One of the first things that interested me as a singer was mimicry – sounding as close as possible to the original singer performing the song on the record or on the radio. I can still clearly remember mimicking every inflection in the voice of Dylan as he sneered his way through Just Like a Woman, or of Joni Mitchell as she soared through River. I must have hoped that the same strange forces that had possessed them would possess me also. Even today sometimes I have to make a conscious effort not to fall into step behind the original singer of a song.
My years of classical voice training challenged this tendency to an extent. In classical singing one tries to create a sound as pure as possible, and in that pure resonance one already hears one’s own voice, not that of a master.
Another revelation came slowly over the years as I kept hearing singers doing different versions of their own songs, Dylan being a good example. Hearing his electric version of I Don’t Believe You after knowing the “original” acoustic version for years was extraordinary: I thought I knew the song, but obviously Dylan had found a different form for it, a different sonic centre to the song, while I was still at its periphery.
I have had many similar revelations over the years. One afternoon a friend played me Joan Baez’ version of Long Black Veil, followed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version of the same song before asking me to choose which one I preferred. I think at the time I felt that Cave had strayed too far from the original. I hadn’t learned that that was precisely the point. And there was John Cale’s desolate version of Heartbreak Hotel on his acoustic Fragments of a Rainy Season album, and Randy Newman’s naked piano accompanying him on the ironic Lonely at the Top, and many, many others.
But I think I came of age musically while performing a Dylan cover show with Johann Kotze at the Baxter Theatre in 1999. By then I was haltingly accompanying myself on piano, which immediately made the songs sound unfamiliar, while Johann’s guitar – sometimes strummed, sometimes sliding up and down the fret board – made them sound as if they were all our own. All Along the Watchtower started in a slow, low key waltz time for the first two verses and reached a mid-song climax before loping into the more usual time signature. It Ain’t Me, Babe sounded like a reggae tune in spite of only being accompanied by one acoustic guitar. One More Cup of Coffee slipped into three-four time in its choruses.
Johann self-effacingly said that he couldn’t play the songs in their original form. Perhaps that was true, but in the process he taught me something that my own listening life had suggested for some time: that the original version of a song is no more or less important than any other, that originality has to do with finding a new way into an old song and making it your own, whether you wrote it or not.
The only disadvantage of this discovery was that three quarters of the pub rock and smooth jazz I had been able to listen to up to that point then became pointless, even irritating – mere repetition of what we already knew.
So now, when people ask me about one of the songs on the new Red Earth & Rust album, “How are you going to do that live?” it doesn’t bother me. I know that the song is never the same from one performance to another, and that adventure is the mother of beauty.