What Makes a Great Cover Song?

Themes and variation

Themes and variation

Now here’s a question that’s bound to create some conversational controversy

What makes a great cover song? Is it playing every note as close to the original as possible, creating a carbon copy? Or does a great cover require a reimagining of the source material in your own style? And if that, then where are the limits of going “too far” on the spectrum of interpretation?

Whatever your feeling is, this brand new podcast episode digs deep into some of our own favorite cover versions, and attempts to come up with a framework for what, ultimately, makes a great cover so special.

And I can never do this stuff alone. For this episode, my co-host and co-producer Mahea Lee and I enlisted the help of Flypaper’s very own Editor-in-Chief, an experimental musician and proud new Canadian, Jeremy Young. We dive straight into the deep end to harvest our opinions on what makes a great cover song, why some artists really miss their mark with it, and whether or not there are songs too sacred to cover.

You can listen to Themes and Variation Episode 5 in its entirety right here in the player above, or click over to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or anywhere else you get your podcasts to subscribe and download. *Bonus points if you want to hit us with a five star rating on Apple!

Want to dig a bit deeper? Check out the companion course on Soundfly.

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If you’re enjoying this episode, and you’d like to learn more about some of the musical topics we touched on, go ahead and visit Soundfly’s free companion course for songwriting prompts and additional resources. From scale modes to melody-writing and even audio production tips and tricks, we’ve curated some extra resources for listeners who want to go the extra creative mile and put stuff from the episode into action.

Episode 5 Highlights

1. Carter hops on his covers soapbox.

Carter: I’ve been in more than enough situations both in a band or in an audience where it’s “ok, let’s do a cover” and then you play the song down exactly as is and exactly as written. To me that’s just like a very obvious set-filler, like “oh we didn’t have enough songs to reach our 45-minute or hour long set so we’re gonna do this cover.” Just being an audience member you have that initial feeling when you hear the cover where immediately you’re like “oh I know this song!” and you’re excited, then you’re just stuck in that song with whoever’s playing it. You might as well be in a mall walking around, having that song come on.

2. A strong original melody will carry a great cover.

Jeremy: The iconic nature of a melody I think is very freeing when it comes to covers. And this where being a jazz artist doing a cover is an asset. If you already know that you’re gonna incorporate improvisation… I could sing in my sleep the melody for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and tons of other songs from that era, or classic rock or whatever. If I can already sing the melody in my head, then that gives the cover artist so much freedom to improvise around, and warp it, and change it and stuff because I’ve got it looping in my head already. I don’t need the artist to provide that.

3. Changing the feel of a track can change how a listener interprets and engages with the material.

Mahea: This is partly an interesting cover to me because, and tell me if you guys agree or disagree, but I think that the way the song is treated changes how I as a listener interpret its meaning.

Jeremy: Oh yeah, well I haven’t heard the entire cover yet, but I would probably agree with that. It makes you think of different things. As soon as you hear it, you start really focusing in on the lyrics which I think might be like a shadow area of Paul Simon’s version, which there’s so much going, it’s hard to really engage with each word. Gabriel kind of lets each word linger.

Collaborative Playlist

We’ve created a collaborative Spotify playlist in order to share every song talked about and mentioned on this episode. Feel free to add your favorite covers to the episodes playlist!

Note: Please don’t just add your own songs that don’t match the theme. While we love hearing your music, this is not a playlist for self-promotions, and we will remove them. 

We’ll see you in two weeks with a new theme, new guests, and some new songs to break down. If you have any comments, questions, or theme suggestions, drops us a line at [email protected]!

Ryan Lott: Designing Sample-Based Instruments

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