Aussie stars reveal why cover versions are special

The timing was uncanny.

The week before Powderfinger performed their triumphant reunion concert One Night Lonely, a quiet, emotionally rich cover of their beloved B side hit These Days popped up on TV.

Recorded by acclaimed singer and songwriter Thelma Plum, the version was commissioned by CBA to soundtrack a COVID-19-inspired commercial to highlight the spirit of Australians coming together during the pandemic shutdown.

 

Thelma Plum tackled Powderfinger’s These Days for a CBA campaign. Picture: Supplied.
Thelma Plum tackled Powderfinger’s These Days for a CBA campaign. Picture: Supplied.

 

"I was given the chance to record a song I grew up with, and as a Brissie local, I already know a couple of the Powderfinger guys so of course, I said yes. I even recorded parts of it in Ian's (Haug, Powderfinger guitarist) studio, which made it feel even more natural," Plum said.

 

 

COVER CURSE

 

Covers used to be taboo for the emerging artist.

Many artists in the 50s and 60s kicked off their careers recording versions of songs popular in the American and British charts to take advantage of the fact it could take a couple of months for the original versions could take months to be shipped to Australia.

As more artists took control of writing their own hits in the post-Beatles explosion of original pop music, the cover became a symbol of the sell-out, a record label tool used to launch new talent or revive a stalled career with an already popular song.

But snobbery and suspicion of the record label marketing machine which valued sales and chart positions over expression slowly relaxed in the post-grunge era.

For the original songwriter, a cover version is typically viewed as a compliment.

 

Bernard Fanning is intrigued by how different These Days is when sung by Kasey or Thelma. Picture: Supplied.
Bernard Fanning is intrigued by how different These Days is when sung by Kasey or Thelma. Picture: Supplied.

 

Powderfinger's Bernard Fanning was intrigued by the emotional depth of Plum's version of These Days.

"There's something very interesting about a woman singing that song," he said.

"Kasey (Chambers) did it very early in the piece, not long after it was released, and there's something there that really lends itself to whatever feelings of empathy that are supposed to arise in that song.

"You kinda picture a different set of circumstances when you hear a woman telling that story."

 

LIKING THE VERSIONS

5SOS kicked off their recording career with YouTube covers. Picture: Supplied.
5SOS kicked off their recording career with YouTube covers. Picture: Supplied.

 

Over the past 15 years, YouTube became a discovery tool for talent scouts who searched for aspiring teen singing sensations via their covers uploaded to the platform.

Justin Bieber, Cody Simpson and 5 Seconds of Summer are among dozens of chart-topping pop stars who launched their career via bedroom recordings.

The ambition to "make a cover your own" is viewed by artists as worthy a pursuit as writing their own hit song.

For more than 15 years, one of the most coveted live performance opportunities on Australian radio has been the weekly Like A Version sessions on Triple J where artists launch a new single and also offer up their unique interpretation of an unexpected song.

Indie pop artist Meg Mac will put her spin on a Billie Eilish song this week. Picture: Supplied.
Indie pop artist Meg Mac will put her spin on a Billie Eilish song this week. Picture: Supplied.

 

Indie gospel pop artist Meg Mac has made two visits to the Like A Version studio, performing the Broods song Bridges in 2014, which has had more than 1.3 million views of YouTube, and then Tame Impala's Let It Happen in 2017, with more than two million views.

She will be the third artist to perform for OPPO's Under The Covers, one of the plethora of virtual gigs which have sprung up in the wake of the pandemic shutdown of the concert industry.

Like Vera Blue and The Jungle Giants' Sam Hales, Mac did a call out to fans for cover suggestions before deciding to tackle a recent hit, Billie Eilish's When The Party's Over.


The singer is renowned for her idiosyncratic treatment of other artist's songs; her recording and live performance of the Bill Withers' song Grandma's Hands became hugely popular among Australia's alternative music fans with thousands mistakenly thinking it was her own composition.

"People would send me videos of other people covering Grandma's Hands saying 'This famous person is singing your song," she said.

"I love doing covers. It's kind of going back to why you do music in the first place. You don't start writing songs, you start singing other people's songs and slowly, eventually you try writing your own."

When approaching a song to cover, Mac often finds herself gravitating to a background part in the arrangement to highlight rather than the obvious vocal melody or lyrics.

"When I did Tame Impala's Let It Happen, there is a vocoder thing in the outro that happens at the end of a seven-minute song which became my favourite part of the song which I wanted to put in the beginning," she said.

"There really are no rules, you can take any song and just do it for fun."

 

SWEETEST TABOO

Katie Noonan has just released The Sweetest Taboo, a jazz tribute album of her favourite 80s artists including Whitney Houston, Icehouse and Crowded House.

Katie Noonan has recorded her fave 80s tracks for Sweetest Taboo record. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen/The Australian
Katie Noonan has recorded her fave 80s tracks for Sweetest Taboo record. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen/The Australian

 

Her version of Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) reveals all the heartwrenching emotion at the centre of the song, often missed when you are in the throes of letting loose on the dancefloor.

"As a singer, I feel a responsibility to study the lyrics," Noonan said.

"I have always loved that song - Whitney was my first absolute queen - and when I was learning it, I discovered it's such a sad song about loneliness and isolation. It couldn't be more fitting for these times."


While covering her queen was a daunting task, Noonan admits she suffered more nerves tackling the songs of Australian artists she has respected and crossed paths with during her illustrious career.

She was chuffed when Icehouse's Iva Davies sent a note about her cover of his 1987 smash Electric Blue.

"It is a pure joy to be able to listen to a singer with such a rare gift, such control and subtlety, and such complete command of her voice," Davies wrote about the cover.

"Katie's interpretations of these songs are so imaginative and original that they reveal these songs as never before."

 

BIGGER THAN THE ORIGINAL

Many covers have become bigger hits than their original versions and introduced a seminal artist to new generations such as the k.d. lang and Jeff Buckley versions of Leonard Cohen's masterpiece Hallelujah.

British band the Zutons enjoyed a top hit with their 2006 single Valerie but the song became inextricably linked to the late British singer Amy Winehouse when hitmaker Mark Ronson rearranged it for her.

 

Amy Winehouse made The Zutons’ Valerie her own with some help from Mark Ronson. Picture: Supplied.
Amy Winehouse made The Zutons’ Valerie her own with some help from Mark Ronson. Picture: Supplied.

 

Eighties pop stars Bananarama hit the top of the charts worldwide in 1986 thanks to their recording of Venus, originally released by Dutch rock band Shocking Blue in the late 60s.

Trent Reznor was effusive in his praise of the haunting interpretation of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt, insisting the song would forever belong to the country music legend.

And one of the popular party songs of all time, Soft Cell's Tainted Love was in fact a cover of American soul queen Gloria Jones in the mid 1960s.

 

k.d. lang had people in tears with her Hallelujah at the Fire Fight concert in February. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett.
k.d. lang had people in tears with her Hallelujah at the Fire Fight concert in February. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett.

 

But perhaps one of the most iconic covers to remain culturally relevant in Australia for six decades is Wild One - also known as Real Wild Child.

The original by Johnny O'Keefe released in 1958 is widely acknowledged as our first homegrown rock'n'roll hit while the Iggy Pop version continues as the theme to ABC video show Rage.

Originally published as Aussie stars reveal why cover versions are special


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