Emel Mathlouthi knows her cover songs. The Tunisian singer-songwriter, who first gained fame when a viral protest song got her dubbed the “Voice of the Arab Spring” (she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony – take that, Grammys), told us about her five favorite covers last year. She also, on pretty short notice, pulled together a rare “All Along the Watchtower” cover that sounds nothing like all the other “All Along the Watchtower” covers for my book party (no joke, friends still mention her performance to me two years later). But her newest cover may be her best yet. Certainly her most unrecognizable.
She’s sort of covered Jeff Buckley before, performing a pretty straightforward interpretation of his “Hallelujah” cover early in her career. But that finger-picked ballad wouldn’t prepare listeners for what she’s done to Buckley’s lesser-known song “New Year’s Prayer,” also called “Fall in Light.” Dark and electronic and storming, her cover, rechristened “Fallen,” sounds like Nine Inch Nails or Portishead. Anyone but Jeff Buckley.
The reason it strays so far, she says, is that she didn’t set out to cover the song at all. To open a show a couple years ago, her band decided to improvise for a few minutes. “The guys started playing some dark pads and very psychedelic rhythms,” she says in an email. “‘Fall in Light’ came to my mind and I started improvising with that, until I created a new chorus for it with the word ‘Fallen.'”
It’s now become her standard concert-opener, and she finally posted a video on YouTube. It’s a stunning piece, nearly unrecognizable; a couple times I had to Google the words she sang to confirm they were indeed Buckley’s. Watch it below, as well as a more recognizable recent cover, a solo-piano “We Shall Overcome” she sang for the Women’s March.