There are those who get cover songs horribly wrong—Miley Cyrus butchering “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Duran Duran’s version of “911 Is a Joke” instantly spring to mind—yet when it’s done right a cover song can really help boost an artist’s career.
By Matthew Hernon
Sinead O’Connor won critical acclaim for her debut album “The Lion and the Cobra,” but it was the release of the single “Nothing Compares to You”—a song originally written and composed by Prince—that turned her into an international star. Aretha Franklin penned a number of successful hits during her career, including “Think” and “Call Me”; however, Otis Redding’s “Respect” is the song for which she is most well known.
Some artists go even further and release whole albums with cover songs on them, like David Bowie with his LP “Pin Ups,” featuring songs from groups he had shared venues with in the sixties, and Rage Against the Machine, who covered bands ranging from the Rolling Stones to Cypress Hill on their record “Renegades.”
In Japan, Hideaki Tokunaga became one of the country’s most popular songwriters following a number of chart-topping records in the late 80s/early 90s, yet after a more than a decade without a number one he decided to start releasing cover albums. It has proved a wise move: he’s made six in total, all entitled “Vocalist,” and the series has sold in excess of six million copies.
It’s an approach that has also worked for May J. over the past couple of years. A musician and TV presenter of Iranian-Japanese origin, she has become a singer very much in demand in recent times after some standout appearances on the variety show “Kanjani no Shiwake” and the release of numerous cover songs—most notably her rendition of “Let it Go” in the movie “Frozen.”
“Why must the sashimi provide its own wasabi? It’s ludicrous. It doesn’t matter how the wonderful music got there, what matters is that it’s there.“
With her exotic looks, charm and mellifluous voice, it’s been no surprise seeing the 26-year-old reach the level of stardom she has. Her rise to the top, however, has been anything but smooth sailing. She started out with an R&B sound on the album “Baby Girl,” but after realizing it “wasn’t main-stream enough for a Japanese audience,” she started focusing on pop music. The change in style was initially successful—her second album “Family” did pretty well—but with each record that followed, sales got worse and worse. Her sixth effort, “Brave,” entered the charts at 57, selling just 2,585 copies in its first week. A disillusioned May J. had to think seriously about the direction her career was going in.
“It was a hard time,” she tells Weekender. “I wrote and produced all my records, putting so much into all of them but they just weren’t selling and as a singer that is what you are ultimately judged on. From the age of three, when I started playing the piano, music was the only thing I envisaged doing, yet at the beginning of 2013 I started thinking that I just wasn’t good enough and considered quitting.”
Fortunately she didn’t. Instead of writing songs, she focused on covering them and it soon had the desired effect. Her next two albums—“Summer Ballad Covers” and “Heartful Song Covers”—were top five hits, both selling more than 200,000 copies. She has been criticized in some quarters for achieving success on the back of other people’s songs, but as long as she’s bringing her own unique style to the tracks is there really anything wrong with what she’s doing? Heavy metal guitarist Marty Friedman certainly doesn’t think so.
“I dislike it when people say negative things about an artist who doesn’t write his or her own songs,” Friedman tells Weekender. “Why must the sashimi provide its own wasabi? It’s ludicrous. It doesn’t matter how the wonderful music got there, what matters is that it’s there.“
“I released two cover albums, ‘Tokyo Jukebox’ and ‘Tokyo Jukebox 2.’ Most musicians do them at some time or another. It worked for Elvis: in fact lots of great artists do their best work on covers. It’s all about being able to put your own interpretation on a song. Then if the artist is great, his or her identity will come through, making a decent song fantastic—and a fantastic song sublime.”
May J. showed she had the talent to do that on the karaoke segment of the show “Kanjani no Shiwake.” A singing contest for professional artists, the program helped give the singer the shot in the arm her career needed. Asked to perform all kinds of covers, she ended up winning it 26 times in a row before finally losing out to Sarah Alainn who beat her with “Let it Go.” The song is now May J.’s signature track.
“It’s ironic that I lost on that song: it must have been a message from God or something,” she says laughing. “I’d had a great run and because of that I got the offer from Disney, which I’m incredibly grateful for. It had always been my dream to sing for Disney. I’d grown up memorizing the words from their films; then suddenly I was being asked to be a part of a movie they were making. I couldn’t believe it!”
Not just any old Disney flick either, but “Frozen,” the third highest-grossing film (behind “Spirited Away” and “Titanic”) of all time in Japan. Since its release people around the globe—most notably children—seemed to have become fixated with the movie and its signature track “Let it Go.” Described by The Boston Globe’s columnist Yvonne Abraham as “musical crack,” the Japanese versions of the song by Takako Matsu (during the film) and May J. (closing credits) were being played everywhere in Tokyo last summer and can still be regularly heard today.
Of all May J.’s covers it is unquestionably “Let It Go”—written by married couple Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez—that has taken her career to another level. Since the release of “Let it Go,” she has become a permanent fixture on numerous TV shows and now regularly appears on the front cover of various magazines. Her album sales have also improved massively, with “Precious” entering the charts at number three. Marty Friedman believes her recent success is fully deserved.
“She’s fantastic: a rare type that guys and girls alike can easily fall in love with,” the former Megadeth lead guitarist says. “She has a very approachable demeanor and that comes through in her singing.”
“I’d grown up memorizing the words from their films; then suddenly I was being asked to be a part of a movie they were making. I couldn’t believe it!”
May J.’s amiable persona is evident on the NHK WORLD TV program “J-Melo,” which she has been presenting since 2008. The only English language show that focuses on Japanese music, it includes live performances and interviews with many well-known acts such as The GazettE, Morning Musume and May J.’s favorite guest, jazz guitarist Kazumi Watanabe. Broadcast in more than 150 countries around the globe, the program also features fan meetings and live shows in cities like London, Paris and São Paulo.
“I’m always amazed by the reception when we go abroad,” she says. “I remember visiting Oman, thinking the people would be conservative but when I told them to get up they all really got into it; even the princess was dancing. I think Jakarta is the city where we get the biggest reaction, though. The people there watch “J-Melo” every week and really know about Japanese music. It really is a unique show and I feel privileged to have been a part of it for so long.”
May J. has come a long way since her first appearance on the program as a guest during her teens. While her dream back then was to make a significant impact in the music industry with original hits, her decision to take a different route and interpret other people’s songs has proven successful. Eventually she’d like to be known for her own tracks—and will be returning to them on future albums. We’re certain that the recent exposure she has received as a result of her covers will give her a wider audience with which to showcase her songs to come.