Personally, I love learning covers in my own unique way almost as much as writing, recording and playing my own music.
The main reason for this is that by me learning and deconstructing/reconstructing songs that I really connect with or, have proven to be popular with the public and have charted in some way, I learn how to write my own songs better through the experience.
Here are some ways I reckon that learning covers has helped my own songwriting process:
- I learn different song formats, song structures and chord patterns.
- I expose myself to singing different melodies, and lyrical ideas.
- I spice up my guitar practice regimen.
- I maintain my musical theory knowledge by learning a song by ear.
- I get to know my favourite songwriters more by learning their songs.
For every song I learn, many other unique songwriting ideas will naturally bubble up to the surface for my own material later on.
I reckon the trick with playing covers is that you never do them like the original as much as you possibly can.
I know that if I’m in the audience and I hear someone do a cover in their own style, I get hooked into their version every single time (and I also get hooked into them too).
Now, some performing songwriters I know feel that playing covers is just selling out but, I respectfully don’t agree. I mean who is going to say that Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen was a sell out on his part?
It’s one of the most beautiful performances of any song I have ever heard. It makes me cry every time I hear it.
Of course, your goal as a performing songwriter is to play your own songs as much as you can because there’s nothing more satisfying than people actually being touched, moved and inspired by what you are playing and singing that has come from inside you however, an amazing thing happens when you add the occasional cover song into your repertoire.
The audience becomes much closer to you.
I can’t tell you how many times a quiet gig became a much greater gig after I play a well chosen cover (in my own style of course). Every other song I play afterwards becomes music to their ears.
For me, the term “selling out” is generally used by people who wish they were in the same position as the other musicians they were commenting on. Jealousy rears up its ugly head in the music industry all the time.
If you keep focused on writing your own music and at the same time learn a few covers (at the very least for research purposes) to break up your songwriting process from time to time, you will have better gigs, become a more well rounded instrumentalist and (most importantly) you will be a real hit around the odd campfire or two 😉
At the end of the day, I believe playing covers affects your ability to write your own songs only if you allow it to.