Re-recording an artist’s complete album, exactly imitating the same chords and solos and then publishing it as your own project? Most fans of any original artist would cry out with accusations of plagiarism and false musicianship.
This isn’t the case with Lindsey Ell’s album, “The Continuum Project.”
The country singer has released her own albums of her own songs since 2017. But before Ell seriously started working on her solo album, she took an assignment from Sugarland singer Kristian Bush, who instructed her to re-record her favorite album of all time. The rules were that she had to play all of the instruments and have the entire album done in two weeks.
Without a second thought, Ell thought of John Mayer’s album “Continuum,” a challenging and sprawling album that not only brought Mayer great accolade, but also defined his musicianship and his skill as a blues and rock artist. Ell not only had to master Mayer’s guitar parts, but also had to recreate the bass and drum contributions from Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan — a tall task for one country artist.
Despite the challenge, Ell succeeded and even released the finished work this year as an album, which now bears the title “The Continuum Project.” The accomplished feat is impressive, and if you’re not familiar with Mayer’s work, you’ll only need to listen to a couple tracks from the original album to understand the hours of work necessary to even create a mere imitation of the original album, even for a skilled artist.
Ell’s effort is truly inspiring to musicians and those who strive to become great but feel like they are trapped in the shadow of renowned artists to come before them.
But what about if you’re not a musician? What does Ell’s album offer for you? Certainly more than just memorizing a chord progression on a cheap ukulele to play for your friends. This kind of rendition is a start but can’t match the level of depth that Ell achieves. Truthfully, you don’t even need to pick up an instrument to mimic Ell’s project and attain that deep level of understanding and album appreciation.
How? Simply start with thinking about what it would mean to create your favorite album all on your own. Audiences may listen to songs play on the radio over and over again but never consider all of the ticks, taps and toots that make up the finished rhythmic product.
Even John Mayer himself recently put out a short video about his recent summer single “New Light” on Instagram TV and literally recreated the process of building the song from bottom beat to top tenor and soprano parts. For audiences, and even super fans, the video added a depth to the pop song and invited listeners into the thought behind each of those pieces before they coalesced into one single song.
This type of depth and behind-the-scenes knowledge is readily available in other mediums, but harder to come by in the world of music. I’m sure you’ve watched DVDs of your favorite films with extra material, behind-the-scenes interviews and even director and actor commentaries superimposed over the film that reveal all of those juicy details from filming.
Not to mention the added hours you’ve likely spent watching interviews with actors on late night shows who break down the story and filming process of the movie they’re promoting.
So when do you get a chance to break down music or listen to artists talk about this? Going to concert might not even do the trick and radio shows and interviews rarely want to talk about this kind of depth because it usually doesn’t seem all that interesting.
People are usually more interested in the product than the process when it comes to music, which is why Ell’s project stands out among tribute albums and why it’s up to audiences to break down music with their own ears and their own music-minds.
What’s more, this technique has a huge pay-off, even if you’re breaking down something other than music. When you imitate anything, you learn more about where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and you can learn from those who have mastered techniques before you.
One of my creative writing classes required picking out passages of novels and rewriting them about a different topic, while imitating the same diction and rhythm. The task proved challenging but not without a high pay-off of realizing I could attain a new technique and apply it to my own writing in a way that was my own.
I didn’t suddenly become that writer, my stories didn’t sound like Junot Díaz or Matthew Klam, but the detail and flow of my writing undeniably grew stronger while it also became my own.
And at the end of the day, your efforts might lead you to realize that the original just can’t be beat. Imitation doesn’t always lead to perfect replication and you shouldn’t hold yourself or other artists to the standard of pure duplication when you both have your own styles and strengths.
Personally, I hated Ell’s version of “Stop This Train,” which sounded like a cacophony of sounds to me compared to the ease of Mayer’s guitar playing. But that’s alright because Ell admits that she couldn’t imitate everything perfectly on such short notice.
With one disappointing track, I quickly found another impressive composition that I even enjoyed listening to. The lack of perfection in her efforts reminds audiences to appreciate the magic of music that you can’t imitate yourself.
It reveals the heart of inspiration that has fueled musicians and artists alike through the decades to create and recreate over and over.
And that, friends, is true art.