Why is Paul Dempsey so good at playing covers?
He’s arguably Australia’s own Patron Saint of Covers. How many people have worked so many musical tributes into their career to such winning success, without overshadowing their main output, the way Paul Dempsey has?
He’s the thoughtful, extremely tall face and voice of Something For Kate with an acclaimed solo career. But ask any fan their Top 10 favourite things about Paul Dempsey and chances are “his covers” will make an appearance.
Just last month, he landed in the Hottest 100 (for the 16th time) with his solo Like A Version performance of Middle Kids’ ‘Edge of Town’, charting higher than the original at #88 in the countdown. But his history as an immaculate musical interpreter goes much deeper than the long-running triple j segment.
Across the live stage and the studio, Dempsey amassed a much-loved catalogue of eclectic tributes spanning Aussie legends (Midnight Oil, INXS, Cold Chisel, Hunters & Collectors, You Am I), indie icons (Elliot Smith, The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen), to his personal faves (Wilco, Hüsker Dü, R.E.M.) and stone-cold classics (Bruce Springsteen, Queen, a lotta Bowie).
His established reputation for ace cover songs dates back to ‘Truly’, a song originally by Sub Pop-signed ‘90s act Hazel that became Something For Kate’s first recorded cover and a staple of their early shows when audiences used to cry out for it on the reg.
In 2013, Dempsey officially cottoned onto the popularity of his covers with the release of Shotgun Karaoke and its accompanying tour. The concept itself spawned out of a series of impromptu backstage videos recorded during a Something For Kate tour. This take on Courtney Barnett’s ‘History Eraser’ is still a personal favourite.
But what makes Dempsey’s way with a cover so good?
Firstly, his understanding of what makes a song tick; he’s the brains behind one of the most underrated songbooks in Australia, after all. Both as a solo artist and fronting Something For Kate, he’s written music that’s affecting, anthemic, and deceptively complex yet affably accessible. It’s given him the toolset required to efficiently analyse and reproduce the ins-and-outs of songwriting.
Secondly, and more simply: that voice. Coming up with SFK during the late ‘90s landscape of post-grunge and emo, his singing ploughed with the emotional intensity and urgency of both scenes. His pipes have also proven to age like a fine wine, the gruffer edge of his grain now benefiting from a more refined and flexible falsetto. Just compare the larynx-busting yearning of ‘Captain’ to the quiet resolve and dynamics of ‘Idiot Oracle’.
Armed with little more than an acoustic guitar, he can get to the heart of a song without sacrificing its fundamental elements and his voice is so rich with character that it’s impossible to ignore how much of himself he’s bringing to bear – even when he’s tackling a towering song like ‘Born To Run’.
He’s not afraid to push outside of his comfort zone either. You couldn’t necessarily hear his grizzled pipes wrapping comfortably around a Miley Cyrus topline or Florence Welch’s skyscraping melodies but once you’ve heard his takes on ‘Wrecking Ball’ and ‘Sweet Nothing’, it’s difficult to hear the originals quite the same way.
In fact, some of Dempsey’s most startling covers are when he takes on songs originally made famous by women: ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, Bat For Lashes' ‘Daniel’, Amy Shark’s ‘Adore’ and that Middle Kids cover.
More tantalisingly, Dempsey revealed to Zan Rowe on Double J that his rehearsals for his Hottest 100-charting Like A Version produced several other yet-to-be-heard tributes.
“I basically did this little covers set into my iPhone to get some feedback,” he told Zan Rowe on Double J Mornings. “I did ‘Adore’, Middle Kids, Miike Snow’s ‘Genghis Khan, The Weeknd [& Daft Punk’s ‘I Feel It Coming']… just basically recorded them all so I could flick them to my manager, Clint and Steph from Something For Kate to go, ‘which one?’.”
All of them, Paul. We want to hear all of them.
It’s likely that Dempsey’s magical cover touch is partly responsible for landing a gig touring with one of his (and everyone’s) musical heroes: David Bowie.
Something For Kate supported Bowie’s 2004 Australian tour and, over the course of his career, Dempsey has undertaken ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Ashes To Ashes’, and ‘Space Oddity’. He’s actually spent the last few months overseas Celebrating David Bowie as part of an all-star touring band comprised of musicians who’ve recorded and performed with the late, great Ziggy himself.
“We avoid he word ‘tribute’,” he explains. “It’s not a covers band – these are people who were in the studio and on the tours and working up the songs with Bowie as he was writing and recording them.”
Musos like Adrian Belew, Mike Garson, Earl Slick, Jerry Leonard, and Carmine Rojas – all trading stories on the tour bus about the great Starman like the best moments of an extended wake.
“It was like going on fantasy space camp where you get to pretend to be an astronaut for three weeks… no-one would go to bed, [we’d] just sit on the lounge in the bus and just tell stories about this tour or that tour.”