Covered Girls: Tori and the art of reinterpretation, Part 1

Little Blue World Summer 2008 n°30

Sunday 28 August 2011, by Maureen Paley

Alongside the many diverse self-penned compositions that she has produced, cover versions of other artists’ songs have always occupied a particularly important place in Tori’s live and recorded repertoire. A survey of the songs that she has covered over the years reveals an extraordinary diversity, one rivaled by very few artists in contemporary music. Her covers span material from most of the 20th century, encompassing everything from nursery rhymes, show tunes, musical hall and jazz standards, through protest songs, spirituals, folk and pop to heavy metal, rap and grunge.

Despite this diversity, Tori’s choice of covers has seldom seemed random or indiscriminate, and never like an easy cash-in. In contrast to the American Idol ethos of mimicking the original version of the songs as closely as possible, Tori has emphasized that she will only record a cover if she feels that she can contribute something new to it. Part of what makes her most succesful performances of others’ songs so compelling is that they come off as carefully thought out reinterpretations which seek to add another dimension to the original version and, sometimes, to radically subvert its meanings. A Tori cover is not necessarily an act of tribute to the song in question, nor does it represent a simple diversion for her from the "real graft" of original composition. Rather, it is a more complex encounter between an extant text and an artist who is expert in inhabiting songs from unusual angles and thereby infusing them with her unique spirit and enviable interpretive skills. This two-part article seeks to assess the importance of such reinterpretatiosns to Tori’s career and to take a look at some of her most memorable "covered girls."

Given the rich amalgam of musical influences that she was exposed to as a child — Methodist hymns sung in church, classical composers at the Peabody, Negro Spirituals loved by her maternal Grandfather, 1930s/40s/50s popular music from her mother’s record collection, and 1960s/70s/ rock smuggled into the household by her brother — it’s unsurprising that she early developed a prodigious repertoire at the piano. Tori’s interpretive expertise was honed during childhood recitals and her formative "piano bar" years playing lounges and clubs and taking requests from sometimes appreciative but often indifferent audiences. While Tori has commented upon the difficulty of these years and the frustration that she experienced in performing the likes of "Send in the Clowns" and "Feelings" every night, she seems to have come to acknowledge the importance of this period on her creative development and has suggested that she learnt much about song structure, stage presence and performer/audience dynamics during this time. And occasionnally an original song or a left-of-center selection such as Flock of Seagulls’ "I Ran" would find its way into her set.

However, the recording that first alerted the wider world to Tori’s special skills of reinterpretation was of course 1992’s Crucify E.P. on which intense piano-and-vocal covers of Led Zeppelin’s "Thank You," The Rolling Stones’ "Angie" and, most famously, Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" succeeded in stripping back these classic rock songs to uncover nuances and vulnerabilities previously obscured within the originals. These three haunting renditions set the standard for her future cover versions and confirmed that, when approached with care and intelligence (and more than a little impudence), reinterpreting others’ songs can be a truly creative act. In particular, by boldly transforming Nirvana’s raging anthem into a classically inflected piano ballad, Tori seemed to be accessing the compositional lineage that connects Claude Debussy to Kurt Cobain and offered a timely demonstration that hardcore emotion may be expressed through quietness and economy as well as volume. A female musician performing the song in this way constituted a provocative challenge to grunge’s masculine ethos, proving, in the words of James Hunter in Rolling Stone, that the genre’s "blend of emotional distress and sonic kicks represented a state of mind as much as guitar sound."

Despite — or because of — its hushed rapt quality, Tori’s version of "SLTS" easily matches the original in power and passion and, if anything, sounds even more nakedly confrontational, forcing the listener into a direct engagement with Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, succeeding both as daring reinvention and as reverent homage. In a moving tribute, Tori performed the song alongside Don McLeans’s "American Pie" at a show in Dublin two days after Cobain’s suicide in 1994. "All of a sudden, in perfect pitch, and very quietly..., the audience started singing it like [an] hymn," she recalled to Blender magazine in 2002. "It was like they were sending his spirit off. It was an honor to play this music that night." Her ability to see qualities in "SLTS" beyond the obvious has proved prescient, with Polish pianist Leszek Mozdzer including an instrumental version of the song on his 2005 album The Time, and R&B provocatress Kelis also covering the song.

Although primarily a showcase for her exciting original material, Tori’s Little Earthquakes tour included performances of all the Crucify’s E.P. B-Sides plus her favorite Zeppelin song "Whole Lotta Love." A trio of equally distinctive covers then appeared on the special edition single for "Cornflake Girl": Joni Mitchell’s "A Case of You," Jimi Hendrix’s ’If 6 Was 9" and the harrowing "Strange Fruit," made famous by Billie Holiday. "To show that all things are possible, and permissible, for me as a singer-songwriter," Tori explained when asked by Joe Jackson in Hot Press why she had selected these songs; she went on to stress the importance of each of these artists to her own development as a performer and composer. Her take on Jimi Hendrix song was particularly striking, with her piano played through a Marshall amp in order to create a discordant electric guitar-style motif, a move that prefigured the kind of keyboard experimentation that she would develop across Boys for Pele.

1994’s Pink tour found her introducing the likes of Fleetwood Mac’s "Landslide," Springsteen’s "I’m On Fire," The Police’s "Wrapped Around Your Finger" and a selection of Beatles tracks into her repertoire, while her measured take on "Famous Blue Raincoat" was one of the highlights of the patchy Leonard Cohen tribute album Tower of Song in the same year. Discussing her version of the Cohen track, Tori talked for the first time about entering a song through the perspective of one of its characters, in this case "Jane" whom she envisaged discovering the letter which is described and transcribed in the lyrics. This character-based approach would become increasingly important to her later cover versions.

By the release of the BFP singles, fans had come to expect something special in the way of Tori-fied covers and were not disappointed as, in a particularly left-field move, Tori turned her attention to the work of cult cockney duo Chas & Dave, relishing the tongue-twisting lyrics of "That’s What I Like (The Sandwich Song)" — with its homages to fellow piano virtuosos Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis — and offering a sultry yet wry take on "London Girls." "This Old Man," meanwhile, became an ambiguous, rather menacing piece with overtones of emotional and physical violence. Unsurprisingly, the accompanying tour included some of her weirdest and wildest covers — everything from "Kumbaya," "Blue Moon" and Stephen Forster’s "Oh Susannah" to The Cure’s "Lovesong" and a riff of Tag Team’s "Whoomp! (There It Is)." On this tour, too, Tori developed her practice of occasionnally pairing others’ songs with her own, performing, for example, a short section of Björk’s "Hyper-ballad" before "Butterfly" and turning Nine Inch Nail’s "Hurt" into a prelude for the Pretty Hate Machine-referencing "Caught A Lite Sneeze." This novel idea allowed her to create some fascinating "sonic dialogues" between her work and that of her song-writing peers and demonstrated her gift for linking songs both thematically and emotionally. Sadly, few of these performances were recorded for posterity beyond illegal bootlegs but 1996’s Hey Jupiter E.P. did offer one special rendition: namely, the priceless moment when Tori achieves the feat of silencing a group of particularly rowdy, baying fans with a breathtakingly fragile version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

The Choirgirl and Venus sessions yielded fewer cover versions, though a spaced-out "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and a memorably histrionic take on Steely Dan’s "Do It Again" both proved effective B-Sides to the Spark singles. But just as her interest in performing others’ work was waning, Tori returned with her most ambitious, controversial and divisive covers project yet: Strange Little Girls.

Alex Ramon

Like a Rolling Stone

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then what Tori does with a cover song is... almost. We might guess that Tori has high regard to at least some of the musicians she covers, but we can’t quite say she imitates them — at least not in a literal sense. When Tori was describing her "cover" album Strange Little Girls, she said, "It’s like when you’re an architect looking at another’s architect plans... and you see how people solve problems that you might not solve in that way. That fascinates me... crawling inside these songs, finding their secrets..." What Tori creates with these blueprints generally winds up looking very different from the original architect’s, and in some cases seeing her renovated buildings lets us, too, find the secrets of the first.

There are only a few of the cover songs that made the repertoire when Tori began to see commercial success in the early 90s that she still plays today. Among these is the Rolling Stones’ "Angie." She first released it on the Crucify single and continues to cover it in concert. This allows long-time Tori fans perhaps one of our greatest pleasures: watching her older songs evolve into newer versions of themselves.

Featured on their 1973 album Goats Head Soup, the Stones’ ballad — one of their only ballads to hit #1 in America — seems a valentine to lost love in one’s youth. It’s about bad timing, but the only timing that you have in love sometimes — as if when you fall in love, you’re almost doomed from the start. "With no loving in our souls and no money in our coats, you can’t say we’re satisfied... you can’t say we never tried." It feels as if this couple might have made it if they only had more time. But they’ve reached the end, and the only time they have now is the time to say goodbye.

When Tori first covered "Angie," the energy driving the performance made the cover just as bittersweet as the lost romance in the lyrics. Over the years, the song has evolved, mellowed, and now, the cover has a cool comfort to it — as if an old memory comes to spend time with us again. Tori and "Angie" have grown together. She has worked and worn it for a while, settled into it, and furthered its transformation.

Yet, she knew how to keep what was best about the structure of the original. A big part of what makes "Angie" remarkable is its delivery. Ballad was a departure for the Stones in ’73, but Mick Jagger executes this one subtly, seductively, naturally. It’s in the way he sings, "Let me whisper in your ear" and after, simply whispers, "Angie" — a bit haunting, a bit sad. Tori brings this nostalgia to her delivery as well.

A master architect knows how to recognize good bones. Tori’s construction of something new and yet familiar out of this blueprint helps us embrace the feeling of the first but also see it in new ways. Just by singing a song generally perceived as a love song from a man to a woman, Tori gives us the opportunity to experience it afresh. We can see that structure, but we also see other possibilities, multiple meanings in the words. In a way, "Angie" is more than a love story — in spite of persistent rumors, it was not written about any specific relationship Mick Jagger had. (Angela was the name of Keith Richard’s baby girl.) It is a dialogue with our younger selves, our past, the bittersweet memories of surrendered hopes and dreams. Listening, we stand in Jagger’s shoes, and Tori’s, and send a love note to our past selves saying we did our best, we tried, and yes, it’s good to be alive.

Overall, the cover songs are twice the treat for Tori fans — we get the original lyrics, but with a new overlay. The new structuring of the song gives us a chance to hear Tori bring something that’s seemingly "new." Tori’s cover of "Angie" brings us something classic and fresh.

Maureen Paley