Some years ago, Irish singer-songwriter, Christy Moore wrote a book called One Voice – My Life in Song. As music books go, this was a very original book. He took 250 songs from throughout his career – both songs that he had written and other people’s songs that he had covered – from old folk songs to Bob Dylan and Shane McGowan. He printed the lyrics of each song and wrote a small piece about each one – saying how he discovered the song or why he wrote it, how he recorded it, what the song meant to him.
I was fascinated by this book when I read it for the first time, for a number of reasons. The main reason was his attitude towards the songs. And not just the songs he’d written himself but the covers as well. He’d say something like, “I’ve tried to record a version of that song for years but I could never get it right.” A lot of people would probably question this and say “Why?” It’s hardly rocket science. The song is already written – all you have to do is learn the chords and the lyrics and sing it. But this wasn’t Christy’s attitude. He had to get inside the song; he had to feel that he was the person in the song, so that he could honestly speak about the subject matter of the song.
Now, I was thinking about this recently as I watched a young guy playing in a bar in Dublin. He was playing all cover versions, mostly for tourists, and I found out later that this was a weekly gig for him. And there are any number of similar people throughout Ireland (I’m one of them). But there isn’t a huge percentage that takes it as seriously as this guy did. He had a great voice and he really gave it his all – both vocally and playing the guitar. But more than that, you could see that thought had gone into what he was doing. For instance, he had a medley of songs all played in the same four chords (and he told me afterwards that he’d come up with this idea BEFORE the band “Axis of Awesome” did the same thing). So, he didn’t just go out every week and do his setlist by rota, get paid, and go home. And you could see the crowd react to this. Had he just sat there playing the songs in monotone in the background, the crowd wouldn’t have reacted in the rapturous way that they did. This attitude to playing songs is anathema to many people.
That’s something that some people don’t understand. They think you just get up on stage and start singing and it’s as easy as that. But just as I’ve studied writers and writing for years (and still do) to perfect my craft, so I’ve studied Springsteen on stage and what Christy Moore has to say about singing other people’s songs, and so on. Because there is a craft behind everything and if you can perfect that craft then you can be a success at what you do. I’ve spent years trying to perfect my craft – not only with my original music – but also with my cover gigs.
Some performers don’t get that. They are purists about what they do, thinking that by keeping their music pure they’re impressing their audience. But if you’re playing a cover gig, the only thing that’s going to impress your audience is how good you sound. And these other acts sacrifice sounding good for principle. If you want to be principled, don’t play cover gigs. If you want to play cover gigs then you must treat it as an art form. Learn what the crowd wants and how you can deliver that to them, and within reason, you must go to whatever lengths are necessary to deliver. In the end, there’s no difference between Christy Moore performing covers on stage, and a singer playing covers in a pub. It must all be treated and performed with the same passion.
In the words of the great, wise Yoda “Do or do not. There is no try.”
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