It’s nerve-racking talking to Lake Bell: The moment I speak, she’s sizing up my voice—judging its pitch, appraising its timbre, listening for any inflection, tic, or colloquialism that might give away where I’m from and how I was raised. More than anything, though, she judges whether I’m speaking with my authentic, “connected” voice, or whether I’ve affected an inauthentic tone.
The human voice has long been a point of fascination for the actor-writer-director, and her new audiobook Inside Voice: My Obsession with How We Sound, released this week by Malcolm Gladwell’s audio company Pushkin Industries, finds her tackling her favorite subject from the role of reporter. Bell is primarily known as an indie auteur and voice actor, having voiced everything from Apple product launches to an unconfirmed role in the upcoming Black Panther sequel, but she proves a shrewd journalist, interviewing a host of academics, vocal coaches and celebrities about why people talk the way they do. (Chris Rock, Bell’s rumored romantic interest, even makes a cameo.) The result is a charming auditory collage, more like an extremely long podcast than a traditional audiobook, filled with voices recognizable and obscure, soothing and grating, with Bell deftly shepherding listeners through the experience in her signature husky contralto.
A person’s voice is their most distinguishing characteristic, Bell says. “It’s your main source of communication with the world.” And every personal and cultural signifier imaginable—your age, sex, gender, class, race; your country and region of origin; your friends, family and occupation; everything that makes you you—informs the way it sounds. Your voice is as unique as your personhood and yet, also mutable, constantly changing, in ways subtle and profound, to adhere to different social contexts. So many people go through life blissfully unaware, or purposefully ignorant, of people’s voices, including their own, though. And this, Bell tells me, is negatively affecting our interpersonal relationships.
“In acting, we can really hear when a voice is authentic,” she explains. “You’re actually living within a character, and that means finding a connected voice within the character. That’s schmucky, woo-woo actor stuff, but it helps in real life, too—for when you’re talking to your children or relating to people in your work life. It extends beyond just a performative medium.”
The idea of a connected, authentic voice—a voice that we inhabit fully, richly, effortlessly—is a frequent refrain for Bell, and the key to not improving your speech, but better understanding and connecting others. Even if you’re not trying to sound like Don Draper at work (or on dates), you’ll find value in Inside Voice.
Bell’s fascination with voices began in childhood, when she realized she could delay her bedtime by entertaining her parents with her precocious talent for voice acting. After dinner, she’d stage an improvised late night talk show, the “Late Lake Show,” with Bell playing the roles of both host and guests, much to the delight of her parents and her friends. “Those were the emotional cookies I was given,” she says.
Growing up in New York, with its abundance of dialects, deepened her love of voices, as did her formal theater training in Europe. Every voice she encountered became another item in her massive and ever-growing arsenal of vocal skills. While in drama school in London, Bell once tried to surreptitiously record the workers at the Bulgarian embassy for a stage role, oblivious to the idea that she might be mistaken for a spy.
Bell’s assertiveness serves her well in Inside Voice. Throughout the book, she switches from weighty topics—such as how white supremacy and heteronormativity force racial and sexual minorities to engage in vocal code-switching—to lighter stories, such as how William H. Macy learned to speak like a Minnesotan for Fargo. (Later in our conversation, Bell goes on a tangent about people misusing “enamored with” instead of the grammatically correct “enamored of,” revealing that she is, in the most endearing way possible, a stickler for words.)
Inside Voice is sprawling in scope, but it’s most effective when exploring people’s personal vocal narratives. In interviews with Bell, Susie Essman explains that people love her expletive-filled tirades on Curb Your Enthusiasm because it’s a rare expression of unbridled female rage. Mother Jones writer Becca Andrews laments how she ditched her Southern drawl to conform to the intellectual class. The most heart-wrenching part of Inside Voice involves Pam Grier, a woman synonymous with blaxploitation cinema, a symbol of black female empowerment, tells Bells how finding her voice as an actress helped her process the trauma of a childhood sexual assault.
The audiobook is an earnest exploration of vocal patterns, except when it comes to what Bell calls the “sexy baby” voice—the whiny, high-pitched tone pioneered by Betty Boop in the 1930s, mainstreamed by Paris Hilton in the 2000s and now adopted by Zoomers resurrecting the bimbo aesthetic. Bell first criticized the sexy baby phenomenona in In a World…, the very good 2013 indie comedy Bell wrote, directed, and starred in about a woman trying to break into the old boys’ club of movie trailer voiceover artists. When it comes to sexy baby, Bell doesn’t hide her disdain for it, and for that she feels guilty.
“I have friends who have a higher pitch sound. That’s not what we’re talking about,” Bell clarifies. “The sexy baby voice is infantilized. And that is saying that a woman is most sexually attractive when she was at the most submissive point of her life. For me, that’s a problem.”
When spelled out like this, it’s hard to argue against sexy baby seeming like a regression in feminist politics, not to mention extremely creepy given the age disparity it implies. But Bell feels conflicted about condemning other women’s vocal choices.
“I desperately don’t want to be critical of sexy baby, however I am,” Bell says. “It’s conflicting for me because I want women to feel good and confident. But sexy baby feels inauthentic.” For contrast, Bell points to star progressive politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose voice is “youthful” but also connected and sincere.
Speaking with Bell, she tells me I have a “strong, generalized American accent,” (it took years of work to sound less Midwestern) and clocks me as someone who spends his free time discussing football with fellow bros (rude but accurate).
The politics of voice are so fraught that even a simple assertion, like Bell telling me I have a flat, generic American accent is potentially problematic. In a country as diverse as ours, who’s to say which accent is the standard? What constitutes a masculine voice, a feminine voice, a “gay” voice, a transgender voice? Why is African-American vernacular English, a system of speech with its own idioms and grammatical rules, considered improper? The answers to these are dizzyingly complex, and Inside Voice addresses them with nuance but without being tedious.
Inside Voice has practical value, too. The book includes several vocal exercises to help listeners better connect with their true voice, and Bell gives me an impromptu lesson in person. She corrects my posture. She instructs me to loosen my belly and chest. She teaches me to breathe so deep into my diaphragm that I feel it expand the small of my back. “It’s athletic,” she says. “Your whole body gets involved.”
Near the end of the audiobook, Drew Barrymore, in an interview with Bell, rhetorically asks, “Does anyone know their own voice?” The answer, in most cases, is no. Few people subject their own voice to scrutiny; it’s why everyone finds it off-putting to hear their voices played back to them.
The central tension of Inside Voice is that a person’s voice is both the sum of a multitude of environmental factors (and therefore changeable) and that each person also has a true voice that most accurately represents their inner character. We stumble upon it when experiencing a visceral emotion. “You are most connected when you’re weeping, when you’re truly sad. Or you’re laughing so hard you cry,” Bell says. “It’s primal.” It’s also no mistake, Bell notes, that so many self-work regimens involve deep breathing exercises. “That’s all indirectly tied to making your voice more connected.”
In inspecting your own voice, you’ll also be a more gracious listener, Bell argues. Much of Inside Voice focuses on how unconscious bias seeps into our perceptions of other people’s voices, and the antidote to that linguistic profiling is a greater awareness of voices in general.
“The authentic voice is worth striving for. Because in the same way that we’re responsible for our sound, we’re also responsible for listening and being generous with other people’s sounds,” she says. Finding your voice won’t just help your speech; it will make you a more realized person.