In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.
We first discovered Emel Mathlouthi at last year’s Northside Festival. But let me be clear: when I say “discovered,” I hardly mean she was unknown. In fact, we were very late on the bandwagon; the Tunisian singer-songwriter is an international star. A few years back she became known as the “Voice of the Arab Spring” after one of her song’s became an anthem for the revolution. She even performed it at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2015:
As you can see in that video, her original songs are stunning. Her most recent album, Ensen, was my personal favorite album of 2017, and today she releases a follow-up set of inventive remixes of those songs titled Ensenity. You can get a taste over at The Fader.
With a voice like that, you won’t be surprised to learn she can deliver some pretty stunning covers too. She can belt “Hallelujah” with the best of ‘em, and has equally beautiful takes on David Bowie and Björk under her belt. She was even kind enough to put together a pretty mind-blowing version of “All Along the Watchtower” for my book party. It’s the rare cover that owes next to nothing to Jimi Hendrix:
So who better to launch our new series “Pick Five”? The concept is simple: An artist we love picks five covers they love, and tells us why these songs are important to them. Emel’s selections are fantastic, a mixture of classics and deep cuts. So let’s turn it over to her.
1. Guano Apes – Big in Japan (Alphaville cover)
Emel says: “I just loved the energy of that version, and the amazing performance of Sandra [Nasić], the singer. Just crazy!”
2. Joan Baez – House of the Rising Sun (Traditional cover)
Emel says: “One of my favorite songs to cover from a cover. I did that for a while and this one was my hit. Never even close to Joan Baez’s striking high vibratos; she [sang the song like] a tornado.”
3. Jose Gonzalez – Heartbeat (The Knife cover)
Emel says: “This song had a big impact on me as I was going through a a very deep emotional relationship. I could listen to it 500 times in a row at some points. Very rarely that happens. I would still do it today; it’s just magical. I couldn’t believe it was a cover.”
4. Nina Simone – Suzanne (Leonard Cohen cover)
Emel says: “I wasn’t really into Nina at first (I know, pretty crazy). But then I listened to ‘Suzanne’ – which I knew already from Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen, but never liked. That piano riff is dooooope and she wrote a new story for the song. One of the best covers of all time.”
5. Tori Amos – Raining Blood (Slayer cover)
Emel says: “I fell in love with Tori with this track. It’s so absorbing and deeply haunting. I just adore Tori’s powerful and so personal singing and piano playing. She’s a music witch.”