5 Ways to Make Your Covers Original

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Doing covers of popular songs can sometimes be a thankless job, because you have the disadvantage of being compared to the original artist. This is especially true when it comes to canonized music. You know, the music that shaped rock/pop as we know it today. As a singer doing covers, how do you avoid ending up like Icarus – falling because you’re flying too close to the sun? You change the rules.

Sonia Rao is super talented pop singer/songwriter whose beautiful cover of “Let It Be” inspired us to make this list. Sonia has enjoyed great success in the world of licensing, securing over 35 film and television placements with her first two records. Her music has appeared on ABC's “The Vineyard”, E! Network's “Married to Jonas”, and MTV shows such as “Jersey Shore,” “Friendzone” and “The Challenge”. Apart from her interest in music, she’s also very invested in the issue of gender equality – a subject she recently spoke about at a TEDx event. Cool!

Never are you in greater danger of ending up a musical Icarus, than when you take on a song by The Beatles. Indeed, to some people, covering a Beatles song is as sacrilegious as using an original Rembrandt as kindling wood (FYI if you do that as a Boy Scout, you’ll lose both your ‘Fire Safety’ and your ‘Art’ merit badge… apparently).

The comparison is illogical, though. To stay in the analogy of paintings, an impressionistic interpretation of a Rembrandt doesn't alter the original. No matter how much you’ve altered the original feel or texture in your interpretation of the painting, if you go to, say, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the original will still be hanging on the wall (with the obvious exception of “The Reckless Descendant in the Tavern” that was lost in the tragic Boy Scout fieldtrip incident of ‘86).

That being said, it’s only suiting that you put your own original spin on the piece of art you’re reinterpreting. That’s as true for music as for the visual arts.

Now, why are we bringing in Sonia? Because we think she’s done an incredible job of covering one of the most popular Beatles songs ever. In fact, we’re going to use Sonia as a great example of how to make your cover versions original. Here it is – the bulleted list you were promised.

1) Change the instrumentation

This almost goes without saying, but it’s still important to mention. In a live looping version of “Let It Be,” it’d be impossible for Sonia to simultaneously play piano, six-string bass, Hammond organ, horns, strings and a lovely leslie-soaked guitar solo (well, it’s a fuzz solo the album version, but that’s another story). Yet, the important thing is not as much what she omits in the arrangement as what she adds. In this case the most prominent addition is a violin part.

2) Change the feel

It’s common to change the tempo of a song when you do a cover. But there’s more to the concept of “feel” than just speed. Think about this: Are you going for an “in-the-pocket” rhythmical feel, or do you want to add some swing to the grove? What beats are most accentuated in your playing? Have you changed the time signature (e.g. from 8/8 to 6/8)? All of these things determine the overall feel of your cover. Sonia’s version of “Let It Be” has an 8/8 time feel to it whereas the original has a 4/4 time feel.

3) Change the musical components

When you’re doing live looping covers, it’s often necessary to leave out certain elements of the original song structure (it could be the intro, a pre-chorus or a bridge), so that the remaining elements are cyclical.  In Sonia’s cover, the instrumental decent from the subdominant to the tonic (you know, the part that goes: Daaa da da daaa da da daaa daaa daaa) is omitted. Another musical component that’s changeable is the chord structure. Think about what changing a major chord into a minor chord can do to the overall vibe of a song.

4) Change the lyrics

This one is not commonly used, although gendered designations such as him/her, his/her or boy/girl are sometimes exchanged by the interpreter. Think about what even minor changes can do to a song’s message. We’re not talking about censorship or satire here, by the way. Sonia hasn’t made any changes to the original lyrics, and that’s totally cool. This is not meant as a checklist, just a list of ideas.

5) Change the delivery

The delivery is very dependent on your vocal technique. Are you belting, whispering or changing vocal register? The nuances of your voice you choose to display in your cover are greatly responsible for the end result. In her cover, Sonia shows the raspy character of her voice and sings with legato to tie the notes together.

All in all Sonia creates a cover version of “Let It Be” that’s completely her own. And that’s no small feat.

What do you think?

What do you think is important when covering popular songs? We would love to know what you think. Drop us a comment on Facebook and we can start a musical conversation!

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