By Christopher Treacy
With his four octave range and gift for musically stirring drama, Bobby Blue is one of a kind. His music exists at the intersection of indie folk and Latin folk with a queer, cabaret bent. Even in the vast melting pot of New York City, which he calls home, he is in his own element.
Many moons ago, you might have seen him making Madonna-inspired moves in a John Mellencamp video. Madonna has been an inspiration to Blue since he was a lad, and his new cover of “Don’t Tell Me” from her Music album—our Song of the Week in the current CQ Roundup— is fantastic. It brims with Blue’s musical personality: his treatment oozes a different sort of dramatic tension than the original and plants the song in another time and place. While Madonna’s version is catchy AF with it’s glitchy acoustic loop and drum machine combo, Blue’s has more in common with Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End of Love.” It’s genius.
Bobby Blue took time out this week to talk a little about his new cover which, by the way, is based on a ditty by Joe Henry. From what we can tell, Blue’s version remains truer to Henry’s original than what Madonna and Mirwais cooked up, which speaks to the song’s durability; it can withstand multiple treatments.
Madonna is mentioned, in passing, in your bio. Can you talk a little about your childhood experience of her? It would seem she has been a high impact personality in your life.
Oh Madonna…. Hmmm, well… they used to play “Borderline” on the radio all the time. Honestly, I hated it. I thought it was annoying. We lived in the middle of Indiana so there was no cable TV. The only music videos I got to see were on a syndicate channel. I could never get a clear picture, but one day I was in the kitchen and my little after school video show was playing, and I heard the beginning of “Borderline,” and I thought to myself, ‘what does this woman look like?’ So I walked into the living room saw the TV and I absolutely could not believe what I was looking at. From then on out, I was like “take me to your leader.”
Also giving credit to Sinead O’Connor, Bjork, Linda Ronstadt, Lola Beltran, Julieta Venegas, k.d. Lang, and Lisa Germano, plus my Costa Rican mother, my sister, and my very sweet father. We all loved music and I’m a combination of all it – everything I’ve ever heard.
What is it about the musical structure of this particular Madonna song that seemed like it would be a good candidate for your stylistic treatment? It works well, but there are plenty that might not translate. Joe Henry has a co-write credit, I noticed…
Melanie, Madonna’s sister, is married to Joe Henry, the Americana-cum-indie-folk superstar. Joe Henry wrote “Don’t Tell Me” as a ditty to try out on some new recording equipment. Melanie liked it and sent it to Madonna. They have now written several songs together, none of which were ever singles. But, in my opinion, her best work is with him.
“Don’t Tell Me” is one of my top three Madonna tracks, if not my favorite. A few years ago, I started out playing it the way she did. But after playing a song over and over, the more your own essence and style comes through and it starts to wrap around you and you around it. Especially if you love the lyrics and its sentiment. Over the years my fingers started playing with the chords that were already there. Then the vocal changed with the chords, and with a band, we got that old Cantina sound. I have been singing in English and Spanish my whole music career. I play a lot of old Mexican Huapangos, Rancheras, Flamenco songs, and classic country songs that have Latin influences like “El Paso” by Marty Robbins. I love minor chords together with 7 chords. They give a song a romantic feel or that tango-haunting style. Which is what I feel I did with “Don’t Tell Me.” I love performing it, and the audience never recognizes it, and then they’re floored when I remind them it’s a Madonna song. Joe Henry loves my rendition.
And probably others that would translate nicely – have you done other re-workings of Madge material? Anything work particularly well?
I have covered another Madonna song. On my last album, The Balladeer, I overhauled “Who’s That Girl” in my signature, haunting, Latin style. Though, you have to understand, in my opinion she didn’t finish the song! I don’t like Madonna’s version of “Who’s That Girl,” actually. I never understood why there was a Spanish lyric. Then I saw her perform it live a few years ago, and I couldn’t get the way she played the guitar on that song out of my head. I read the lyrics again and realized that the lyrics are about a mystical woman who kills you with her beauty. Well, a lot of old Mexican Rancheras are about mystical spirits, mesmerizing women, and ghosts who walk the coffee fields. Once I realized that it was in the vain of traditional Mexican music I had to kinda take it back from her. In my version, I only sing the Spanish part of the “Who’s That Girl” chorus, ‘quién es esa niña,’ because I want to accent this idea more. But the best part is the end of the song… I’ll leave you to discover that on your own. Watch us do it live!
Is this single part of a larger project you’re working on?
The larger part is the live show. This song is done in succession with other songs that tell a story about going from self-hate to self-love and doing everything you can to protect that love; an ongoing project that never ends for any of us. I live in NYC and last year I was playing on the street and a director from a famous theater approached me about writing songs for his play. The story is set in a playhouse at the beginning of the pandemic, but in Shakespearian times. I had never written for a character before so that was very interesting because not only do you have to know the character, but you also have to find that same character that is living somewhere inside you. This section of the show starts off with a song called “A New Me” for a character that was modeled after Muriel in Muriel’s Wedding, and, in the same style as the movie, the song seems all very happy and fun, but it’s actually a disturbing story about looking for someone to save her from herself. “Don’t Tell Me” is the part where she starts to break through and becomes proud of who she is and fights to keep it.
After months of a friendship, dinners, and brain-storming with the playwright, I handed him 3 songs for his play and he never contacted me again. I don’t know what happened. Someone told me if he paid for the dinners, then he can claim ownership over the songs because buying dinner was like a payment to me. Honestly, though, if he plans on stealing them then it means he’s all dried up. Let him have them. I have millions of them.
Is the gender-flip element of inhabiting a song usually associated with a woman somehow thrilling?
Music has no gender. I am a countertenor vocalist with four octaves. I’ve always had a big vocal range and the ability to sing so many different styles. I want to sing everything, and every genre, and use every part of my voice. There are no girl songs, and no boy songs. Enjoy music.
Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He lives in Waitsfield, VT.