If you’re a podcast listener you’ll probably be familiar with the two podcasts whose names I’ve mashed up for the purposes of this post’s title. I thought it apt because what I’d like to do is to give you an idea of my creative process (à la Song Exploder) as I actually work through it over the next few weeks and months (à la Serial) on a new song called “Wrestle With Giants”. I wrote the song about a month ago and for the first time in a long time I felt it passed the “Say, this does suck!” test enough that I’m going to flesh it out into a full demo.

The foundation of the song is strummed chords on the guitar(capo 5 in DADGAD tuning if you care). I tend to gravitate toward finger picking when I pick up the guitar so this time around I tried to force myself to build the basic guitar rhythm with strums. Two other things that spurred the inspirational juices was the title of the song which kind of came to me early and helped me build the chorus. And the second thing was keeping a Glen Hansard vibe in my head, minus his shouty bits.

So for part one of this series of posts I present to you the isolated guitar part:

Stayed tuned for episode 2 which should come pretty fast and furious because since I wrote the song a month ago and came up with the idea for this series of blog posts yesterday, I have some catching up to do up in here.

Blue Blue Satellite

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It’s been pretty quiet chez Blue Blue Satellite of late. I did recently post a quick demo of an ode to wanderlust I recently wrote. But what else have I been up to? Well, I’ve been sitting on an idea for awhile now, keeping it under wraps, poising myself to unleash it on an unsuspecting world. But who am I kidding, like most BBS endeavors, it’ll be received by max six or seven people with polite nods and excuses to have to go now. So I’ll unleash it on the max six or seven people who may read this blog.

The project is codenamed OSNAP. The Ottawa String Notators And Performers. I know “Notators” isn’t a word but it fits with the acronym and it’s better than “Notationeers”.

Basically it’s a service I’d offer to singer songwriters whereby I’d write string accompaniment to their songs, notate it and gather an ensemble of string players to form a string ensemble for an eventual performance.

It’s still a work in progress. I tested it to moderate success with a friend, but now I’m applying it to myself and my tunes in anticipation of one last hurrah of a gig where I’ll formally put this service on show and offer to the good musicians of Ottawa.

I’m really too old to be using kids-these-days slang like “Oh snap” but dodgy naming aside, I hope this project will eventually see the light of day so send your positive vibes of following through my way because heaven knows a project like this doesn’t happen with a snap of the fingers as it were.

Ok, so let’s all move on from the fact that it’s been over a year since I’ve written. I know, I know…baaaad blogger.

Now then. There’s one thing that my musical exploits have reflected in my civilian life: Food. I suppose food and music have collided in the past…but, well…I’m gonna blog about it.

So the more I got good at “preparing dishes” (as opposed to “making food”), I would find myself busily going about a recipe when I would think to myself “y’know…this could maybe be bammed up with a bit of [random ingredient]”. Sometimes it would work (coffee and rosemary in beef stew) and sometimes it wouldn’t (beef stew and rosemary in coffee). But it’s making a connection between two tastes you savoured independently and then marrying them successfully that’s quite a thrilling and fulfilling accomplishment.

I find that it’s the same for music. When producing or arranging a song, I try to find instruments and sounds that will compliment it but that are also not your most expected elements. Some great examples (well, great to me) are the dark tom tom drums in my song “(Never) Let It Go” or the trumpet part in “It Was Love“.

With no false modesty, I think I’m pretty good at finding these matches. But sometimes, like Bovine Brew coffee, it just doesn’t work out. My latest song release, “Until“, is a perfect example of both a musical match and a music mismatch. Initially I sang the track like you can hear on the demo:


Then I met Lyndsie Alguire and it was nanoseconds between the time I heard her sing and the time I decided that perhaps her voice would compliment the track far better than my pained vocalizations ever could.

Right? 

Darn right I’m right! But despite the Lyndsie coup, the song was still languishing under another misguided musical attempt: the introduction of a harmonica during an instrument break. Despite the old college try from my producer, it still sounds like a braking freight train. Listen again to the above track and skip to 3:19.

Now as you wait for your hair to quit standing on end, enjoy the much better final version where we swapped out the harp for some subtle musical shadings instead of something that sounds like a wounded raccoon.


Voilà! Haute musical cuisine à la BBS.

Keep watching this space as I get back on my blogging horse!

Chef Blue Blue Satellite

I’ve started recording my second record. It’s going to be an interesting time to be doing it because it’ll be framed within my dramatically monikered “Blue Blue Satellite Manifesto”, which dictates that my musical endeavors must be about:

  • Creativity – the joy of plucking elements out of thin air and assembling them with auditory artistic cohesion
  • Expression – interpreting the ups and downs of life into a personal soundtrack
  • Enjoyment – allowing myself to be swept away with music’s sonic power of elevation

I used to believe in the idealistic trope that “it’s all about the music.” But after album #1 and not quite having conquered the world with it, I’ve decided a more accurate adage is: “it’s all about selling your music” or “it’s all about the music that will bring people in to drink” or “it’s all about Tweeting, Facebooking, Instagraming, Tumblring, YouTubing, Vine-ing, Cat Video-ing your music” or simply: “it’s not all about the music.” So the Manifesto is my attempt to re-focus my musical goals onto the magic which got me into music in the first place. Which will probably see me ceasing to do certain things that are standard practice in music, but simply don’t adhere to my Manifesto.

Maybe this is just a highfalutin way to say I’ve given up. Or that I’m jaded. Or that I’m lazy. Or that I don’t have what it takes. Or that I’m hoping some record executive will be impressed by my radical thinking and sign me because I’m clearly an iconoclastic polymath…

But here’s the immutable fact: I’m working with Gallery Studio‘s Dean Watson again and we’ve so far recorded two songs. They’re not mixed or mastered yet, nobody has heard them and I’ve made no money off of them. Just two people, in a basement, creating music from my songwriting. And I couldn’t be happier.

Blue Blue Satellite
Iconoclast. Polymath. Thesaurus user.

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!

An Analogy

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.

2013 Juno winner for Best Songwriter. (Not pictured – 2013 Juno applicant for Best Songwriter (me) )

Boni!

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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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):

You wouldn't expect to find poignancy in paper balls thrown at crotches and purple haired cyclopeses in evening gowns, but, well, here we are. (spoiler alert if you're actually watching Futurama season 4 for the first time)

Crumpled paper thrown at crotches and purple haired cyclopeses in evening gowns. Was I really writing seriously about God a sentence ago?

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.

Keytar!

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.

Play that synth boy! er, girl...?

Play that synth, boy! er, girl…? er…Michael Myers?

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

Still with me? We’re trudging towards the end of the track-by-track analysis of my 1-year-old debut album The Learning Days. Will there be a reward at the end like those three-second hidden scenes after half an hour worth of credits at the end of superhero movies? Test your endurance over a few more insipid blog posts to know for sure!

So if I HAD to choose one song that I felt could be excluded from “The Learning Days”, it’s probably Science and Progress. I’m pretty open with the fact that many of my songs have very specific influences but Science and Progress takes it to a whole new level:

  1. The title and lyrics are directly based on Coldplay’s The Scientist
  2. The huge swell at the end is very much based on the huge swell of this very obscure song.
  3. The scream-y part during the swell that Dean wisely brought down in the mix was very much based on Glen Hansard’s much more capable scream-y part in When Your Mind’s Made Up
  4. The drum beat is very much based on the Verve’s litigious 90’s masterpiece Bittersweet Symphony.
  5. I used to say that this song is a sequel to Coldplay’s The Scientist. Song sequels themselves being a concept I stole from Metallica.

So what I’m saying is that I probably thought I was very clever creating this Frankensteinian monster of a song from stolen bits of mostly mainstream songs and included it on the record as a “hey, look how clever I am”. But if I remember my Frankenstein, which I don’t but am quite capable at looking up Wikipedia articles, it don’t end too well for anybody. The old timey-hot Bride of Frankenstein notwithstanding.

Untitled-2

Chicks with their hair on fire. Marriage material for reanimated corpse monsters and singer/songwriters alike apparently.

Blue Blue Satellite