The Interpreters: In Another Voice, Another Song

In reinterpreting the words and music of their male peers, songwriters like Tori Amos and Joan Baez create whole new works of art.

The song “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen, a deceptively simple story written in the form of a letter about two men’s love of the same woman, is one of my favorite pieces of music. However, although I am sure that I’ll get crucified for saying this, accused of either poserism or lunacy, I must say that I find Cohen’s version drab. My preferred version comes from barely in-print compilation called Tower of Song, one of those mostly terrible endeavors where popular artists cover a firebrand musician to very mixed results. It is performed by singer-songwriter and perennial ‘90s “weird chick” Tori Amos, who chooses to not simply do a serviceable or karaoke-esque version, but dig deep into the lyrics of the song to sing it from a previously unexplored angle.

Artist: Various

Album: Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen

Label: A&M/Polydor

US Release Date: 1995-10-10

UK Release Date: 1997-09-15

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/6/61dqildju0l._sx425_.jpg

During the taping of her 1999 VH1 Storytellers concert, Amos told the audience that she approached the song from the point of view of the woman at the center of the love triangle, Jane, reading the letter written by the narrator. Amos does this beautifully, performing the lyrics like an actor might a monologue. Through her, we hear Jane tentatively reading the first inscrutable lines, her interest piquing when she sees that this letter is about her, and eventually the sadness, the hurt in her voice when she reads, “If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me / Your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free.”

Amos is not just singing a song by a male artist who she admire; she is also using her own artistry to make a feminist critique of a song she no doubt loves very much. Calling her version a “cover” doesn’t quite cut it. With her performance, she has re-interpreted the song and presented her own rendition, flipping the narrative on its head by changing none of the actual words.

What Amos did with her version of “Famous Blue Raincoat” is not in and of itself new. There is a long history of musicians, mostly women, whose preferred artistry is not singer-songwriter, but song interpreter. It is important to refer to these women as artists or interpreters, or some other phrase that accurately pays due to the work that they produce. This is particularly important because there has been in the last twenty or so years, and very acutely in the last decade, a crusade against musicians who do not write their own music.

These claims are troublingly almost always made against women. While there certainly are vocalists out there who do nothing more than sing the words given to them by a team of songwriters hand selected by the head of their record label to produce hits and make money, to lump all people who do not perform the music they themselves write into that category is incorrect. If we look back to the folk movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, we can see countless examples of brilliant female artists who rarely wrote their own music, yet recorded some of the most cherished songs we have.

The three artists who come most quickly to mind are Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. (The latter, I should note, was also well known for penning her own music.) These women came about in the era of the singer-songwriter, where names like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits reigned supreme. These women, however, followed a different career path. They recorded both traditional songs as well as the music of their contemporaries, something that rarely happens today. Most of the songs they recorded were written by men, and all three of these women perfected the Amos model long before she came on the scene. They did not simply sing songs they enjoyed; they carefully read, stripped down, and re-worked them into their own adaptations.

It would be easy to dismiss these women as simply not having the ability to write their own songs, an accusation that has certainly been raised before. However Baez, Collins, and Sainte-Marie were all extraordinarily talented songwriters in their own right, even if they did it less frequently. Listen to “Diamonds and Rust” by Baez, “Albatross” by Collins, or “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” by Sainte-Marie for a taste of their talent. None of these women were deficient in songwriting ability, and it would be insulting to assume that they had stumbled backwards into a recording studio, had some lyrics thrust in front of them, and sang the words. They made a choice to interpret the songs of others; it was part of their artistry, and it doesn’t put them on a different tier than their singer-songwriter peers, because songwriting and song interpreting are two different art forms. One is not derivative of the other.

I often find when listening to the songs put out by Baez, Collins, and Sainte-Marie compared to the ones recorded by their male contemporaries that the interpreters have been able to find some new spark in the song that enhances it in a way that the male performance does not. When I listen to the original recording of The Bands’ hit “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, I hear a very emotional story from a chapter of Civil War history that has been mostly forgotten. Baez performs her version as a heartbreaking personal narrative of an idealistic and proud man coping with the loss of his family and identity. The intimacy and empathy that she infuses the song with is, in my opinion, essential.

Not to pick on Leonard Cohen, but I find his own recording of his beautiful song “Suzanne” a halting list of a woman’s attributes. In contrast, Collins’ version tells the story of the deep connection between two complex people. Her voice on the recording is rich and authoritative, like a close friend instead of an impartial narrator; the music is dreamy without becoming maudlin or sad. It perfectly captures the intricacies of the lyrics: “And you know that she’s half crazy / That’s why you want to be there / and she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.”

Neil Young’s recording of “Helpless” is a slow, country-tinged song wherein he sings with a high, crooning voice about the pain of returning to a little town in north Ontario. It is stripped down, with the choral voices in the chorus repeating, “Helpless!” coming in almost louder than the instrumentation. When Sainte-Marie recorded her version, she kept the structure and the basic music of the song but sped it up slightly, opting for loud, yearning vocals that soar like the birds she sings about. It changes the song from a sad lament to a cry to the heavens. She correctly recognized the need for naked passion in a song that oscillates between image-rich verses to a raw, emotional chorus.

Many people have and continue to dismiss these versions simply for the fact that they were written and performed by men before these women came in and recorded them. Female musicians across the board are constantly derided for having a perceived lack of authenticity or merit. Rappers Iggy Azalea and Nicki Minaj have been accused of not writing their own music because multiple collaborators appear on the credits of their album whereas Drake, whose songs frequently feature five or more credited songwriters, does not face similar scorn. Female superstars such as Madonna face the same criticism when they have writers or co-writers on their albums, while male superstars such as Michael Jackson, are immune. Even established female singer-songwriters face criticism that their male peers do not. We’ve called Joni Mitchell pretentious and a bitch, tore down Carly Simon as a slut and a trust fund baby, dismissed Kate Bush and Bjork as abrasive weirdos, maligned Alanis Morissette and Jewel as naïve whiners, and made accusations that Kurt Cobain actually wrote Hole’s masterpiece album Live Through This. In contrast, Bob Dylan is a complicated hero, Mick Jagger as a libertine, Beck is a genius, Bon Iver is a sensitive revelation, and Kurt Cobain is the voice of a generation.

Whereas some would accuse these female interpreters of being coattail riders, I would actually call the act of a woman interpreting a popular song written by a man to re-imagine it from a female perspective an act of feminism. They are calling into question society’s idea of the singular male storyteller in music. These female musicians not only demand more from the musicians they interpret; they illuminate the fact that few experiences, stories, or emotions can be boiled down to inherently male or inherently female viewpoints.

The interpretation of male music by women has also been overtly feminist, as we saw earlier with “Famous Blue Raincoat”. In 2001, Tori Amos went one step further and released a concept album called Strange Little Girls, where she recorded 12 songs written and performed by men, most of which were about women. With the help of a professional make-up and hair stylist she created 12 female characters, each with their own story and connection to the song. Her version of “Raining Blood” by Slayer is sung from the perspective of a survivor of Nazi occupied France, “I Don’t Like Mondays” from the perspective of the police officer who first appears at the scene of the shooting mentioned in the song, and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” from the point of view of a call girl who was with Mark David Chapman right before he murdered John Lennon.

Critics lauded the concept, but were ultimately divided on the results. There was, however, unanimous praise for her cover of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde”, an upbeat hip-hop song in which he raps to his daughter as they take a ride in the car while her mother, his ex-wife Kim Mathers, is dead in the trunk. In Amos’ version she performs the song from the perspective of Kim in the trunk singing to her daughter as her body is being taken to be disposed of. Amos did not change a single word from the original song, which she half-sings, half-talks in a tone that is pained not as much by her own murder, but by the fact that her daughter has been made an accomplice. Hearing those violent, misogynist lyrics sung in a haunting, cooing tone by Amos is revelatory.

There are other contemporary interpreters – Grace Jones, Cat Power, and Joss Stone come to mind – but it is a musical art form that is lacking in modern practitioners and recognition. In an interview with Spin magazine about her album, Amos perfectly articulates the value of and need for the interpreter: “This isn’t about just one artist. All of the songs support the theory that the view changes depending on where you’re standing.”

Robert Balkovich is a Brooklynite via Oregon. (He is not from Portland.) His writing has appeared in/on The Airship Daily, Splitsider, 7 Stops Magazine, Park Slope Reader, The State Column, Ubiquitous and TravelSquire.com. His current favorite Kate Bush album is The Dreaming.