The Advantages to Being a Terrible Cover Artist
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
For the record, I am a terrible cover artist. I'm probably the only musician who receives requests not to play specific cover songs. But in all seriousness, covers are definitely not my strength. I either choose songs that are way outside my vocal range, or too technical for me to pick up without a proper YouTube tutorial, which feels sort of like cheating. However, in taking the unenviable journey through the land of forgotten tablature, inevitably I've come to the same conclusion that most artists come to. As musical artists, we are like athletes- we are all very talented in our own unique ways, some more than others, but we can't do everything exceptionally well. Just as there is no player who can throw for five touchdowns, rush for over a hundred yards, record two sacks and an interception, and kick an extra point, to boot (sorry all you Lamar Jackson fans out there). It just doesn't happen. But I believe in attempting to learn different artists' music, even if we never get past the tricky intro or master the rhythm of the repeating chorus, we are able to pick and choose what may complement our own original compositions.
Now I must admit, from time-to-time I have stepped away from an original tune or melody because it was too similar to a cover song I had previously learned. However, if you look at music and songwriting as a whole, it is an endless web of connections and influences, and maybe a little bit of stealing along the way. For example, George Harrison was so inspired by James Taylor's Something in the Way She Moves, he lifted the title and used it as the opening line to Something. Music has a way of worming it's way in our musical minds, be it lyrically and/or melody. But as often is the case with our best songs, we come back to them, we craft them, shape them, give them identity, and over time those cover songs fade away into the distance like the last embers of a burning campfire. And what we are left with is something completely our own, but rooted in the music that influenced us. Thank goodness George Harrison listened to James Taylor's music, or the song, Something may have never been written.
E.Y. Harburg wrote, "Words make you think a thought, music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought." Musical influences are a huge part of what propels music forward in all different directions. They guide us, teach us, and inspires us. And when when the well runs dry and creativity is at a low, we can always return to our musical influences. They'll always be there to remind us that music is less about thought and more about the feeling it creates. I will never be a great cover artist, and that's o.k. I much prefer the journey and process of writing songs over learning ones that have already been made great by other artists. Over the years my ears have become better fine tuned at picking the ones that might work and even if they don't, I usually end up taking something away that leads to a song idea. It'll always be a work in progress . . .