How to Cover a Song (Or, What Courrier Taught Me About Art)

One of my favorite local bands (one of my favorite bands, period, actually) is Courrier. Yes, with an extra R. Yesterday, Courrier released a free download of their cover of Mumford & Sons’ The Cave. I had been hoping for Careless Whisper, but, you know.

Now, admittedly, I am sick and bloody tired of Mumford & Sons. I listened the life out of Sigh No More when it was released, and though every song on that record is gold, I lost the taste for all of them. But because Courrier is a good band, and because the download was free, I gave them my email address and got the song. And it’s fantastic. It breathes a new life into a song that went stale a long time ago. And I started to wonder about how Courrier could accomplish this. How could they resurrect a song that we’d all killed with repeated listenings and radio play? How could they resuscitate my love for a song that I came to hate?

I came to this conclusion: They could do it because they are good artists.

Here’s what I mean:

Good artists know who they are. And Courrier knows who they are. And, creatively, they live in that space. This isn’t to say that they don’t take risks. It’s not to say that good artists limit themselves to a certain playpen of expression. But it IS to say that good artists aren’t preoccupied with wishing they were someone else. Courrier’s cover of The Cave is a good cover because they have a catalog of brilliant self-penned, self-composed, self-created songs that speak to their artistic identity that informs their intepretation of The Cave. The practical implication of this is that Courrier’s cover of The Cave doesn’t sound like a pop band pretending to be Mumford & Sons. It sounds like Courrier playing The Cave. And that’s about half of what a good cover is. The other half of what makes a good cover is the way that a cover will interact with the songs you’ve already written. The reason The Cave was one of the best covers Courrier could have picked to fill a slot in their set list isn’t because The Cave is a crowd-pleaser (although it certainly is that), but rather because the lyrical DNA of The Cave can be easily grafted into Courrier’s own lyrical DNA. It’s because The Cave helps them tell the story they’re trying to tell. Ultimately, that’s what good artists are concerned about. And that’s why Courrier are good artists.

There’s a lesson that Courrier is teaching the artistic community if we’d incline our ears to hear it:

The fact is that if your artistic identity is built solely upon your ability to play other people’s songs, that says something significant about your artistic identity. If the story your repertoire is telling isn’t your story, but is rather a Frankensteinian narrative built of other people’s stories and thoughts, that means something. It means that your artistic output is simply an outward expression of your inward desire to be someone else than who you are. Youtube phenoms whose success is predicated upon their ability to play a song that people like are selling us a false definition of what art is. They’re saying art is about people-pleasing. They’re telling us that art is about finding validation in the positive remarks left in the comments section. That’s a horrible way for any human being to live–but it’s impossible to live that way and be an artist.

Performers please others. Artists tell a story, for better or for worse.

Your ability to reinterpret another person’s song doesn’t make you a good artist any more than being able to read Virgil’s Aeneid in the original Latin makes you a citizen of ancient Rome. But the ability to take someone else’s song and use it to help you tell a story that was yours to tell from the beginning, and that you’ve already been telling in other original songs? That might make you a good artist. And that is what Courrier is challenging us to do.

So pick up the pen. The guitar. The brush. Sit at your desk or your piano or your easel. And fight for your art. But more importantly: fight for yourself. Stop singing someone else’s songs, and tell the story only you can tell.

mt

Follow @courriermusic, and go to courriermusic.com to claim your free download of The Cave. Courrier’s latest record, A Violent Flame, is on iTunes. You’d do well to pick it up.

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