One of the finest ways to pay tribute to a favourite singer or band is to record a song of theirs to show your appreciation. Or you just think you can do a song that you think is okay a lot better. Regardless of your reasons for recording your cover, there are some important rules that can help you on your way to record a good cover.
- Make sure you are Johnny Cash. Seriously, the man did not record a single bad cover. Have you heard Hurt? It’s astounding. However, it’s extremely unlikely that you are Johnny Cash, on account of him being dead, so there are some other steps that can help you on your way.
- Choose your song carefully. For example, if you want to stand out from the crowd, don’t choose Yesterday by The Beatles. It’s got over 1,600 versions out there, and you will not stand out from the crowd when some of those cover include Elvis to Bob Dylan, and Bob hated the song. Make sure it’s marketable though, as no one wants to hear a cover of Captain Beefheart unless Tom Waits does it. Good tracks to choose are popular singles, but not iconic ones; good album tracks or just your favourite song. So long as you think you pull the song off, you should be fine.
- Make sure the song is within your range. This one is so obvious I almost didn’t include it, but you really need to, as the numerous covers of Cee Lo Green’s Fuck You show that if you don’t have the vocal range, don’t do it. This applies to a large number of Freddie Mercury songs, especially when he hits those high notes. If you can’t hit those, you may have to rethink the song.
- Think about what sound your cover should have. Obviously, you can’t do it the same way as the original artist – that would be boring. One good method is to strip it down to basics and do a Johnny Cash on the song (see Step 1). Another good method is to see what’s missing from the original and bring it into the song. Julian Velard’s album Mr. Saturday Night, though very good, lacks a big produced sound to it. Mark Ronson, if you’re reading this, your big brassy treatment of his otherwise excellent songs would be a great bonus. Sometimes it’s as simple as doing it in your own style, such as Mr. B’s Chap-Hop History.
- Don’t be afraid to change the lyrics. This version will become your version, so you can do what you like. Change the personal pronouns from ‘he’ to ‘she’ if you like. Cash changed ‘Crown of Shit’ to ‘Crown of Thorns’ in his cover of Hurt, so it isn’t unheard of. The important thing here is to personalise the song to you.
- This isn’t a cover anymore – this is your song. We need to feel the emotion behind it, as if it was your song to sing, just so we can love it. Find what that song means to you, bring that out and sing that. This helps if you ignore the original. Don’t be afraid of your song choice. One of my personal favourite covers is Somewhere by Tom Waits from the album Blue Valentine, and otherwise unremarkable album. But because he sings his emotional connection to it, it becomes wonderful. Similarly, Wait’s cover of Heigh Ho is terrifying, because he sings exactly his interpretation of the lyrics. Have the confidence in your version, and you’ll be fine.
- Don’t cover Across the Universe. No, really. Don’t.