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July 17 2007

James Marsters July Q and A. This time out he dicusses gadgets, guitars, and world peace.

Thoughtful answers as usual. Not sure I agree with this though:
But you can't fool yourself. You're only approximating the original experience when the audience heard the real guy singing.

The best covers don't try to replicate the original experience IMO, they add something wholly new to it by doing something the original artist wouldn't (or couldn't) try. The best actors, for instance, don't impersonate Olivier's Hamlet, they perform their own. An example of this was Elbow's (originally throw-away, live on Radio 1) cover of 'Independent Women' (with added kitteny goodness ;) which worked and was fresh and kinda funny precisely because they're so different to "Destiny's Child".

(he's probably right about covering Robert Johnson though, bad idea - apart from anything else, there'd be the devil to pay ;)
I agree, that a great cover is something more than the original but if your covering the greats that's a pretty tough thing to do. The actor analogy doesn't work because Olivier didn't write Hamlet.
Have to agree with you, Saje. The collection of covers of John Lennon's songs, for instance, on the album dedicated to raising money for Darfur, is interesting. Some are less successful than others, but some really are fresh and contemporary. But if JM feels as though he is not up to the task, fair enough.
Awwww ... kitty!
And I've heard James cover Springsteen and Tom Waits, and he tried too hard to mimic them. He should just be himself. And since those covers were a few years ago, maybe he's realized that.

Very random: Pink's version of "Me and Bobbie McGee" is my favorite version.
This reminds me of the discussion of "All Along the Watchtower" I was reading last night on the BSG forum on the white. That song has certainly benefited from there being more than Dylan's version. Recording has changed a lot, sure, but if James is right the ballad tradition has been getting it wrong for centuries. Think of all those pointless, misguided singers coming before or after the one perfect version ;)
I think he is talking about himself only in regards to the statement about covering songs, not about other people covering songs. From what is being said, I'm guessing that he apparently does not feel like he has anything special to bring to the covers of any songs that he likes enough to want to cover them. As his primary focus is not that of a singer, I think that is probably a fair self-assessment. I have to say, I respect the effort he seems to make to be honest with himself about his artistic choices and development.
... coming before or after the one perfect version ;)

That's it isn't it dreamlogic, we're back to that hoary old topic, the "definitive" version and whether it exists or not ? Oh joy ;).

The actor analogy doesn't work because Olivier didn't write Hamlet.

It's not to do with who wrote what, my point is about impersonation versus interpretation. Good actors don't sit and think "I'll try my best but it'll be a pale imitation of Olivier [who was, AFAIK, the first screen Hamlet in English - and therefore most widely seen - plus, quite good ;)]", they read the text and play it as they think he should be played.

But if JM feels as though he is not up to the task, fair enough.

Yeah, fair point palehorse (and newcj, the 'you' sounds general but I guess doesn't need to be), I do respect his humility. It's usually better than the other thing ;). Not heard the Lennon covers album, might look it out (especially since it's in a good cause).
"The actor analogy doesn't work because Olivier didn't write Hamlet.

It's not to do with who wrote what, my point is about impersonation versus interpretation. Good actors don't sit and think "I'll try my best but it'll be a pale imitation of Olivier [who was, AFAIK, the first screen Hamlet in English - and therefore most widely seen - plus, quite good ;)]", they read the text and play it as they think he should be played."


...and to use that to support my point, the actor has to feel he has something to bring to Hamlet, to make it "his Hamlet" as they say. So actors will gravitate to the roles to which they feel they can bring something unique, new and interesting. If they do not feel they have something to give the role, they should let someone else try it instead. The same should be true of a song.

Thinking about it, it ocurred to me that there are many one-person shows written by a particular performer that are never done by anyone else...
It's not to do with who wrote what, my point is about impersonation versus interpretation. Good actors don't sit and think "I'll try my best but it'll be a pale imitation of Olivier [who was, AFAIK, the first screen Hamlet in English - and therefore most widely seen - plus, quite good ;)]", they read the text and play it as they think he should be played.

Exactly, because all Olivier's "Hamlet" was, was the interpretation of one actor and director. The text of Hamlet existed before and continues to exist and there is no sense at all that any actor has ever given the definitive performance. With singer songwriters there is an element of the song that is highly specific to the writer and I would argue that at least with many Beatles songs the definitive recording is still the original. It doesn't mean these songs can't be covered but you have to have something specific and new to say that will add to the song and if you don't then why do it?
Ah, right, so you're (both, I think) saying that because with acting it's harder to point to a definitive performance, it's easier for the 'next guy' to have a go ? Yep, I don't disagree with that, maybe it is a bad analogy (I still don't think there's a definitive performance of a song either - even by the original writer - anymore than Shakespeare's Hamlet, assuming he ever played him, is definitive but I do accept it's more obvious in the case of acting because the performer's disconnect from the role is a given - except when they're playing themselves, obviously ;).

And I still think you can take a song and add to it, not necessarily in the sense of improving on what the original artist did, but in the sense of giving it a new spin, of performing it in your 'voice', of, in a way, adding to the 'body of knowledge' concerning the song. Fair play to JM though for admitting he doesn't think he has that original a take on anything he'd actually want to cover. Takes guts.
I think James is saying that the point of his singing is to reveal himself to his audience. That is why the songs he writes are so personal. He writes about his deepest feelings and the audience has responded with acceptance and appreciation. The power and excitement of his performances, I find, lie in the connection he makes with his audience. That level of honesty is what "takes guts."
I agree on covers which can't be done effectively a really-really different way (which applies to most Beatles material;I'm not really familiar with the other acts he mentions) but for example my own version of "Green Green Grass of Home," unlike both Porter Waggoner's original and Tom Jones's pop hit, features doing the second verse in sung form rather than as a spoken passage and...and....

Sorry about that, my egotism expanded into a fugue state there.

Returning to this planet for as long as I can, is James saying that he has solar panels on his own house that he is using? If so, bravo and it's an example of how self-interest is good for other people too; if users like james with money to spend want more efficient panels, it's incentive to design and market them. And if he's just being a generalized do-gooder wishing this for the better wellbeing of everyone, bravo likewise.

And I like the philosophy behind his take on the guitar.
With singer songwriters there is an element of the song that is highly specific to the writer and I would argue that at least with many Beatles songs the definitive recording is still the original. It doesn't mean these songs can't be covered but you have to have something specific and new to say that will add to the song and if you don't then why do it?

If you consider "the definitive recording" the first public playing or publishing of a song, as our modern copyright law would, then no current composer or musician could really lay claim to anything, in the broadest sense, since their antecedents all lie previous to any proof. And anyway, that kind of "proving" is against tradition. That's the point I was trying to make talking about the ballad tradition. If there's another mass extinction soon (as there may be *whimper*), the eukaryotic descendants of the current survivor bacteria may discover totally original music. To them, I mean. I doubt to us. Music is basically mathematics set to biology. There are endless variations but no real originality, is how I see it.

And I like the philosophy behind his take on the guitar.

I like it up 'til the point where I think it's a cop-out. It's literally true, but there have been measures in place for a long time to improve the inherent imprecision of these instruments, such as technique and practice. Once you've fully availed yourself of them, feel free to dismiss the instrument.

The thing is, he's got the answer in his talk about acting. You have a strategy, your own take on the material, and if it doesn't work you're dead. Covering a song is a risk the same way as a play, if you don't resort to mimicry.

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