WORDS BY CATHERINE ANDERSON
ILLUSTRATION BY THEO CHAPMAN
Back in 2019, I was probably going to a concert at least once a week. I was playing music with my friends in our band Robot Princess, that I have been a part of since 2012. The music community surrounding us was strong, supportive, and took up a lot of space in my life. Now, instead of getting invited to new shows, I’m being invited to donate to GoFund me pages for struggling venues. Band practice is canceled. And I am having a recurring stress dream about going to a concert where no one is wearing a mask.
Listen, I know this is supposed to be a “music tech” column; we’ll get to it! But it feels absolutely impossible to talk about music right now without acknowledging what’s happening in the world. For so many musicians and artists, this last year has felt creatively stifling. I keep coming back to this one image in my head. I think it’s a meme? (sorry!) The one where the dog is sitting in a room that is on fire thinking “this is fine”. That, to me, perfectly captures how it has felt this past year to try and create...anything….while the world is (at times literally) on fire.
At the start of *gestures with hand* all this, I felt a lot of guilt and anger with myself. I wanted to use this time to make things and to work on music. I was so incredibly lucky to even be in a position where this was an option. I had fantasies about finally getting really good at guitar or finishing all the songs I had lying around, half-written. But I was so uninspired. I missed playing music with my friends. I missed going to shows. I missed lugging my gear back to the practice space at 2am. I missed it all!
At the very end of March 2020, when it still felt like this could all be over in just a couple more weeks, I got a message from my friend and bandmate, Beau, inviting me to make a song for a project some of our music friends were working on. They were going to make a compilation album of TV show theme songs. Beau knows that I am obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so he suggested that I do that theme.
This project was perfect. It had a deadline. It involved Buffy. It involved making something that already existed in the world - I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch, I just had to cover a song. The Buffy part was enough to get me excited about the project. The cover song part was enough to convince my brain it would be “easy”. And the deadline part gave me structure.
The compilation became 1 of 5 different compilations I would take part in over the next several months. We covered TV Themes, Bjork, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and some nostalgic One-Hit-Wonders, all while the world “burned” around us. And it was these cover songs that led me to accomplish some of the very things I had fantasized about at the beginning of the pandemic. These covers had made me a better producer and musician. They gave me a creative outlet during a period of time where creativity felt impossible.
The value in sitting down to not only learn someone else’s song, but recreate it, reimagine it, and rearrange it is so profoundly worthwhile if you are a musician, producer, or composer. I spent hours with Rhianna’s Shut Up and Drive. That song is only 4 chords! But it’s so dynamic and fun. And the phaser on the guitar? Peak 2000’s pop music. Bjork’s song Five Years only has 1 verse. And I still don’t know which part of that song is the actual chorus. Incredible.
I’m going to concede that the “tech” part of this music tech column is a little light (sorry!) but if you are someone who wants to get better at recording or making music on a computer, I cannot stress enough the value in covering a song you love. Don’t just learn the chords and play it in your bedroom (although that is fine too!) but try to take things further than that. Pick apart the arrangement and figure out how the song is layered to create the things you love about it. Open up Logic, Ableton, GarageBand, or whatever you use, and make a version of the song that is your own. It will expand the way you think about your own music. It will sharpen your ears. You’ll notice things about the song you never would have before. It will make you a better musician and producer! And most importantly, it will be very fun.
Some music tech lessons I learned making these covers: 1. You can convince yourself that you “need” an expensive mic because you are a “professional” but you will still probably only reach for your Sure SM57. And it will sound great. 2. The EarthQuaker Devices’ Rainbow Machine guitar pedal always sounds as cool as it looks. 3. Invest in a good pop filter for recording vocals even if you think it will be fine without one. It wont!