There’s very little that can be said about Sister Rachel that hasn’t already been said. So I’ll keep it short and on the topic of the production of the track rather than re-tread the now ponderous story of Sara Melson‘s involvement on the track, which, if you’ve spoken to me for more than 30 seconds, you’ll have heard…and have wished you had those 30 seconds back.

Being the poppiest track I’ve written, it’s ironic that it was actually the track I had a lot of trouble with in the studio. I played every part on that track and I struggled particularly on the drums. It was late, I was tired, I was getting frustrated at not being able to find my groove on the drum part. That’s especially problematic considering I don’t play drums. Still, I persevered and producer Dean guided me through it and eventually I found my second wind and started having fun with it and churned out a pretty acceptable song.

The intro synth beat is from my original Casio VL-1. It literally belongs in a museum and for the record I’m using the Rock-2 preset(the Rock-1 preset was already in use).

With dignity

Without dignity

Without dignity

LIVE VERSIONS

Sister Rachel is a tricky song to capture live without a band so I’ve had to re-invent it several times. Here are the incarnations I’ve done at shows:

Blue Blue Satellite

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We now come to the two rockers on The Learning Days.

The title track is next (track 6). And is probably the densest track I recorded. There’s everything from synth, to strings, to organ, to a pick slide which, next to the windmill, defines Rock ‘n Roll.

Tim Watson, producer Dean’s brother, came in to lay down the drums and man, how I loved seeing another of my tracks just crushed. Noel Gallagher was right when he said make sure you have a good drummer. Ironically however, Tim struggled to perfect one of the most bombastic fills near the swell of the song and after over 10 takes he had to settle. I thought all 10+ were spectacular but even when he left I could tell he wished he could have nailed. Soon after though, Dean and I listened to the entire track he laid down and it turns out the fill he was struggling to get he actually nailed earlier in the song, so a lil’ cutting here and a lil’ pasting there and voila! Edited rock ‘n roll!

Despite all my talk of acoustic melancholia and what-not, I still love rock music and I swell with pride knowing there’s at least one song on the record that brings a bit of oomph rather than the more typical zzzzz…

So Spinal Tap your stereo to 11 kids and enjoy the folk-rock, or frolck, of Blue Blue Satellite. Rock out now.

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.

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

For many moons now, I’ve always claimed to be a songwriter first and foremost. Not a singer, not a guitarist, not a CD pushing self-promoter, but a songwriter.

My Ottawa CD release made me realize that this is a false claim.

Almost all of the elements that made me very satisfied with the Ottawa CD release were not song-related. For example:

  • Taking the stage to a projected visual intro with an accompanying instrumental piece.
  • The uninterrupted, three-song, no banter set of songs to kick off the show
  • The un-amplified mandolin song while walking into the audience
  • Having a backing band for Thieves but having them take the stage halfway through the first chorus:

    (impatient? go to 1:26)

There were more but I can’t reveal all my performance secrets now can I(especially since most of them are stolen)? But therein lies the keyword: “performance”. It turns out that while I still consider myself a songwriter, the performer in me is just as strong. Maybe even slightly stronger. And this can be heard on the record as well. Every element, every transition, every nuance that pushes the CD or live show beyond a simple collection of 14 songs: this is performance.

So why is this important to me? I guess I’ve become very aware of my audience whether they’re at a show or reclining with headphones  on at home. As a songwriter, my job is to write a song. Ok. Check. But as a performer, my job is to give the audience a fresh experience that will resonate with them; make them come for the music but stay for the experience…which I hope I succeeded in doing at the Ottawa CD release.

I’m still very much a songwriter. But now I’m adding the performer aspect. I suppose it marks an evolution in me, but it begs the questions: what is it that I am evolving into…?

An artist.

Thieves

Thieves @ Gallery Studios

Blue Blue Satellite