An artist's choice of cover song says a lot about their musical influences. So it is telling that a raft of young rising singer-songwriters are choosing to cover the songs of generations before them.
Peruse videos of 20-year-old rising singer Jodie Marie on YouTube and you'll find her singing Joan Baez's “Silver Dagger”. Then there is Michael Kiwanuka, the 24-year-old soulful blues singer from London, and winner of the Sound of 2012 poll, who performed a cover of Bill Withers at a recent gig, and not just one that everyone knows (“Ain't No Sunshine”, “Just the Two of Us”), but a rarity that could be picked only by a true fan, “I Don't Know”. Cold Specks, meanwhile, a 23-year-old Canadian called Al Spx, who moved to London to pursue music, chooses to cover songs by Tom Waits. And Laura Marling has been known to cover both Neil Young and the late American folk artist Jackson C Frank, a contemporary of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
In each case, their choice of covers represents the references and influences behind their music: blues, soul and folk music of the 1960s and 1970s. Their music basks in the traditions of their forebears; old souls singing from young perspectives. In bucking the trends of their peers – the R'n'B stylings of soul chart topper Emeli Sandé, the indie pop of Spector, the Scandi electro-pop of Niki and the Dove – they give themselves a far more organic starting point for their songwriting, and it distinguishes them from the crowd.
Kiwanuka wears his influences on his sleeves: Bill Withers, Richie Havens and Otis Redding; his debut album, Home Again, is steeped in the folk-soul tradition of his predecessors. When he performs, he recalls the music of both Bobby Womack and The Allman Brothers.
Marie, the 20-year-old newcomer from Wales, turned, not to the pop music of her peers or her older sister, but the records that her father owned, for inspiration. When her friends were listening to the Spice Girls, the young Marie was, at her home in Narberth, Pembrokeshire, singing along to Elmore James and Bonnie Raitt , and it would be these artists who would most inform her tastes and the music of her newly-released debut album, Mountain Echo. The first record she really fell for, at the age of 11, was the 1957 single "It Hurts Me Too" by the late Mississippi bluesman James.
She came to Raitt via her dad's VHS collection, which contained the singer's performance of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy", and went on to discover Raitt's first album. Raitt was the biggest influence on her vocals. "There's that pain in her vocals that really gets me," Marie has said, and you can hear that emotion that she harnesses in her own songs, many of which are, unsurprisingly, at the more melancholic end of the spectrum, such as the beautiful single "Single Blank Canvas" or the album's title track.
Similarly, Spx, who describes her music as "doom soul", and with a voice that has been compared to Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe's blended together, writes songs which sound as though they come straight from the Deep South. She cites as her influences Doris Duke, Solomon Burke, Tom Waits, Bobby "Blue" Bland, The Staple Singers and, above all, the field recordings of Alan Lomax, and James Carr.
"I do know that I worship James Carr", says Spx, as she prepares to release her debut album I Predict A Graceful Expulsion on Mute this May. "I'm sure that obsession has inspired certain sounds on the record in some way. Sam Cooke's 'Live at the Harlem Square Club' is one of my favourite recordings of all time.
"I also listen to a great deal of traditional folk and gospel music as a result of getting into Alan Lomax's field recordings. And Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers are also absolutely brilliant."