As music creators, we're all inherently music fans ourselves. And so we enjoy covering great songs by our favorite artists. As they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I’m a believer, however, that if you can't do a song justice by performing it differently or better than the original artist, it's probably not something you should be doing. After all, no one raves about the sub-par Adele cover they heard at the coffee shop or on YouTube. The only viral videos you see going around (besides the abhorrently bad ones) are the ones that were so unique and refreshing in nature that you just had to share, or the ones that were so mind-blowingly good that you can't believe they nailed it better than the original. So with that in mind, here are a few quick tips on how to spice up your own covers!
1. Change up the instrumentation
This is a pretty easy adjustment to make to any song you love. If it was originally done with a big, full-band sound, then make it acoustic – and visa versa. This is the simplest change and makes the biggest difference, especially to the untrained ear of a standard music fan. If you're a more seasoned musician, rearranging the song is also an amazing way to have your cover song gain traction online or grab the attention of a live audience. Furthermore, some change in instrumentation could even alter the genre a bit, which could be a very cool and notable change! A lot of professionally re-recorded covers do this, making a rock song country, or a dance song into a ballad, attracting an entirely new audience to the tune.
2. Adjust the key
Some songs can sound completely brand new when put in a wildly different key. Take the new Jessie J tune "Bang Bang," for example. On her promo tour, she stopped in to do Ryan Seacrest's radio show but unfortunately fell ill with a very sore throat. Instead of backing out of the appearance entirely, she opted to still perform the song, but sing it an octave down from where it was recorded. This added an entirely new, soulful element to the performance, along with the acoustic version she was doing with just a guitarist (as discussed in point one above). It ended up being a major hit and a very cool way to revamp the song for listeners!
3. Play with the melody
You never want to take too many liberties on the melody of a song you didn't write, for fear of "ruining it" or just making it outright unrecognizable. Small tweaks to the way the song is sung, however, are very refreshing and interesting to the listener. The same way artists tends to perform their hit singles a little differently live in concert should be the way you interpret the melody and vocal performance for your cover songs.
4. Re-harmonize the vocals
Playing around with the vocal arrangement of a song is always a fun thing for a seasoned singer to do. With just some added (or subtracted) vocals or harmony line adjustments, it could completely change the feel of the song. Basic major/minor chord changes or relative keys could put a whole new spin on things. Think about the way the (now Grammy-winning) a cappella group Pentatonix is able to use their vocals to totally reshape popular songs. Their draw (besides their impressive talent) is that they essentially "recycle" the old favorites and regurgitate them into a delicious blend of tastefully inspired, technically sound, fully fleshed-out vocal interpretations.
5. Make it a medley
Continuing with the example of Pentatonix, they love doing mash-ups of popular hit songs. People love a good medley, and that's a great and creative way to make your cover song unique and interesting. Find a song that's relatable by style, artist, subject matter, or genre, and see where you can fit it in. Make sure transitions are seamless, and it's best if the audience doesn't see it coming. People also love nostalgia, so if you’re able to "take them back" to a classic somehow, but keep it relevant in your material, that's almost always a surefire way to impress. Just try your best to stay away from any corny or cliché overdone medley song choices. Be as original with your creative direction as possible.
No matter which approach you decide to take, always ask yourself: What is it about this cover that is going to make people want to share it with a friend immediately? Your cover song performance needs to be engaging, refreshing, and thoughtful. Give your audience something that they haven’t seen before, and they'll be sure to keep coming back for more. So be creative, be inspired, and make sure to stand out from the rest so your talent can take center stage!
Christine Occhino is the founder and artistic director of The Pop Music Academy and has experience working at Columbia Records/Sony Music Entertainment, in addition to working as a performing artist for over a decade. She has a bachelor's degree in music business & management with a concentration in entrepreneurship and vocal performance from Berklee College of Music, where she was a vocal scholarship recipient and former editor-in-chief of The Berklee Groove.