Run For Cover is a weekly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. Prepare for a major bending of rules as we hear musicians throw around genres, tempos, style, and intent. Whether they’re picking up another’s song out of respect or boredom, the results have impressed us.
I always wish I knew about The Innocence Mission sooner. When some days are heavy or it’s raining nonstop, my head pounds against its own walls, looking for something soothing to calm it down but not quiet enough to put it to sleep. Over the years, plenty of musicians have filled that hole–Diane Cluck, Feist, Bon Iver–and will continue to, but none have satisfied that need quite like them.
The alt-rock folk group started in Pennsylvania back in 1985 by husband-and-wife singer-songwriters Karen and Don Peris who played at local events, including Lancaster Catholic High School’s prom. A few years later, they were signed to A&M Records and released their self-titled debut. They went on to release two more records with the label before switching to RCA Records sub-label Kneeling Elephant. The decision wound up suiting their later works.
On 1999’s Birds of my Neighborhood, The Innocence Mission turned to pure, lyric-driven, andacoustic-based music that skipped the drums. Karen Peris let her vocals unravel like they had yet to, often times sounding like a softer version of The Cranberries or the mother of the Dixie Chicks. No track highlights that vocal style better than “The Lakes of Canada”. She sings in sixths and harmonizes with herself, creating a fragile warmth and fullness masked in the guise of a stripped-down sound. It’s delicate and seemingly simple. Get halfway through to the gently dueling guitars, though, and it immediately snatches your heart. Why they didn’t get the attention they deserved back then, we will never know.
The whole reason I discovered them was because of Sufjan Stevens. The modern day folk icon grew up in various parts of Michigan where he was raised by his father, Rasjid, and his stepmother. His mother, Carrie, lived in Oregon and rarely visited. By the time he left for Hope College and later The New School, Sufjan had become a rounded multi-instrumentalist. Over the years, he began to experiment with more than stringed instruments and piano, going on to pick up xylophone, synth, and drums.
As a musician that’s constantly learning, the man loves his covers.
Sufjan has tried out R.E.M., Joni Mitchell, and our national anthem in his spare time, plugging away until he can make them his own. It’s his 2007 Take Away Show for French music video blog La Blogotheque that saw him share his most private, and now most adored, cover. When asked to play for the cameramen on the rooftop of an old performance center in Cincinnati, he’s taken aback by the wind. He tries playing “He Woke Me Up Again”, stops abruptly, and asks to go inside to warm up again. The crew plead and beg, asking him to stay up there. He sighs, grabs a jacket, and launches unexpectedly into a cover of The Innocence Mission’s “The Lakes of Canada”. As the internet loves to say, what happens next will astound you.
At a slightly slower tempo but with just as much intricate stringwork, Sufjan Stevens’ cover emotes the same uncovered childhood independence and loneliness. It feels like a Seven Swans or Michigan B-side — full of hearty words but lacking in pomp and circumstance-style instrumentals. For a man who infrequently wrote about his personal life, if at all, this was the cover that saw him open up. He was hiding behind a cardboard cutout of another character again, but this time he sang like it wasn’t a cutout at all. It could very well be him.
When Sufjan Stevens does a cover, he puts his entire heart and mental space into the song. The Innocence Misson’s track happened to already have a spot in his heart. He brings the song to an actual stripped-down version of what appears to be a simple song, but breathes a frigid, shaking nervousness to the words, reminding us all that we have the potential to change, no matter how young we were when first told we couldn’t.