Archives for category: Life as a musician

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.

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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.

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.

550px-Crack-your-knuckles-Step-08

…sad song lyric sad song lyric sad song lyric CRACK!! sad song lyric sad song lyric…

Blue Blue Satellite

I’ve heard that to gain new fans you need to play a lot of shows. But in order to land shows, venue owners like to book acts that have a solid fan base. So to get this fan base you need to play a lot of shows, which means you need to get booked at venues who like to see a draw, which means…….

Yeah.   Chicken and freakin’ egg.

Blue Blue Satellite

There are many good reasons why I am not an actor. Most revolve around the fact that I can’t act.

There are also several good reasons why I shouldn’t sing but screw those. The beauty about being a singer-songwriter is that you can do what you love with relatively little effort. To wit, I can hop on over to any open stage, sign up and get to sing an original composition in front of an audience and get applaused at. And that’s pretty much the name of the game for us singer-songwriters.

Actors have it a lot tougher. Or I assume that they do since I know few actors. The pinnacle of an actor’s career would probably be to have a juicy lead role in an Anderson(Paul or Wes) movie or Herzog or Von Trier or Scorcese or whatever other director I can’t think of right now that would lead you to believe that I watch movies beyond those whose title contain the words “Human” and “Centipede“.

But how often does that happen for an actor? How often do they have to take roles like “Middle Human Centipede Link” before a choice role may or may not come up? Even if they take the bull by the horns and write a screenplay and sweet role for themselves, you still have to produce the movie(and produce it well) and have it distributed to get some kind of return on effort.

The only difference between an open stage and “making it” for a singer-songwriter is audience size, really. If Justin Beiber tweeted me tomorrow and I blew up huge, I’d still be singing and forgetting the words to “Blues’ll Always Be the Blues“, just to a lot more screaming tweens who have no idea what an old man I am.

So I guess this is a blog post to remind myself and other struggling singer-songwriters to be happy that you can share your undiluted work with an audience. Saying you played a small bar to five drunk people in the middle of What-The-Hell-Am-I-Doing-Here, northern Ontario still has a ring of keeping-it-real coolness to it than an actor listing as a credit: “Shirtless Oil Guy” in Kung Fu and Titties.

Blue Blue Satellite

On May 15th, 2012, I played a show at Room 5 in Los Angeles. You may have heard me mention this. No offense to all of my other gigs, each of which I hold near and dear to my heart, but the L.A. gig was in a league of its own. If recording, releasing and promoting my debut CD was the ice cream, chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles…the L.A. gig was the culminated glory in being told: “…and would you like all that deep-fried?”

And like all things deep-fried, my L.A. experience touched my heart. Staying with another musician in a lovely house in a lovely neighbourhood, putting around L.A. seeing and meeting fascinating folk, sharing the bill with the extraordinary Dahls and Sara Melson and even making $20…for a few days, I was living the dream. But considering that dream has been over for two months, so where does it fit in with reality…?

Reality

I once jokingly told someone, “why would anyone bother to listen to a 30-something melancholy Chinese folk singer?” and she answered without missing a beat: “THAT’S exactly why.”

I was stunned by her optimism and strangely inspired sense-making. But in my more cynical times(i.e. all the time), I still stand by my original question. Add to that the pointless bar gigs, the inverse proportionality of audience size to gig frequency, the scores of other talented artists doing what I’m doing with more success, the scores of other talented artists doing what I’m doing with less success and Justin Bieber, getting a little down on myself is inevitable.

But having had the L.A. show affords me something I’ll always have now: the right to say, “well, at least I had the L.A. show.” And that is something important for me to remind myself of because letting the challenges of being an indie artist overshadow the epicness that was Blue Blue Satellite In Los Angeles is truly an insult to one of the most exciting 5 days of my 30-something Chinese years.

Blue Blue Satellite

I really thought I was keeping the Toronto pre-release show pretty simple. And I believed this right up to a few days before showtime. Although I probably should have known better as I left my apartment in Ottawa.

It's schleptacular!

What I should have known was that I had to coordinate the set up of a rental P.A. system, a slideshow intro for two performers, that two out-of-town couples were well taken care of, three never-before-used stomp boxes, lighting logistics, a constantly changing guestlist and of course, the worst weather(or weather warning) of the season. Add to this the fact that I was trying to deal with these details with a shirt, tie, sweater and fitted faux-leather bomber jacket on, and it was quite the ordeal. Albeit a very fashion forward ordeal.

So what began as a musical extravaganza featuring a few bells and whistles became The Bells and Whistles Super Stress Show, featuring a bit of music. But that’s okay because the music served an oasis of calm in the middle of gigzilla. I was hardly nervous at all and yes, technical glitches did occur but I tried and hope I succeeded in moving past all of it with professionalism to deliver an entertaining show.

It was fun to be a headliner for the first time and to have a class-act like Kristine St-Pierre be my opening special guest. It was also fun to call her up during the encores à la George and Elton in “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” Also, the beauty and uniqueness of the venue helped distract the audience from, oh, say, daisy chained pedals disconnecting from each other in mid-air and crashing to the unforgiving floor with the even more unforgiving PA system amplifying the cacophony as if to say “Hey Blue, maybe plan a little better next time, yeah?

Nonetheless, the things people actually said to me at the end of the night was just all kinds of nice and made me feel like it was all worthwhile. And you know what? It was. Even if the grand piano’s supports had given out and crushed my legs and carefully colour-coordinated pants, it would have been worth it. Because having your own professionally produced debut CD, releasing it in your hometown to attentive, close friends and family and hearing their words of praise, encouragement and support can only make you strive onwards and upwards.

Thank you attendees. It was my humble honour to share some music with you for an evening. We’ll do it again. Soon.

Blue Blue Satellite

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with cover songs. As a songwriter I feel that original songs is where the artistry lies. As a performer it’s fun to do covers but I always felt like a bit of a cop out because it’s an easy way to engage an audience without earning it. Unless, like me, you like to screw with your audience by doing really obscure covers.

Then there’s YouTube where a cute girl or two will do an acoustic cover of some pop-song-du-jour and garner over a million views. Case in point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ae-qoFPINCc. Meanwhile my original songs languish in an obscurity deeper than the covers I perform.

But in this whole equation there was one thing I never considered: What happens if someone were to cover a song of mine? Surely in that case I’d flip-flop and sing the praises of doing covers? Well, normally no…I’d easily avoid the embarrassment of flip-flopping because the notion of someone covering me seemed laughable. I mean, I can’t even employ the sentence “My YouTube views are in the ___’s” because I haven’t even cracked 10 is some cases. So just by the numbers alone, who would cover me?

But alas, 10 years of dipping my toes in the Toronto indie music scene must’ve put a black ball of cynicism in my being because I didn’t realize what a generous, kind, supportive, solidary and talented singer/songwriter scene I’ve joined since moving to Ottawa. A scene where Chrysalis, a free Ottawa-artists-covering-other-Ottawa-artists show could be put on, where TWO artists would end up covering songs of mine.

There’s a little known human emotion called elevation that is described as: “A mental ‘reset button’, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”* Chrysalis was a beautiful, uplifting evening that moved everyone present. It was telling that there were zero Alanis Morissette covers and only one Paul Anka and one Kathleen Edwards cover….and yet 2 Blue Blue Satellite covers. Blows my mind…the singer/songwriter community here in Ottawa is THAT supportive, close, respectful and humble.

I’ll admit, when I first signed up, I didn’t “get it”. To cover an Ottawa artist seemed restrictive for the performer and the audience. But last weekend really opened my eyes. The point wasn’t to do a cover of Sweet Home Alabama and have the audience rock along with you. The point was to nurture and demonstrate the wealth of talent in this city with the spirit of community driving it all. I’d take that any day over a million YouTube views.

For the record, here were the covers that were Blue Blue Satellite-related at Chrysalis:
Jeremy Owens performs Thieves by Blue Blue Satellite
Missy Burgess performs Blues’ll Always Be the Blues by Blue Blue Satellite
Blue Blue Satellite performs My Blue Sweater by Missy Burgess
Blue Blue Satellite performs Go Cast Your Shadow by Sjef Frenken

Blue Blue Satellite

It’s easy to become intimidated as a singer/songwriter; especially amongst other musicians. This one plays better guitar, that one has great vocal control, this one can name drop all sorts of obscure influences, that one has a handful of albums to their name. Well, I can claim none of these things. So how, pray-tell, do I not fold like a clean sheet of Hammermill whenever I take the stage at a gig or especially at an open mic where an underlying current of competition always festers? Well you have to realize one thing: every singer/songwriter writes pop music. I don’t care if you’re Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan or John Lennon…your bread and butter is the 3-5 minute song that will involve, at its core, four instruments.

Here’s the key: Rob, Bob and John-o are lucky, ‘cos if Mozart were here, he’d own all their asses.

You see, I was raised on Classical music. Now THOSE were musicians. When you’re writing operas and symphonies and concertos that can be hours long and you’re writing these for full orchestra, by hand, all by yourself…now *that’s* talent. Mozart had more talent in his pinky finger than Dylan, Johnson and Lennon combined. And I respect the hell out of those guys. You take the most legendary pop artist and compare them with the least of the Classical composers, and from a songwriting point of view, you’ve got yourself a fight between Mike Tyson and that weasely kid from Superbad.

So if you ever meet a songwriter who’s trying throw his weight around, just hand him a stack of manuscript paper and ask him to write you a three movement symphony for a 100-piece orchestra. It’s all relative…think of it in those terms and you’ve got for yourself a nice, level playing field.

Blue Blue Satellite

Concept album update:
Well, I think I’ve locked down the concept and even the basic story. I’ve even sort of sketched out the story arc and how many songs it’ll take to tell it. I’m hopefully going to start writing the first song soon…but I realized that if this Concept Album is going to happen, it’s not going to happen for awhile because writing 8 or 9 songs is no small task. Stay tuned.