Dave Gahan is no stranger to singing other people’s songs. Although for most of his career, those songs all came from the same source. As the lead singer and frontman for seminal synth-rock outfit Depeche Mode, Gahan spent his first flush of fame as an interpreter of sorts, using his plaintive, sensual baritone to turn songs written by bandmate Martin Gore into deathless goth-pop anthems, inspiring acts as diverse as Nine Inch Nails, the Deftones and Coldplay. But aside from a few one-offs, he’d never attempted a full album of covers until now.
“Imposter,” set for release tomorrow, is Gahan’s third full-length collaboration with the Soulsavers, led by multi-instrumentalist Rich Machin. It’s also, somewhat ironically, the first project that the outfit recorded live together in studio, with 2012’s “The Light the Dead See” and 2015’s “Angels & Ghosts” both produced remotely. The collection of songs is impressively eclectic — stretching all the way from old standards like “Smile” and “Lilac Wine,” to recognizable Neil Young and Bob Dylan tunes, to deeper cuts from the likes of PJ Harvey, Cat Power and the late Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard — and manages to place Gahan’s voice in strikingly different contexts than his Depeche Mode heyday. Like his previous records with the Soulsavers, the dominant musical coloring is provided by guitar, piano and gospel-style backing vocals, with Gahan’s voice given ample room to stretch.
Gahan says he was initially approached to record a covers album nearly two decades ago, but turned it down. “I didn’t have the confidence, for one,” he says. But also, “when I was approached to do it, it was like, ‘we’ll pick these songs for you, and put these great musicians together for you…’ But I have to have a relationship with the people in the room when I make music. Even if it makes me feel like I’m crawling out of my skin at some points, and sometimes it does, there’s something about that that’s very important when you’re trying to find yourself as a singer.”
After several months of back-and-forth song discussions between Gahan and Machin, the two put together a 10-piece band, largely consisting of musicians they’d played with on previous Soulsavers tours, and decamped to Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu. The decision to record there made sense for reasons both practical and spiritual. Spiritual, because the gold standard for the type of album Gahan wanted to make was Rubin’s “American Recordings” sessions with Johnny Cash, during which the Man in Black notably covered Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” And practical, because “we needed a studio that was large enough to record a live band, and was very versed in recording live music. So Rick’s place came up for obvious reasons,” Gahan says.
“Shangri-La was available for most of November, so we used the whole place. We had amp lines running everywhere, little amplifiers and guitars and Wurlitzers and Rhodes everywhere. Singers all over the house. And we took over for just shy of four weeks. It was very important to Rich and I that we were going to track a song a day.”
Gahan would, of course, eventually begin writing his own songs for Depeche Mode in the mid-‘90s. But his experiences as a pure singer from the band’s early days proved invaluable as he workshopped songs for “Imposter” back at his home in New York.
“Once I’d been singing [these songs] for a couple of months, there was some point in there where I stopped thinking about the originals, and realized I was just singing, the song was just in me,” Gahan says. “Much in the same way, to be honest, that I approached singing Martin’s songs in the band for years. When Martin sends me a song, I have to get to the point with it where I’m singing it in my own way, in my own phrasing, my own timing, and in my own key.”
“Imposter” might seem like a cheeky title for an album of covers, but it has a more personal connotation for Gahan, who says the process of reinterpreting sometimes canonical material until it felt like his own proved cathartic in light of his own bouts with imposter syndrome.
“I’ve been performing on stages for many, many years in front of people, and there have been many times when it’s not entirely comfortable, and when I do feel like an imposter,” he says. “And when I’ve seen [those performances] back, it shows to me, I see through all the stuff. So as a singer and a performer, I’m always trying to get to the point where I no longer care what you think, I’m just singing a song. It’s a feeling that’s fleeting in the day-to-day, but when I’m truly in a song, there’s an intimacy that I reveal to myself somehow that, more times than not, I can’t access. I think this is true of many performers. Performing has always been a huge part of my life, but there are often times when I’m questioning it. Is that really me? Is that what I am? Is that what I do? Or is this some sort of disguise? But a song? I can live in a song.
“Frank Sinatra, for example, and Elvis Presley always sang other people’s songs, but I never questioned that, because I’m living in that place with the singer. And that’s always the magical place that you try to get to. For some people it’s maybe a lot easier than others. With Sinatra it seemed effortless — he’d show up in the studio for a week with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a full orchestra there waiting for him, and he would just sing. I get a feeling it was similar for Elvis. But there’s others, like the Nick Caves or the Johnny Cashes or the Nina Simones, where there’s something in them where you feel that this song is truly where they live. And I would hear that in Bowie too. I grew up with Bowie, and he was my guide in life. And most of the time he’d be singing about something otherworldly that didn’t exist, but wherever he was was where I wanted to be.”