Years ago when I was singing for my supper (actually for my rent), I realized that playing covers for four hours in dodgy jazz cubs and hotel wine bars would make me lose my mind. For a pianist/keyboardist, it was a great apprenticeship but after a few too many “Do you know anything from Cats?” requests, and being the antithesis of a lounge singer, I started to reimagine as many standards/hits/classics/show tunes as I could! Here are five things I've learned about covering other people's songs.
1. Bring Your Life Into the Song
Being a confessional songwriter and viewing music as something close to religion, I’ve always needed to mean what I sing and deliver it straight from the heart, so I found my own life and truths in each one. Having musical dyslexia has always meant that I play what feels good and sounds satisfying to me. I’m in heaven finding those "goose bump" inversions and progressions that create the landscape for me to sing over and thankfully, audiences are carried along with me in this act of re-discovery. I’ve included one or two on every record over the years, starting with my heat filled bossa nova version of “Smoke on The Water." I love bringing female sensuality to rock anthems (and yes, Deep Purple loved it)!
2. Stake a Perspective
People ask me how I start my process, and I give them the example of the first track of my new album redisCOVERed, which my husband brilliantly suggested. A million miles from my musical world, Drake's “Hotline Bling” seemed like a crazy idea for a cover. But when I sat down with the lyrics I immediately saw myself in a couple of the verses. I remember being so in love with a man who really wasn’t that into me. I’d wait days, weeks, months for his call, torturing myself, of course. So my version drips with yearning and those desperate, addictive feelings we’ve all felt in a one-sided love affair. It’s a really keyboard driven version with Satie-esque high notes that when mixed with a classical glockenspiel line emphasize the ghost of a ringing phone and a past life.
3. Find Lyrics that Resonate
I couldn’t do a cover collection without something by the patron saint of singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell. But it was her words that I wanted to focus on. She’s a poet and the lyrics to “Cherokee Louise” were powerful when I first heard them, but now have an even greater relevance I think, today when abuse is finally being outed. So I took this version far away from her swaying small town pulse, putting you in that tunnel with a kid who’s hiding with her best friend, scared to go home. It’s as cinematic as anything I’ve ever done and features the remarkable jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton, whose wailing notes are literally the soul of this child.
4. Rediscover Your Roots
Speaking of Nicholas Payton, he’s from New Orleans where I now live, and that’s one of the reasons I decided to do a witty reinterpretation of fellow Brits Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” (white girl…). Firstly, I get to play some ‘N’Orleans’ inspired piano and secondly it sums up just how vindicated I felt a few years ago when a couple of amazing black singers told me after a NOLA show, “You can’t be all ‘white’ with that voice!” If you’ve grown up in the UK listening to black American music your whole life, this comment defies words. It does not get any better. My version also features one of the most underused and one of my favorite instruments, the baritone sax. I used it again on my new album for my ‘50s inspired reworking of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You." Again it wasn’t until I read the lyrics that I saw the emotional connection. Right at the end he ad-libs “put on Van the Man, follow my lead," and then it all made sense - he’s dancing to Van Morrison. So again, I refer musically to the Black American music that influenced Van and me and pretty much everyone in the UK and Ireland right from the start of rock and roll.
5. Respect and Reinvent
I’m very grateful to the artists who write the songs I cover, and I feel strongly that my versions have to do the originals proud and stand up as great interpretations. I have an overactive imagination and a tendency to over emphasize, but in this case it works. So it’s all become a great rediscovery for me of that skill I honed those years ago, alone at the piano, when I first came up with the motto “Ego non karaoke”- (I don’t do Karaoke)!
Singer, songwriter and pianist Judith Owen has always imbued her original songs with keen intelligence, acerbic wit and bracing poignancy. On her engaging new album, redisCOVERed due out May 25th on Twanky Records, the Welsh-born musician sets out on a different kind of artistic journey, channeling her wildly idiosyncratic and prodigious skills on a diverse set of cover tunes, and in the process, she leaves her own individual identity on each one. Find-out more at http://judithowen.net/