The spectral presence of artificial intelligence in the music industry looms larger every day, and in a rather unnerving development, it’s now been used to posthumously release an official song under the name of a late blues legend.
Specifically, AI has been used to “resurrect” (not our word of choice) blues singer Junior Wells – who died in 1998 – for a new single, It’s Your Voodoo Working.
A cover of Charlie Sheffield’s soul standard, the track was produced by Die Krupps founder Jürgen Engler, who joined Cleopatra Records’ project to use artificial intelligence in order to have Wells ‘perform’ the 1961 cut.
It’s Your Voodoo Working sees Wells, erm, ‘sing’ the track’s lyrics, with a harmonica solo also acknowledging the late vocalist’s virtuosic prowess with the instrument. It’s not clear if that solo is performed by a separate musician or is itself AI, but Cleopatra labels it as “a harmonica break that could not have been delivered by anybody else”, so we’re hesitantly leaning towards the latter.
Even though the single has the blessing of Wells’ estate, the project may sit uneasily with many music fans. Like the highly contentious practice of digitally ‘resurrecting’ actors in Hollywood films, there is something highly unsettling about dipping into the deceased’s artistry to release ‘new’ output in their name.
Indeed, utilizing artificial intelligence to complement and improve the workflow of practicing musicians – building a Tube Screamer plugin, for example – is one thing. Using it to bring back a vocalist who has been dead for 25 years is another kettle of digital fish entirely.
What’s perhaps more unsettling in this instance is the decision to release the track around Halloween – an attempt to capitalize on the holiday spirit by speaking of a “spooky new single” that sees “one of the greatest blues masters of them all... come back from the grave”.
“Just in time for Halloween, the legendary Junior Wells is back with a new world’s first… the first ever officially released, and fully authorized augmented AI single from a blues legend,” writes a press statement.
Not only that, Cleopatra surprisingly says Wells' single is “destined to become one of the quintessential Halloween party numbers”, which sounds rather optimistic. And if all that wasn't enough, the single artwork depicts Wells as a zombie.
It’s all a bit bleak, and if Paul McCartney's decision to use AI to produce the “final Beatles record” and clean up a vocal tape recorded by John Lennon before his death was contentious, we imagine reactions will be far stronger in this case.
Having said that, those involved in the project are quick to point out that part of the motivation behind the single was to introduce Wells’ legacy to new audiences, and therein lies the supposed flipside to the AI argument.
“When Junior was on this planet, he never got the respect he deserved,” said Brian Perera, chief of Cleopatra Records and the project’s creator. “The guy’s such a great singer. He came from a generation where the key thing was passion, and his vocals just killed it. He was belting it out.”
Like we say, Wells’ estate is fully onboard with the AI experiment, and as Perera admits, we’re “going to be hearing a lot of AI created music in the future”, so maybe this is destined to become the norm. If so, it all seems a bit dystopian.
Whatever your opinions are of the single, it sounds like It’s Your Voodoo Working is only the start of this new Junior Wells era.
“This isn’t a hologram tour, or old records remixed and overdubbed to sound like new ones,” Perera concludes.
“What we’ve created is a vehicle that allows him to continue performing, and we’re doing it with the full approval of Junior’s estate. This is classic Junior, performing a song that… it’s surprising that he never did it while he was alive.”