From the defunct homophonic Toronto trio Bass is Base to the woofered-out lowriders of the West-Coast, everybody loves bass! When I make demos, the bass part is the most challenging since I’m least familiar with the rules-of-engagement of the “dad guitar“. I know there are principles out there that tell you to pair it with the drums or the rhythm guitar to help hold down the foundation of the song. Regrettably, I don’t really know what that means so I tend to approach arranging a bass line like I do any other instrument I’m adding to the mix: it’s just another melody line that complements the main melody…just lower. That approach seems to work well enough and at the very least it makes the song a lot more interesting than if I just relegated the bass to being your flatulent sounding “braaap!….braaap!” of beer music tuba fame. So with my self-deprecation and fart-references out of the way, here are three songs with effective bass lines that stand out in my mind. (bass comes in at 0:52) (bass really comes in at 1:15) (bass comes in when Noel says “get a little bass”(?): 0:45) Oh what the hell…one more legendary bass work from the 80′s!: (it’s subtle…you’ll have to watch for it. “It” being the hot pink bass guitar) Blue Blue Satellite
Remember when Michael Jackson died? I sure do…it’s face-palmingly #2 in my event memory right after 9/11. You may also remember how at his memorial service Mariah Carey was criticized for a sub-par performance due to being overcome with emotion. That criticism confused me. I thought: “She’s singing a heartfelt ballad at the memorial of one of her musical heroes while his body from a tragic death lies steps away in a casket. If I were up there I’d give myself 3 seconds before losing my shit.” And that’s why I’m not doing shows before tens of thousands of fans at the Staples Center. As a professional musician, your job is to not lose your shit in such circumstances. Shit losing is not an option.
Even at the local level, I was talking to a fellow musician after his gig and he was telling me of the interpretation he was putting into the music and how we was trying to express each note in a specific fashion. I stood there dumbfounded because when I get off the stage my thoughts are typically “well, four f***-ups tonight…hey not bad!” Pros, on the other hand, rarely make mistakes. Flawless technical execution is a given for a professional. Instead, they focus on interpretation. They convey feeling. They engage. They connect.
Spot the Amateur – observe the behaviour, do a shot!
Another way I’ve found to understand what makes a musician professional is to identify their antithesis: the amateur. So…:
- If they’re playing guitar, watch if they look down at their fretboard with that “ok I can do this” look when bar chords come up. Amateur!
- If they’re bantering, listen if they suddenly forget they’re musicians and start doing torturous improv “comedy”. Amateur!
- If they’re sound-checking, listen for key terms like “backline“, “hot“, “XLR” rather than “this crap I need up on stage”, “ow! my ears”, “mic plug thing with the three holes”. Amateur!
Essentially, if you see a performer on stage who just…belongs there, you’re seeing a pro. Otherwise, prepare yourself to get really drunk.
As for moi…
Am I pro material? After some soul searching my answer is…”no”. Sure, I’ve cut my stupid stage “jokes” way down and have learned a few gear-related keywords that make me seem less like a hopelessly bumbling boob to sound guys. But when it comes to the most visible part of the job, the performance, it’s just not my forté and I’m sure audiences can sense that.
The good news about being an amateur is that it’s a step to becoming a professional and I know many are on that path and will make the transition. But for me and my wrong-chord-prone left hand, I’ll just sit and wait for that call from the Staples Center. And it’ll likely go: “…don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Then I’ll lose my shit.
Blue Blue Satellite
I’ve been reflecting on what the “professional” in “professional musician” means. I guess technically it means you get paid to do music. And that you can now write off that $10,000 vintage Fender as a “business expense”. I’ve seen a number of people quit their jobs to do music full time probably thinking “I’m going to be a professional musician and get paid to do music, just like Blue Blog said.” I truly admire their moxy, their drive, their choice of blog reading and maybe I even admire their music. I certainly wish them all the success in the world.
But then, the real definition of “professional” comes crashing down like my fist through a hipster’s fake glasses. And guess how much that definition has to do with music? Very. Little. What does it have to do with? Marketing. Business planning. Financial planning. Accounting. Project management. Merchandising. Licensing. Forecasting. Networking…freakin’ Web Programming even!
Once in awhile I’ll cook a juicy-ass steak on the barbie like a champ. But my next thought isn’t: “Damn! I should open my own steakhouse!” And that’s what I find striking out as a pro musician to be like. Don’t get me wrong, the world would be a better place if every Backyard Billy Bob could open a steakhouses on their street corner. It would kick even more ass if next to these steakhouses there were cozy little music venues where I could walk in, secure a residency, pack the place every night and get a guarantee that would allow me to regularly go next door for steak.
Ah, if only the life of a professional musician could be made of steaks. Instead, it’s more made of microwave burritos. So the dream of taking the world by storm gets a reality check when you realize you’re doing your CD release in Ottawa on a weekday night in a small bar to a half-filled room…half of which are your musicians.
Oh, that last scenario? True story of a show I attended.…and he was a Juno winner.
The idea of Melancholia(Receding), the final track of The Learning Days, was borrowed from Coldplay. I loved their instrumental intro to the album Viva La Vida. They then quickly followed up that record with their Jay-Z-tainted Prospekt March EP and opened that disc with the same instrumental intro except turned into a full 4-minute song with words and everything. My reaction at the time? “Chris Martin you genius bastard.” Not only did he surprise his listeners by making a good thing even better, it was also a really effective way to link the LP to the EP.
And so, to Chris Martin’s genius bastard, I became a thieving bastard and used the concept for my own record. And hopefully if you’ve heard my album, and you heard it start to finish, and you heard it before reading this blog, and you never heard Coldplay’s Life In Technicolor I & II, you will have thought “huh, he’s closing the album with the same song that …..whaaaaaaaaa?”
“We have lift off”
Quick fact: The working title of Melancholia (Receding) was Message in a Rocket.
The track ties together the on-again off-again space theme seen in my performance name, cover art, title of this track and the sound clip that I used without permission from the Apollo 11 launch (forgive me NASA). Dean had the brilliant idea to fade it out into the heavy reverb to give it that dreamy feel before the lyrics kick in.
I wrote the song during the production of the CD so there was a part of me that was writing the song for the album and I think I made a very conscious decision to end the song, and thus the record, with the word “hallelujah”. Just to give it a hint of spiritual poignancy and to give a nod to one of the wise old men of folk music…to whose music I don’t actually listen.
If you’ve read all the parts of this track-by-track blog series, I’m sorry to hear that. Unless you’ve enjoyed them, then thank you. I wrote previously that I’d maybe put a little bonus feature here for the loyal readers, or those who cheated and just dropped in on this last one. Well too bad, you’re not getting a bonus feature….you’re getting three!
- An early raw iPod recording of Melancholia(Receding) with me doing a bit of scatting and a bit of freestyling to figure out the melody. Listen now.
- Video of Dean Watson(producer), Anders Drerup(pedal steel) and I in the studio figuring out the pedal steel part for (Never) Let It Go. The final take of the video is what we went with. Watch now.
- A NEW song that will probably be on the next album(target date 2014?). It’s just a guitar-and-voice demo for now but I actually think it stands up pretty good as is. Listen now.
Blue Blue Satellite
“Two great European narcotics: alcohol and Christianity. I know which one I prefer.” - The Streets, “Never Went To Church“.
I’ve heard variations of this statement over the course of time. And usually it’s a bit of an irreverent way of eliciting a “yeahhh booze, woo!” kind of reaction. And it rarely fails. You won’t hear a “yeahhh, Christianity, woo!” too often. Well then, allow me break the mold: Yeahhh, Christianity, woo!
Seriously. I do identify myself as a person of the Christian faith and unlike nouned pseudonym cohort Mike “The Streets” Skinner, I’ve indeed been to church. Weekly as a matter of fact.
Why do I bring this up? Because the penultimate track from my record, Against the Northern Sky, is actually 1/3 a Christian song about the constancy that can be found in God. With the other 2/3 made up of homage to Nick Drake’s Northern Sky and this scene from Futurama(spoiler alert if you haven’t seen Season 4):
I’m not a huge fan of contemporary Christian music as a genre though. I find it doesn’t quite capture the profundity of faith in today’s day-and-age. And musically I find it kind of trite. It serves a purpose I suppose, but there are some stellar examples of music about religion that I prefer. And that’s the kind of “religious music” to which I hope Against the Northern Sky belongs.
Most of the strings in the song is me on my violin. However, at about 2:50 some strings come in at a very high register. These strings are being played by the king of campy 80′s electronic music, the synthesizer.
But at 3:30 I come back in with my violin and it was a bit of a gamble but the play between the fake strings and the real strings is kind of interesting I think.
So listen to the religious-leaning synth-driven tour-de-force here before we move on to the final track of “The Learning Days”!
Blue Blue Satellite
For the life of me, I can’t remember why I wanted Thieves to have the little intro in the form of Things Stolen. Regardless, it’s there and its lyrics can actually be sung to the tune of Green Day’s Good Riddance(Time of Your Life) because in one of my earliest attempts at songwriting I always felt that song lacked a verse and I took it upon myself to write it. So the 20-second track is really just an inside reference Easter egg that only I would ever get. Classy.
The whooshing sound at the end of the track is actually a car going by outside since we were recording in the more open and un-soundproof upstairs church space. It worked out nicely since its timing at the end helps transition into Thieves….which now helps me transition to, well, Thieves.
Thieves wouldn’t be what it is today without one Jeremy Owen, a local Ottawa troubadour and inventor of “Gutter Folk”. His arresting songs are visceral and raw and he’s a cool cat to watch live. Even though I wrote Thieves back in Toronto, I never really got it and sort of wrote it off. But Jeremy got it and really re-introduced me to the song. Not only did he get the song, but he did so in an unfathomable way: I played it at an open mic night where I got through the first verse, hopelessly forgot the second and promptly abandoned ship and stopped the song. Before I could start the painful process of wiping the embarrassing performance from my mind, Jeremy approached me and said he loved the 30 seconds I didn’t screw up, wanted a copy of the demo and actually covered it at a subsequent show. And it’s from his performance that prompted the metamorphosis of the song from an uninspired 3/4-time affair to a soul-baring tapestry of woe captured in song. Thank you Jeremy.
2 am: a good time to start mixing
The other amusing story occurred during the mixing process. Thieves was the last song producer Dean and I worked on. And it was my last day in the studio, going on 2am and we hadn’t touched Thieves yet. Grudgingly and grumpily digging in for what seemed like an inevitable all-nighter, we first gave the track a quick listen. Dean almost lost his shit when, at the second verse, all the instruments came in already beautifully mixed. We had both forgotten that we had worked on the track previously and A LOT of the legwork was already done, meaning we’d probably be able to get home at a very reasonable 3am, play some xbox, get a good 3 hours sleep and f*** the dog at the day job the next morn fresh as a daisy.
These are the stories of Thieves. You’ve read them. You can’t un-read them.
Blue Blue Satellite.
Now we come to the two hidden gems on the record: “30” and “Do You Remember Me“. I kind of threw these tracks in to round out the number of tracks on the album but I tend to forget that they’re pretty good tunes.
We recorded these “live off the floor” which basically means I sang and played the song live all the way through and producer Dean recorded it. We recorded both tracks in the kitchen of the studio for a different acoustic vibe. Although I think Dean just wanted to be closer to the beer.
Both songs are musically similar sounding and when planning the tracklist I decided to call attention to this rather than play it down so I put them back-to-back.
Ottawa’s Kristine St-Pierre sang the backup vocals on “Do You Remember Me”. Kristine has a beautifully clear, strong, polished voice topped off with an outstanding vibrato. I, on the other hand, have a terribly muddied, weak, amateur voice topped off with an outstanding lack of vibrato. So Dean had to tell her to dial it back slightly so that her vocal style would match mine and not steal the show. And if anyone could steal the show by simply singing “oooooooh ahhhhhhh”, it’s Kristine.
Interesting tidbit: At about the 50 second mark of “Do You Remember Me” you can hear one of the bones in my thumb crack. You can’t really correct much when recording live-off-the-floor so the toll of age on my poor, frail hands are immortalized in that song. It would have been funnier, though, if that had actually happened on “30″, which is a song about getting older.
Blue Blue Satellite
There’s very little that can be said about Sister Rachel that hasn’t already been said. So I’ll keep it short and on the topic of the production of the track rather than re-tread the now ponderous story of Sara Melson‘s involvement on the track, which, if you’ve spoken to me for more than 30 seconds, you’ll have heard…and have wished you had those 30 seconds back.
Being the poppiest track I’ve written, it’s ironic that it was actually the track I had a lot of trouble with in the studio. I played every part on that track and I struggled particularly on the drums. It was late, I was tired, I was getting frustrated at not being able to find my groove on the drum part. That’s especially problematic considering I don’t play drums. Still, I persevered and producer Dean guided me through it and eventually I found my second wind and started having fun with it and churned out a pretty acceptable song.
Sister Rachel is a tricky song to capture live without a band so I’ve had to re-invent it several times. Here are the incarnations I’ve done at shows:
- Sister Rachel, the upbeat loop pedal version
- Sister Rachel, the mid-tempo loop pedal version
- Sister Rachel, the mandolin version
- Sister Rachel, the U2 mash-up DADGAD version
- Sister Rachel, the full band version
- Sister Rachel, the straight acoustic version
Blue Blue Satellite
We now come to the two rockers on The Learning Days.
The title track is next (track 6). And is probably the densest track I recorded. There’s everything from synth, to strings, to organ, to a pick slide which, next to the windmill, defines Rock ‘n Roll.
Tim Watson, producer Dean’s brother, came in to lay down the drums and man, how I loved seeing another of my tracks just crushed. Noel Gallagher was right when he said make sure you have a good drummer. Ironically however, Tim struggled to perfect one of the most bombastic fills near the swell of the song and after over 10 takes he had to settle. I thought all 10+ were spectacular but even when he left I could tell he wished he could have nailed. Soon after though, Dean and I listened to the entire track he laid down and it turns out the fill he was struggling to get he actually nailed earlier in the song, so a lil’ cutting here and a lil’ pasting there and voila! Edited rock ‘n roll!
Despite all my talk of acoustic melancholia and what-not, I still love rock music and I swell with pride knowing there’s at least one song on the record that brings a bit of oomph rather than the more typical zzzzz…
Blue Blue Satellite