Thursday, 22 July 2010


A few months ago I stepped onto an open mic stage, guitar in hand, ready to perform for an enthusiastic room full of people. Some of the performers before me had already broken several of the cardinal rules of guitar etiquette and I was prepared to set the record straight that douchebaggery is an unnecessary prerequisite to playing the acoustic guitar.

As I plugged myself into the PA system and adjusted my microphone stand, I made eye contact with some recognisable faces in the audience. A group of friends had come down to watch me, and I knew it was important that I didn't disappoint. I'd been preparing a special song for the past few days to really catch everyone's attention, and as I swivelled on my bar stool to face the audience I anxiously flexed my fingers and sung the opening lyrics under my breath.

I reached for the microphone, and muttered a hello in the coolest voice I could muster. Instantly, a tidal wave of eyes descended on my little refuge in the corner of the room and everything went silent. It was show time. The audience was mine. If you've ever performed in public you'll know how immensely strange it is to instantly be in the unswerving focus of a room full of strangers. Suddenly everything you say is extremely important, everything you do is under microscopic scrutiny and any mistake you make will be instantly detected and ridiculed for the rest of the night.

I started slowly. "This is a cover..."


"...of an MGMT song..."

A few nods of approval, some smiles.

"..called Kids."

And suddenly the mood had changed. I'd made the right decision. An audience that had thus far had to sit through two halting renditions of Jason Mraz's I'm Yours and a really awkward a capella version of Billie Jean seemed to appreciate that I had gone out of my way to present them with something a little more unorthodox.

Now I had their attention, it was time to finish the job. It was time to throw out a witty, profound statement that confirmed my attempts to present myself as an interesting musician, it was time seal the deal and gain the respect of my peers and this bar full of strangers. I stood up, grabbed the microphone in my right hand and began to explain how some popular songs have a lyrical 'spark' in them, something special that makes them stand out from the rest of the chart-topping rubbish recycled every week. I explained how acoustic covers are such effective ways to reinterpret these songs, to strip them down to the bare minimum so that the lyrics can seize the limelight, so that the melody can emerge in its purest form, unladen by synthesizers or auto-tune. I paced the stage, arguing that this is why folk music is the most beautiful kind of music, that it's because it is the most unblemished form of talent, that when you cover a song with nothing more than a guitar and your own voice you are deconstructing it, that if you take away all the unnecessary baggage and the song still works, then you can get as close as you possibly can to the magic behind beautiful music.

At least, that's what I'd wanted to say. Instead in an awkward, half-audible voice, I mumbled:

"Covers...are songs...that other people have written."

I remember watching in slow-motion the look of beaming pride on the face of one my friends in the audience slowly transform into one that just seemed to say, I am going to make fun of you for this for at least six months. Everyone else in the audience just seemed confused. I guess my my theories on the purifiying quality of the acoustic guitar were a little too complex to be explained at that particular moment. I hurriedly played through my song, and when I came to the end, was very careful to keep my mouth shut during the light applause.

Hopefully, Internet, we can all take away something from this embarrassing little story. Everyone loves a good cover, but they don't always work. The best kind are the ones that transform the original song into something totally different, but something that still totally works, the kind that detect the 'soul' of the piece, and strip away all the extraneous junk that isn't really needed.

I know you have a favourite cover, a song that you heard someone else play once that made you jump up and spill your coffee everywhere and exclaim to your startled coworkers, "What! You can play this song like that?!" I really, really want to know about these cover songs, and you can do us all a favour and post your favourite in the comments below.

Until then, you'd better put down your hot coffee and warn your colleagues because I want to make you aware of one of my favourite covers. José González has taken a poppy, fun Kylie Minogue song, ripped away all the drum tracks and piano layers, fed it into that big hole in the front of his guitar and produced something so incredibly different to the original. In no way can anyone say it is better than Kylie Minogue's version, but you have to give credit to González for zeroing in on what made the song so great in the first place, and using that to make the song totally his own.

I don't know if anything I said so far made any sense, it's a pretty complicated point to get across in word form, not to mention under a spotlight in front of a hundred strangers in a crowded bar. However, if you take nothing else away from my post this week, at least I can rest assured that now you know,

"Covers...are songs...that other people have written."

Before you ask: yes, I do weddings.

Kylie Minogue -- Hand On Your Heart

José González -- Hand On Your Heart (cover)


  1. HAHHAHAHAHA, this made me laugh so much! Charlie is lying on the table in front of me and he jumped at my sudden laughter. "Covers...are songs....that other people have written." HA!

    For what it's worth, my favorite cover is actually by YOU -- your version of Mr Brightside by the Killers is incredible and there was a period last month where I listened to it every day on my walk to and from work, often on repeat. (Then I stopped walking to and from work and didn't want to be the d-bag on the train with music audibly out of their headphones, so I stopped.)

  2. Your cover of 'Kids' in among my favourite Luke Burns renditions; my brother even told me to ask you for the tab when I was playing it the other day!

    Good folk covers:
    Angus & Julia Stone - You're The One That I Want
    Alan Pownall - Someday
    Johnny Flynn & Laura Marling - Travel Light
    Eva Cassidy - Wade In The Water
    First Aid Kit - Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
    Alison Krauss - I'll Fly Away
    The Kooks - Crazy
    José González - Heartbeats
    Marina & the Diamonds - Starstrukk
    Scala & the Kolacny Brothers - I Touch Myself
    Newton Faulkner - Teardrop
    Vyvienne Long - Seven Nation Army

    Bad folk covers:
    Joshua Radin - Girlfriend In A Coma
    Cat Power - (Can't Get No) Satisfaction
    Emmy the Great - Burn Baby Burn
    Razorlight - Englishman In New York

  3. Hi Luke, I found STFU through one of your comments on Holly's blog.
    "Covers...are songs...that other people have written" has just made me cringe for you, but I think we've all been there and done that at some point, and hopefully nobody will remember it next time you play!

    One of my favorite non folky covers is The Stereophonics 'Handbags and Gladrags'and I also love The Killers version of 'Romeo and Juliet'.

  4. You could have been singing "Happy birthday to you," and it would have been 1,000 times more awesome than Jason Mraz's song.

    And as someone with petrifying stage fright, I admire you for getting up there at all.

    Plus, I've heard you sing and play before and you were awesome.

  5. Yes yes yes about letting the lyrics seize the limelight - which is why I love Mat Weddle's version of Hey Ya...although I wish he would have stopped at just over 2 minutes.

  6. Genius post resonating with anyone who's ever followed a couple of tools at open mic night.