Archives for category: Songwriting

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

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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”!

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.

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

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.

“Gutter Folk”

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.

Next on our track-by-track tour of The Learning Days…. “Blues’ll Always Be the Blues”.

This is probably the strongest song I’ve ever written. It weighs in at an accessibly bite-sized 2:52, it’s got a nice, moving pace and melody to it while still keeping it wistful, the verses and choruses are tight and succinct without losing any lyrical impact and Anders Drerup’s work on the pedal steel just crushes it…particularly on the solo. Producer Dean Watson also made some great suggestions to Blue Rodeo-ify the track once the solo comes in and I love the pause of anticipatory bliss at 1:48 just before the track really opens up.

“Like stones a-skippin’ on the water / we bounce along but eventually we falter / pick yourselves up sons and daughters”

This is probably one of the best lines I’ve written. Yes, “water/falter/daughter” are far from perfect rhymes but the analogy was truly inspired and is spot-on apt. I feel masterful lyricism needs at least four elements in perfect balance: something that sounds poetic, fits thematically, isn’t predictable by the listener and of course, rhymes. That’s why “girl/world” couplets are such a pet peeve to me; that rhyme is so prevalent in songwriting, it loses much of its poetry and it’s highly predictable so you’re already down 50% in Blue Blue Satellite’s 4 Steps to Lyrical Perfection. And that’s why I humbly submit that the above lyric is a gem because the four elements are at least 81.2% represented.

Now before my head explodes from self-congratulatory arrogance and I start humblebragging that this song made it to the semi-finals of the 2012 Unsigned Only competition and was covered twice in public by two Ottawa area artists, I will leave you with a link to listen to my untouchable brilliance for free: Best. Song. Ever……Ever.

Your move, Gallagher.

Blue Blue Satellite

Before I hit my stride writing contemplative melancholia, there were three songs I was especially proud of: “The Fair’s in Town Tonight“, “Don’t Cry (Tonight)” and “Against the Northern Sky”. They’re also amongst my oldest songs and I used to call them the Trilogy of Sad Songs. Nowadays nary a song gets wrote that isn’t sad in some way.

Track 3 – “The Fair’s in Town Tonight”

Sometimes the genesis of a song will be a single freeze frame in my mind’s eye. Either one I make up or one I’ve experienced. In the case of “The Fair’s in Town Tonight” it was a sad one I had seen…..from The Simpsons:

simps

Lisa Simpson personifying melancholia. And poor pedestrian safety.

This poignant moment of cartoon gravity came after a scene at a carnival/fair thus planting the seed of a song whose theme was the deception of appearances: sad people can be at fair, adult males can watch cartoons…

simps2

Speaking of adult males, another frame from the same episode.

In the bridge, I wanted to achieve a certain sound with one of the instruments and we accomplished it by bouncing a screwdriver off electric guitar strings. We had first tried a highlighter but it just didn’t have the quality you get with a screwdriver. You can never be too picky when using work tools and stationery as instruments.

Track 4 – Don’t Cry (Tonight)

“Don’t Cry (Tonight)” is my oldest song with any songwriting worth. It was a mainstay of my early live shows and if memory serves, it was one of the songs that helped land me a spot on Toronto’s Free Times Cafe’s Best of Open Stage, which set the stage for the emergence of Blue Blue Satellite in the early 2000’s. Further validation came years later, when my #1 influence, Mojave 3, released a song that had echo’s of “Don’t Cry” in it. Very cool to see like-minded inspiration from different sources.

I fought with the arrangement of “Don’t Cry (Tonight)” for several weekends before we were due to start recording it. I finally drew on songs that do strings right, and based the arrangement around a violin ensemble part.

This may be a reward or it may be a punishment for you wonderful readers out there, but here’s the original DIY demo I did of the song if you want to contrast it with the final product.

Blue Blue Satellite

Students, for this post please review Track 2, “(Never) Let It Go“.

This is the actual opening track of the album since Track 1 is a brief, instrumental intro. “(Never) Let It Go” may be my favorite track of the album. I feel the songwriting, music composition and arrangements come together tremendously well and I’m especially proud of the piano and dark sounding tom-tom drums in verse 2.

From a lyrical standpoint, I was experimenting a bit with this song. I was trying to emulate what many rappers do, namely switch up their rhyming schemes mid-verse. I think it works…even without the typical rap “uh-huhyeah boyeec’mon“‘s and of course, references to Lord of the Rings.

This is the first of four tracks that Anders Drerup, of the Ottawa-based band The Claytones, plays pedal steel on and anybody who tells me that the steel work on the song doesn’t just bring some serious beauty can get beaten by a bar of Dove soap in a pillowcase.

Untitled-4

The inspiration of such rappish rhyme schemes such as “See that setting SUN, another day is DONE just like the other ONES / I wish that it would LAST, the PAST becomes my FOE, but I’ll never let it GO.”

Blue Blue Satellite

The one-year anniversary of the official release of my debut CD is coming up on April 26* so I thought I’d lead up to it by blowing the eDust off the blog and by writing a few facts on each of the 14 tracks of The Learning Days, which, almost 365 days later, I still listen to with unbridled, self-gratifying glee.

So first up, track 1, Melancholia (approaching).

This track is named after the exquisite Lars von Trier movie which I loved and felt captured a lot of what Blue Blue Satellite is all about: emotional fragility, contemplating life, and of course, colossal mystery planets colliding with Earth extinguishing all life as we know it.

I liked the idea of opening the record with a super-simple musical motif that would cause listeners to think “ok…I wonder where he’s going with this”. And what is a simpler motif than: “E – E – E – E…”? Well, perhaps “C – C – C – C – C…” but sometimes you just have to live your life on the edge, baby.

The way the track bleeds into track 2 was something I always wanted to do. Hopefully the listeners get slightly tripped out because the aforementioned “E – E – E – E…” of the piano goes from being on the first beat of the bar to…uh, not the first beat. I’m pretty proud of having come up with the idea. That is, the idea of stealing it from here, here and here. Please don’t tell Emma, Noel or Jónsi. Because I’ll know who ratted me out, all 3 of you who read this blog….

E – E – E – E – E ….

Blue Blue Satellite

* I had my official CD release show in Ottawa on April 26, 2012. Coincidentally, on April 26th, 2013I’ll be accompanying L.A.’s best kept secret, Sara Melson, at the release party for her highly recommended new CD and who I’ll blog about when I get to track 7, Sister Rachel. Stay tuned.