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Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Eva Cassidy

Eva Cassidy is one of the most revered names in all of music. In a way, you could compare her to Jeff Buckley; unrivalled in terms of unique vocal sound and ability, not as respected artistically in life as she should have been, but then raised to a mythic level after her tragic and premature death. Her songs are so emotionally cutting, and her powerful, soprano voice will have you desperately searching for the nearest box of tissues.

It’s a very strange experience listening to Eva Cassidy. Her songs always carried an incredibly emotional edge, but given that you as the listener know that her life was cut tragically short when she passed away from cancer in 1998, this makes the experience all the more different. This knowledge instils her music with a heartbreaking essence that is unmatched.

In 1992, Cassidy released her first album, The Other Side. It featured duets with famed go-go musician Chuck Brown, and although not critically lauded when released, when revisiting the material, there are many captivating points. A mix of soul, jazz and blues, there’s a bit of everything for everyone on the record.

A gentle soul, her recording engineer, friend and bass player, Chris Biondo recalled: “She was an angel, very humble and shy. She would listen more than talk… I remember lots of times, we were playing and it was just empty and dead. She seemed to like those nights, because there wasn’t as much pressure. In fact, she’d be more relieved when hardly anybody was out there”.

The live album, Live at Blues Alley, was the last record Cassidy would release in her lifetime. Released in March 1996, it showed just how much of a marvellous performer she was, and how eclectic her tastes as an artist were. Featuring blues, soul, jazz and folk covers, in a way, Cassidy was the ultimate cover artist, more so than The Byrds and any industry made pop band. 

It was after her death that she became truly a mammoth artist, a strange phenomenon as Jeff Buckley even found a certain degree of mainstream success before his tragic death in 1997. Two years after she passed away, her music was brought to the attention of British audiences when her covers of ‘Fields of Gold’ and ‘Over the Rainbow’ were played by DJ’s Mike Harding and Terry Wogan on BBC Radio 2.

The songs were lapped up by the British public, and duly, a camcorder recording of ‘Over the Rainbow’ taken at Blues Alley in Washington, by her friend Bryan McCulley was shown on Top of the Pops 2. Quickly after the mesmerising video was aired, the compilation record, Songbird, reached the top spot on the UK Albums Chart, nearly three years after being first released. 

This success led to her gaining worldwide attention. Posthumously, she’s had three number one albums and one number one single in the UK, shipping over 10 million records worldwide. Loved by everyone from Paul McCartney to Eric Clapton, her voice remains unmatched. Join us then, as we list Eva Cassidy’s six definitive works.

Eva Cassidy’s six definitive songs:

‘Songbird’

One of the best covers in existence, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that it is not an original. That’s the remarkable point of Cassidy’s musical career, the majority of her recorded output were covers. Her voice was that powerful that she remade the songs in her own image, as was the case with this Fleetwood Mac cover. Soft and relaxed, it’s one of the most poignant in her whole back catalogue.

The original first appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s classic album Rumours in 1977 and was originally written by heroine Christine McVie. Heartbreaking to the utmost, Cassidy took the lovesick spirit of the original and augmented it via some very ’90s production, and her unique, siren-like voice.

‘Kathy’s Song’

Making a strong claim to be better than Paul Simon‘s 1966 original, this version of ‘Kathy’s Song’ also happens to be very faithful to the original.

There’s the beautiful guitar line carried off to a tee, and Simon’s ode to his then-girlfriend is turned outwards and made universal by Cassidy’s understanding of the tormented sentiment behind the track. Short and sweet, like the man who wrote it, you’re sure to have it on repeat.

‘Fields of Gold’

It seems Cassidy had a penchant for making the already depressing song, into something so dour it’s somewhat perplexing how she did it, but we’ll save ourselves from speculative efforts at delving into Cassidy’s psyche.

Written by ex-Police frontman Sting, and released in 1993, this is another one that’s just as well known as the original. Just this time, there’s an absence of Sting’s ego, so that’s pretty good. After she passed away, he said: “There is something about her voice – a quality – that you really can’t put into words. It’s a magical quality.”

‘What a Wonderful World’

A chilled out take on Louis Armstrong‘s 1967 classic, it’s typically downbeat musically, but in terms of Cassidy’s voice, we get to see her really reach different heights on this number. She goes high and she goes low, and at the end, you’re left reeling from the spectacular audio delight you’ve just heard.

Save from the lyrics, this cover really sounds nothing like the unmistakable original. Again, musically, there are a few dynamic similarities to be drawn between Cassidy and Jeff Buckley. It makes you feel as if you’re in some smoky jazz club watching an artist you know will one day make it big.

‘Over the Rainbow’

Written for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, and etched into popular culture forever when sung by Judy Garland in the film, it’s again remarkable that Cassidy managed to make a strong claim for releasing the best version of the song, particularly when you compare it to the gargantuan original.

An acoustic number, with some delicate, roomy reverb carrying Cassidy’s voice, this jazz inflicted take on the original remains as refreshing as it was when it first captivated audiences in the late ’90s. Spacey, minimalist and serene, it’s like Cassidy is singing you a bedtime lullaby. The production places her voice front and centre, and what an incredible voice it was. 

‘Ain’t No Sunshine’

Changing Bill Withers‘ original pronoun ‘she’ to ‘he’, Cassidy is true to the original, just this time, it’s from her perspective. Another minimalist and roomy track, the acoustic guitar sounds luscious, as does Cassidy’s voice. There’s also an incredible jazz piano solo which helps to give the song an edge that many of Cassidy’s tracks didn’t, finally some dynamic flair.

Sultry, self-aware and powerful, in it you’ve got flecks of Tracey Chapman and Joan Armatrading. The late pop icon treats us to another versatile vocal workout, that has all of us laymen wondering just how she did it, and if she was of this earth at all.