Archives for category: The magical world of music
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”. 

 

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.

Blue Blue Satellite

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.

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

Side of a Bullet by Nickelback

Yes, Nickelback. This song legitimizes the band for me because it features a lost guitar solo by the late Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrel and was fully endorsed by his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul. The song does a great job striking a delicate balance between a revenge fantasy and a song about loss. The imagery of sitting and scratching someone’s name on the side of a bullet, I feel, is quite powerful and leaves a lot to the listener’s imagination.

We’re Off to See the Wizard by Harold Arlen

Not only did composer Harold Arlen find rhymes for the word “Oz”, but he does it repeatedly with different words and clever puns through the chorus while capturing the essence and whimsy of the scene quite brilliantly.

Victory by Megadeth

You know you’ve had a nice, long, distinguished career when you can write a four-minute song that’s composed almost entirely of the song titles of your back catalogue. A fun, gimmicky and surprisingly catchy song by veteran shredders and 1/2 born-again Christians Megadeth.

Lose Yourself by Eminem

The best way for me to feel inadequate about my songwriting is to listen to and analyze an Eminem song. Structurally and thematically, they are nothing short of astounding. Lose Yourself features so many advanced rhyming techniques that it makes my head spin. Not to mention that this song is epically inspiring, faithfully captures independent musician life, and just pumps me the hell up.

Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven

I’ve been starting to brand my style of music as “melancholy folk-pop”. This is the 18th century version of it. Except a lot better. This is the kind of piece you hold your breath listening to. Dark, beautiful.

Dr. Snuggles theme song

A melody you can whistle along to is a sure indicator of a good song. And this melody just struck me as I listened to it on college radio driving home in the wee hours one night in Toronto. I subsequently stole it for a song of my own.

Part of Your World (reprise) by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

First of all the swelling string intro is gorgeous. And it continues into another fantastically lovely melody. I just have a tiny beef with the lyric “I don’t know when/I don’t know how/but I know something’s starting right now”. Doesn’t “starting right now” answer the “when” question?

Whiplash(live version) by Metallica

One thing I lament about being a singer/songwriter is that I’ll never really be able to really rock an audience. I mean really just wield my guitar like it was an adrenaline-spewing über weapon. That’s ok though…the boys from Metallica do a mighty fine job with this song that’s good on the album but killer live.

What a Wonderful World performed by Louis Armstrong

A study in simplicity. A 2 minute song whose melody is essentially the alphabet song. When doing a ridiculously optimistic song, you always run the risk of going into cheeseball territory. This song didn’t, probably because it was kept simple and due to the sincerity and believability of ‘ol Satchmo’s singing.

Tara’s Theme from Gone With the Wind by Max Steiner

The main theme is so deceptively simple…just a pattern of four notes repeated in variation four times. But it’s so rich and just absolutely full of emotion. I haven’t even seen Gone With the Wind but just from this theme you can get a sense of the epic scope of the film.

Violin concerto allegro moderato by Pete Tchaikovsky

Yes, simplicity is good, but sometimes a showpiece will bring the house down. As well as my estimation of myself. If you’re impatient, you can fast-forward to 5:36 where you can watch a nerdy-looking polio surviving violiner do some serious badass pwn-age.

If you bought a copy of my newly released debut record, “The Learning Days”, you’ll see a little name in the credits and hear a big voice on the record: Sara Melson.

Although not a household name, Sara is an exceptional L.A.-based songwriter and singer who has had some notable success including having a song on Grey’s Anatomy and singing backup for Moby on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Moby and Sara

Pictured: Moby, Sara, other white clad singers. Not pictured: Jay Leno, Jay Leno's chin.

This blog post will be less about how I got her to sing on my record, but more about what her being on the record means to me.

So let’s begin. And we will begin with…

Neil Halstead, my bearded musical raison d’être:

Neil Halstead

Full beard = extra realness

My bread and butter as a musician is fingerstyle guitar and finding beauty in the melancholy. And I learned how to do both from Neil’s songs. Specifically, this song and this song respectively.

Now then. Neil has a band called Mojave 3 and in 2006, their lovely bassist and co-vocalist, Rachel Goswell, fell ill and couldn’t tour in support of their new album. So as a young Blue Blue Satellite sat and listened to his favorite band on the highly influential Morning Becomes Eclectic radio show, I was saddened to not hear Rachel Goswell, but was gladdened to hear a more than capable replacement.

KCRW

Click to enlarge. Witty captions ensue.

The DJ said it was “Sarah Nelson”. After some intense research on internet search portal Google(Google, the verb, had yet to be invented), I realized that it was Sara, no “h”, and Melson, not “n”. Sara Melson. It didn’t take her long to gain me as a fan because her gift of melody, her bold, brave lyricism and her killer wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing voice made becoming a fan a no-brainer.

Meanwhile, Mojave 3 had posted a blog about their bass player’s health woes:

Mojave 3 blog

Before there was Facebook, there was MySpace...and Tom. (Click to enlarge and read).

Did you catch that? Let’s take a closer look…

Two magical words

Capitalize the "s" and you've got yerself a song!

That’s right…it was this blog post and those two words, “Sister Rachel”, that inspired me to write my poppiest song to date: “Sister Rachel”. It has since been a mainstay in my setlists and always manages to be quite a crowd pleaser. And when Sara Melson graciously agreed to provide some vocals on my record, there was no doubt in my mind: it had to be on “Sister Rachel”. And it couldn’t have worked out better…the way the second verse comes in, the key and vocal range, the harmonies…it’s like Sara’s vocals had found their way home. Every time I listen to that track, I break into a big dopey grin when her vocals enter.

So in summary, here’s serendipity Blue Blue Satellite style: Sara sings on “Sister Rachel” which was inspired by Rachel Goswell of my musical heroes Mojave 3, whom Sara stood in for when Rachel fell ill while Mojave 3 blogged about their “sister Rachel” which inspired me to write my song “Sister Rachel” which Sara sings on.

Too convoluted? Ok then, I’ll put it in the form of  a lame poem:

I love Sara Melson
I love Mojave 3
Sara sang with Mojave
and now she sang with me.

Blue Blue Satellite

p.s. despite her cool success, it ain’t easy being a full time musician in L.A. and Sara needs help to raise funds for her next album…lend a hand here. Tell her Blue Blue Satellite sent ya…