British singer-songwriter Labrinth has been charting global hits for nearly eight years as one of Simon Cowell’s only non-reality show Syco signees, including the Emeli Sande duet “Beneath Your Beautiful” and the Adele-approved “Jealous.”
But he’s only recently become more familiar to U.S. audiences through his Nicki Minaj collab “Majesty” and involvement with L.S.D., the acronym for his super group with Sia and Diplo. After Samsung synched the trio’s single “Thunderclouds” for a widely broadcast summer spot for the Galaxy9 device, the single peaked at No. 69 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September and No. 22 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart in November.
For his latest foray into commercial synch, Labrinth is stepping in front of the camera and into the driver’s seat — literally — as the star of a new campaign for MINI’s 2019 Countryman vehicle, which debuted Tuesday. The 60-second spot, created by MINI’s ad agency Pereira & O’Dell, features the 30-year-old musician driving to a studio session in SoCal and road-testing his interpretation of the Cole Porter co-penned cowboy anthem “Don’t Fence Me In” before laying down his recorded take.
Labrinth’s cover, which launches in conjunction with the campaign today, is showcased in an a cappella rendition in the MINI campaign as a way for Labrinth to test the car’s acoustics. But the full-length culminates in a synth-enhanced crescendo that’s more sonically suited to the singer’s recent L.S.D. work. Perhaps even most notably, Labrinth’s interpretation comes with updated lyrics that place the song’s pastoral, country backdrop in a more cosmopolitan setting.
To wit: “Let me ride through wide open country that I love” becomes “Let me ride through the high-flying city that I love,” while “Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze” is swapped out for “And listen to the murmur of the tall concrete.” And those horse riding references — “Let me straddle my old saddle?” Labrinth prefers “Let me spin in my wheels, let me run away with my thoughts” as he breezes past the Long Beach city limits.
The creative flourish was one of several that Labrinth took the liberty of adding himself, according to Patrick McKenna, department head of MINI Brand Communications, who credits Labrinth’s on-the-rise status and personal history with the vehicle for his cherry-picked appearance in the campaign. “Labrinth rose to the top [of considered artists] because he’s a producer, singer and songwriter and he covers multiple genres,” McKenna says. “And he’s a MINI owner — he actually had a MINI in the music video for ‘Earthquake’ back in 2011. So this is where it was a combination of a great backstory and him being an absolute pleasure to work with. When you factored in the publishing rights for the song, and having Labrinth on board, it became a major initiative on our part.”
The road to acquiring those publishing rights was one far more scenic than the one Labrinth takes in the MINI spot, however. “In our first meeting, I stated quite confidently that it was public domain,” says McKenna of “Don’t Fence Me In,” whose origins date back to 1934. “But I was quickly schooled that that was not the case.”
Though Cole Porter brought the song to fruition, by writing it for a 20thCentury Fox film that was never produced called “Adios, Argentina,” it was based off a poem by a Montana writer named Robert Fletcher, who was “not only a poet but an engineer with the department of highways in California, so we’re coming full circle,” says McKenna. The song became wildly popular in the ’40s. For years, Porter was credited with sole authorship as the tune became a hit via vocalists like Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, only later sharing the songwriting credit with Fletcher.
Once the rights hurtle was overcome, McKenna still faced a challenge with selling the idea to MINI’s international partners as the soundtrack to a global campaign. “It’s very much an old cowboy song, so you have to explain that to Italy, France, Germany, Japan, China and even Korea,” he says. “But everyone embraced it; everyone inside the company loves it. Our CEO has it on his phone. So people are just generally thrilled with the outcome.”
MINI has a recent track record in helping break songs on a global level, having helped singer-songwriter Alice Merton score her first top 5 hit on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart last March by selecting her breakthrough single “No Roots” for its 2018 Super Bowl campaign. McKenna hopes the same can still happen for “Don’t Fence Me In” some eight decades after its initial incarnation.
“This song could potentially have an even bigger global stage now than it did” in the 1940s, McKenna says. “We really think that driving experience can be a creative space so impactful that it can have this type of inspiration to it. That was kind of the original premise, and all of this great work came from that basic idea.”
Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by music experiential agency MAC Presents, based in NYC. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column will highlight noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as new and catalog songs that we deem ripe for synch use.