Old public domain songs get a makeover with purpose
One Saturday in April, in a Manhattan recording studio dotted with antique lamps and masked technicians, singer Liv Warfield’s face was clouded with concentration as she layered harmonies in the output of a number of exciting soul. She nodded for a moment, trying to figure out what notes to add next. “We may have to go to the rafters,” she concluded.
The session engineer reread the track, and Warfield got to work, hitting the upper end of its lineup. Across the glass separating the recording booth from the console, producer Ray Angry stood up and shouted in approval, “No auto-tuning in this session!”
The song, titled “#NewBornAgain”, feels of the moment, with lyrics that make reference to Covid-19 and its historic antecedent, the influenza pandemic that swept the world a century ago (“It’s like if we were here before / When 1919 stole the show “). Warfield, a former member of Prince’s New Power Generation who released two alternate R & B albums, wrote the lyrics herself. But she worked, indirectly , with collaborators from a previous generation: the authors of an old hymn of the same name (minus the hashtag), on which the song is based.
This kind of dialogue between past and present is a central feature of “Public Domain,” a project to which Warfield was brought by its creators, Angry, and visual artist Katherine McMahon. With the support of a wide range of collaborators, Angry and McMahon take songs from the public domain – a class of creative works whose copyright protections have expired or been lost, making them freely available for public use. – and are reinventing them for the moment. .
Arriving Monday, “#NewBornAgain” – a stomper with sonic references like the Staple Singers, Prince and bluesman RL Burnside – is the first single from what would eventually become “Public Domain”, the album. Warfield’s rewrite strips the original of its religious overtones, changing its uplifting message of rebirth by faith into a message of exasperation, a call to reprieve the punitive cycles of history. “Relive the same stories, turn back in time / Where are the superheroes we think would save our lives? sings songwriter J. Hoard, who also contributed vocals.
Angry, who has worked with Christina Aguilera, Ja Rule and Solange, met McMahon years ago through a mutual friend. But the two didn’t develop a creative partnership until last summer, when they hosted a performance called “Free Clean Money” at Guild Hall, an arts center in East Hampton, NY. This play involved pouring out $ 1 bills with Lysol and distributing them to visitors – both a reference to the public’s fear of viral contamination and a salutary gesture for an economic system in which money is not , in their opinion, neither free nor clean. Angry marked the performance with a composition inspired by the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, bringing the subject of racial injustice into dialogue with issues of economic inequality and pandemic anxiety. Both said their collaboration was new and exciting.
After the performance was over, McMahon stumbled into a “stupid research hole” of copyright and public domain works. Going through several of these texts, written before 1925, she was struck by the strength of their resonance, despite the temporal distance between her and their authors.
“The language and syntax are a little different, but the heart and the humanity are there,” she said on a phone call from her Manhattan apartment. “In the world we live in today, we constantly feel pressured to create content. But I like the idea that there is all this content out there already. What if we come back to it and see how our experiences today stack up? “
For McMahon, who is above all a painter, undertaking a musical project is in a way a creative leap. During the recent recording session, she was a calm but focused presence, with a notepad in hand and a pen tucked behind her ear, scribbling between takes. While Angry directs the production and arrangements for all songs, she takes on more of the role of Creative Director, selecting source material and rewriting lyrics, or guiding other collaborators in conceptualizing updated versions of the song. old texts. “Katherine really knows what she wants,” Warfield told me, and McMahon agreed, “I definitely had a vision early on,” she said.
This vision responds to today’s societal challenges. Like “Free Clean Money”, the “Public Domain” seeks to solve the global structural problems exacerbated by the pandemic. A song reworks Irving Berlin’s 1924 ballad “All Alone” with new lyrics about racism and discrimination in America, written by gospel singer Jermaine Dolly. The project also examines the more personal struggles that many have experienced over the past year, such as loneliness and drug addiction – as in “#AlcoholicBlues,” a contemporary take on a Prohibition-era tune (all songs are titled with hashtags). Overall, McMahon said she was looking for texts that could “talk about the existential fear of modern life.”
The project is taking shape against a backdrop of heightened public interest in legal guardrails that protect the property and use of musical works. Lately, heavyweights in the music industry – including Taylor Swift, who is currently re-recording parts of her catalog that she no longer controls, and Bob Dylan, who sold the publishing rights to the ensemble. its catalog – have made headlines for nine-figure business deals involving their copyrights. . With their project, McMahon and Angry take a longer look at the life cycle of music and consider the value it retains even when it is no longer a financial asset – that is, its potential to build community. , to provide inspiration and quick thinking. And by rewriting and building on the work of other creators (which musicians do all the time, with or without formal permission), the project puts pressure on the idea that an idea can be owned by a single person.
In Angry’s mind, concerns about ownership are secondary to concerns of fairness. This reflection is at the heart of Mister Goldfinger Music, a new label he is launching; it plans that “Public Domain” will be its first release. Motivated by some of the shady deals he has witnessed during his many years in the industry, he strives to develop transparent and ethical business practices that provide emerging musicians with the information and infrastructure they need to develop.
“I really want to empower artists to be brave and make the music they care about and collaborate with people they normally wouldn’t do,” he said.
With “Public Domain”, it fulfilled its mission to promote collaboration. “Ray is just getting people out of the hat,” Warfield said. After the “#NewBornAgain” session, he and McMahon sent periodic updates on new people who signed up for the project; the expanding roster currently includes the Roots’s Black Thought, guitar prodigy Eric Gales, roots rock band leader Marcus King, drummer Daru Jones, artist and musician Lonnie Holley, jazz singer Melissa McMillan and more again.
“There is strength in numbers,” Angry said.