+ Learn from Grammy-winning pop artist Kimbra how to harness the full creative potential of your voice in song. Check out her course.
Do you remember the feeling when you listened to one of your favorite songs for the very first time? That striking euphoria, just like falling in love with someone, yet with an energy created by poetry and melody. You felt understood and connected to someone’s art, because of a very specific thing, a feeling that you and the artist seem to have in common.
In short: The magic of a great song connects all of us.
This happened to me when I first heard the song “Lullaby” by The Cure in 1993.
And because great songs connect us, a well-picked cover says just as much about the personality of the artist performing the song as it did about the artist that wrote it.
A well-picked cover song can also help you make large strides in your career. It is not for nothing that there are so many artists who perform well-known songs in their live repertoire. Covers play such a significant role in the music industry too, as they allow listeners to discover something new about the music they already love.
If you ask me, there’s nothing like a good cover song to broadcast your sound and brand out clearly to the world. So while a lot of artists choose to play songs exactly like the original versions, I personally think this is a missed opportunity to do something truly special — a hybrid concoction of two creative voices melding together.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Legally Cover a Song in 2023.”
Why Put Your Own Spin on a Cover Song?
Unique cover versions can breathe new life into older songs, or simply give fans another way to enjoy their favorite tunes. And if everything goes well, people may find your song version even better than the original.
But if you want to stand out from the crowd, you’ll need to transform your cover version into an original. I simply love to challenge myself as an artist with a cover song. In the past years I’ve released my own versions of songs by Sade, The Cure, and Depeche Mode under my project Unkenny Valleys.
+ Learn production, composition, songwriting, theory, arranging, mixing, and more; whenever you want and wherever you are. Subscribe for full access!
How to Choose the Perfect Song to Cover
Here are five things to consider when looking for a fitting song to cover.
Choose a song that is well-known by the people you know.
I’d recommend starting with a song that people know. And because your friends and family will be the first ones to share your cover, start with the songs your people know.
Sure, there is always an audience for even the smallest independent bands, but to promote your own music to a fresh audience, you might want to start with something that even your parents might know. Remember: the goal is always to communicate where you’re coming from as an artist.
Choose a genre that’s close to yours.
Do you gravitate toward rock, pop, hip-hop, or country? Narrow down your list of potential songs by focusing on genres that most inspired your own music.
Make sure to understand the message of the lyrics.
Do the lyrics of the song relate to your life in some way? When choosing a cover song, make sure that it really speaks to you. The more you feel what you’re singing about, the more your cover will resonate with your audience. Alternatively, you could also find another interpretation of the lyrics and build up your cover version around that theme.
Listen to various recordings of the songs you want to cover.
See if someone else has done a version of your song already. Take notes about what works and what doesn’t work with each version (in your opinion). You could avoid or incorporate those elements into your own version.
Make sure the song fits your vocal range and instrumental abilities.
You don’t want to choose a song that is too difficult or too easy for your vocal range; find a sweet spot between challenging and doable so that when performing, you can give it your all and be proud of the result. Transpose the song higher or lower until you feel comfortable with it.
Hopefully this will help you find a song that truly reflects who you are as an artist, and covering it will be something special for both yourself and your fans alike! Once you’ve figured all that out, listen to the songs on your list again and see how they feel. Now that you’ve found the right song to cover, it’s time to give it your own personal touch.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “10 Cover Versions That Creatively Transform the Original Song.”
8 Ways to Make a Cover Song Your Own
Here are eight effective ways and valuable tips that you can use to rise above the rest and make your cover songs truly shine.
1. Embrace your own style and imperfections.
Don’t ever try to be someone you’re not — that’s not what covering songs is about. Covering a great song in your own way is about taking something familiar and communal and putting a personal, individual spin on it. Be true to yourself and your own musical style.
If you hear some kind of imperfection in your playing or singing, that could be a source of individuality and identity, which is worth exploring! Of course, I’m not talking about singing wrong notes, but, I’m also not against that! The truth is that you’re probably not working with the unlimited professional studio budgets that original artists like artists like The Beatles, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, or Madonna were, so ultimately you’ll have to make compromises somewhere along the way. Revel in them!
Authenticity is closer to discover than you might think.
2. Remove or add lyrics where needed.
Surprise your audience with new words or entire text passages that change the content of the song. If your original is about a boy but you’d like to make it about a girl, go ahead. This is common! Sometimes you’ll find new interesting opportunities to rhyme and change the story. You can also change a negative perspective to something positive to spin the outcome or feeling around.
3. Change the tone of the song.
Familiar with John Lennon’s famous “Imagine?” How about A Perfect Circle’s version?
We all know how much the original song lifts us up and gives us hope for the future, A Perfect Circle gave it a much darker tone by playing the song in minor key instead of major. From the very beginning I personally loved their version — and it’s always exciting to hear what that kind of choice does to an all-too familiar song.
4. Play with the song’s tempo.
If your music is usually uplifting and dancey, try to turning a ballad into a dance track? Speed things up, slow them down; do what you need to do to get the original closer to your comfort zone so you can feel confident and organic inserting your own energy. Go with the flow and be who you are!
As an example of this, I really like how the singer Manuella interpreted Joy Division’s song “Disorder.”
5. Use different instrumentation.
Sometimes you get to know a song by a famous artist only because you heard a cover version first. This happened to me after I found out that “Angel” by Drop Nineteens is actually a cover of Madonna’s “Angel.” Drop Nineteens used only the instrumentation they typically use in their songs. Sloppy drums, lush guitars, and their melancholic style vocal delivery.
6. Write a new hook line or add new melodies.
While we’re talking about Drop Nineteens’ version of “Angel.” Their lead guitarist also created a new hook melody for their cover that was inspired by some synth components from the original. This gave the song a dirtier vibe but also made it more recognizable than Madonna’s ’80s synth pop original. One thing is for sure, this song reached a completely new audience.
In a cover song, I want to hear highlights of those influences on the artist, but I also want to experience the new artist’s own musical roots through their innovative approach.
7. Rearrange the structure to suit your needs.
If your original has a very long guitar solo, or there’s a specific part that you don’t enjoy as much as the rest of the song, why not change up the structure a little bit?
Make the song yours. Put the most recognizable hook of the song right at the beginning to catch your audience’s attention but then mess with everything else; get rid of a solo; or play the chorus the second time around with a slightly different harmony or melody.
That’s what I did when I covered “Lullaby” by The Cure. The original begins with many loops of melody layers, but some of those melodies I wanted to add later on to reserve some things to anticipate. Take a listen:
8. Perform the song on an instrument you’ve never played before.
This was an exciting choice for me personally when I covered Sade’s “Cherish The Day.” I wanted to play the bass line with a very strange MIDI controller by the french company Embodme. Because in my head I heard a synth bass line but didn’t want to play it on a standard keyboard, and I wanted my audience to enjoy the light show from the controller. Decisions like these bring a little more risk and entertainment to the already “new” experience of performing someone else’s song.
You did it!
Those are some of my favorite ways to make a cover song your own. Always keep in mind that your listeners should still recognize the original song; because in the end, a great cover is a balanced mixture of the famous hooks of the original combined with your own voice and sounds.
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by Ryan Lott, Com Truise, Jlin, Kiefer, RJD2, and Kimbra: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, & Production.