Covers, Reinventing The Music, And The Rule of Wesley

Over the past month or so I’ve had the honour and joy to chat with some outstanding musicians about the nature of the cover record. Artists from genres as different as symphony orchestras to young aspiring artists to Americana royalty have spoken with me about the art of the great cover record and, with one of the covers being a beautiful retelling of a Christmas classic, it seemed like a great opportunity to bring them all together in one place. A great cover record is so much more than just a re-recording of a song, it’s something that hopefully brings something new to the original and takes us to a different place. After all, life is so much more about the journey than the destination and why shouldn’t music be too?

I recently spoke with Wesley Shultz from The Lumineers and we chatted about his new covers record and he was keen to point out his belief that “there is nothing worse than when I hear a cover that sounds like a poor imitation of the original”. He went on to say that when he’s recording a cover it’s “in everybody’s best interests that the song is either reinvented or you just don’t bother”. He has set a very high bar for himself and any artist who decides to record a cover. But, and it’s a big but, it’s a bar he has more than stepped up to on his latest release ‘Vignettes’ which takes the cover record as a genre to a new level for me and it made me want to look at other recent artists I’ve chatted to and apply the Rule of Wesley.

This Christmas, the critically acclaimed Irish Americana singer Megan O’Neill has recorded her version of ‘Fairytale of New York’, a song that repeatedly makes the best Christmas song lists and is one of those rare Christmas songs that, by shear force of emotion, has become a standard. When I chatted to Megan she said:

“Fairytale of New York is one of my all time favourite songs. It’s so iconic. I knew that if I was going to cover it, I had to really try and make it my own and so that’s what Mark and I tried to do! If we tried to recreate the original and went for uptempo and boisterous I don’t think it ever would have worked at all!”

The version that Megan has produced more than satisfies the Rule of Wesley and really does reinvent this iconic song. So much so that the reflective nature of the interpretation allows something that is not normally possible with this song and that is an emotional response to the lyrical underbelly of this moving song. This is something that Wesley brought to his cover of ‘If It Makes You Happy’ slowing down Sheryl Crow’s song to reveal beautiful writing that we sometimes overlook because the original is just so much fun. Megan achieves the same here with her cover taking the song from a duet that feels like raucous banter to a song that will bring a tear to the eye. The same song, both hugely enjoyable, both tugging at your heart strings but in completely different ways.

Another artist that has reinvented an iconic original in recent weeks is Katie Kittermaster who has released her version of The Police classic ‘Every Breath You Take’. Sting described his song as “very, very sinister and ugly”, he goes on to say that his song widely believed to be about being stalked by the media has been “misinterpreted as being a gentle little love song when it’s quite the opposite”. Katie said:

“I approached this song from another angle to be honest. My Dad, who is a teacher in China, has been stuck there since February this year. He will not make it home for Christmas and it is unlikely we will see him until June. We have been keeping in touch daily through FaceTime and Skype and basically through our phones. This connection has been our life-line with him for over 9 months. This song is about watching him through the lens of the phone. I am sure that there are many people in this situation right now, and many others who are experiencing worse separations, so it felt like a song that many could resonate with.”

The best way to really understand Katie’s stripped back acoustic version of this song is to take a look at her lyric video of the song which uses footage from FaceTime chats with her Dad and packs a huge emotional punch for anybody who can’t see their loved ones during these strange times, and especially at Christmas.

Another big covers release for Christmas has been ‘Goodnight Songs For Rebel Girls’ in which SKYE, Morcheeba’s brilliant lead vocalist, covers ‘The Only Way Is Up’, a song made popular when Yazz’s high octane version topped the charts. SKYE took a completely different take and brings us an incredibly moving version which, like Wesley’s and Megan’s covers, highlights the lyrical quality of the song and exposes the poetic beauty of the original. SKYE said:

“I decided to take a completely different approach, recording it acoustically. When it was played to Decca Records, (the label behind the Good Night Songs album) Fiona Pope, from the A&R department said my recording was ‘truly a beautiful ode from mother to child’”.

This brings me to the final cover in my look at what makes a great reinvention of a song. Sacha Puttnam has recently released his own cover record but this is his versions of music taken from his world famous producer father’s movies. One of the pieces that Sacha decided to cover was the music of Ennio Morricone from the movie The Mission. Sacha said, when I chatted with him:

“They tried to talk me out of it. They said it’s not going to work on piano. But, what I thought is if I put the piano in to begin with and then go to the oboe, then surely that will work. I got this guy, Roy Carter, the original guy who played the oboe on the soundtrack which they recorded at CTS in Wembley. So, I knew I had a couple of aces up my sleeve, but you’re right a lot of people have recorded it, a lot of people have done it pretty well but I think this version stands up”

Sacha’s take on this iconic music again satisfies the Rule of Wesley insofar that with the piano based reworking of the original, there is a more nuanced feel to the piece with the original oboe feeling like an homage to the original piece rather than a copy. The piano allows us to see the music in a different light and really does work well. In a year in which we sadly lost the great Ennio Morricone, Sacha’s reworking feels like something the Maestro would have approved of.

And so I hope I have encouraged you to go and seek out these new versions of classic music. Wesley said he had hoped that his covers were a way of “expressing gratitude for something someone else has done”.

I hope by applying the Rule of Wesley to the genre of cover records, we will find new appreciation for things we’d forgotten but still love. I really hope it will make us more appreciative of covers, good covers, as a genre of its own. I hope it allows us to an opportunity to feel gratitude for something that has helped get us all through 2020; great music and those talented people that have brought it to us despite all of the challenges this year has brought. To cover, ABBA, THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC.

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