My first Sketches (AKA the part where I blog about something random and music-related, in an informal fashion) post in a while, beginning with a video:
As I might have stated on this blog before, I’m a HUGE covers guy. One of my favorite types of music to look for is that of one artist covering another artist’s song (preferably one that I know). So when I saw this video of Sara Bareilles singing “Yellow” (the early Coldplay hit) on my YouTube homepage the past week or so (one of the handful of random YouTube subscribers I have…or something…had “liked” the video), and a few nights ago I had some time to watch it, I was expecting something nice…Sara Bareilles is one of my favorite artists, and “Yellow” is a beautiful song. I had a feeling she’d do a good job with it.
My expectations were modest ranging to fairly high…and yet I was still blown away. It was simple, heartfelt, breathtaking, and…it just felt special. I listen to a lot of great covers all the time, but for some reason this one stood out.
I’ve been thinking since then about why in particular it had such an effect on me. Music certainly isn’t a mindless endeavor for me…I mean, hello, I have a blog dedicated to it…and I do think about what I listen to a lot, but I think a lot of times it’s subconscious. Anyways, one of the things that really struck me about her version of the song was how the vocal seemed to come from the heart. Yes, that’s a quality I see a lot of good musicians have…soulful vocals that aren’t just words and notes, but truth and expression. (It’s also a quality I’m trying to work on myself as a musician. Right now, I often feel I sing too much like a robot. ) But it’s a quality that should be treasured, and Sara really let me as a listener (and viewer, in the case of this video) that this song truly meant something to her. (The little anecdote at the beginning, about how the record that “Yellow” comes from…AKA “Parachute” by Coldplay…meant a lot to her during her time studying abroad, helped hit home that aspect.)
Something else that really hit me hard was the simplicity of the arrangement. The piano line essentially consists of only driving quarter-note chords…throughout the entire 4-minute song. Of course the chords change, and Sara builds some stuff in the left hand as the song progresses, and the dynamic rises and falls as it needs to…but it’s pretty bare-bones stuff. Yet, rather than make the performance feel flat or empty…it makes it stronger. It builds beautifully, and the fact that someone can do that with just a piano and their voice…wow.
Simplicity. I think that’s something that sometimes gets taken for granted in music. In fact, sometimes it even goes unappreciated. An example: Katelyn Epperly on the “American Idol” semifinals last season (embedded below). Her performance of, coincidentally, another Coldplay song (in this case “The Scientist”) was very similar to Sara’s…slow, deliberate, driven by a very simple piano part…and just as powerful and meaningful. It didn’t go over entirely well (the judges were lukewarm; she was voted off the show just a week later), and I’m still not quite sure why. Simplicity, with the right song and the right artist, can bring a song to life, and that’s what Sara and Katelyn both did. Now, you just can’t go to the piano, sing a song, and call it great music. Not every tune works with that treatment, and of course, if an artist was to try to make a career out of just that, they wouldn’t get much of anywhere artistically (not to mention commercially, but that’s a whole other story). But when it’s done right, it’s almost like magic. (Sorry to use a bit of a cliche, but that comparison feels pretty accurate to me. And J.K. Rowling. ) It’s a haunting effect, and one that helps make music great.
K, so hopefully I didn’t get too preachy/rambly/pointless. (Let me know in the comments if any of those sentiments occurred. ) In other Harmony Avenue news…my Grammy predictions were kind of off. But I got some of them right. P.S., I’m still riding a huge, huge high off the Grammy wins of Esperanza Spalding and Arcade Fire, among others. The fact that those two were able to win in those incredibly competitive, high-profile categories is a huge step forward for music in my eyes. I think I might be doing an Artist Spotlight on Esperanza in the near-future, so stay tuned for that. (I’ve absolutely loved her music for a while, and the Grammy nom and subsequent win helped remind me how terrific she is.) Thanks for reading, make sure to subscribe, and I’ll see you later on in the week with yet again more blogging and more music.