Small (Esme D Cover)

Cover day. Many Song-A-Day folks really enjoy this day. I normally find it to be a huge source of stress, and am normally disappointed in my results. The stress comes from trying to sift through the hundreds of tracks that have been posted and choosing one. I wrote about all of this in far more detail the last two years, so if you’re interested in that or my criteria for what a good cover song comprises, check out my entries on this day for 2021 and 2022.

This year, it was a song by Esme D that ticked all of my boxes. It was doable from a production standpoint, and I heard something a bit different in the song than the original. There was still a bit of stress, but it came from a very different place.

Esme’s songs and productions are much closer to what I perhaps should be doing during Song-A-Day. They’re normally pretty extemporaneous with minimal production work. She’s also been very up-front in her music about struggling with anxiety, depression, and self-confidence. Because most of the rest of this post will need them as reference, here are her original song and lyrics:

  1. Small Esme D 2:05
Little words
no crimes
pickled envy
in your sites

little words
no time
disdain reached
in your mind 

but I am more than me
but no one will ever see

I have forgotten me
Little words

little words

Now, Esme has the ability to sing much more operatically than she does here, and I’ve heard her do more production work as well. I don’t want to make assumptions about anything, so I won’t, but this is a pretty raw track. But again, the fundamental point of Song-A-Day is write, record, and post. Production quality is secondary or irrelevant. Some people post things that are little more than a two-bar sketch. 

But That’s Not The Point

Song-A-Day is about the process more than the result. While I’ve chosen to make it into a production marathon, that’s my own personal cross to bear. I’m getting what I need out of it, just as others are hopefully getting what they need. Perhaps the most helpful thing about the community is that there’s no judgment and it’s overwhelmingly positive. It’s one of the few places you’ll find on the Internet where people actually don’t say anything if they don’t have something nice to say.

And it’s such an incredibly wide range of people. There are working professionals. There are aspiring professionals and prosumers. There are production wizards. There are complete amateurs with nothing more than a phone to record on. And it’s all valid. Everyone works at their own level, and everyone seems to appreciate what everyone else has done, even if it’s not their particular cup of tea.

While I’m doing my best not to repeat things I’ve said in previous years, this is worth repeating: Song-A-Day changed my life for the positive. It was my first participation in 2016 that helped me to understand how fundamentally unhappy I was with things. I quit my job. I moved to a different state. I took some risks that, while not necessarily paying off financially, have helped me to grow and (hopefully) be a better person.

Small (But Maybe Not So Small)

So as we listen to Esme’s song and read her lyrics, it appears, on the surface at least, that this is a sad song; it’s a lamentation of external forces and internal changes. Her musical choice to never resolve the tension in the chord progression underscores the struggle. Her performance is personal and vulnerable.

However, as I listened critically and considered the actual words in the lyrics, I thought there was another interpretation. With just a few small changes, it could be a very different thing. It could be a journey of strength, overcoming adversity, and positivity.

  1. Small (Not So Little Mix) [Esme D Cover] Ray Toler 3:37
  2. Small (Little Mix) [Esme D Cover] Ray Toler 3:37

This is a dicey place, though. It’s a big thing to reinterpret art, especially when the artist just created the thing and will be listening. More than that, I was worried that, bluntly, people would hear my cover as showing off or one-upping the original artist. I work at a certain level and my style is my style.

I didn’t really have this worry last year – my orchestral arrangement of what was clearly a sketch wasn’t changing its meaning, it was simply expanding it with some additional voices and humor. It was a humorous little thing to begin with.

So while my intentions were good and I knew I could provide a more produced version of her song simply by having access to the studio resources I do, I was still very worried that she would be offended. I knew, of course, that I was most likely overthinking things, as I often do, and decided to risk it. There was a great song here, and a valid opportunity to do a cover that met my criteria.


My process for this one was in the order of editing the lyrics, song structure, piano arrangement, bass, vocals, then orchestration. While I definitely heard the orchestra in my head from the get go, I wasn’t sure I would have the time to do it properly, or if it would even be necessary. I was up way later than I should have been recording vocals, but we had a contractor coming to the house the next morning and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do any microphone work with nail guns and saws in the background.

In the morning, I listened to the piano/bass/vocal mix and was pretty happy with where things were. I went in to tune the vocals and was pleased to find that I’d sung it pretty well, even (especially) the very soft parts. 

A technical detail, when I first started recording the vocals, I just wasn’t happy with the sound I was getting from my normal microphone (a Neumann TLM-103). I switched to the AKG-C3000.1This model was largely panned, and it was later upgraded by AKG, but somehow it suits my voice pretty well. I may switch to using it as my primary mic again. This is a $1,000 microphone vs a sub-$300 microphone. While cost isn’t always correlated with quality in the microphone world, the TLM is objectively better in pretty much every way. But another rule in the microphone world is that you have to find the right mic for the job. The TLM wasn’t capturing the delicate parts or most of the ending consonants, and I sounded like I was lisping. The C3000 was much brighter and captured all of that much more easily.

Another change: I usually do my vocal work standing up, but after switching to the C3000, I sat for most of the performance, only standing up for the most full-voice lines. Sitting allowed me to be much more intimate and delicate.

The most obvious change to the original song is the emotional build, repeating, “But I am more than me.” It starts off as a question, an internal complaint, but with every repetition becomes more and more of a statment, ultimately a decree to the world. This is where the orchestra was really begging to be added. The arrangment starts with a single note from the violins, building to the full orchestra by the end. While recording, I was definitely calling back to my musical theatre days.

But with the emotional lift, there needed to be a setback – “no one will ever see.” For the next section, I felt that it was that inner-voice of self-doubt, coming back to admonish. This is the first time I’ve done a thick vocal stack this year (it’s one of my tropes, but I haven’t had a song this year that needed it). The chord was too rich not to do it, though, and the support of the orchestra makes it a beautiful siren song.

The ending is that small light of hope and promise. Instead of ending with the voice of doubt, I wanted to end with the statement of self. Maybe not as strong as it had been, but it indicates that the forward journey from this point will be a positive one.

Go Big or Go Home

I had another one of those moments with this song where, all of a sudden, I realized there was nothing left to do. It’s interesting when those sneak up on me… I’m so busy working that I don’t see the completed piece.

As I listened to the final stereo master, I wondered if the orchestra was too much, so went back in and muted it. And at this point, I found that the original piano/bass/vocal arrangment not only held its own, but had a somewhat different and distinct message. It’s less massive and, perhaps because of that, feels stronger in some ways. That old adage about getting someone’s attention by whispering instead of shouting.

In another victory over my worry about boring everyone, I decided to post both versions and let people decide for themselves which of the two they preferred. I see value in both of them.

I Hate You All

A partly funny, partly not funny thing happened after I posted. When I loaded the page to listen back to my tracks and make sure they’d come through correctly, I saw that Esme had posted a new original track, titled Envy. In it, she recounts, perhaps tongue-in-cheek-but-rooted-in-truth how she’s envious of some of the other participants, calling many of them out by name, and with the refrain, “I hate you all.”

I really liked the song, as it is a near-universal feeling, even among the Song-A-Day crowd. I am constantly in awe of other participants. I have no idea how they do what they do or, worse, I do know how they do it and know that that’s something currently beyond me. It struck me as funny that at the end of the song, she mentioned that she was even using loops on the track.

This also resonated with me, as I have struggled for, literally, decades with not wanting to use loops2I’ve obviously gotten over that… or pre-written MIDI parts, because somehow they’re “cheating.” Never mind that hundreds of artists have achieved very successful careers doing exactly that. It’s my own hangup, but it was funny to me to hear it shared.

The song did, however, resurrect that worry that she would somehow be offended by my cover. But I also decided that I was proud of what I’d created and that if she were offended, I would simply have to deal with that.

So another cover day has come and gone. I’m very happy with the resulting track, still stressed out about the whole process, and not sure what to do about it. I’m almost tempted to solicit commissions next year – now that you all know who I am and what I do, if you want me to cover one of your songs, tell me which one. That’s not to say I wouldn’t still choose my own, but I’d almost welcome that decision being made for me.


Little words, no crimes
Pickled envy in your sites

Little words, no time
Disdain reached in your mind

But I am more than me
But I am more than me

I am more than me 
I am more than me
I am more than me
Yes, I am more than me

But no one will ever see

Little words  - I have forgotten me 
Little words  - I have forgotten me 
Little words  - I have forgotten me 
Little words  - I have forgotten me 
Little words  - I have forgotten me 
Little words  - I have forgotten me 

But I am more than me

Music & Lyrics © Esme D
Arrangement & Performance © Ray E. Toler, Jr.


Instruments & Samples

Keyscape, Spitfire Symphonic Orchestra

Effects, Mixing, & Mastering

Valhalla Plate and Delay, H3000 Factory, Gullfoss, Pro-Q 3, Pro-C 2, Pro-L 2


  • 1
    This model was largely panned, and it was later upgraded by AKG, but somehow it suits my voice pretty well. I may switch to using it as my primary mic again.
  • 2
    I’ve obviously gotten over that…

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