Tom Waits Covers: Lisa Hannigan Covers Martha

by Brendan Strong

I’ve been listening to a couple of Tom Waits podcasts recently, both very interesting, and talking about his catalogue in chronological order:

Song by Song (as the name suggests) are going through the Tom Waits catalogue with one song discussed in each episode

Down in the Hole are going through the catalogue by discussing each album in a podcast

It’s really interesting to hear the discussions and to see where I agree or disagree, and how different tastes affect what you think of as a good, bad or ugly song (yes, I know, but I resisted the temptation to go with bawler, brawler and bastard, so at least I saved you that much).

In the latter podcast, one of the guys mentioned a dearth of good Tom Waits covers (I think asking: Are there any? Can there be any?). My interest was piqued, so here I am, blogging about some covers of Tom Waits songs that have really stopped me in my tracks.

Lisa Hannigan covering Martha.

One reason so many people don’t hit the mark with a Tom Waits cover is that they try to be Tom Waits. You hear it from professionals who release singles and albums and play on large stages to pub singers who rail against sensible sound levels. They “do” the growl, husky voice or lonesome rain-soaked troubador thing.

With the Waits covers I like, the performers inhabit the songs, instead of the singer. With Martha, Lisa Hannigan inhabits the song-as-a-character.  She takes out the bravado, stripping it back to the fragile vulnerability that’s at the core of the song. Cormac Curren on piano plays a very simple accompaniment, which gives plenty of aural space for the subtlety of Hannigan’s fragile voice to sail on. There is a tremble in the voice, wings that make the lyrics and melody fly.

Next Time: The Blind Boys of Alabama