Archives for posts with tag: music

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.

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

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

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

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

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