How to Create an Unforgettable Cover Song

How to Create an Unforgettable Cover Song

Once in a while, a performer comes along and creates a whole new perspective on someone else’s song. In that rare instance, the music becomes reinvented. Our imagination is touched in new ways. When an artist brings their own soul to life in unique shifts of style, mood, melody, tempo, and message, the striking effect of their version may even eclipse the original. That’s a great cover.

What cover comes to your mind as distinctly memorable? Do you long to do your own version of a favourite song? Perhaps you’re already performing covers? Either way, do you aspire to create the kind of unforgettable effect achieved by the greatest artists?

These questions are worth asking. Here’s why…

Believe it or not, no matter who you are, or how capable you consider yourself as a musician, you can create an incredible cover. All you need is a favourite song, your life experience, your passion, and the willingness to express these in whatever musical way you’re able. If you don’t play an instrument, your voice is enough. Really.

Here’s how…

Choosing Your Song

“I’ve never recorded anything I didn’t like.”

Aretha Franklin

A great cover begins with a favourite song. Start by asking yourself, “What song is inspiring me? What music do I love dancing to? Humming? Hearing in my quiet moments? What am I feeling uplifted by? Consoled by? Motivated by? Reassured by?”

Your feeling for a song is the spark. It ignites the process of creating your own version. This wonderful journey starts with your inspiration!  

Think of it this way—a beloved song is a doorway to your soul. Creating your own unique cover is walking through that doorway. What’s inside of you is revealed. You discover who you are.

Suggestion: What song did you choose? Make note of one or more possibilities.

Listening to Your Song

“A good song should give you a lot of images.
You should be able to make your own little movie in your head to a good song.”

Tom Petty

Now, listen deeply to the music. Really open to what you’re hearing. Let the song reveal itself to you—the words, the meanings, the harmonies, melodies, rhythms. How do you feel when you’re listening? What comes to you? What memories or experiences? Let your imagination drift and flow.

Suggestion: Write or journal your thoughts. Let yourself put words to paper (or device), as stream of consciousness. Don’t worry about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Writing your thoughts is incredibly helpful in this process!

Finding Your Meaning

“Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories.
And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.”

Stevie Wonder

The original song was inspired by the songwriter’s experiences. In a great cover, the music morphs to express your life. So, ask yourself, ‘What does this song really mean to me? What comes to my mind? Longing? Happiness? Love? Sorrows and loss? Poignant reflections? What can I express through this song that’s held in the silence of my heart?”

An example, and a little background:

“My Favorite Things,” my arrangement…

When I was young, I learned classical piano. And I listened to lots of other music, too—blues, folk-rock, and rock-and-roll. In the quiet of the evening, my fingers would stray from Bach or Mozart. Blues notes and progressions rose in my playing.

Life wasn’t always easy back then. Difficulties filled my young life, as for so many of us. But sitting at the piano alone at night, letting myself drop into the blues—I was free. My troubles dissolved. Everything was okay.

Some years later, when I began to arrange a cover of the jazz standard, “My Favorite Things,” I thought, well, one of my favorite things is the blues. In this version, you’ll hear the bluesy interlude, the style of music that’s kept me going through thick and thin…

Suggestion 1: Write or journal about your own personal story/meaning for your song.

Suggestion 2: Speak the lyrics to someone – a friend, a family member, your dog. Pretend you’re an actor on stage. Say the words slowly, or not. But say them with conviction. Let them ring out. You’re telling your story. If it’s an instrumental, describe with emotion and depth, the feelings giving rise to your version.

Musical Style

“I know it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it, like it, yes, I do.”

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

Artists are usually associated with a specific style. Of course, there are variations. But overall, The Rolling Stones are a rock-and-roll band; John Coltrane is a jazz player; Aretha Franklin is the “queen” of gospel and soul; Dolly Parton’s a country singer; Dr. Dre is a rap and hip-hop artist; Bob Marley’s style is reggae; Metallica is heavy metal…etc.

When an artist covers a song in their own style, it may be dramatically different to the original. This has led to some of the greatest covers of all time.

Here are two notable examples…

Conor Maynard and Anth’s “Hello”

How do you create a truly original cover of an Adele song? English singer, Conor Maynard and American rap artist, Anth Melo succeed in their haunting version of Adele’s hit single, “Hello.”

Maynard begins, his sparse vocals calling in anguish to a past love. As he escalates, he is crying out to life itself. The slow pulse of percussion becomes the ex-lover’s heartbeat, unemotional, on the other end of the line. Maynard’s powerful delivery would be enough to render this a memorable cover. But there’s more.

Unexpectedly, Anth enters. The style shifts. He begins rapping to the girl who left him, his heartbreak revealed in excruciating detail.

“He don’t want you like I want you;
He don’t need you like I need you;
He don’t see you how I see you;
He don’t breathe you how I breathe you.”

Conor and Anth’s extraordinary cover is a song-within-a-song, taking us into the depths of the human heart in pain.

Whitney Houston’s “I’ll Always Love You”

Dolly Parton’s original aches with the intimacy of a good-bye letter. And it was—to her close business partner, Porter Wagoner.

Years later, Whitney Houston covers the song for the 1992 movie, “The Bodyguard,” in which she stars. The great soul singer begins a cappella, her voice intimate, lamenting. What will come? The guitar enters, synth, strings. Whitney’s vocals intensify, arcing higher, and higher. Pause. The key changes up. Soul-filled, she takes us soaring into the expanse.

In the original, Dolly sings sweetly, sadly to a beloved who’s no longer. Whitney Houston sings of parted lovers, also. Yet in Whitney’s world their love endures, suffusing the Universe, eternal and all-embracing. They’ll be together always. 

Note: Whitney Houston’s “I’ll Always Love You” is one of the best-selling singles of all time. Buoyed by its success, Dolly Parton emerged even more famous, appreciated, and wealthy. The cover gave back, big-time, to the songwriter.

Suggestion: What style(s) of music do you love? What style expresses your feeling for your song? Try singing and/or playing your cover in a couple of different styles. Experiment. Record yourself. Listen back. Let yourself be led by the feeling. 

When you hit it right, you’ll know: There’s an alchemy between the song, the style, and you as an artist.

Phrasing and Expression

“Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin. Now, they are so subtle, they can milk you with two notes.
They can make you feel like they told you the whole universe.”

Janis Joplin

From the first note to the last, let the music tell your story. Every note, every phrase, every breath is essential. Be fearless. You’re crafting the song in new ways. You’re letting the music express your feelings.  

Take huge liberties with the original. Change the tempo, breathe space into the melody, sing/play the phrases softly here, and strongly there. Record yourself. Listen. Discern. Feel. Experiment. Once again, be fearless. You can’t go wrong.

Suggestion: Print out a lead sheet, sheet music, or simply the lyrics. Free yourself from ‘traditional’ music notation. Write in little cues, dynamic markings, phrase markings, words, descriptions. This will give you clarity. You’re ‘at the helm,’ guiding the creative process and the song’s transformation.

Performing Your Unique Cover

“You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere”

John Coltrane

It’s time to bring your song, and your life, to the audience! As you perform your cover, melt into the music. Let it overwhelm you as you play and/or sing. Take the audience with you—like Aretha, Whitney, Joe, and Janis.

You’re creating a world. You’re sharing your deepest self. The listener hears it, feels it. Your song becomes the listener’s world, too. Stepping out, you leave the original behind.  

The song is now your own.

Note: Perhaps you’ll play guitar or piano to accompany yourself. Or you’re using additional instruments, looping, etc. Remember, in the deepest way, there is no ‘accompaniment.’ Every instrument is a voice, expressing the feeling of your song.

Something to consider: You’re more than just an ‘interpreter’ of someone else’s music. Great cover artists are closer to songwriters. This can give you confidence. It’s a short step to creating your own, entirely original song or piece of music.

A Word of Encouragement

“If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.”

Jimi Hendrix

Creating your cover song is personal, yes. Challenging, perhaps. Rewarding, certainly. But more than that. It’s literally making this planet a better place. The world needs your authentic voice. What’s there inside you, waiting to be expressed. What makes you, you. 

When your deepest yearnings, memories, feelings, and experiences come alive through music, everyone is enriched. You feed the larger force of Love. Truly.

“Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.”

Janis Joplin

A Little More Inspiration…

Three Covers That made History

Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”

In front of a half million people at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, the great singer-songwriter, Joe Cocker stepped way beyond the familiar, transforming one of the most popular songs of the era, The Beatles,’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” 

In his soul-expanding, hypnotic incantation, Cocker squeezes every ounce of pathos from every note. Do you neeeeed anybody? As he sings to a vast sea of humanity, the longing for friendship becomes real.

Janis Joplin’s “Summertime”

George Gershwin composed “Summertime” for Porgy and Bess, an opera inspired by blues, jazz, and African American spirituals. The song is written as a lullaby, sung by a mother to her nursing baby.

Janis Joplin’s spellbinding cover opens with classical, contrapuntal lines on sax and trumpet, guitar and bass. Then Janis begins, hissing the humid heat of summer in the Deep South. The scene materialises—Child, your livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin,’ The cotton is high. All is good—on one level. And yet, Joplin’s “Summertime,” is anything but. It’s a raspy, desperate appeal. The original, minor key is ominous, unsettled. Wailing, yearning, she chants;
“One of these mornings, you’ll rise up singing. You’re gonna spread your wings, you’ll take to the sky.”

Longing for reassurance, Janis is singing to herself…
“Until that morning, nothing’s gonna harm you. Nothing’s ever gonna let you down. Hush, baby, baby, baby, don’t you cry.”

Unexpectedly, the song ends on the major. Resolved, she is finally at peace.  

Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace””

“Amazing Grace” is one of the most beloved and enduring hymns of all time. It arose from the awakened conscience of Englishman, John Newton—the captain of a slave ship in the late 1700’s. In a moment of transfiguration, Newton was struck down with the horror of his ways. I was blind and now I see.

Bearing the dark legacy of American racial oppression, and raised in the gospel tradition, Aretha Franklin performed “Amazing Grace” in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The event was highly anticipated. Luminaries such as Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones relinquished their elevated position of stage and celebrity to sit among the audience, knowing they’d hear the pinnacle of vocal artistry.

True to form, Aretha came through. In her soaring phrases and trembling vibratos, the “Queen of Soul” lifts the song from its moorings. As she stretches the melody beyond recognition, Aretha enters a realm beyond music. All those present—crying, swaying, gasping, marveling—are taken up in one collective expression of awe. In her extraordinary delivery, we are all liberated.

About the Author

 For more info:

Jessica Roemischer is an award-winning pianist, writer, and inspirational mentor. New York-born, and raised by musical parents, her teaching lineage links to Frederic Chopin. Jessica’s life is dedicated to liberating the human spirit through a highly innovative, individualised approach to music coaching. She’s worked with hundreds of students from 2 to 85 years of age, as well as those with developmental disabilities, gaining her support from the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Community Engagement Program, Caroline and James Taylor, and a nomination for a CNN Heroes Award. Students have gone on to global competitions and Grammy Award nominations.

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