Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question, from Cover Me staffer Jordan Becker: What’s your favorite foreign-language cover song?
Best cover in a foreign language by a native speaker seems to be the brief and it’s a tough one. So that rules out just about anything I am already familiar with, as, despite the couple of thou covers on my database (aka my iPod), the vast majority of foreign language songs therein are the likes of anglophone artists being appealing to foreign markets (“Helden”/David Bowie) or converting foreign songs into English (“My Way”/Frank Sinatra, Sid Vicious, et al). Looking up the most arcane and obscure song I know to see if there has been, by chance, a version in Swahili seems to defeat the spirit of this being a home for geeks with too many records, the writers that is.
And then it came to me, the songs I have the most of in a language outside English – Gaelic, or, as my late mother, a speaker, would have put it, the Gaelic. I love Gaelic song, despite not knowing a word, and one of the best practitioners is one Julie Fowlis. You may have seen her presenting imported music programs, usually about folk festivals, and possibly in English, or Scottish anyway. But I break not the rules, as, like increasing numbers of younger Hebrideans, she is bilingual, with the power of music being, I believe, an impetus to a beginning rebirth of interest in the tongue. Indeed, most of her TV work is for BBC Alba, the Scottish Gaelic channel, itself a hotbed of musical programming.
So here is my choice, her exquisite version of “Blackbird,” a song where I don’t even bother with the original, l being Beatles skeptic. But Julie soars the already ascendant melody through into hyperspace. She has made 5 albums of her own since 2008, with a history playing in duos and bands ahead of that, stretching back into her childhood, her formative years being on the island of North Uist, near as far as you can get. As well as the voice of an angel, she is capable on bagpipes, whistle, squeezebox and oboe, and she is only still 37.
This Q&A was my suggestion, so you would think that I had a plan about what to write about if my suggestion was chosen by the bureaucrats at the Cover Me home office. You’d be wrong. When I write for this site, I often include foreign language covers, because I think they are fun. But when I had to choose one for this (and not wanting to repeat myself), I found myself trolling through my iTunes library until I landed on this chestnut from Fairport Convention’s early years. Released on the band’s second of three great albums they released in 1969(!), Unhalfbricking, it is a French-ish cover of Bob Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” which, at the time, Dylan had not yet released. In fact, it is one of three songs on the album written by Dylan that he had not yet released. The band thought it would be fun to do it in a French Cajun style, and asked the audience at a gig to help with the translation. According to Richard Thompson, “About three people turned up, so it was really written by committee, and consequently ended up not very cajun, French or Dylan.” It is a bit shambling, and fun (including the sound of a pile of chairs falling down), and while far from Fairport’s best work, it was the band’s only charting single, hitting 21 on the UK singles chart.
Two months before Unhalfbricking was released, drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeanne Franklyn were killed in a car crash as the band returned from a gig. In part because of the bad memories that their prior repertoire dredged up, Fairport decided to move away from American folk influences toward British folk, which had been presaged by their take on the traditional “Sailor’s Song,” and their reliance on Dylan covers, in any language.
I ran into a bit of a catch-22 with this question. As a rule, I prefer my covers to sound as little like the original as possible. A carbon copy does not get a new stamp from the covering band, and therefore has no good raison d’etre. On the other hand, as I’m quite the monolinguist (a.k.a. American), I couldn’t recognize a song as being a cover unless it did sound like the original. (A tip: Pizzicato Five’s “Magic Carpet Ride” has nothing to do with Steppenwolf.)
So I was quite happy to determine that Ligabue‘s cover of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” was both recognizable and happy to provide the song with its own je nais sais quoi. Further research revealed the band had altered the lyrics to make them less USA-centric and filled with more Italian in-jokes. I can’t say I understand why they brought in the line “Niente caramelle per I leccaculo” (translate that if you dare), but there’s no question they made a thoroughly R.E.M. song at home on their own turf. Also, their video for it has all the quick-cut insanity of the era. So in the end, an old song in a new style, heavy on the fun – right up my cover-song alley.
We Are Scientists‘ 2009 b-sides collection Crap Attack included a number of covers, as such odds-and-sods sets so often do. Some songs the duo picked were obvious (then-tourmates Art Brut), some less-obvious-but-within-the-realm-of-possibility (the Ronettes’ oft-covered “Be My Baby”), and one so far out in left field it could barely see home plate: a new single by the solo side project of the drummer in a German punk band.
Bear in mind that We Are Scientists hail from the little-known German province of Bröoklyn, and, to our knowledge, aren’t real plugged into the local Deutsche punk scene. So we wondered how they even came across this spooky and foreboding song. I asked band co-frontman Chris Cain and he emailed me the story of that song and more:
The deal with “Sie Hat Was Vermisst” is that our label discovered that Bela B, a big old-school German rock guy, was a fan, and they arranged for us to record a b-side for his then-new single (his original version of “SHWV”). We took his (or their?) suggestion that we just cover the a-side, which we decided to do in the style of Serge Gainsbourg. I took lead vocals because, obviously, I sound EXACTLY like Serge Gainsbourg. (Also, because I’d done a couple semesters of German in college.)
That’s pretty much it. The end result was a masterpiece, obviously.
Incidentally, you should check out our cover of Sigur Rós’s “Hoppipolla.” We had decided to cover it for a British radio show that requires a cover (cheeky!), but hadn’t really gotten around to figuring out the words even the night before. We were under the impression that the words were kind of gobbledygook — I think that was a rumor going around about Sigur Rós — so we figured we’d just fake it. BUT THEN: we ran into a real live Icelandic woman at our hotel bar (this was like 14 hours before we had to actually perform the song) and she assured us that no, the words were just Icelandic, not gobbledygook. “Uh oh!” we thought. In that case, singing nonsense words would probably sound petty culturally insensitive. So this woman sat with us and calmly wrote down a phonetic translation of the entire song, which we then rehearsed for hours, and still had to read from her original lyric book the next day in the studio.
The end result, of course, needless to say… a masterpiece.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece on several covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” here for Cover Me. Some people read it and I was really grateful for that. I even got a few comments. Writing for Cover Me is totally a labor of love, but often people — not just readers, but friends — don’t realize how much work goes into the curation part of the gig here.
Watching tons of Youtube videos, searching Soundcloud and the Live Music Archive for new material, and sometimes searching for that rare unicorn of a song that you know an artist sang but may not have been ever been documented… It’s a lot of work even before the writing starts, and sometimes the feedback is absolute zero.
When assigned this project, I looked around the internet for a cover that I hadn’t heard, but my mind went back to this cover by Argentina’s Ber Stinco. In the three years since I wrote my piece, his YouTube video of the song has only 700 views to date, yet it is one of the most beautiful cover songs that I have ever heard. Maybe you could go over there and give him a thumbs up. Sometimes that’s all an artist needs to be inspired to create more.
If you have a question you’d like us to answer, leave it in the comments, or e-mail it to covermefeature01(at)gmail(dot)com.