!nsp!re – Peter Gabriel (And I’ll Scratch Yours)

The cover art for "And I'll Scratch Yours"
The cover art for “And I’ll Scratch Yours”

And I’ll Scratch Yours gets its U.S. release this week. This project marks the final stage of a cycle for a musician from whom I have found much inspiration, Peter Gabriel.

The cycle started several years ago when Peter recorded an album titled Scratch My Back. For that project he wanted to record songs from songwriters/bands he respected and admired. To shake things up and re-contextualize the songs (yet unite them at the same time) he chose to do the recordings with an orchestra. He worked with arranger John Metcalfe and conductor Ben Foster, who assembled a group of players they dubbed the “New Blood Orchestra”. The album features incredibly layered and complex versions of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, Elbow’s “Mirrorball” , Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” and quite a few others. The idea, at the time, was that those same artists would cover versions of Peter’s songs on a companion album which would be released simultaneously. There were some detours along the way.

Recording New Blood at Air Studios
Recording New Blood at Air Studios

The other bands had their own scheduling conflicts and there was some wrangling to get the project moving. In the meantime, Peter found that he loved recording with the orchestra so much,  he decided shortly afterwards to cover his own material. They re-assembled the players and recorded New Blood, which features orchestral reworkings of 14 of Peter’s songs. The song selection was driven by what would make an interesting journey as opposed to covering his hits. “The Rhythm of the Heat” and “Wallflower” are two powerful songs; the first full of orchestral heft, the second full of aching, sparse beauty. After completing the project, he decided that it would be interesting to tour with the orchestra.

The New Blood Live Tour
The New Blood Live Tour

The tour was recorded for an album release at the Hammersmith Apollo and a DVD was recorded at the Royal Albert Hall.

Another detour followed as, at about this same time, the 25th anniversary of Peter’s landmark album So was approaching. A special re-release of that CD was issued and Peter decided to tour to support that as well. Called “Back to Front”, the tour continues through spring of 2014 in Europe.

The tour in support of the 25th anniversary of "So"
The tour in support of the 25th anniversary of “So”

Now, finally, a little over four years later he has circled back around to the original project and issued And I’ll Scratch Yours. The artists were encouraged to do as they please with the songs they chose, resulting in a CD that is eclectic and engaging. I particularly like Regina Spektor‘s version of “Blood of Eden” and Elbow’s version of “Mercy Street”. Two of my favorite artists covering two of my favorite songs of Peters; such aural bliss!

Peter, in the studio at Real World.
Peter, in the studio at Real World.

While I wish the last few years had seen Peter issuing truly new work, I understand the ideas and the creative inspiration behind them. I’m also grateful that someone who has typically issued a new studio album every five years or so has released five albums in the last four years.

But I suppose what I love most about this idea is that it puts inspiration in a tangible form. An artist says to other artists, “You’ve inspired me and I want to honor you; and please feel free to use my work as inspiration also.” That’s powerful because it openly encourages the ideas of sharing and of mutual support and benefit; and embodies the idea of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. When artists collaborate together on something that is mutually beneficial; the rewards they reap can outpace the rewards they might have gotten working individually.