For singer Marianne Dissard, as with many musicians, 2020 is full of great change. But aside from global upheaval, the year is serving as an opportunity to reexamine what music is worth recording, and what it means to be a musician in the first place.
French-turned-Tucsonan-turned-English Dissard is keeping busy by releasing a new cover song every month, all American songs from the 1960s and '70s. The project is her first entirely in English. And while there is no thematic connection between the tracks, some have proved quite timely, such as a cover of Phil Ochs' protest song "The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns." What was originally an acoustic folk song was expanded into massive dirge at nearly twice the length of the original with distorted guitar, violin, flute and looping electronics.
According to Dissard, the reworking and reimagining isn't just for the songs, but for her career style as well. She says sheltering in place due to the pandemic has provided ample time for reflection, and in a certain way, is liberating.
"I don't have to kill myself touring, and I refuse to do streaming shows. I'm just going to do what makes me happy as a musician. I'm totally happy being a recluse," Dissard said. "I miss being on stage, of course. But all these things that were supposed to be the way to do music, I'm all too ready to question it... Everything is up for grabs now."
As she keeps up-to-date with the global news, Dissard says she is filtering the current events through the mediums of music and writing.
"If anything, the last six months have really asked us as musicians to reconsider what it means to be putting out an album," Dissard said. "So I've been doing what I feel like doing. If it feels vital and gets me up in the morning, that's plenty."
Working in collaboration with English producer Raphael Mann, Dissard is pushing her passionate and theatrical pop sensibilities through the style of American ballads of the '60s and '70s.
"There was incredible music being made at that time that I really responded to in terms of songwriting and inspiration. It's where a lot of my taste comes from, as well as my producer's taste... It's really our common ground. We've bonded over this kind of music," Dissard said. "But it's quite a challenge to sing in English. I just can't do it the same way I sing in French. The stresses and words are so different that I get my tongue all wrapped up. It gives a different life to the singing by calling on different skills."
For a cover of Bobbie Gentry's "Refractions," Dissard maintains the baroque instrumentation, but increases the surreal atmosphere with hushed vocals and a more experimental sound palette. The original song is the story of a nightmare. According to Mann, the idea for the cover was to "get deeper inside the dream itself, climb inside the head of the dreamer." This took both the singer and the producer out of their comfort zones, and the music reflects that uncertainty.
"It's not so much reworking any of the songs, but trying to find the core concept or message of a song and working from there," Dissard said. "That's the trick with covers: You have to find something that's already there and take it to where you as the artist can bring something new and fresh."
Dissard also issued twin covers of Janis Ian's introspective hit "At Seventeen," one cover "His" (produced by Mann) and the other "Hers" (by Dissard). The folky bossa nova atmosphere of the original is maintained, but Dissard makes the delivery her own with a more romantic and spoken style, reminiscent of her chanson background.
The coming months are planned to include covers of Carly Simon and Ritchie Valens songs. All these 2020 covers may be compiled into an album, which would be Dissard's first in English, but the project is still in the works.
"My thoughts on that subject change as the winds, a reflection probably of these uncertain times," Dissard said. "I find it a small miracle that there is such a thing as 'the next day,' that we've made it all that far into 2020. I'm wildly optimistic as much as soberly pessimistic about what will happen next. So, an album? Like climbing a mountain: One step at a time."