In music today, emerging artists often ride the coattails of long-standing stars. They do this via the
But cover songs aren’t just shrewd business – they also pay tribute to an artist, song, or movement.
Singing a cover song is about taking someone else’s art and interpreting it in your own way. It’s about establishing a personal attachment to a song and putting your own emotion into it to share with the world.
In this post, we lay out six tricks to performing a successful cover song. These come from Colorado-based vocal training and artist development site Performance High and knowledgable singer-songwriter Sheena B. Mackie. The accompanying YouTube clips of celebrities performing covers show us how it’s done.
1. Your Own Voice
Though you’ll want to stay true to the original song, that doesn’t mean you want to mime the original singer. Not only would this diminish your personal interpretation of the song, but it could also damage your vocal cords. On the contrary, you want to remake the song according to your own artistic sensibility and taste. The place to start is with your own voice.
2. What To Keep
So, how do you preserve the sound of the original song while introducing your own voice? You do this by singing the melody of the original. Follow its rhythm, at least in the beginning. Also keep important parts of the song the same in structure, phrasing and timing.
3. Your Own Sound
What do you want to stress? What do you want to understate? How do you react to different lyrics and riffs? Your and the original artist’s answers to these questions are sure to differ – and the song should reflect those differences. In the abstract, this is how you put your stamp on a cover.
In practice, you start by singing louder and softer at different times than the song’s creator.
Play with the phrasing, the way the lyrics are expressed. You can connect words in different ways, change up which syllables the various beats land on, draw out phrases, or start and end lines slightly earlier or later.
You can also add or remove vocal embellishments – riffs, trills, harmonies, etc. You can even change the key you’re singing in (as long as you’re still in tune).
Change the tempo. Make an upbeat song into a ballad or funkify a pop hit. You can turn rock into folk, jazz into hip-hop.
Acoustic covers are popular. In general, you can change the instrumentation. Use a guitar, piano or keyboard, drums, violins, cellos, a ukulele – heck, add an entire orchestra.
Insert a verse of your own. This could be sung or rapped. It could be spoken word.
Sing the cover in autotune.
You can even mashup two or more covers.
4. Back Up Your Vocals
The original songs you cover are likely to include harmonies. If you go it alone, you’ll need a strong voice to compensate for the empty space where harmonies were. Alternatively, consider using backup vocalists for harmony or record your own harmonies separately and then mix them into the song using, for example, a loop pedal. Harmonies add texture and strength to your performance.
5. Be Emotional
Infusing your performance with emotion is one of the most important aspects of successfully singing a cover. Let your feelings show through the melody and lyrics.
A few tricks can help here:
Make it personal. Relate the lyrics, feelings, message or story of the song to one of your own stories, sentiments or experiences.
Make it relevant. Use your present feelings and emotional state to propel the song.
Make it meaningful. Paint a picture of the character in the song, from personality to emotions to looks, and become that person, singing the song as that character would sing it.
Make it emotive. Pick an emotion like sadness, anger, happiness, love, heartbreak, or strength and interpret the song through that emotional lens.