Does changing the gender affect a song’s meaning? Instant Love, an ambitious and creative project, is doing just that
The brainchild of Allison Zatarain (GM of Instant Records) and Richard Gottehrer (renowned Brill Building songwriter as well as The Go-Go’s and Blondie producer), Instant Love is an ongoing project on which established and emerging female musicians reinterpret classic love songs originally sung by men about women, without changing the gender.
Through this work Zatarain and Gottehrer aim to kick-start a dialogue about female empowerment through music. Highlighting the bonds of friendship, sisterhood and the power of love between women, the result is a collection of utterly breathtaking tracks that you want to listen to over and over.
“It’s modern love and modern music for modern times,” says Zatarain. Gottehrer adds, “These classic songs are more than mere ‘covers.’ In a sense they are born again with new feeling and meaning as interpreted by these talented female vocalists.”
We spoke to artists Erika Spring, Nicole Atkins, Tristen and Holly Miranda about their involvement in the project…
How did you get involved?
Tristen: “Allison heard my cover of Peaceful Easy Feeling, where I kept the pronouns the same, so it would be me, a woman, singing to another woman. She thought this would be a great fit for her project and so I contributed this song to Instant Love.
Erika Spring: “The last album we released as Au Revoir Simone was in 2013 and we were able to work with Richard and Allison at Instant Records on that album. I was so excited when they reached out to me for this project and feel very lucky to be in the roster of amazing voices of Instant Love.”
Nicole Atkins: “Allison asked me and I thought it was a great idea. It made me think of the 60s album Love Is A Drag where men covered old crooner songs usually sung by women. It’s a way to get into the middle of love in general. To feel other feelings for someone.”
Why do you feel this project is important?
T: “I like to focus my feminine powers on wedging myself into my favourite spot: promoting the confusion, creating questions, flowing with fluidity, hanging in the mystery space of differentiation, identification, categorisation, and cultivation of self. I think Instant Love does just that. It creates questions and glaring gaps in music’s depictions of love, specifically in female-to-female love relationships.”
Holly Miranda: “I think this is such an interesting project and idea and I was really excited to be asked to be involved. It’s always really bothered be when men and women feel the need to change genders in songs they are singing!”
How do you feel about the way the music industry represents gender and sexuality?
E: “From my perspective, music, songs and artists have always been a major source of empowerment, inspiration and healing to those seeking support for their identities and communities. But the music industry has done a lot to limit the types of artists who have opportunities how artists represent themselves, how we talk about sexuality, etc. Luckily, songs that really mean something to people often have a way of getting heard, especially now with social media.”
T: “The music we hear is written by men, and that women writers are at a numerical disadvantage. We also know that most of the characters portrayed in fiction are mostly men, so there are less female characters being written, and from the Bechdel test, we know that only about half female characters are named, and speak to another woman about something other than a man. It’s clear that women see very little representations of their own complexity from their own perspective in art. So it makes sense that there are very few songs written to women, by women. It feels like an untold story, woman-to-woman love – sexual or platonic. I’m interested in telling untold stories.”
N: “That’s complicated as it’s a double-edged sword. In a lot of aspects, I feel that the music industry has been one industry that is very open in empowering and celebrating both genders and sexuality. Then on the other side of that you see terrible misogyny. Unfairness of balance in radio and exploitation on television. Yet women are making some of the most ground-breaking and important music today. It was a lot worse for women in the eras before us. I think we are going through a major shift right now where attitudes and actions that were accepted and tolerated are coming to light and won’t be tolerated anymore. I hope it sticks. Music and art is about trust. The listeners trust the artist to help them get through things and that isn’t gender specific and shouldn’t be.”
H: “The human need to label everything is a very short-sighted one. It goes way beyond any industry or religion. We are so hungry for definition and purpose that we usually wind up limiting our potential and the potential of others in the process of self-realisation. We are all guilty of it. From what colour your baby shower table cloths are to apps that tell us what painting we look with, we are so busy looking outside of ourselves that we miss the point. We are boundless energy unable to be labelled.”
What made you choose the song you recorded?
E: “Richard and Allison and I picked the song (Colours) together. I thought it would be interesting because I don’t play guitar, so figuring out a different instrumentation, and also because I wanted something that would fit well with my voice which is on the softer side. And we all love the song, it’s beautiful and poetic.”
T: “On Valentine’s day, I sometimes take requests from fans for covers. Someone requested Peaceful Easy Feeling by the Eagles and immediately I flashed back to my dad playing this song for my mom in my childhood. I would sing the high harmony with him. You can hear that on the recording. I always love when women cover songs remembered as being sung by men. I also see no need to change the pronouns. When you hear this song come through your speakers, I sing as a man to a woman, or a woman to a woman, or I can be something in between. It’s up to you.”
N: “I chose to cover Ryan Adam’s song Amy, because it has always been one of my favourite songs by him. Not just for the writing but for the arrangements too. It’s full of longing and pain and romance and the tone of the recording really puts you in a certain place. Like it’s visual. The song has its own zone that you can see. Its own colour. His recording is amber to me. I see songs in colour.
“I wanted to take a stab at this in the studio to try to put it in the colour and landscape of my own life of where I was when I first heard it when I was living in North Carolina and experiencing my first pains of love and loss. I wanted to paint this song in blue and green.”
H: “I think we are in a really unique time in our lives where the question and definition of gender and what that means is being talked about across the board. I don’t think it’s the first time, as we know Native Americans had five genders, but I think it’s unique in our lives. I see evolution like a slinky laid out flat; we are taking two steps forward as we take one back. By which I mean, maybe this is the step forward after that giant one back we took. I am happy to do whatever I can to bring about change in thinking! So saying, ‘I’m your man, I’ll do anything you ask me to,’ isn’t so much about gender as it about showing up and being the person your partner needs in that moment.”
Did it change the way you thought about the material?
E: “There is a sweetness in Colours that got even sweeter while singing the words. And I love saying the word ‘mellow’.”
T: “Instant Love made me realise the importance of degenderising the hetero-normative nature of mainstream music to fill in the missing gaps. We need love songs from women to women because this love exists in all cultures. Why should we omit parts of our existence? It feels like disruption, but in reality, it is just the idea that art should represent life, in all of its complexity. Artists should be focused on telling stories from our culture that are intentionally marginalised, but omnipresent.”
N: “It made Ryan Adams seem a lot more vulnerable to me. I remember sitting in my room in Brooklyn after a really hard breakup and remembering all of the good things about that relationship and missing that person so bad. It just brought me back to those feelings. When I first heard Ryan’s song I hadn’t experienced that level of longing myself yet. Now I did and sometimes still do, so I could connect to the feeling instead of just liking the sound.W
H: “Not really. I’ll be your man, I’ll be your woman, I’ll be yours, I’ll be there when you need me. It’s all the same.”
Interview: Fern Dunn
Instant Love Volume 1 is out now on Instant Records. Find out more at: loveinstantlove.com