Choosing Cover Songs and Making Them Your Own

Throwback to 18 year old Hailey cranking out a cover on the ol’ piano.

Over the years, I’ve gotten to be a part of arranging and recording over 200 cover songs with my sisters. Craziness! No wonder I have a hard time remembering lyrics nowadays.

If you’re interested in releasing covers, I hope these few tips will help you know how to choose the right songs and make them your own!

Choose songs you genuinely love.

Trying to sing a song that is not something you’d ever listen to is really challenging. The majority of the songs we chose were songs we had on repeat already, songs we enjoyed singing along to. There are many songs by other artists that feel like something I wish I’d written myself. Whether it’s the lyrics you connect with, the beautiful melodies or background parts you’d love to recreate, have fun singing songs that are already a part of your life! I love Lennon Stella’s cover of Tenenbaum by The Paper Kites because it almost feels like it was her song to begin with, she sings it so genuinely.

Find inspiration for your cover.

If you really love the way a certain artist approaches their lyrics, try to incorporate that into your own sound. Draw on other vocal or instrumental arrangements that you like and use elements of their styles in your arrangement. I personally use William Fitzsimmons a lot as a source of inspiration for how I play guitar in my arrangements, and love a capella music for vocal arrangement inspiration.

Do something unexpected in your arrangement.

Part of making the song your own is changing it to fit your vocal style and instrumental preferences, but I think what really makes your version stand out is when you take it somewhere people don’t expect it to go. Play it on guitar instead of piano. Add in an a capella intro. Arrange some complex background harmonies in a place the original song doesn’t have anything. Take an alternative rock song and turn it into a beautiful acoustic love song like The Civil Wars did in this cover of “Disarm” by Smashing Pumpkins. Or make a Top 40 hit by Ariana Grande sound like a completely different (better?! dare I say it?!) song by slowing it down and singing it in perfect 3 part harmony like ThirdStory did in this video. Their cover is one of my favorite arrangements of all time!

Make sure you’ll be able to perform your version live.

Even if you can nail that high note on your tenth take in your video or in the studio, I’d advise that you make sure you can still do it if someone asks you to play that song live! If your cover has too complex of an arrangement (too many background or harmony parts to sing live) or is in a key that’s uncomfortable, it may be best to simplify it a little or change the key. I was never able to play some of our favorite covers live because it fell in an awkward place in my voice or we didn’t really know our harmony parts because we’d made them up on the spot in the studio. Some of the most polished covers are simple and translate well to a live performance, like this cover of Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover) by I’m With Her. They arranged it so they could sing it every night as part of their live show. And of course, hearing the queen of covers, Tori Kelly, sing her version of Michael Jackson’s “PYT” live is just as good, if not better, than her original version on YouTube.

Do you have a favorite cover? Think about why you love it. What makes it special or unique? Try to incorporate those specific moments or elements into your own covers.

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