Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
As a teen back in the ’80s, I was completely, 100% besotted with the music magazines coming out of the UK. I loved the glossies like Smash Hits, No.1, and Record Mirror, as well as the weeklies, specifically NME and Melody Maker. I would read them cover to cover, simultaneously ogling the heartthrobs and making lists of what I wanted to buy based on the reviews (or, okay, someone’s haircut). It was through these endless piles of paper that I first got wind of The Associates, The Smiths, and Kate Bush, all of whom I ended up maniacally worshipping (and writing still-unanswered fan letters to). And of course, as there was no such thing as streaming at that point, the reviews in these mags were often the determining factor as to whether or not I would buy a record. My teen funds were meager, so there was often a lot riding on how convincing the review was. It was in one of these magazine reviews that I first stumbled upon Dutch singer Mathilde Santing.
Santing began her solo career in 1982 with the release of a self-titled album featuring an eclectic mix of standards, Rodgers and Hammerstein amongst them, and pop tracks by the likes of the Beach Boys and mad genius Todd Rundgren (hold that last thought, it will be important later!). As quietly adventurous as the track listing was, there was no question as to what the album’s real strength was — Mathilde Santing’s extraordinarily warm, elastic, gorgeous voice.
Santing’s next album, 1984’s Water Under the Bridge, marked something of a turning point in her career, though it wasn’t clear-cut at the time. Gone were the covers, replaced instead by original material of the jazzy, intermittently quirky, ’80s indie pop variety. While focusing on originals was the standard move for a young pop singer, the album turned out to be something of a swan song for Santing; it ended up being her last consisting solely of original material. With a handful of exceptions, from this point forward, it was all about the covers.
It was over a review of her next album that Santing first caught my eye and subsequently hooked me for the foreseeable future. While 1987’s Out of this Dream sported a small cluster of really fine originals, more than half the songs on the album were covers. Upon seeing the track list, I instantly recognized her as a kindred spirit, a total music nerd soul sister. There were songs by Squeeze and Tom Waits. There was a Dionne Warwick deep cut. The album opened with, yes, a Todd Rundgren track. It was a very “wait a second, I love these artists and songs too ” moment, and from that point on (though she didn’t know it), we were officially pop music nerd-bonded. I bought the record and was instantly impressed with her exquisite vocal performances, how she sang these majestic and melodic tunes with such reverence and passion. And maybe most thrillingly, it was unerringly cool to hear a girl so convincingly singing these songs written by boys.
To date, Santing has released 21 albums and counting (a mix of studio, live sets and compilations), and between those and her innumerable live performances, she’s covered upwards of 150 songs. She’s offered up stellar versions of tracks by everyone from ’80s pop auteurs and thinking girl faves like Scritti Politti and Aztec Camera to melodic maestros like Nilsson and Randy Newman, as well as those of evergreen legends like Joni Mitchell. It should be noted that she is especially fond of Todd Rundgren and is in league of her own as far as covering his catalog which is to say, in terms of quality Todd covers, no one on the planet does it better.
To this day I remain both awestruck and impressed by her song choices as well as just plain psyched that there’s another girl on the planet who is as infatuated with these specific artists, these one-man-band, post-pop weirdos and cult heroes with their very particular melodic sensibilities.
And now please enjoy this handful of highlights spotlighting some of the finest and coolest covers by master interpreter and unabashed pop fan Mathilde Santing.
Mathilde Santing – Is There Any Way Out of this Dream ? (Crystal Gayle & Tom Waits cover)
While Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film from 1982 One From The Heart film is regarded as one of the lowlights of his career, it did end up inspiring something pretty wonderful–namely, an unequivocally brilliant soundtrack. Written in its entirety by Tom Waits and performed by him and legendary country diva Crystal Gayle, it remains a lush and evocative masterpiece. “Is There Any Way Out of This Dream” was originally sung by Gayle and featured a suitably Tom Waits-ian gin-soaked arrangement. On her 1987 version, Santing takes a more romantic and tentative approach, slowing things down, adding some sweet banjo and strings whilst serving up a vocal of extraordinary warmth.
Mathilde Santing – Tiny Demons (Todd Rundgren cover)
Okay, first things first : Mathilde Santing loves Todd Rundgren. She’s covered a number of Todd tracks throughout her career, culminating in her getting to perform with the man himself. And it should be noted, she is no casual fan, but a hardcore worshipper intimately familiar with the deep cuts. Case in point: her 1994 cover of “Tiny Demons.” The song was originally featured on a bonus 7″ that came with Todd’s 1981 album Healing, and the reflective, mind-bending ballad is a bit of a cult classic amongst Todd-heads. Santing’s version is lush, grand, and inexorably lovely. Despite covering at least a dozen of his songs, she’s never released an official Rundgren-themed cover album. But as arguably the premier interpreter of the Todd catalog, here’s hoping hard it happens someday.
Mathilde Santing – Same Girl (Randy Newman cover)
Randy Newman was the lucky recipient of a full-on tribute album by Santing in 1993, titled Texas Girl & Pretty Boy. Her version of his soul-crushingly mournful ballad “Same Girl” is a highlight. The narrator of the song is a pimp expressing love for a prostitute and addict, both asking her to hang in a little bit longer and telling her that she’s still the “Same Girl” she was before her life derailed. But Santing takes a little lyrical license on her cover, changing the point of view from pimp to friend, lover, and self. While the song remains as gripping and gloomy as ever, something further accentuated by its skeletal piano arrangement, Santing’s voice feels like a comforting embrace.
Mathilde Santing – Wonderful Life (Black cover)
“Wonderful Life,” the international hit and now evergreen anthem from 1987 by Black (aka the late, great Colin Vearncombe), is Santing’s best-known and arguably most beloved cover. Her 1999 version eschews the original version’s distinctive synth line and instead opts for an acoustic intro (one oddly reminiscent of the theme from M*A*S*H)… which is the perfect backdrop for Santing’s wistful and regal vocal, equal parts sweet and sad.
Mathilde Santing – Ghosts (Japan cover)
“Ghosts” by Japan is a morose, skeletal dirge that, while as far from a standard pop song as it could possibly be, somehow, beyond all logic or reason, managed to reach the top 5 in the UK charts in 1982. Japan, starring singer/songwriter/still legend David Sylvian, were the thinking fangirl’s band of choice back then, but still, would it even be possible for a song as dark, weird, and slippery to rise to those kind of heights again? Our collective lack of patience, introspection, and empathy makes it pretty unlikely, but it remains a properly lovely weirdo tune. Which is why it is such a perfect and inspired choice for Mathilde Santing to have a go at. Her vocal is ridiculously intimate, a virtuosic whisper which coupled with some plush and windswept instrumental backing makes for something undeniably gorgeous.
All this is just the tip of the iceberg. Santing’s takes on Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, and New Order, amongst others, are all worth exploring, as is her entire catalog. The combination of her incredible voice and brilliantly nerdy song choices continue to set her apart from the pack and ensure her future induction into the Cover Me Hall of Fame.