Whether it’s putting a new spin on an iconic classic or dabbling with a current hit, there’s a true art to selecting, performing, and recording a cover song—an art that Under Cover, Spotify’s new original podcast, seeks to explore.
“I feel there are three categories of cover songs,” Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard explains in his episode of Under Cover, which launches today. “There is the fairly universal song that a lot of people know. When they hear an artist they admire perform it, it sheds a new light on the song, or adds a kind of sense of humor, or weight to it … Then there are the obscure, record collector cover songs that people like myself like to bust out from time to time, to teach people about songs they might not otherwise know about. And then there tend to be the songs that are really moving me or us in a particular moment that have special significance.”
In the case of Death Cab For Cutie, it was this third category that led them to create a moving cover of Frightened Rabbit‘s “My Backwards Walk,” in memory of their late friend, Frightened Rabbit lead singer Scott Hutchison.
“We wanted to pay tribute to Scott’s songwriting,” Ben says about the choice. “I assume that there are people who maybe have not heard of Frightened Rabbit, and I would hope that if someone is a fan of Death Cab for Cutie, and they hear this song, that would inspire them to dive into Frightened Rabbit’s catalogue.”
Stories like these underpin each episode of Under Cover, produced and recorded out of Spotify’s studios in New York. Over the course of each 10 to 15-minute segment, the artists explain the mindset, memories, and inspiration that led them to record the song as part of the Spotify Single series. Every Thursday, Under Cover will take fans behind the scenes of some of the program’s most memorable songs with some of the world’s most iconic artists.
While some artists pay homage in their covers, others use them to fine-tune their craft—to experiment in sound, style, key, and tempo, and to step into the shoes of a musician they admire. Twenty-three-year-old Troye Sivan, for example, used his cover of Post Malone’s “Better Now” to explore music he wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to create.
“Mostly the songs that I cover, I’m jealous of the people who wrote them,” Troye explains in his episode. “And so I use it as an excuse to take a really good top line or a really good production, or whatever it is that’s inspiring to me about the song, and then kind of flip it, like it’s going on my album, and produce it in the same vein.”
Unpacking the song and using it to formulate your own artistic ability is often a pervasive task for many musicians. “You have to get in the head of musicians that you admire and really get inside the song and figure out why it works the way it does, why it does to you what it does,” says Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive. “And then you can take little bits and pieces of that and bring it into your own songwriting, too.”
The multi-genre Lake Street Dive, who covered “Walking on Broken Glass” by Annie Lennox, filled their sets with covers before creating songs of their own. Since paving their way with original music, they’ve been more selective about choosing tracks that have been inspirational, groundbreaking, or fundamental to their growth. “‘Broken Glass’ is this proto-EDM anthem,” a band member explains. “I see Cher hearing it for the first time and being like, ‘Dab nabbit! I wish I had recorded that song.’”
And of course, recording covers gives artists a chance to just have some fun. “I think I embellish the guitar solo a bit, just for my own ego,” says Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett on covering “Houses” by ElyseWeinberg.
Tune into Under Cover every day this week and then on Thursdays through November to hear new exclusive interviews from artists like Gallant, Def Leppard, Calpurnia, Lord Huron, and 5SOS, covering favorites from Weezer, Vampire Weekend, Depeche Mode, and Neil Young.
Listen to the first episode about Death Cab for Cutie’s cover of Frightened Rabbit’s “My Backwards Walk,” (and check back to see future episodes as well):