The Art of the Cover Song

Nov 23, 2016

blog - the art of the cover song

Cover songs. You know ’em. You love ’em


Other times they can be pretty horrible. But they are where most musicians begin (if you really think about it, even all classical music is cover music!). With the passing of Canadian music legend Leonard Cohen this past week, covers have been on our minds. His song “Hallelujah” is easily one of the most popular songs to cover. Since he wrote and released it in 1984, it has been cover by well over 300 different artists, in countless languages the world over. Some of the most notable covers include John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and k. d. lang. Each of these interpretations on Cohen’s work brings something new and unique to the song, breathing new life into a beautiful message. But how do you choose the songs you want to cover? And once you’ve made that choice, how do you go on to make it your own, and not simply a copy of someone else’s work? These are exactly the concepts we’ll be exploring this week, and we’re going to use some pretty amazing covers to help us out!

Choosing the Right Song

The first thing you need to do it figure out what song you want to cover. This can be pretty tricky all by itself. Before settling on a song, you’ve got to determine what this song will be for. By that I mean, are you doing this for fun, or for a gig? And if it’s for a gig, what are you hoping to achieve? These may seem like simple questions, but they can get rather complicated. For example, if you will be playing live music at a bar, or similar venue, then you might want to consider picking a song in your own genre, that you will be able to duplicate exactly. In a setting like a pub, your audience will be most impressed with your ability to sound exactly like the bands who made these songs popular. On the other hand, if you are looking more to show off your own talent, rather than just imitate someone else, then the choice becomes a little more complex. Let’s assume that you want to take an existing song and make it your own, rather than simply doing what’s been done.

The first thing you need to do when choosing a song to cover is make sure it’s a song you love. That love and appreciation will show through your performance more than anything. The energy that flows through a singer and band performing a song they all love is truly a sight to see. Secondly, try to pick a song outside the genre that you usually stick to. Pop songs done in heavy metal can be incredible, and heavy metal songs sung as pop can be amazingly heartfelt. For a great example of this, just check out Nine Inch Nails’ dark and lilting “Hurt,” versus Johnny Cash’s heartfelt and emotional county-ish cover. Even Nine Inch Nails frontman and songwriter Trent Reznor recognizes Cash’s version as the better song. Lastly, try picking a song that was made popular by a singer that is the opposite gender as you. In many cases, a woman singing a song written and made popular by a man (or vise versa) will give the lyrics an altogether new level of meaning. For an example of this, check out Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” which most people don’t realize is a Kris Kristofferson cover. It has a completely different feel than the original.

Making it Your Own

Okay, so you’ve picked a song you love, hopefully either by a group outside your genre, or sung by a member of the opposite sex. Or even both! Now it’s time for the tricky part: making it your own. So, what makes a great cover unique and often more popular than the original? Let’s break it down into 3 different things you can change to give the song an entirely new feel.

1. Change the Tempo.

Mix things up a bit! Turn an uptempo, toe tapper into a ballad. Make a romantic song into a bouncing dance number. Make sure you’re not too random with the tempo changes though. You’ve got to keep the lyrics and meaning in mind when you make your tempo choices. As an example of this, let’s look at “Red Red Wine,” originally performed by Neil Diamond, but made famous by UB40. Neil Diamond’s version is the sad tale of a man who has lost everything. But with the addition of a reggae beat by UB40, and suddenly it’s an up beat, fun tune. It’s a pretty remarkable difference.

2. Change the Melody

Hey, no one says you have to sing the exact same notes in the exact same places! Yes, you should probably stick to most of the melody, otherwise the song probably wont be recognizable as a cover. Try instead to make small, but noticeable changes. Go high when the original goes low for example. Make subtle little changes throughout to make it more personal, especially if you will also be changing the genre. For an example of this, let’s turn to “Fields of Gold” by Sting, and the cover by Eva Cassidy. There are quite a few differences between the original and the cover here, including a significant tempo change, but try to listen for the melody differences as well as her her free-form, non-rhythmic vocals. Eva Cassidy makes this song her own with just a few subtle, but important changes.

3. Change the Feel

This is the big one! Take a heavy disco beat, and turn it into a soft and sweet acoustic ballad. Change a funk song into a pop anthem. Grab your audience’s attention with the song’s familiar hook, but keep them guessing. You want them to be able to recognize it, but maybe not right away. Make them work for it: “Why do I know this song? What is it? ..Oh! Oh yeah!”

For one of my favourite examplse of this, lets look to Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” and Reel Big Fish‘s SKA cover. This song was probably Miss Ford’s biggest hit, and Reel Big Fish’s unique cover makes it even more fun to belt out! In this case they chose to hook their audiences with the song’s familiar opening lyric, rather than with the distinct musical hook. Do whichever feels right for the feel you’re going for.

Good luck and happy covering!