Recording with the Deceased: Is it Right?

nas cherry vine video with amy winehouseDear Reader,

There is a rather great collaboration between Amy Winehouse and Nas called “Like Smoke”. If you are fans of either artist, I would advise listening to it. It only took two tries or so before it clicked with me and I could fully “hear” all of the rhythm in the song. It starts off with Amy’s voice and, just like the title implies, her chorus drifts like smoke around the rest of the song, coming in from time to time to provide light and a smooth break from rapper Nas’s more intense lyrical verses. Despite the contradiction, the two voices offer a great sonic compliment to one another. You can almost feel the two of them together in the recording booth, playing off of each other while fusing their styles together.

“Cherry Wine” is another example of this. Once again with Amy in the chorus and Nas in the body, Nas tears up the raps, breaking rhythm and song and tying in strong emotion, while Amy’s piece rebounds off of his lyrics in a beautiful fashion.

Here’s the thing: they were not in the room when these songs were recorded. Due to the advancement of recording technology, this is perfectly plausible, yet they were not in the same country or even the same continent. The choruses that Amy did were allegedly written and recorded sometime in early 2011, and Nas wrote and recorded the body of the songs sometime in late 2011—months after Amy’s death.

Now, I do not want to imply that Nas stole Amy’s lyrics or her recordings. The two of them were close friends in real life and, in interviews, you can tell how much they cared about each other. Though the two had mentioned each other in their own song lyrics (particularly Amy’s “Me and Mr. Jones”, of which the subject of the song is centered around Nas) and though the two had discussed collaborating together (which seems to have been why Amy recorded these two choruses), a full collaboration was never able to happen in Amy’s lifetime. Nas has since explained that he found the collaborations to be a fitting tribute to their friendship and music careers. By making these songs, it fulfills a wish that Amy carried with her, but could not carry out.

And I can see that. It makes sense. Once again, this is not a bash against anyone involved in these recordings. Yet, though I love both, when I listen to these songs, I always have a sense of guilt. It is somewhat like the posthumous Michael Jackson album. I always wonder, “Is this what the passed artist would have wanted?” From what I understand, Amy was a perfectionist and was involved in her music and the way that it was presented. She had definite visions of the way that her albums should have sounded, and even contributed guitar recordings (in addition to writing and singing all of the songs). When recording her second album Back to Black, for example, Amy would take a playback of a song she had just recorded and would listen to it in a taxi cab. The purpose of this, of course, was to judge the way it would be heard for the majority of the listeners, and not just in the enhanced studio sound system speakers. Knowing the way that a song takes shape throughout many rehearsals, takes, and playbacks, would Amy have noticed things that did not feel artistically “right” to her? I trust that Nas and the producers responsible for these songs judged all of this when making these recordings. I believe that they were after the same quality that she was. Yet I still cannot decide which is the “worse” sin: to leave the recordings or to release the recordings? There are consequences for both. To leave the recordings of a deceased artist and disallow them from ever entering the public consciousness potentially denies many listeners from a transformative experience and keeps/controls the voice of the artist. To release the recordings without the artist’s full permission or approval, though, also controls the voice of the artist. Long-time collaborators may say that they know what the artist would have wanted, but how much of that is true and how much is just wishful thinking?

Reader, what is your opinion? Which is the best road to take?

Sincerely,

Jumbled Writer

*Link to original image.

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14 Responses to Recording with the Deceased: Is it Right?

  1. As long as the recordings are released in the spirit of honoring the deceased (which I believe is the case with this particular collaboration), I think it’s a lovely tribute. Which is better: for an imperfect recording to be enjoyed by adoring fans or for a potentially perfect recording to remain unheard? I think Amy would prefer the first option, or at least, I hope so.

  2. I don’t think you have to feel guilty at all. I think since the beginning of recording history – there are people who listen to and get enjoyment out of songs. I myself can listen to Roy Orbison or Elvis Presley and still have the same emotions as I did before. Enjoy – Happiness without guilt. 🙂

  3. I make that determination on a case by case basis, and it does help to know the back story. If I can tell there was a genuine desire to release the song to share with the audience, I can make peace with that. On the other hand, I get suspicious when “previously unreleased” material happens to miraculously show up on multiple occasions. I can remember them doing that for Jimi Hendrix. An old record store coworker of mine put it humorously, “I’m now waiting for the ‘Peel Sessions from the Toilet.'”

    Then there are songs like “Free as a Bird.” With what I know of John Lennon, I’m prone to say he wouldn’t care for how it turned out. The whole attitude of the song was changed. For a 16 year-old me, it was a morsel of superstardom. For a much older me, it’s the super-sappy lamentation of a band past its expiration date.

    • Case by case is probably the smartest way to go about it. These things can vary so much, as you say. Even if an artist wanted to release a particular song, it also depends on the production and how much is changed. A faulty production can really ruin a great song, or vice versa.
      –JW

  4. i agree w what many of u said. i am an entertainer who recently lost a co-writer. my band plays one of his songs proudly yet debate the legality of recording/releasing. its a great song that people shld hear…thoughts?

    • I think it depends on the intent. It sounds like your band plays the song with respect to the original artist, in which case, it is up to you. If your co-writer would have wanted to release it, why not release it and give that gift to listeners? I am sorry to hear about your loss.
      –JW

  5. This reminds of me of when you photograph the dead at a wake. I think people have misplaced anger when this occurs:
    “I want to remember him as he was.”
    “That just isn’t right.”
    “How could you?”
    And of course, the oddball, “Can I have copies?”

    Respectfully, the fact remains that the individual rights of the deceased person are also gone. So whatever the person decides for releasing the music track, it will be his or her responsibility to cope with the public outcry.(Obviously, this is not legal advice).

    • That’s true. Once you take on the role of releasing music of the deceased, it is your responsibility to accept and deal with the response. And there will always be more than one opinion. Thanks for stopping by!
      –JW

  6. I love the track and it’s great to hear Amy’s voice again. She has one of the most unique voices of any female artist – ever. It is tragic that her life and career were cut short and anything that reminds the world of how brilliant she was is a good thing, in my opinion. Perhaps the royalties should be used to do some good in the world, which would be a great legacy and a fitting tribute to her.

    • Indeed, she was such a giving person on earth. It only makes sense that her compassionate legacy be continued even after her body has passed. I think that is probably part of why her father started the Amy Winehouse Foundation. It is doing a lot of good in the world.
      –JW

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