I’ve done a handful of cover versions over the years, and I tend to tie myself in knots trying to justify it, which is perhaps why I’ve done such a weird mix of covers. I’m not sure what Leonard Cohen, Empire of the Sun, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kate Bush and Kitchens of Distinction have in common other than me having recorded songs by all of them.
The most recent, Find the River, is straightforward enough. I was asked to do an R.E.M song by Bill Cummings from God is in the TV, who was putting together a compilation of 40 R.E.M covers to celebrate the band’s 40thanniversary. All the money from the album would go to the charity Help Musicians. Of course I was going to say yes.
A kind reviewer once likened my music to ‘minimalist classical composers working on adventurous ballads for R.E.M’ so this seemed like a good opportunity to try and live up to that – my version is basically Michael Nyman’s Find the River. I chose the song quite instinctively – my first thought was that it was less sacrilegious to cover it than to do something like Everybody Hurts or Man in the Moon – but in hindsight it chimes with where my life is at the moment. A big part of the reason why I moved to a village in the Hebrides three years ago was to try and slow down my life a bit, become less of a ‘speedyhead’ as the song puts it. Having lost both of my parents in the last few years, the line ‘there’s no one left to take the lead’ also has a lot of resonance for me. A lot of my songs these days are about growing older, confronting mortality, looking for some peace and stillness. Tourism, my new album for Wee Studio Records on the Isle of Lewis, is very much about that; Find the River was recorded early on in those sessions and has very much set the tone for how it’s going to sound.
The first cover I ever properly released was Swimmer One’s cover of Cloudbusting by Kate Bush, which I’ve written about elsewhere. The second was What Happens Now by Kitchens of Distinction, which was hidden away as a Bandcamp only bonus track on the first Seafieldroad album. I have no elaborate excuse for this one. The Death of Cool is just one of my favourite albums of all time and I’ve sung along to its opening track so many times that I know all the words by heart.
The second Seafieldroad album includes a version of Walking on a Dream by Empire of the Sun, because it was a song Laura and I used to dance about to in our living room and which ended up being the first dance at our wedding – the original version, not mine. And then, for my last album, I recorded Enchanted / Alright, a medley of Some Enchanted Evening by Rodgers and Hammerstein and It’s Alright With Me by Cole Porter, two classic songs that meant a lot to my parents. I have a better excuse for this one. Some Enchanted Evening (from the musical South Pacific) is how my dad remembered the dance night when he met my mum. It’s Alright With Me is how my mum remembered the same evening. It was a bit of a family joke that they had such different soundtracks to the same event. The story behind it is that he was falling in love for the first time, while she was recovering from the traumatic loss of an ex-boyfriend who had taken his own life shortly after breaking off their engagement.
To Dad, Mum was the beautiful stranger glimpsed across a crowded room, whose “laughter will sing in your dreams”. He took the advice in the song (“When you find your true love…. Fly to her side and make her your own”) very much to heart; he wrote to her every day the first Christmas they were apart, soon after they met. To Mum, by contrast, Dad was the wrong face, the wrong time, the wrong place, but he was so charming that my mum decided that, as the song concludes, “it’s alright with me”. The loss of her first fiancé haunted my mum for the rest of her life, but it was Dad’s love for her, in the end, that helped her get over it, and they were married for over 50 years.
The idea for Enchanted / Alright came to me shortly after my mum’s funeral. Partly it was a way of saying a last goodbye to them both. Partly I just liked the idea of juxtaposing two very different love songs, one naïve and idealistic, one coloured by experience of heartbreak.
The moral of this story is that songs can mean very different things depending on how, and also when, you sing them. That’s also true of Anthem, which I recorded in 2020 as a demo for a theatre project that was then abruptly cancelled by lockdown (it’s now being reimagined as a film). Even before that, though, we were already about to ditch the song – licensing it would have been a nightmare. I decided to put it out anyway because I was quite pleased with it and because it seemed very fitting for the early days of lockdown, being one of those songs that resonates most strongly in the most difficult times, when people feel defeated, or frightened, or hopeless. If something is broken, the song says, you can either obsess over its brokenness, and all the cracks appearing in your life, or you can think of the cracks as places where the light is shining in, and instead focus on the light. Which felt like a very positive message to be sending out into the world at that moment.
I already know what my next cover is going to be because I’ve already written about it. It’s Country Boy by Peat and Diesel, which I had a first go at for an EP in 2020 but have now revisited for the Tourism album, where it takes on a new meaning again alongside nine songs that are essentially about a former city boy feeling like a tourist in his new life on a Hebridean island – looking for the river, but not quite finding it yet.