Depending on who you talk to, cover songs are the bane or the blessing of the gigging musician. For a long time I thought they were baneful, because the practice suggests faking it, selling out, or covering up for poor musicianship. But then the torch song project I got involved in last year changed my thinking, because I had no choice but to explore a whole world of music that put me beyond just being the quirky singer-songwriter. And ultimately, it expanded my reach in the music scene and built up a whole new skill set for me. Here are a few things I learned along the way:
1. Cover songs help you test yourself. And not just for skill but for interpretation, artistry and presence. What’s the highest difficulty level I can master while delivering a performance that really communicates something?
2. You get to learn other styles. That way, I don’t have to be boxed in by any particular one, and I expand my skills.
3. You get to learn YOUR style. Cover songs are not meant to be carbon-copied, so I don’t have to kill myself trying to duplicate every nuance of the artist’s original. At worst, I’ll sound like a hack or a fake. Sometimes I’ll more truly discover what my personal style is by learning a song that goes against the grain of it. How would I communicate this idea?
4. You get to generate more listenership. Especially if it’s an open mic or another forum where I get to meet a new audience, I have a much easier time connecting with listeners by way of a song they already know than by throwing out my quirkiest original composition. If I perform well, they will remember me well and probably also dig on my original work if it’s included in the same package.
5. You get to work more with others. One of the easiest ways to get other musicians to play with you is to offer up a cover song you can play together. This happens a lot at open mics, where a handful of musicians will play with each other for long sequences because the whole thing has turned into a festival of songs not unlike a campfire under the stars. And it’s just as magical. Musicians learn about each other best by playing together, and doing so on a commonly known song is the fastest way to experience their magic, and for them to experience yours.
6. Gigs….duh! Many bars, clubs, and restaurants have customers who just don’t prefer new music, and that’s okay; they will still pay to have musicians come and do their favorite songs. Right now I’m working in a cover duo called Windfall Prophets and we’ve had all kinds of fun playing over 50 years worth of popular favorites in more sedate restaurant settings. It helps me keep my chops up, and keeps me connected to listeners.
Ultimately, what I get from learning cover songs is flexibility, the ability to bend without breaking. It’s given me the ability to be more myself, not less, and that sustains me through everything I do in music: playing, singing, communicating, promoting, teaching, networking and the rest of it.