Archives for category: Songwriting
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 series of posts. 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”. 

 

At this point, if you’ve been if you’ve been following this blog series with unbridled anticipation for each new installment, you’ll hopefully think that the tune is sounding pretty filled-out at this point. As a songwriter, this is where it gets tricky because now I can start adding window dressing and ornamentation without the song really needing it. A certain degree of dressing and ornaments is nice but it starts getting easy to go overboard. Especially since the foundation of the song has been laid so it gets temptingly easy to just throw in a new part that doubles up or adds simple harmonies to something that already exists in the mix.

For “Wrestle With Giants” and the next iteration thereof, the ornamentation is drums and a brand new instrument I’ve never added into any of my previous songs: clarinet. One of the joys of marriage (well, my marriage) is the fact that my wife and I share the love of music, her being a talented musician who plays various instruments. At one point she was even in a wind band(IN a wind BAND…not IS a wind BAG). Now, I know very little about the clarinet. I know that it does lazy and plodding pretty good, but it also does frenetic and Jewish equally well. I also know my brother played it for a couple of years in grade school. All of which helps very little in telling me how I can add it to my song. I suppose this means I should proceed with caution…so I featured it front and centre in the song’s only solo. Thanks to my wife for navigating the three sharps in the sheet music.

Oh, the drum part was also interesting because the song is definitely quite loose in its flow and I never considered laying down some kit. However, after the song’s breakdown, it naturally builds to something, and surprisingly that something is a more steady rhythmic final chorus which lent itself well to drums.

A final note before the last installment of this series…

It’s pretty obvious that I’ve been purposely avoiding what the vocal melody of this song is. If you’re a songwriter and have been following these posts, I hope you’ve had some fun in coming up with your own melody then seeing how it compares to mine when I post the conclusion of this series (possibly the next post). If you’re feeling especially adventurous feel free to Voice Memo it and send it to me!

Without further ado, here is the penultimate version of Wrestle With Giants:

Blue Blue Satellite

 

 

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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 series of posts. 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”. 

 

When trying to lay down bass tracks it’s not always that easy. Mainly because I don’t have a bass guitar. That hasn’t stopped me in the past but this time around I have a new secret alternative weapon: my sweet new used electric piano. It has a pretty decent sounding synthesized fingered acoustic bass. But despite this there’s one major flaw when trying to record a bass part using a keyboard: you can’t do slides. I think the musical term is glissando…or if you’re really cool: “gliss”. It’s a subtle but very effective technique by those who play stringed instruments to stick it to all other instruments who don’t have this ability (except tromboners and…slide whistle-eers). Seriously though, it’s one of those things that distinguishes a part from a performance.

So as you listen to this latest iteration of Wrestle With Giants…listen for the bass part. I’ll leave the bass performance for those who say “gliss”.

Blue Blue Satellite

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 series of posts. 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”. 

 

As with most instruments I sort of play, the piano is the one that pains me the most. As with the majority of the population, my exposure to playing the piano consists of “Yeah, I played a bit when I was as kid.” My entire repertoire of songs are the following: Imagine, Don’t Look Back in Anger, Royal Conservatory Grade 1 piece, Halloween theme, the opening of Home Sweet Home, and of course Chopsticks and Heart and Soul.

The pain comes in when you hear great piano-based pop songs or classical piano masterworks. Such a versatile, rich and gigantic instrument deserves better than some schlub who can just pound out the first few bars of a Mötley Crüe ballad. But as my approach is when writing any instrument part I suck at actually playing, I try to listen to piano parts, pick out patterns or techniques simple enough that I could potentially replicate it with painstaking tenacity, and hope that it will trick the listener into thinking that the tune is slightly better than it actually is.

The exception to this process was the instrumental break in my song I’m blogging about. Before I wrote a note of piano music, I played the song for my wife and totally vocally ad libbed the most ridiculous solo part I could think of as a joke. But somehow that little joke buried itself in my memory and I pretty much wrote the “joke” out note-for-note as the piano part in the instrumental break. And guess what? It works beautifully. Am I a genius? No, just very very lazy.

Here’s “Wrestle With Giants” with guitar, pedal steel and piano:

 

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 series of posts. 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’d imagine that in most cases, when starting to flesh out the components of a song’s production, you would maybe have a nice foundation of guitar or piano, then strengthen that foundation with some rhythm guitar or doubled up guitar or bass or drums. It’s like pouring the foundation of a house then shoring it up with I dunno, glue or something which I’m sure is totally the way homes are built.

But due to my knowledge of music production being somewhat at par with home building, the next instrumental layer for my new song “Wrestle With Giants” was not piano, nor bass, nor drums, nor doubled guitars, nor double bass, nor double bass drum, nor doubled double bass drum. Instead, it was the king of twang, the pedal steel. I guess it makes sense because I love pedal steel but learned to play it from YouTube videos. So when I need to come up with a pedal steel part, it’s the most work since I have to approach it lick-by-lick and try to make it complement the song while not betraying the fact that my playing level is somewhere between Jurassic Park Melodica and High School band 2001 Theme.

Still though, I think I do excel in making the most out of the least so I’m pretty proud of this next iteration of the tune: guitar and pedal steel. Have a listen:

 

Blue Blue Satellite

 

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.

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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

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

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”!

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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.

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