As musician after musician moves online with livestream events in the midst of coronavirus lockdowns, indie-rocker Joe Pernice has taken a different approach.
The Pernice Brothers frontman has spent more than a week tweeting out videos of himself singing solo-acoustic covers of Barry Manilow songs while in self-isolation with his family at home in Toronto. The “Barely Manilow” series has included “Mandy,” “Could It Be Magic,” “I Write the Songs,” “Weekend in New England” and “Looks Like We Made It,” each featuring Pernice strumming chords or picking out notes on a nylon-string guitar while he unspools his take on Manilow’s melodies, which are unmistakable—and were inescapable, too, during Manilow’s prime in the 1970s and early ’80s.
“I’ve always loved his stuff,” says Pernice, who first heard Manilow’s songs as a kid growing up in Massachusetts. If the ’70s production values, jammed full of cliffhanger key changes and gooey string arrangements, weren’t to his taste later, Pernice’s appreciation for the songs remains genuine. “There’s not a sniff of irony about this,” he says.
In his versions, the songs are hushed and unhurried. Pernice is a low-key presence, but a presence nonetheless, singing with his eyes closed or looking just off-camera (or, sometimes, at the neck of his guitar as he maneuvers through a complicated series of changes). He records the clips with his iPhone in locations around his house, and the mise-en-scène has variously included a sleek red archtop guitar leaning against a bookshelf, a glass of water in the foreground and the rim of a coffee mug (decaf these days).
With news reports about coronavirus becoming darker and increasingly shrill, and the general level of anxiety ratcheting upward with the infection rate, the Barely Manilow clips are a respite. They’re understated, almost serene and impeccably tuneful, like an oasis of calm and reason you can retreat into for three or four minutes at a time. He invariably ends each clip with a message of encouragement: “OK, everybody, stay inside,” he says after playing “Could This Be Magic.” “Keep in touch with people that you love, but do it from a distance. Alright, we’ll beat this mother.”
Pernice first had the idea to record stripped-down versions of Manilow’s songs more than a year ago after coming back to them for the first time in a while. “Just purely for fun. It was just on my list of things to do,” he says. “And then we got kind of locked down and everything got fucked up.”
He made a video of himself performing one of the songs and sent it to a friend who’s a big Manilow fan. She told him he ought to make it public. “I thought I’d just do it as a bit of a challenge, to record a song every day and see if I could maybe—not make people smile, that sounds a bit weird, but just entertain people.”
He’s been entertaining himself, too, by dissecting the songs and examining the pieces, something he hadn’t done with another artist’s work in a long time. When he played with alt-country band the Scud Mountain Boys in Northampton, Mass., in the early ’90s, they arranged and recorded covers of Olivia Newton-John’s 1975 single “Please Mister Please” and Cher’s 1971 song “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves.”
“If you do that, you can learn a lot,” says Pernice, who last year released Spread the Feeling, the Pernice Brothers’ first album in nine years. “I’ve picked up a few things just working on these tunes because you realize, ‘Wow, that’s pretty crazy how it goes from there to there. I haven’t done that in years.’ Or, ‘I haven’t done that ever.’ It resets the dials in a way.”
The exercise has also rekindled his appreciation for Manilow’s talent as a singer, which sometimes gets lost in the production or the urge to sneer at soft rock. “That guy is an acrobat when it comes to singing. His range is nuts, and his power,” Pernice says. “There was no pitch correction back then. You either got it or you didn’t get it, and if you hit the pitch, your performance was spot on. You’d hear it if it wasn’t, and he was on.”
Pernice had planned to arrange and record 10 Manilow tunes for the album he was thinking about (and still plans to record), a benchmark he reached March 26 with the video clips. That will probably mean the end of the Barely Manilow covers, though Pernice is thinking about other things to do online.
“If people are into it, I might keep doing my own stuff,” he says. “I’m not really at the point of thinking I want to do one of those concerts where people are paying what they want. That’s just not my thing, but I might do a couple live things or post other songs or other videos of me playing just for fun, if anyone cares or wants to listen while we’re all locked in, just in the spirit of community. But I also might one day want to go out and take a drive for four hours and not do it.”