The Art of Breathing New Life Into Old Songs
We’re in the age of taking aspects of the past and making them into something entirely new and different from before. Modern artists such as Pheobe Bridgers, Angel Olsen, and Frank Ocean have all released their own versions of songs that have been around for decades, giving listeners, especially young listeners, a newfound appreciation for the classics. These artists, as well as many others, are bringing back these nearly forgotten relics to the spotlight.
I got to thinking about the topic of this article when Pheobe Bridgers released her haunting cover
of the 2004 song, “Day After Tomorrow” by Tom Waits. Her soft voice contrasts greatly from Waits’ raspy vocals, yet still does it supreme justice. The song isn’t something I ever imagined Bridgers doing, but this pleasant surprise is what makes the cover as wonderful as it is. Waits’ gravelly voice is accompanied by a delicate and complex acoustic guitar while Bridgers’ version does not entirely abandon the acoustic guitar but it is primarily a piano ballad with slight sonic elements and echoing ethereal harmonies coming from both Bridgers and a choir. The song is included in her latest addition to her collection of Christmas songs released around the Holidays. Not only did Bridgers gift fans with a beautiful rendition of the song, but she also is donating the proceeds from the song to The International Institute of Los Angeles’ Local Integration and Family Empowerment Division which, as the website states, “...provides assistance to refugees and survivors of human trafficking with skills and resources to become self-sufficient and successfully start new lives in Southern California.”
The next cover I want to talk about is Angel Olsen’s recently released rendition of Karen Dalton’s, 1971 folk classic, “Something On Your Mind” from her second and final studio album, In my Own Time. One doesn’t have to look far for the original when listening to Olsen’s take on the song, as she included Dalton’s version on the B-side of the single, in a clear display of admiration for the origin of the song. Olsen’s soul-stirring atmospheric vocals are immediately accompanied by a slow poignant piano, juxtaposing Dalton’s folky twang stemming from a fiddle and pedal steel guitar. Both versions are unique but manage to not stray too far from one another, bringing out each other’s beauty and brilliance.
In 2018, Frank Ocean does his own interpretation of “Moon River,” a Grammy-winning song originally heard in the 1961 film, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, sung by the film’s lead actress, Audrey Hepburn, and composed by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. It has been covered many times by iconic artists such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Louis Armstrong, so one can imagine just how intimidating it must be to join the likes of these artists by taking on the task of making another cover of this song, yet Ocean does it with ease. In the Breakfast at Tiffany’s rendition, the acoustic guitar is quiet and simple, amplifying Hepburn’s tenderly mesmerizing vocals. Ocean’s version opens with his traditionally autotuned vocals, followed by a choir of his harmonies delicately balancing over a moody electric guitar. The layering is complex and expansive, adding nothing but hypnotic bliss. Ocean successfully takes this timeless classic and makes it his own, all while staying true to the original passion and elegance of the song.
The art of breathing new life into old songs is a complicated one to master, but the three artists I’ve discussed today perfectly embody what it means to honor the original artist, all while making the song one’s own. Bridgers, Olsen, and Ocean, in each of their covers, are able to change the song just the right amount to give music-lovers something new to sink their teeth into without feeling like they’re betraying the sacred roots of the song.