimidated by you. I've been listening to you since I was a teenager."

    Could Sia be to "blame" for the indie voice? If Amy Winehouse could have been influenced by her and someone like Adele was in turn influenced by Amy, something she's spoken about several times. In a Rolling Stone article ( Adele is quoted saying Amy was the reason she started writing her own songs and that she owes 90 percent of her career to Amy. Sia certainly isn't the only one "tripping across syllables" and "chewing vowels like gum" but could she have been one of the biggest influences; indirectly because of her early career in the 90's (and maybe early 2000's) that Amy was listening to and more directly after becoming a sought after songwriter in LA and then with her career exploding with 2014's Chandelier? I would love to know what you think.

    1. Sia is definitely an influence on the musical aspect of indie voice, although she is more ambitious vocally on songs like Titanium and Chandelier than most indie voice-style singers. I haven't looked into her pre-1000 Forms of Fear stuff yet, so this would definitely be an interesting place to start looking if Amy Winehouse says she's influenced by her! Thanks for the heads up.

    2. I think Billie Holiday has more of an influence on this whole genre than most people realize

    3. YUP. I can absolutely hear Billie's influence.

    4. Agreed to the Billie Holiday, I have always linked it to that old timey style of singing, except that this modern incarnation fills me with a toxic concotion of rage and cringe, so irritating I find it

  3. this post is great. thank you and congratulations

  4. Dave Matthews started this indie voice phenomenon. He went mainstream around 1994 and after this we started hearing others using his enunciation, or maybe pronunciation, style. The difference with Dave is he enunciates/pronounces words naturally- he isn't putting on this "indie voice." His sound is a bit more subtle than the women all mentioned here, but I do believe certain people began copying the way he pronounces vowels, etc (John Mayer being one) and then the females started running with it and totally took it in a new and annoying direction.

  5. First of all, phenomenal post.
    I'm wondering if there is some nostalgia at play as well. I find the voice to be a bit reminiscent of Billy Holiday and other female singers in the 1940s. I'm not a linguist, but the other thought I have is that it sounds like they're using rounder vowel sounds, which give a richer quality to the note.
    I actually really enjoy the "indie voice" and am not annoyed by it in the slightest.

    1. Many thanks! A lot of people have stated that they find the "indie voice" to be reminiscent of Billie Holiday in particular, although to be honest I am not quite sure how. It is definitely something I want to research in the future because if so many people say it reminds them of Billie Holiday, there's got to be something there.

      Linguistically speaking, I cannot notice lip rounding, which is what "roundness" usually refers to in linguistics. However, there could be a difference in vocal quality, where "roundness" could refer to something else. I would love to get the opinion of a vocal pedagogist on this, because I do think they're using a distinct vocal quality and that it is key to the "indie voice" sound.

      I myself like a lot of the songs listed here! The "indie voice" seems to be very divisive, but there is nothing inherent to it that makes it "bad." It simply is.

    2. This post is great! Disclaimer: I am not a linguist, so I am not commenting with specifics, but I did take a couple courses years ago. I have some theories, and I actually agree with the Billie Holiday thing. Not because the neo indie-pop voice shares the same exact patterns as Billie and other '40s era jazz singers, but because it was definitely developed from an attempt to sound more "classic" and I think Billie Holiday is shorthand for a genre also including Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James. In the mid-late 2000s, you had Amy Winehouse and Adele coming on the scene with big, vintage-sounding vocals that were a refreshing throwback to a pre-autotune time. It sounded like "real" talent compared to, say, 2009 post-career-high Britney Spears and her phoned in hit "Circus." By 2011-ish, Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox was going viral with jazz covers of pop songs, etc, which are a fun novelty because of the linguistic contrast of a pop song done in a jazz style. 1940-50s women's fashion was embraced as a quirky "alternative" indie style (carrying over from the '90s) with definite overlaps in the indie folk community, which, musically, was aiming for more "authenticity."

      Zoey Deschanel is like a one woman personification of mid-2000s indie-going-mainstream (quirky 50s inspired vintage style, folk-jazz indie music with her band She & Him)

      In my amateur opinion, it's a combo of indie-folk going mainstream like Feist's 1-2-3-4 on the Apple commercials and resurgent appreciation for midcentury jazz and soul singers combining to form a singing style that could be used by someone that wanted to be set apart from a "typical" modern pop diva and be heard as more "authentic." At first, it sounded very different/old-meets-new, but now it's lead to some convenient new pronunciations/vowel styles (i.e. dipthongs) that are differentiated from their origins and have now become standard pop singing style and replaced 90s-2000s conventions.


  6. I remember that before "indie voice" was a thing, there was a run of female indie singers who were sometimes criticized in the indie press for "singing like babies." Enough of these vocalists popped up in the early-to-mid 1990s that many observers saw it as a trend or burgeoning style.

    Examples include Frente ("Bizarre Love Triangle," 1992), Juliana Hatfield ("No Answer," 1992), and Jill Sobule ("I Kissed a Girl," 1995). That Jill Sobule song in particular sounds like it's on the verge of turning into indie [girl] voice.

  7. Love this post! Nice job. As for the comparison to Billie Holliday, I totally disagree with it. Her vocal style is entirely different from this "indie voice" described here. I also disagree with the comparisons in the comment above such as Frente and Juliana Hatfield....these women don't pronounce vowels or have other pronunciation similar to these modern "indie" types. The mention of Dave Matthews is right on, I mean how obvious. Matthews' vocal style is much more similar to many of the female syles mentioned in the OP. I agree many female singers post Dave Matthews emergence use his vocal style, especially the "ahh" and "ahhr" and other vowel sounds, the soft falsetto that isn't really quite a falsetto. Have they copied him? Who knows. But the similarity IS obvious. Many indies have taken this vocal style many steps further and have even developed a sort of indie "accent." I consider the "indie voice" to be annoying. Or irritating. I did appreciate Matthews' way perhaps because he isn't putting on a style but is singing more naturally. Anyway great write up. I enjoyed it!

    1. If you re-read the comment, it doesn't say that Frente and Juliana Hatfield had the "indie voice" that is being described in the article, so you're disagreeing with something you made up

    2. If you re-read your own comment, you'll remember you said "female indie singers who were sometimes criticized in the indie press for singing like babies" to which you gave examples, as well as claiming a Jill Sobule song was "on the verge of turning into the indie girl voice"... which is the entire topic here. You compared these singers to the modern indie voice types, otherwise, what was your point of mentioning them? Your repy is pointless. Your claim that you weren't making a comparison is "made up." Rather than be offended someone disagreed with you, move on.

    3. Many thanks! I myself do not hear the comparison with Billie Holiday, but enough people mention it that there must be something to it that I am not noticing. It may fall outside of the realm of the linguistic and more in the realm of the musical. It is worth noting that there may be more "indie voices" than I have noted in the article, which could explain why some people will say "X is a definite influence on indie voice" and others will say "X has nothing to do with indie voice." I started this article with the assumption that there was one type of indie voice and I came to realize that the "pop indie" and "folk indie" voices were related, but actually distinct, so it's quite possible there are more "indie voices" that nobody has seriously studied. I admit to being no expert on indie music, so I am open to the possibility that there are other strains that could be integral to understanding 2010-era indie voice.

  8. This is really interesting! Anonymous mentioned Metric and Feist (Canadian), but after listening to several examples I wonder if the vowels are a common thread amongst English as a second language learners from Nordic countries, particularly Iceland possibly Sweden, who learned English English in school.

  9. Have we considered the influence of artists like Bjork and The Cranberries on these discussions?

    1. Bjork is one I have seen mentioned a lot as an influence, but after listening to her output, I could not find any examples of the sort of diphthongization that is most strongly associated with the style. She might have an influence on some of the other features, which I did not check for. I do think she certainly had an influence regarding vocal quality and style. I will check her again in a future revision of the article.

      The Cranberries had not come up in my preliminary research before, but after writing this article a handful of people have stated that the Cranberries could be an influence on this style, and I will certainly listen for these features in their music for a future revision of the article.

  10. It’s Nico from the velvet underground. That’s where it started.

    1. Nico had the least amount of it of anyone you could possibly name.
      Maybe you haven't really listened closely.

  11. Some wild speculation here but I wonder if it might be stemming from a sort of pidgin (if you will excuse the misappropriation of a linguistic term) of music and accents. First, I suspect there is not a common origin point for all of these changes. I do not think it is reasonable to point to a single artist as the influence for all of this. Most musicians I know grab from a number of influences.

    Hipster culture went out of its way to find obscure artists and elevated a number of folk-inspired groups and artists into the larger cultural eye. Most folk musicians I know have broad musical tastes and draw from artists all over the world. The rise of music sharing and self-publishing has made it easier to gain an international audience and easier to access music from previously obscure markets. I am sure none of these observations are mind-blowing but they are important to my train of thought.

    If Pop Indie Voice finds its roots in Folk Indie Voice then, rather than look to a single source for multiple linguistic quirks, it might be reasonable to consider that a handful of influential folk singers developed habits taken from multiple sources. Consider that few singers using Indie Voice express all the traits. It starts as a mixed bag of quirks developed from stylistic choices and attempts to emulate people singing in foreign accents. As folk indie artists start influencing each other, it gains the attention of pop artists. It gains in popularity and starts to solidify into a style and codified by audiences and critics. As it gains an audience and gets further codified, it might even go from a musical pidgin to a musical creole.

    1. Good observations. The reason I mentioned Dave Matthews is there was an explosion of chicks copying his style, mainly the way he pronounced his vowels (the A in his "are" and "all," the O in his "for" as examples) on the indie scene in both NY and LA back in the mid nineties. Particular bands that were associated with friends of mine said they loved the way Dave made his vowels sound more open and a bit softer and began mimicking the sound in their own singing styles. Soon, we were hearing it in everywhere. Like you said, artists draw from so many influences, and this indie voice phenomenon has developed into something even beyond DM's sound or any other person's style from years back. And instead of just repeating what you already said so well...I'll just say, good repy, I agree.

  12. Just a couple quibbles – in /ʌ/ → [a] the vowel gets lower, and in /aɪ/ → [ɑɪ] it gets backer.

  13. I just stumbled across this and it brings me joy to know I'm not the only one who noticed the "goyd for you" (Gomez) and "toich" (Mendes) affectations that every pop star seems to have adopted nowadays. My daughter LOVES Grace VanderWaal, while the alteration of the vowels drives me bonkers. Thanks for the informative post.

  14. Bravo! Great work in describing the "Newsome" effect. I do wonder why you don't mention her name more prominently though. Before her and CocoRosie, no one sung like that.

    1. If you could list any songs of Newsom's that have the vowel changes described in the article, I would gladly check them out and incorporate them into the next version of the article!

      No artist is given particular prominence because I don't have objective or even subjective grounds to make these claims yet - there simply isn't enough data. I am working on expanding the article in the future to be more specific about particular musicians which have been pointed out to me as influences, but the amount of data I would need to be able to make the claims *confidently* (as opposed to "somebody said this") is horrendous and would basically need to be made from the ground up. I don't quite have the resources to pull such an undertaking off, unfortunately, hence why I limit the scope to a top-down view.

    2. Sang, Liam. Sang. It's been more than a year since your post but I...just--can't--let it: go.

  15. What do you even mean by waifish as a descriptive word for a voice? That's kinda weird... I think I can hear Karen Dalton's influence in the way Joanna newsoms voice but I can't really hear buit just buuhhht

    1. "waifish" when describing voices is used to say that the voice is high-pitched, delicate-sounding, and reminiscent of a child. The idea is that the singer is singing in a way that implies vulnerability, but in a child-like sense as opposed to adult-like vulnerability.

      I've heard Karen Dalton mentioned as a potential influence on Indie Voice before; I'll have to look into her.

      Yes, it's very short and hard to hear. I wish I had a cappella versions of these tracks so I could slow them down and pass them through a spectrogram to be able to point to. I'm working on a revision to this article that will have some more examples that might be easier to hear.

  16. I just wish people would stop singing like this because it is so annoying to listen to. It sounds like they are singing with gauze stuffed in their mouths.

    1. I agree. What a terrible trend. Many of these people probably have lovely voices. I feel this singing style makes it impossible to truly appreciate the artist's voice...or the songs they sing, for that matter.

    2. I agree. It's forced. But what do I know? I'm just an old man who listens to singers who pronounce words without grating affectation.

  17. I've come across this great article while trying to wrap my mind around Tessa Violet's Crush. She seems to modify [du] into something more like [dɵ] as heard here:

    By no means I'm a linguist myself, so I would be glad to hear your opinion on that. Does it count as an "indie girl voice" trick or is it something else?

  18. I've heard a grand total of 90 seconds of Billie Eilish, across maybe 5 songs. I had to hit stop. I immediately thought "oh my GOODNESS...this is bananies and avacodies". I started searching vocal fry, and ended up here about 10 links in...and found bananies and avacodies. So, I'm not the only one. It's like a virus that spread through youtube! It's a bit like how a lot of rock stars in the late 60's picked up and slightly modified Dylan's idiosyncratic vocal style. It's very, very dated. Hendrix copied it, and even Tom Petty, and they did something new with it.

    Make a vocal fry "ahhhh" sound, slightly stick your tongue out, then move your jaw up and down: basic indie sound in 5 seconds :)

    What a masterful post! Love it.

  19. Oh my goodness, this is gold!

  20. I think that this thing started to become popular after Norah Jones started doing the sultry lounge jazz singer voice. Very glad I found this post, I've been wondering about this phenomenon for awhile

  21. Ihae always felt it was in a big part, a lot of singers not sounding like Billie Holiday, but fancying that they sound like Billie Holiday. There was a certain influence I think from 90s swingish women singers, especially the singer from Squirrel Nut Zippers who fancied herself a 20s style singer/Billie Holiday. I always found it to be totally affected, and i was the guy seeing all the live swing and jump blues bands in San Francisco in the 90s. Maybe they also throw in a bit of French accent sounds because they want to be Edith Piaf and Amilee too. Not a big fan.

  22. Thank you for publishing this. The diphthongization aspect has been bothering me for a while. I just had the misfortune of seeing a commercial featuring a song by a frequent offender; it pushed me over the edge and I finally Googled the nonsense. Found this, and am relieved to find that I am not alone in at least noticing this effing of the language!

  23. I just stumbled upon this and WOW this is the most detailed analysis of indie singing I've ever seen. I was a linguistics major so it also brought back memories with all the IPA :). I do have to say, I cannot stand indie singing!! Every time I hear it on the radio I have to change it. I cringed listening to all those examples, and that first video you posted (the kitchen) made me cringe the hardest I've ever cringed. I wanted to remove myself from planet Earth. I wish this trend would end right now, :'( bring back the beautiful voices from the old days - clear and classy pronunciations of vowels so you can actually understand what they're saying, sounding more mature and like professional singers.

  24. what an incredible read this was! Personally, I've always felt that if the indie voice would have developed from anywhere it would be from an exaggeration and distortion of the traditional Southern-British accent. If you tried to sing a song with that sort of dialect it's surprisingly easy to start rounding the overall pronunciation into that signature Indie voice. But I'm frankly not a linguist and just stumbled across this randomly

  25. I googled this "topic" and came to this page after hearing a song by Lxandra (ugghh). I absolutely despise the indie girl voice. I find it is perfectly exemplified by Lxandra, and also Feist. I remember hearing that terrible "1,2,3,4" song in Apple commercials years ago and hated it with a passion. Please stop singing this way it is like fingernails an effing chalkboard and you sound like an idiot.

  26. Thank you for this article - brilliant! This style of singing, like you have cotton wool stuffed in your mouth, drives me crazy. It's such an irritating affectation.

  27. I love how people keep finding this years after it was written. I like the word “affectation” from the previous comment. I think it’s a time bound trend that will sooner or later be considered tacky.

    Think of how in the late 60s and 70s there was a whole crop of female singers that used ascending and descending glissandos every other note. Think of Linda Ronstadt on Different Drum. Every other note! OrOlivia Newton-John on Mellow. Or any of the covers or the original of Both Sides Now. Those versions of those songs did not age well.

    This indie girl sound seems to be on the wane, though a modified version with much less annoyance has been popularized by Eilish. But I have never finished listening to even one of her songs. I just can’t.

    1. Yeah, 'indie voice' had a lot longer lasting appeal than I expected when I wrote this!

      Think of how in the late 60s and 70s there was a whole crop of female singers that used ascending and descending glissandos every other note. Think of Linda Ronstadt on Different Drum. Every other note! OrOlivia Newton-John on Mellow.

      Yes, the vibrato on almost every extended note was typical. I do miss the use of vibrato in pop music. There was a recent Lady Gaga interview where she said that her producers told her to suppress her vibrato on her first album because it wasn't pop enough, too Broadway. Surely there's a happy medium somewhere in there?

      This indie girl sound seems to be on the wane, though a modified version with much less annoyance has been popularized by Eilish. But I have never finished listening to even one of her songs. I just can’t.

      I am preparing a follow-up article to this one that I hope to release this year (I've been working on it basically as soon as this one was released). One of the things I want to note in it is how not all the features I list here seem to be as long-lasting. The vowel-breaking, for example, may not be as representative of this genre as it once was.

  28. To add my absolutely useless two cents - I do believe that some of this vocal style lends itself musically to the voice itself. Stylistically it enables them to manipulate their vocal chords into a better instrument. Every muscle movement contributes to the sound itself, and that include how you form the words themselves. There is a freeing and opening of the musical instrument when ignoring how we speak in favor of how our bodies make the noise work favorably. If that makes any sense, like, at all?

    1. It does. For many reasons it serves the genre, otherwise it would not be so prevalent. It makes something that at this point is standard/derivative still manage to sound expressive.

  29. Great post. Thanks for the detailed explanation. I have been curious about these phenomena for several years. Another early reference point for unusual or at last uncommon inflection and pronunciation might be Macy Gray; namely her 1999 hit, "I Try."

  30. I am thrilled to have stumbled onto this. You’ve really broken it down. I tried to parody this sound in 2014 but it is most satisfying to read about it in so much detail, which I now regret was missing from my song. Here it is, for fun, and thank you!

  31. "Blue-eyed soul". Surely that's now considered a racial slur insinuating that it's not really proper soul if the artist isn't black? I'm not saying I personally find it offensive and I guess it had it's purpose once but isn't music for all people and so dividing terms like this should now be dropped?

  32. I came across this article and thought it was great. At least some aspect of the indie sound, especially as it pertains to female indie singers, my first recollection of hearing that style, that ethereal, jazz influenced and interesting pronunciation of words, was Natalie Merchant. As far as I can tell, she is the queen of the modern female indie voice.

  33. Thank the gods you wrote this. It's exactly what I was looking for. Thank you. Thank you.

  34. Thank You!! I knew I wasn't going crazy

  35. Great article, I produce a lot of music for singer songwriters and the vowel manipulation really makes me want to eat my own head. Most of them quote Florence and the machine as their biggest influence, seems to be a good source

  36. This is incredibly interesting. I think it's helped me realize a little bit of my irrational prescriptivism towards it so thank you!

  37. People have always had been making things their own, the significant turn was when that went to be so mainstream and copied.

  38. Indie idiotas : there are heroin singers. And there are girls trying to fake a Scottish-type pronunciation or accent. (Monothong becomes dipthong.). ANNOYING.