No, not the shiny shinies that make us love your books, but the musical reworkings kind.
Of course everyone loves different things and I wouldn’t want to rain on anyone’s parade but when it comes to covers the passions run deeper than that, and I wanted to have a look at why some of the covers people rave about leave me utterly cold while others give me fifty shades of gooseflesh.
Starting on what I hope is an uncontroversial note that sets up the rationale for what follows. Take the original of this Phil Spector classic To Know Him is to Love Him.
It would take a very peculiar sensibility not to see that whilst the original song is beautiful and the original rendition is a minor classic, Amy Winehouse’s take on it lifts things to a wholly different level.
Amy had what Maria Callas had. She could bring a depth to a song that no one else, no matter how much more “perfect” their rendition might be, could approach. In short, she found something in the song that went beyond the mere words and notes – something haunting, heartbreaking, something that gave us an insight into the human condition, something that connected.
And that, basically, is the long and the short of the whole thing. Often the versions I find less or least satisfying are the most accomplished, the most beautiful, but when placed alongside their counterpart they simply *lack* something.
I found myself musing this in the context of Disturbed’s much-touted cover of Sound of Silence:
It’s brilliant, beautiful, a musical masterpiece. But it leaves me cold. The original makes me want to climb the railings of a motorway flyover and dive head first into the oncoming traffic.
Or take Hurt.
Sorry, Trent, that’s not hurt, that’s pain so fucking unbearable I want to peel the membranes from my eyeballs and roll them in salt because that would feel like having my skin licked by goosefeathers by comparison.
Yes, Johnny Cash makes us bawl our eyes out. Because he’s Johnny Cash. Because he recorded this and died. Because it’s beautiful and it’s one of the great musical legacies. But they’re comforting tears, reassuring tears, tears streaking from eyeballs that remain well and truly unpeeled. And the problem with the poignancy of cover versions that were the last thing anyone did is there’s always this
and sorry, Johnny, but this has literally everything you could ever want from a cover as well as the added emotional wallop.
In case my point isn’t clear, here is Roberta Flack’s beautiful performance of Killing me Softly.
Isn’t that lovely? Why yes, it’s exquisite.
But Lauryn Hill makes me feel like I just chowed down on battery acid and these are the last streaks of sound I will ever scratch from the universe with my dissolving nails.
Here are just a few more covers that take an original and open it up just enough to slip in some exquisite toxins
And just sometimes, more than one version does the business in very different ways
Ever since my first gig, I’ve been a firm believer that art is best when it crosses disciplinary boundaries. Aside from the obvious community-building advantages of introducing new groups of people to your work, you expose yourself to new influences. The excitement of seeing the way people in the different arts work, discussing ideas, thinking of ways you can enrich each others’ work, is incredibly exciting.
And I’ve been a lover of live music since long before I started writing seriously. There’s nothing quite so fabulous as unearthing and then sharing a new talent. I even spent a few months writing a column for the fabulous Indie Handbook doing just that. So, I’m always delighted to discover new musicians doing wonderful things, especially working across disciplines.
For goodness’ sake don’t take this as carte blanche for bombardment, but it’s interesting that I’ve now made two fabulous discoveries after being contacted on twitter. First, there was the brilliant author and illustrator Anna Fennel Hughes. Then, a few days ago, I was contacted by Louisa, the equally brilliant musician behind She Drew the Gun (here for twitter and here for Facebook). Her music has exactly the sense of fragility, fleetingness and cool sparseness that infuses the writing of Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto. So I am delighted that she agreed to speak to me.
1. You say of She Drew The Gun “Its not about being too polished and perfect its more about finding lyrical meaning and letting it flow.” I love every single bit of that. Do say more
Its about where my values lie really, the songs are an expression of an idea or a feeling at a certain point in time, you know you get that start of something you are creating and you let it turn into something, there is meaning in the lyrics, and the recording or the performance of the song is there to capture that. Also I think its probably a bit of a defence of my own voice and of the singer as a unique voice rather than a ‘brilliant’ voice, as certain parts of the industry would have you believing an artist should be. Its like the Bright Eyes lyric ‘I could have been a famous singer, If I had someone else’s voice’, I prefer the real voice to the ‘famous singer’s’
2. Your lyrics flow like free verse – where do you sit on the spectrum of song and spoken word? Is it a fluid position – would you ever consider performing without singing, or doing a show where you mix up singing and speaking?
I think it probably is a fluid position. I have some songs that sway more towards speaking in parts rather than singing although there is still a melody and of course rhythm, and I could imagine writing a bit further towards that direction. I’ve thought about performing an existing song in a poetry setting before, wondering if a song could translate, and I did think ‘why take something away from them? I write songs and there is a certain power that is brought to words through singing them… but I think there is also a freedom of expression that is brought to speaking rather than singing words, and maybe they are listened to more carefully. I have done gigs before where the sound wasn’t the best and I pretty much knew people hardly heard an actual lyric, I was glad they liked my background music, you know at least it must have been sonically pleasing but they never heard the words and I suppose with poetry every word counts and is listened to.
3. I am terribly prone to trying to find themes that form a unity in people’s work, so I tend to force things into boxes where they don’t belong, but the thing I get from everything about your lyrics, delivery and visuals is fragility in the sense of precariousness…
I like the analysis, maybe there is something in that. I’d be interested to hear what you think about that theme. Maybe there is a theme of change, of transition, looking for it, accepting it, not accepting it that kind of thing, and that is a precarious kind of business. Life and the way it works out for people can be pretty fragile in my eyes, when you don’t really know where it will take you. Hopefully there is usually a good message or story in there somewhere. Time machine is about regret and appreciating what you have got and that you probably wouldn’t have what you do if you hadn’t made the mistakes you did, so its best not to dwell on them too much. Although obviously songs mean different things to different people and that’s cool, someone said to me that for them the song is about a first love, or a love that you have been in before and you are no longer a part of each others lives, you end up as strangers like you had never met, and a part of you wishes you could go back to, I suppose that works too.
4. You say that you are interested in collaborations. Who would be your perfect collaboration partner? What kind of collaborations excite you the most? Whose work do you absolutely love in the worlds of art, literature, and film?
In literature I love Irvine Welsh, I started reading his books when I was 15. Ecstasy, The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, loved those books and they had a big impact. In the art world it would be Banksy, accessible, clever art, beautiful and thought provoking, everything I think art should be and not shut away in a gallery with an entrance fee. I love everything by Jeffrey Lewis, who is a songwriter but also a comic creator and visual artist, I’ve seen him do a live comic projection for a song about the french revoluion which was amazing. In film I don’t usually follow directors I just like films and I’m a sucker for a good sic fi but I do look out for Ken Loach, also like Mike Leigh. I’ve really loved Tom Hardy’s performances so far too especially in ‘Bronson’ and in ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’.
on a practical level, right now a perfect collaboration partner would be an animator to work with me on some visual art, an electronic music producer to help me to use digital audio as another instrument, a marketing maverick like George Lois to help me get heard. Or just someone with a child like curiosity who wants to learn all that stuff with me.
5. The music industry should do more…to realise its radical potential, to be a voice for those who need it, to bring people together for more than just a party, although parties are good too.
6. The music industry should do less…autotuning, I really don’t want to feel like we are heading towards a world where everybody has the same voices, the same fake tits and fucking uniform city centres every time I turn on the radio.
7. She Drew the Gun will be a success if/when…
If the work can move someone, or make somebody feel good or better, or contribute towards other peoples art ….or get to number one! no really the most important thing is to keep on writing, and hopefully to improve myself as a songwriter and a person I think that would be a good place to aim for. The first three statements I would count as success but ultimately if no one is gonna be coming to my gigs or listening to my songs in a year or two then I’m not gonna be able to do much of that so I do probably need some degree of material success in this business of music.
8. The really very beautiful (and, yes, glacial) video for Time Machine contains some lovely scenes set in Liverpool. How important for your work is a sense of place?
I think some sense of time and place is important, maybe more in the visual stuff than the songs which are probably more about place in the psychological sense. It is nice in the time machine video to show whereabouts in the world I am from, especially when it makes such a stunning backdrop, and a city which has music in its bones. This is where I gig and busk and meet other creative souls so I hope it will show through somewhere.
9. You use the phrase lo-fi yet your video and website are incredibly well designed and you have built a very strong image for your work in a very short time. To what extent do you feel torn as an acoustic artist working in a digital age? Are you pulled to focus on performing at the expense of your web presence, or are you tempted to play more with technology in your music?
thank you, well they are certainly lo-fi in the sense that I made the website and the video myself, so it’s not had the professional touch. I think, or I hope that its lo-fi in the sense of being quite down to earth lyrically anyway, and not too perfect in the recording.
I am an acoustic artist in what seems like a very digital scene but I actually think using technology in the writing process could be a way to open up more creativity, I mean just plugging a guitar into an amp brings out stuff that wouldn’t necessarily have happened if you were just writing on an acoustic. So I do see more possibilities than threats, there are definately things I feel frustrated at not being able to do myself right now, but also its nice to hear a simple guitar and a voice and I will always like that.