Andrew Osenga just released a covers EP, which was a bonus feature of his Heart*Soul*Flesh*Bone 4 EP project, or if you prefer, extended double album. I got a chance to sit down with him and talk about the project– and one cover in particular.
Russ Ramsey: I’ve been listening to your new covers EP. I really like it. You picked some really great songs. There is one song in particular that is not like the others. Can we talk about it? I’m talking about My Brave Face. Before we talk about your version, let’s talk about the song itself. I imagine not many folks know it. Where did that song come from?
AO: Thanks! I LOVE this song, first of all. Just love it. It was written by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello sometime in the mid-’80s, I think. There’s this bootleg floating around of the two of them doing 11 or 12 songs they’d just written, just acoustic guitars and first takes. That’s the first place I heard this song.
McCartney cut it on his 1989 solo record, Flowers in the Dirt, and if I’m honest, that version is terrible. I’ve heard Costello do it live, too, and I didn’t love his version either. But this scratch take they did is just astounding. So much energy and passion. You hear these two incredibly famous voices, that I had never heard together, and you hear them just having fun with each other. It’s incredible. I often play this song for artists when I’m producing.
RR: Why? Say a little more about that.
AO: I play it for artists because I want them to hear the joy and exuberance of a great live take. The demo version is out of time and out of tune and it sounds bad, but I’ve listened to it a million times. That energy and fun is so much more important. Their [McCartney’s and Costello’s] recording might not be correct, but it sure as fire ain’t wrong! I want the musicians I produce to understand that getting it “right” isn’t always right. It’s so much more important to get a take that feels alive and human. This demo, to me, is the prime example.
RR: So what made you decide you wanted to cover the demo specifically for a cover’s record?
AO: When it came time to do this covers EP, I had it all finished and felt like I was missing something. I started scrolling through my iTunes just looking for stuff and found that old song and knew immediately I had to do it.
The thing with covers records is that you try to reinvent a song. You try to make people hear it in a new way, and put your own stamp on it. With this, the famous version of this song is the horrible Flowers in the Dirt version. I wanted people to hear the great version. So I recorded mine as close as possible to their live demo. That’s why there is the little sing-songy bit right at the start and all the voices falling off in the middle of the lines and everything. As much as I could, I made a note-for-note remake.
RR: So you made a note-for-note remake of a rough demo, mistakes and all?
AO: I sure tried.
RR: Amazing. But hang on. I imagine it was, in part, the spontaneity that made the McCartney / Costello version so lively. Did you have to do a bunch of takes to mimic it just right? And if so, did that process of having to be so meticulous pose a challenge in terms of keeping that lively vibe you loved about the demo in the first place? Yours sounds very loose and fun—very off the cuff. Was that hard to achieve?
AO: I recorded it in my basement, which used to be a studio but is now a little girls’ playroom. For the guitars, I just played two passes, one low, one high, and didn’t edit or punch at all. For the vocals, though, it took forever! I tried to lock in exactly what they were doing. Figuring out who was doing which part and how they were doing it was complicated, you know. And, it should go without saying, no auto-tune!
RR: How did you preserve the light-heartedness with all the punching in you had to do for your vocal takes?
AO: As I said, I record now in a play room. I’m surrounded by American Girl dolls and blanket forts. Usually when I record vocals I turn the lights off and sing with my eyes closed. For this I had the lights on and embraced the absurdity. It’s so high and I’m wailing like a crazy person at 37 years old in order to intentionally sound like a guy sort of missing the notes. So that kept it fun. More than anything, though, I just really, really, really love that song and it was so fun to get to sing it.
RR: Here it is—Andrew Osenga’s meticulously constructed copy of a sloppy demo full of life and heart from the ’80s. And it’s awesome. Enjoy!
And if you haven’t gotten hold of Andrew’s four EP project Heart*Soul*Flesh*Bone, you can get them here.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).