Rayland Baxter, a smooth-voiced singer-songwriter from Nashville, made a last-minute switch before arriving at Spotify’s Manhattan offices. He’d planned to cover “Terrapin Station” by the Grateful Dead for the Singles Series, but changed course to do “Strangers” by the Kinks instead. Hardly a live-or-die scenario, but a telling detail nonetheless about the way curious way cover songs tend to reveal more about the person doing the covering. And Baxter, who’s just establishing his career, wanted this message to be precise.
“Imagine the visual of a tattered and torn man in a nice suit — and you’re at the bottom of the hill looking up, and the sun is setting at the top of the hill and [the man] rises from the other side … with the rock that he just used to crack open another rock with the diamond inside he was looking for — then press play.” That’s Baxter intimating the image that the song conveys to him, which is to say, it’s a song about wonder, triumph and beauty. All of those qualities come out in his arrangement.
“Our keyboard player started playing the red top Wurlitzer [electric piano] and hit a high note,” Baxter said on the Under Cover podcast, talking about the cover recording process. “Something happened and I just started singing; it was a little moment of inspiration I caught onto and it grew from there.” Baxter said they used two different electric guitars, a Harmony and a Gibson, tuned down a step for a “jangling” sound, plus drums, bass and a sweeping B3 organ to flesh out the end.
It was a personal milestone for Baxter to record the Kinks song, which he knew because the album it’s from, 1970’s Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, was the first album he owned. When he was first touring — playing pizza shops, coffee houses and the like — he tried playing “Strangers” on acoustic guitar and never quite got it right. “It was very difficult,” he said. Eventually though, he figured it out. “Today I’m a more evolved musician, playing with more evolved musicians,” he said. In 2018, Baxter released his third full-length album titled, Wide Awake.
“When I raise my voice like that, I feel like I got something out of my system, which is pretty much why I make music,” Baxter said. “To get out the fire.”