The New Interpreters: Singer-Songwriters Find Comfort in Covers
The cover version — it’s an essential part of the history of rock ’n’ roll. After all, one could even argue that if Elvis Presley hadn’t covered Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” in 1954, bringing an amped-up version of the blues to white audiences, rock ’n’ roll as we know it might not exist.
Covers are also how the Beatles and the Rolling Stones found their footing, tackling songs by their heroes such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry as they honed their songwriting skills. Once they mastered that craft, it brought a seismic shift to popular music, inspiring later rock ’n’ roll bands to follow their muse and write original material.
Of course, between then and now, rock artists have covered other performers’ songs, sometimes dedicating entire albums to interpretations. David Bowie’s 1973 effort Pin-Ups and John Lennon’s 1975 set Rock ’n’ Roll come to mind, but more often than not rock artists have relied on their own songs.
In recent years, however, the covers album appears to be making a comeback. Last year alone the list of covers albums included Weezer’s The Teal Album (featuring their eerily faithful, surprise-hit interpretation of Toto’s “Africa”), Mercury Rev’s Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited, the Bird and the Bee’s Interpreting the Masters, Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen, Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, Ben Lee’s Quarter Century Classix, the Lemonheads’ Varshons II, Jesse Dayton’s Mixtape Volume 1 and Ronnie Wood With His Wild Five’s Mad Lad: A Live Tribute to Chuck Berry.
These new interpreters aren’t making covers albums for kicks-and-giggles, but rather because they feel a deep connection to the artists and the original songs, even if that material isn’t considered hip or revered by today’s audiences. In most cases, these are acclaimed songwriters in their own right, but they’ve opted to put recording original material on hold to pay tribute to some of their inspirations from the past, be it music they loved in their teens or an unsung gem that never got its due.
For veteran singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield, it happened organically. “I’ve always really loved recording particular cover songs,” she says in a phone interview from her Cambridge, Massachusetts home. “It’s always something that I’ve done when I feel I can latch onto something I’m drawn to. I enjoy recording covers, and I just went for a whole album of them.”
In 2012, Hatfield released a self-titled album of covers, ranging from the Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” and Liz Phair’s “Friend of Mine” to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” But her 2018 set, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, came from another place. “A few years ago I saw Olivia was touring, and my friend and I bought tickets and we were going to take a road trip to see her. But then she got sick again [with cancer], and she canceled all the dates,” Hatfield recalls. “I think it was at that moment that I thought of doing a whole album of her songs. She was on my mind, and I was listening to a lot of her albums leading up to the concert. I thought it would be a nice tribute to her, my love for her and how much her music meant to me.”
As Hatfield admits, covering certain artists comes with some baggage. Since at least the punk era — think of Sid Vicious’ infamous take on the Paul Anka-penned Frank Sinatra classic “My Way” — many rock covers have been approached with irony and humorous irreverence. Adding to that trend in the ’80s were the Replacements’ famously sloppy-drunk renditions of everything from the DeFranco Family’s ’70s bubblegum hit “Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat” to Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’.”
Yet Hatfield — who collaborated with Replacements singer-guitarist Paul Westerberg on Wild Stab, a 2016 album recorded under the name The I Don’t Cares — believes the frontman was misunderstood. “I think people thought [Paul] was being ironic when he wasn’t, because I think he actually loves the music,” she says. “But it was confusing … because people thought of him as this irreverent, drunken rocker. But he actually has real love for pop and lots of music.”
Indeed, Hatfield ran into some of that confusion with her fans as well. “I remember when I first released an album of Olivia Newton-John covers, I got a tweet from someone who was saying, ‘Oh, that’s not cool making fun of her,’ as if this person assumed it was going to be ironic — like, how could I possibly have a pure love for Olivia Newton-John? But I proved that I did.”
Hatfield admits that she has done at least one ironic cover, in her earlier days. Earwig, a 1989 album by Hatfield’s band the Blake Babies, featured a cover of the Stooges’ highly sexualized anthem “Loose.” “That was a little ironic,” she says. “It was also kind of a joke, because I was a virgin at that time and I was singing this cock-rock song.”
These days, Hatfield says she’s no longer interested in being ironic. “What’s the point in belittling anything that was made with love?” she says. “Music is really precious, but it’s complicated because it’s all caught up in commerce. You have to be careful. If you’re going to knock something publicly, there has to be a real reason for it.”
Like Hatfield, the Bird and the Bee has also released two covers albums, each focusing on a particular act. The duo consisting of singer Inara George and multi-instrumentalist/producer Greg Kurstin put out Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates in 2010, and followed it up in 2019 with their tribute to David Lee Roth-era Van Halen. While the album does seem like a sincere tribute to the songcraft of Van Halen, the duo and special guest Beck have fun flipping the genders on “Hot for Teacher,” with George in the role of the narrator/pursuer and Beck in the role of the hot teacher.
On Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, the performer also delves into the work of a hitmaking rock act that thrived during the Carter and Reagan eras. Hatfield’s experience with the Police’s music reaches back to her years at Duxbury High School in Massachusetts, when her first band in the ’80s, the Squids, covered songs by the British trio. “It was a band that was together before I joined,” she says. “They just needed a new singer. They had their whole repertoire already.”
Initially, Hatfield hadn’t planned to follow her 2019 album of originals, Weird, with an album of Police songs. Instead, she toyed with doing a Phil Collins/Genesis tribute and recorded a few songs, including John Waite’s “Missing You,” for possible placement in films or TV shows. “It was a failed experiment, because none of them came out any good,” she says. “But then I heard Sting singing background vocals on one of the Phil Collins songs [‘Long Long Way to Go’], and it rekindled my love for Sting’s voice. I just shifted from Phil Collins to the Police.”
Veteran psych-rock band Mercury Rev took things a step further by covering not only a specific artist but a specific album with Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited. While other artists have also interpreted entire albums — the Flaming Lips’ 2009 take on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon comes to mind — the source material tends toward bestsellers or at least widely considered classics. That’s not the case with The Delta Sweete, which is kind of like the ’60s country-pop version of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique: a follow-up to a chart-topping debut album that initially flops but is subsequently lauded for its artistic brilliance.
In 1967, Gentry became a breakout star with the mysterious hit single “Ode to Billie Joe.” That song and the album that shared its title topped the charts, giving Gentry the creative confidence to make the lush, string-laden The Delta Sweete, which failed to produce another hit and crack the top half of the Billboard 200.
Mercury Rev singer-guitarist Jonathan Donahue says the band decided to tackle Gentry’s unsung masterwork — with an all-star cast of female singers including Beth Orton, Norah Jones, Hope Sandoval and others — because it spoke to him. He picked up the album in a used-record store, entranced by its cover art featuring a ghostly image of Gentry’s face superimposed over a rundown shack. He mistakenly assumed it included “Ode to Billie Joe,” which Mercury Rev included as a bonus track, sung by Lucinda Williams, on their version of the album, as an entry point for fans only familiar with that song.
The band initially intended to put the album out as a cassette-only recording for their friends, but Simon Raymonde, head of their British label, Bella Union, insisted it get a proper release after he heard it. “Even in its time it was perceived very out of time,” Donahue says. “It was perceived very out of step. … Here was Bobbie doing something conceptual. It had the theatrical arch of an entire album. The way the album was treated reminded me of some of our own albums, especially [1995’s] See You on the Other Side. It just never seemed to fit in the moment when it was released.
“Of all the ideas that Mercury Rev would have, this one seemed so appropriate,” Donahue adds. “We could have covered Sgt. Pepper’s or the White Album or something that everybody knew, had an opinion on and could sing along [with], but here’s Mercury Rev covering something most people have never even heard of. At least we knew we’re not doing this for commercial reasons. Otherwise we would have chosen something everyone knew, like Thriller. This is very Rev-appropriate.”
Ben Lee’s Quarter Century Classix, which has the singer-songwriter covering a variety of indie artists from the ’90s, also carries a deep emotional connection and developed organically. In January 2019, Lee was on tour and found himself isolated in a Chicago hotel room due to the polar vortex. The former frontman of Australian combo Noise Addict began reflecting on his first visit to Chicago, when he traveled to the city at the age of 15 to record his 1995 debut album, Grandpaw Would, with producer Brad Wood, released in the U.S. through the Beastie Boys’ now-defunct Grand Royal label.
“Back then, you really listened to albums as a whole,” he says. “None of these bands had a hit here — Pavement kind of had a hit with ‘Cut Your Hair’ — but the songs that became meaningful in that era were just the ones that jumped out at you from repeated listenings. So I didn’t think of a band like Fugazi or Beat Happening as having a hit song.”
While none of the songs Lee chose to cover on Quarter Century Classix — among them Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane,” the Breeders’ “Divine Hammer” and Superchunk’s “My Noise” — is on the short list of rock standards, he “found them imprinted indelibly on my memory,” he says.
Meanwhile, Hatfield has tentative plans for another covers set. An employee at her local post office even gave her a list of suggested acts, including Bread, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I do have a couple of ideas, but not any of the artists on her list,” she says. “They’re both American, because I’ve done an Australian and a British band. I want to do an American next — a band or an artist. But I’m still thinking about it.”
Craig Rosen is a Los Angeles-based writer/editor who has contributed to Billboard, Yahoo Music and AARP The Magazine, among other outlets. He’s also the author of R.E.M. Inside Out: The Story Behind Every Song and the Billboard Book of Number One Albums. You can find him on Twitter: @CraigRosen.
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