Art is one of the most human things a person can do. It is based around empathizing — communicating feelings when words aren’t enough. Show, don’t tell. Every person creates differently, the result being an overwhelming palette of individuality that is somehow still relatable. Sometimes, especially in the music industry, this takes on a manufactured feeling, making it easy for the listener to forget that there is a person behind the album cover.
There is a refreshing solution to this: Including outtakes (tracks recorded in the studio in which something unplanned and unscripted occurred) and samples recorded in the course of the artist’s life (such as phone calls or conversations) brings an intimate personality to the track. They often include laughing or cursing or little side conversations and serve as a reminder that a human made this, and made this to make you feel.
“Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” a folk tune by Dolly Parton and Chet Atkins, is peppered with laughs from Parton and endearing expressions of love for Atkins. Through these snippets, we get a sense not only of the message of the song, but what went into its creation. The listener more clearly understands the musician’s mindset and personality, and can better empathize with the message of the song. The same thing happens on “Whatever We Feel,” by pop-jazz band Sammy Rae & The Friends. The dance tune is punctuated by calls of encouragement with laughs and yowls emphasizing the way the musicians themselves are moving, even while recording. There is something about this that makes dancing irresistible and gives the listener a sense of community even if they’re the only one in the room.
Sometimes, the outtake serves to tell part of the story. Connie Converse, recognized as one of the first recorded singer-songwriters (and who happened to eventually disappear) includes outtakes on “I Have Considered the Lilies.” Converse played at small parties in New York City in the 1950s and sometimes audience members would record her songs.
“I Have Considered the Lilies” is my favorite song of hers, and the beginning warns us that we almost never had it at all. She hesitates over whether to play it at all, worrying she hasn’t practiced it enough, until one audience member lies through their teeth, “Why don’t you just sing it, and we won’t record it?” And thank God for this mistruth — the tune is a masterpiece of melancholy, sung sweetly and closely into your ears.
In “47.48” by Childish Gambino and “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder, the recordings show instances of fatherly love. In “47.48,” Donald Glover, the man behind the Childish Gambino moniker, brought his child into the studio, and they spoke while the microphones were still on. “Who do you love?” Glover asks him, and he lists off people in a voice brittle with youth, but confident in tone, ending with “ … and myself.” Glover’s voice is calm, measured and loving, different from the excited yelps he is prone to as a rapper. We see a more intimate side of this artist who otherwise carefully shelters his personal life and are allowed into the world of those he loves most, just for a bit.
Meanwhile, Wonder includes a recording of him giving his young daughter a bath, as she squeals and splashes. Although more purposeful than an outtake, it still serves to underline the track in a personal way. There is a privilege to the fact that these artists are trusting you with moments from their personal lives. In both examples, the audio clips partially direct the song, showing you a familial love, something not found enough in mass media.
Outtakes can feel like the tiniest, most wonderful accidents, not meant to characterize the tune at all. In “Hey Jude,” the widely renowned and beloved tune by the Beatles, Paul McCartney mutters “Fucking hell!” around 2:57 when he messes up a chord. It is so quiet that it’s almost impossible to pick up on it if you aren’t listening for it. It is an amazing thing to find something like that in such a well-known tune, and it seems to be a tiny gift that some mischievous audio engineer left in to remind careful listeners not to take anything too seriously.
Indeed, laughter itself holds an important space in the world of outtakes, filling up their own auditory nook. “Every Time The Sun Comes Up,” by indie singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten ends in small waterfalls of laughter, as she jokingly bemoans that “My headphones fell off!”
It is an unexpectedly light-hearted end to a powerful, deeply rooted ballad. However, instead of undercutting the track in any way, it feels like a hug after a really good cry. Its inclusion serves as a comforting reminder that emotions are a constantly shifting blend and life is never entirely one thing.
On The Staves’s live cover of Sufjan Stevens’s tune “Chicago,” laughter seems to fit right in. It occurs when, as typical of some live performances, the artist replaces the name of a place in a song with the location in which they are playing. As a result, laughter ripples across the concert hall, starting with the other band members and quickly spreading.
I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite outtake of all time. It comes at the end of the album closer “Wititj (Lightning Snake) Pt. 2,” off the album Needle Paw by Nai Palm. The album starts and ends with an Australian Aborigine man named Guwanbal Jason Gurruwiwi singing traditional chants in a calming, quavering voice. At the conclusion, Nai Palm’s voice (which hasn’t been heard all track) breaks in, exclaiming “Yes! (Laughter) It is done! It’s good? You feel good?” before giving a large sniff, and, in a voice moments from tears, quietly saying, “Thank you. Thank you. I love you, too. I love you.” And then the album fades out. It feels important, both to her and to us, that the last words she left us with were ones of love.
Laughter, music, memories — these pockets of humanity are what we live for. The inclusion of outtakes in songs can expand the definition of what is musical and widen one’s emotional telescope. It allows the listener to better combine their thought process with that of the artist, and further strengthens the emotional bond. It allows for more of an exchange, a reciprocity. It is the words said quietly: “I understand.”
Daily Arts Writer Rosa Sofia Kaminski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.