Having recorded a version of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads together, Mike Doughty and Rosanne Cash know a thing or two about covers. In fact the song features on the Soul Coughing man's latest album The Flip Is Another Honey (out now) which sees him tackling tunes from the likes of The Stone Roses, Low, Cheap Trick and more. Based on their experiences, the pair have drawn-up "six proposed rules" for creating the perfect cover.
Rule 1: Choose songs that sound beautiful in your particular voice, not just songs you love
Mike Doughty: "Just because a song is amazing doesn't mean it sounds good when you sing it - choose a song you can really inhabit wonderfully."
Rosanne Cash: "What you said! That's the first rule of covers: choosing something you can inhabit. That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't songs outside your known gestalt, that seem confusing emotionally or technically at first, that you can't end up inhabiting-- and what a thrill it is when that happens. I've covered songs by everyone from Green Day to the Carter Family and was able to find a bit of myself in all of them."
Rule 2: If you think of a song ironically, don't cover it
RC: "Have respect for the song and the songwriter."
MD: "I find that when I pick something unusual, reviewers will be, like, His ironic cover of Mary J Blige, or His ironic cover of John Denver. No way! It's because the song is beautiful. It may be improbable, but never ironic. Irony, I think, is often a modern vehicle to rediscover something beautiful. It's more difficult to say, I think Henry Mancini is amazing, motherfuckers, than to pretend it's all ha-ha-ha. All those kids in Williamsburg, with the elaborately-waxed Edwardian mustaches, are constantly defamed for wearing ironic facial hair. But they're getting laid. Nobody gets laid ironically."
Rule 3: Make it new
MD: "The planet doesn't need an exact replica of a different recording, with your voice. When I was a teenager in the mid-80s, I had some kind of musical learning disability that prevented me from learning verbatim the U2 and Police guitar parts that everybody else could play. It turned out to be a huge boon: when I played other people's tunes, they were made new by default, because I used my own awkward chords."
RC: "You can't play it exactly like them because you're an artist. You have particular and unusual perceptions. Those can't possibly be the same as someone else. Someone I worked with once said to me with frustration, You just cannot sing something back to me the way I sing it to you! I felt chastised at the time. Now I think, Well, hell no I can't. Why should I want to?"
Rule 4: Know the tradition you're working in
RC: "If you're going to cover Dylan, you better know more than Blowin In The Wind and Like A Rolling Stone. Know his canon, go deep. Make an informed choice. It would even help if you knew Woody Guthrie and Elizabethan folk songs and Rimbaud, just to inform you further, add nuance to your interpretation and give intelligence to your reading. The audience knows if you're a dilettante. They do!"
MD: "I'm not sure if I agree with that, entirely. I do think there can be a value to the naïf, who, via ignorance, can effortlessly see the forest for the trees. But, of course, there's people who do beyond-clueless, disrespectful, super-disconnected covers of revered songs, and I'm like, Who raised you?"
RC: "I would concede your point about an intelligent naïf who at least respected the song but I'd have to take on a case by case basis."
Rule 5: The planet probably has enough versions of Beatles songs
MD: "I say this as a dude who, two weeks ago, performed a dub-reggae version of The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill that I'd arranged, on a super fun show called The Complete Beatles on Ukelele. It really was nearly complete- It was like five hours long. So, I'm a hypocrite.
I did a John-Lennon's-birthday show thing once, where I tried to just read aloud the scene from King Lear that, stumbled upon by The Beatles happenstance-ily, on a radio broadcast, fades in and out during I Am the Walrus. But, they made me actually play the song. And, I was awful.
Do you remember when you and I did that Christmas benefit, uptown, and the promoters wanted us to end the evening with a chorale, featuring all the artists on the show, doing Happy Christmas (War Is Over)? Not being musicians, they were like, It's such a simple little plaintive tune! When in fact it was this incredibly complicated mechanism, switching keys three times. That's what you learn the hard way when doing Beatles tunes, especially the Lennon songs. They're not easy. They ping-pong between sections, making these oddball chord choices.To me they're like the musical version of a rodeo bull trying to buck you."
RC: "I agree there is no need for another Beatles cover, ever. This is from someone who has covered I'm Only Sleeping, and I Don't Want To Spoil The Party (bluegrass-style, and it went to number one in the country charts) and Lennon's solo Look At Me. You are so right about Lennon's deceptive complexity. Look At Me sounds like the simplest song in the world. It is so wonderfully complex."
Rule 6: Unless the songwriter is writing a song specifically for you, and you first ask, do not take the liberty of changing a line or word to suit yourself
RC: "Would you take your pen to someone's painting to change the color of the sky because the shade of blue doesn't quite suit you? I'm pretty inflexible about this, even with my own songs. A very famous singer wanted to record a song of mine called Bells And Roses. She said it was almost perfect and would I mind changing a couple lines for her? I didn't write this song for her, she just heard it on a record of mine. I said no! She didn't record it, but the song was more important to me than getting her to cover it. It was itself already. I respected it."
MD: There are a couple of lyrical mishaps on The Flip Is Another Honey, words repeated mistakenly, or put in the wrong places. I neglected to tell the producer which vocal takes had the correct lyrics, and now they're, alas, immortalized. I feel really bad about it.
One thing that really bothers me is when the gender is flipped. Tiffany's I Saw Him Standing There, et al. There's a song in French I do called Ta Douleur, by Camille. I discovered, when I read the translation of the lyrics, that the gist is, Leave her, come to me. Whatever the implication of bisexuality, or me speaking in character as a woman, I feel that it's an unconscionable alteration to tailor it to your sex, or preference thereof.
RC: "Well, I have a lot of feelings about gender switching and when and how it works, or when it totally dissolves the power of the song. You're right - sometimes it's inexcusable. I Saw HIM Standing There destroys the hypnotic drive of the phrase. It kills it. It's not even the same song. But... I'm sometimes awed by how simply switching the gender in a song that isn't dependent on a pronoun reveals subtleties, perversities, longings and sweetness that were not apparent in the original. I've covered a lot of songs written by men, from a man's point of view, and the implied gender switch when I sing them, even without the use of a pronoun, backlights some unexpected terrain.
I covered Benmont Tench's Why Don't You Quit Leaving Me Alone and the whole scene, of being alone in an old hotel, pining for a lost lover, calling for the porter to bring the "after-hours stuff" was really unexpected and beautiful. It wasn't written for a woman to sing, and it gave it an edge that highlighted a different emotion. It was a new lens to see the song through.
I also know when NOT to change a she to a he and that is really powerful. Two of my favourite covers are Dylan's Girl From The North Country and the classic Long Black Veil and I didn't change the genders of the central characters in either one. Singing about another woman in the Dylan song revealed this depth I couldn't have imagined - I could have been singing about a lover, or a sister, or daughter or friend-- it was all open to interpretation. It is so poignant-- every time I sing it live, it breaks my heart all over again. In Long Black Veil I became a narrator, once removed from the scene, and that was fascinating. It was like painting a picture, even though I spoke of myself as the lover who had been in the arms of my best friend's wife. It's a great old tradition in early folk music for women to sing about other women, as if they were observing the scene, and I love that. So... gender switching can be powerful. I've used it to great effect. But I also have really good instincts about which songs you can't just slap in a different pronoun and expect it to work.|
Bonus rule 7: one must sum up one's rules with something pithy!
MD: "I got nothing. Any ideas?"
RC: Not really...just... treat a cover with respect... Or why not Nobody gets laid ironically?
For more on the pair's cover collaboration head to Mikedoughty.com.
10:53 AM | 04/04/2013
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