Cover Versions: A Conversation with Kate Davies


Today I’m delighted to be joined by my good friend Kate Davies of KDD&Co for a fun conversation about COVER VERSIONS in KNIT + SOUND. Our conversation speaks to the prompts for the 9th and 10th of November in our Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 PAL: COVER VERSION (KNIT), COVER VERSION (SOUND). I’m working on a mix to be released through my Mixcloud page featuring cover versions of songs but it’s not finished yet! In the meantime, you’ll find a playlist on YouTube of all the COVER VERSIONS discussed in this post here.

Felix: Thanks for joining me on the KNITSONIK blog today! In the years of our friendship I have long appreciated being able to share ideas about knitting, sounds and music, and am thrilled to talk to you today about our favourite cover versions – KNIT and SONIK!

Kate: Thanks for inviting me to this interesting discussion. I feel the idea of the cover version really gets to the heart of how so much creative work acts as a continuation, a development, or transformation of an original idea. Quite a lot of creativity — in any discipline — is, I think, re-iterative – that is, it is a kind of cover version. And thinking about certain kinds of creative work as “cover versions” can be very freeing — especially for those who struggle with self-expression and feel a bit borne down by the weight of doing or saying something completely new or original.

Felix: Yes! I think the idea of starting with a totally blank slate is both daunting and unrealistic – it creates a kind of weight that makes it hard to start. In contrast, there’s something wonderfully responsive and, as you say, freeing in the concept of the cover version. It’s like, “I saw/heard the thing, I was inspired by the thing, I was filled with curiosity about recreating the thing in a different way…” so many good ideas grow out of this sort of process. I think “the transformation of an original idea” as you put it, is what makes a really great cover!

I’m thinking about the Balanescu Quartet covering Computer Love by Kraftwerk; Masters of War by Bob Dylan covered by Odetta and – perhaps most pertinent to the Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 project – the glorious music box covers of popular songs produced by Hannah Peel and especially her transportive, haunting version of Palace by Wild Beasts.

POSSESSED: The Balanesco Quartet Play Kraftwerk

I love the life and dynamism with which the Balanescu Quartet invest their versions of Kraftwerk’s early electronic music, but especially their cover of “Computer Love”. There’s something very specific about the mellow, synthetic textures of the original, but the raw strings bring the music alive in a different way. The churning cello reproduces the rhythmic beat of the song by hand, as it were, exploring the idea of the body as a kind of machine – but in a very different way to how Kraftwerk conveyed this idea with their work.

Dummies representing the four members of German electronic band Kraftwerk; lead vocalist and keyboardist Ralf Hutter, percussionist Karl Bartos, percussionist Wolfgang Flur and backing vocalist and keyboardist Florian Schneider (left to right) at a promotional event on January 1, 1978 in New York City; the background is red and reads KRAFTWERK: MAN-MACHINE

Odetta’s cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” is such a damning admonition. She builds a mood of simmering rage with masterful control, her voice coming clear and expressive over the restless unease of the guitar. Her version says “I see you, warmongers”; “I am coming for you, warmongers”. Women and children are so often the voiceless casualties of war – which is perhaps why it’s so powerful to hear Odetta speaking to this AS a woman, and conveying this song with such a commanding and resonant voice.

Odetta - a Black, African American woman playing a guitar, looks away from the camera and down towards her instrument; she is wearing, and surrounded by, warm orange red colours and the words Odetta Sings Dylan are positioned above her shoulder in the space around her

Hannah Peel’s “Palaces” strips Wild Beasts’ indie rock band epic back to its core. The full synth pop sound of the original is pared down to just Hannah’s raw vocal and a delicate faltering music box accompaniment. Somehow this reconfiguration lights up the fairytale references of the lyrics; the music box and the woman become sonic characters in the love story of the words, unfolding between metaphors of palaces, feasts and winter.

Hannah Peel sits in front of a desk with coffee and musical instruments on it and a punch-card for a componium on which she has punched the notes for some of her music box cover versions of popular songs

Kate: Cover versions can be expressions of creative brilliance in themselves, and – as your Hannah Peel, Odetta, and Balenescu Quartet examples show – also utterly transformative. What’s interesting to me about the idea of the sonic “cover version” is that, until relatively recently (with the advent of recording technology, and cultures that value the individual creativity of the singer-songwriter) all music was just that: melodies were the property of composers and song writers (or their publishing companies) and each new performance or recording was effectively a cover version. Popular jazz melodies are still known as “standards”, and folk songs around the world remain more generally associated with a repertoire, rather than individual performers or performances. Can a melody ever be the property of one creative person? Where does the “original” idea end and the “cover version” begin? These are interesting questions to ask, in relation to knitting as well as music.

Felix: Absolutely! Your point about standards and repertoires in music definitely has parallels in knit. Alice Starmore has written about how knitting motifs travelled around the ports and harbours of the Baltic and North Seas. Fishermen wore sweaters, and in every port, there were curious and creative knitters spotting the patterns coming and going. I feel like OXO patterns, peerie patterns, Norwegian Stars, the tree and star motif around a yoke and so on are kind of “standards” that were, at one time, known by knitters around all the Northern oceans. They form the basis for a kind of repertoire; a knitter who has them in her back pocket is like a jazz musician who knows the jazz standards, maybe.

Kate: You know I’m a complete Beatles nerd, and one of the things that interests me about their music is its relationship with the innovative, energetic, and eminently commercial pop and soul music coming out of Detroit at the turn of the ‘60s. They all hung out in Brian Epstein’s NEMS record store seeking out Tamla / Motown records, and their covers of songs such as the Miracles “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and Barrett Strong’s “Money (that’s what I want)” really cemented their identity as a live band during their early days in Liverpool and Hamburg.

The Beatles and Mary Wells

And did you know that the Beatles’ performance of “Please, Mr Postman” on the light programme in March 1962 was actually the first time that a Tamla / Motown song had been broadcast by the BBC?

Then, what’s even more interesting is that the same Detroit artists who the Beatles loved (and imitated) began to cover their music after Paul MacCartney, John Lennon and Brian Epstein established the publishing company Northern Songs in 1963.

The Supremes - A Bit of Liverpool

The Supremes actually recorded a whole album of Beatles covers (A Bit of Liverpool) in 1964, and Stevie Wonder produced and performed on his ex-wife Syreeta’s cover version of “She’s Leaving Home” in 1972.

My favourite Beatles cover is Stevie’s own “We can work it Out” (1970), produced at the very time when he was struggling to define his own creative identity as singer-songwriter independently of the label that owned his work.

But I’d say that my all-time favourite cover version is Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”. Written by British songwriters Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connolly (whose other hits included “Show me the Way to Go Home”) it was first recorded by the British dance band, The Ray Noble Orchestra in 1932. Subsequently recorded by several major singing stars in the 1930s, most notably Bing Crosby, the song went on to feature on Frank Sinatra’s debut album in 1946. But it wasn’t until Otis’s incredible, soulful vocal transformed the melody and lyric two decades later in 1966 that a cover version became, what’s to my mind, one of the best recorded songs of all time. Sock it to me!

Otis Redding Otis Redding performs at the Monterey Pop Festival in California in June 1967

Felix: There’s something so wonderfully reciprocal in a good cover, isn’t there? Like the best covers we’ve talked about so far are a celebration of the original, as well as a transformation of it. And that two-way flow of ideas… Your account of the Beatles and Motown reminds me of Odetta and Dylan; Odetta and the rich seam of African American Folk from which she built her glorious sound were enormous inspirations to Dylan. So there’s something reclamatory and fitting about her then taking the songs he wrote and reworking them to speak more closely to that earlier context.

I feel there is something very similar to cover versions that happens when knitters take an original design (the song, if you will) but then change the textures or colours. To me this is just like when a musician takes a song but then changes the instrumentation (the yarn), the colours (the key), or the pace (the gauge). Just like with the music, the best covers transform the original and make you see it in a totally different way.

One of my favourite “cover versions” of KNITSONIK designs include Otterlake’s Skystone Armwarmers. This knitter reworked the palette of my armwarmer pattern – inspired by sky and stone – to speak to the work of an amazing artist, John Collier Sabraw, who is turning toxic pigments from coal-mining runoff into paints and paintings.

John Sabraw painting

Otterlake's Skystone Mitts

An homage to John Collier Sabraw’s Chroma S4 Chimaera, 2017. Mr Sabraw created paints from the toxic runoff of Ohio mines. They create bright appealing colors. Looking at this particular picture, you can imagine a pool of the water shimmering in sunlight. – Otterlake (Ravelry name)

I also love Nikibluehill’s reinterpretation of Shetland Muse. In place of the browns and oranges I used in the original, she’s used a soft set of pinks, blues and greys to truly stunning effect; it’s like the same idea of sunset, but this was a different sunset, in a different place. It’s lovely.

Niki Blue Hill's Shetland Muse

There’s another beautiful pinky red blue version by LoulouGing that is wonderful as well!

Are there particular versions of your patterns in which another knitter has done their own thing with some aspect of the design in a way that’s really reframed it for you – given you that same thrill, perhaps, of hearing Balanescu Quartet covering Kraftwerk or Otis Redding singing Try a Little Tenderness for the first time?

Kate: Absolutely! I honestly feel that one of the best things about my work as a designer is seeing how knitters transform my patterns with their own creative work. I find seeing knitters different palettes and colour preferences especially inspiring, and seeing new versions of my work often prompts me to develop different ideas, or to see a pattern completely anew.

Here are some of my favourite, superbly creative, cover versions:

Land o'cakes by k1teach2 on Ravelry

k1teach2’s Land O Cakes

Kelly Dawn's Hirne

Kelly Dawn’s Hirne

yarnesty's Glenan hoodie

yarnesty’s Glenan Hoodie

Johanna Richards' Schene

Johanna Richards’ Schene

tayloreowan's Tonnach

tayloreowen’s Tonnach

Felix: I love these! It’s so wonderful to see how using different colours, materials, styling and yarn types can completely change the feeling of a design.

Finally, as part of Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 I have been creating themed playlists on my Mixcloud page, and am feeling like I really want to make a playlist that features cover songs. Do you have suggestions for this playlist?

Kate: Please put Otis on this list immediately. An equally transformative cover is Isaac Hayes version of “By the Time I get to Phoenix”, a tune deeply associated in the American sonic consciousness with country music and Glen Campbell – but Isaac really takes it somewhere else in his truly epic soulful version (The build up! The moment when the strings come in! The horns! The organ! Isaac intoning, “but she was an unbeliever”!) And for something completely unexpected (and unexpectedly brilliant) try ZRI’s Klezmer version of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”.

Felix: Thanks so much! I shall immediately add these to the playlist. And thank you so much for joining me today to talk about covers – it is always a joy to talk KNIT + SONIK with you.

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