Amanda Palmer blogs exclusively for NME on the artistic dilemmas that are thrown up by performing cover versions.
Some people have a problem with cover songs.
About five or so years ago, at a show at Islington’s Union Chapel, I opened up my show with an a cappella cover of ‘Me and a Gun’ by Tori Amos. It’s a bomb of a song, just one haunting unaccompanied voice delivering a woman’s inner monologue after being raped, as she drives away from the scene. Or at least that’s my interpretation. We’re allowed our interpretations. I took the stage, sang, and the words sounded both holy and irreverent in the huge wooden church. The crowd and I were both moved, the show went on without incident.
Then a phone video was uploaded to YouTube and some Tori Amos fans declared that I’d done something profane by covering the song. It belonged to her, they said. They said: it was her rape, her song, her story to tell, and only hers to sing. I thought: but it’s a song, and a song with a message. A song and a message that wants to (and one could argue, needs to) be spread. Is it more powerful if it only gets to stay in Tori Amos’ voice? Or is it more powerful if it travels from voice to voice? Who owns a song once it’s out of the bag? Who owns the words, the message? Not just the publishing rights, not just the rights to plop an ad for underarm deodorant before it plays on YouTube, not the right to exploit it for profit…but the right to sing it? Does anybody…really?
When you apply the long filter of history to stuff like this, there’s a lot of answers to be found: sacred chants belonging only to certain voices, true, but much more often, we encounter the folk songs and the nursery songs and the work songs which were never about ownership, but about expression, sharing, survival of the soul. Songs, for most of history, have been utilitarian, and crafted for voices to carry them along as easily as possible. Songs for mourning, songs for praising, songs for sorting through feelings. Angry songs, worship songs, songs for weddings…
This conversation isn’t coming out of nowhere. My dad, Jack Palmer, and I are putting out a whole album of cover songs this month. We didn’t have the most intimate relationship growing up (my mom and dad divorced when I was under a year old) and this project was my bucket-list way of doing something creative with my dad for the first time in our relationship. I’d invited him a few years ago to join me on stage for a Leonard Cohen, and the idea to do a recording together incubated, then blossomed. We spent the last few years over email, narrowing the list down. We recorded it when I was seven months pregnant with my first child. Being in the studio with the belly the size of an office water cooler veered the song choices towards the soothing and listenable, but I’m a goth at heart, so most of the songs dance around dark themes and minor keys…Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson, Melanie, Kimya Dawson, Sinéad O’Connor. We chose one of her songs: ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’. Sinéad. Let’s talk about her for a second.
I got ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’ [O’Connor’s second album, released in 1990] on tape when I was 14. I didn’t really know anything about Sinéad O’Connor, I didn’t understand her Irishness, I didn’t understand who “Margaret Thatcher on TV (shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing)” was. I’d never heard about the death of Colin Roach, who purportedly died at the hands of police at the Stoke Newington police station (they called it suicide). But ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’ spoke to me. I heard a woman angry at the country she was in, sad about injustices around her, wanting to take her child, her son, to a safer place.
I can understand these feelings. I have them now.
Sinéad has changed. Or maybe she hasn’t. But the media’s relationship with Sinéad has certainly changed, and she’s been in the press lately not because of her powerful songwriting voice but because of her hyper-personal social media posts. So it goes. The songwriter moves on, and the world moves with them. The songwriter rips up a picture of the Pope, the songwriter joins Facebook, the songwriter lives a human life. But the song lives a different life, outside of the mundane. The song escapes the trajectory of the writer and speaks for itself, and for its moment. Someday Sinéad (and all of us) will be dust in the mouldy ground. Not the song, though. The song stays in the air. The only way you can kill a song is not to sing it.
There’s a “folk” music tradition of sharing and passing songs around promiscuously. But then again, there was a time when all music was folk music. My dad, inspired how the Sinéad song seemed so incredibly relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement, picked a song for us by Phil Ochs, written in 1963 in the wake of the Harlem Riots. He tweaked a few of the lyrics to drive the point home (we got permission for that), and it felt haunting to be standing in a studio having picked this particular song as the bullets kept flying. The shooting in the church in Charleston, South Carolina, happened right before we recorded. We played the song at KOKO, in London, back to back with the Sinéad song, and you could feel the bloody thread of history staring us in the face. 1963. 1986. 2016. Can’t we get our shit together, people?
Singing these songs with my dad wasn’t just about the ease of choosing cover songs instead of writing material from scratch. It’s hard to explain, but it was, somehow, about threading ourselves into the existing reality of the world. As if my dad and I found ourselves at a party together, as sometimes happens, and the night wore on as instruments were picked up, and we started that drunken late night banter of “Well, we could sing…” and “Do you know the chords to…” and “I don’t know that one, but do you know…?” The conversation that only exists when there is a Venn Diagram we can already examine, to see where our musical lives overlap. (Leonard Cohen was the hands-down winner.)
I also couldn’t believe the response I got from Twitter, when I mentioned Sinéad O’Connor about a year ago. I expected my younger fans to have strong opinions about her one way or another and instead, they hadn’t heard of her. And some of those that HAD heard of her had only heard the stories, not the music. The music, the songs, they’re SO GOOD. How was it possible that they hadn’t heard ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, or ‘Troy’? It made me feel old, and also irresponsible, like I should have been keeping her music in circulation; I’d somehow failed her.
The other songs on our record are not as political, but actually, screw that. They’re personal and therefore political: “All I could Do” by Kimya Dawson is about the intensity and submission of pregnancy (“See I have changed and I’ll keep on changing / and maybe my songwriting will suffer / but It’s OK if at the end of the day / all I could do next is be a good mother”), the song “Glacier” by John Grant is about ignoring religious homophobes and haters when you want to collapse and give up (“and to boot they say their words come straight down from above / and they really seem to think that what they’re doing counts as love”), there’s a song by an alt-country rocker named Kathleen Edwards about her house burning down and the agony of only being able to choose one item to feel with. Honestly, these songs are as personal as it gets. But they speak so wholly to the experience of what it feels like to be alive right now that I can’t imagine the act of covering them as anything but a celebration of our common humanity. After all – we all are in this shit together.
Some of the songs are by barely known writers; like “I love you so much”, which was written by a local songwriter named Noah Britton from my neck of the woods in New England. He’s an indie musician with autism who also moonlights in a comedy troupe called Asperger’s R Us, and he writes the most beautiful, true songs I’ve ever heard. One of the other powerful things about doing covers songs is that you can turn your megaphone into a spotlight and shine a beam onto the genius songwriters of our time who aren’t getting amplified by “normal” channels.
Tori Amos, by the way, went ahead and covered Eminem and Nirvana and a whole slew of her own interpretive covers, and created an incredible feminist commentary by simply taking those songs and skewing the production choices (if you’ve never heard her version of “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” from her covers album, it’s downright creepy.) I don’t think she would have cared one way or another that I covered her song…if anything, I think she’d be proud that her song, and its message, was being kept alive and in the cannon, in the canon, getting fired another time instead of sitting in a vault for posterity.
One could argue that covering a song, any song, is a political act in itself. It’s like being a gravedigger, a historian, and a medium all at once. You’re making sure the dead don’t stay dead, and you’re making sure the living get their due. And for sure: better to sing a cover song than no song at all. In these dark times, we need all we can get.
As Voltaire said: “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”
I don’t think he would have cared if you were singing songs by Prince, Madonna, or Rebecca Black.
At that point: fuck it. As long as you’re singing.
Amanda Palmer’s new album ‘You Got Me Singing’ is out on July 15 2016