Archives for posts with tag: performer

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

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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

I’ve been reflecting on what the “professional” in “professional musician” means. I guess technically it means you get paid to do music. And that you can now write off that $10,000 vintage Fender as a “business expense”. I’ve seen a number of people quit their jobs to do music full time probably thinking “I’m going to be a professional musician and get paid to do music, just like Blue Blog said.” I truly admire their moxy, their drive, their choice of blog reading and maybe I even admire their music. I certainly wish them all the success in the world.

But then, the real definition of “professional” comes crashing down like my fist through a hipster’s fake glasses. And guess how much that definition has to do with music? Very. Little. What does it have to do with? Marketing. Business planning. Financial planning. Accounting. Project management. Merchandising. Licensing. Forecasting. Networking…freakin’ Web Programming even!

An Analogy

Once in awhile I’ll cook a juicy-ass steak on the barbie like a champ. But my next thought isn’t: “Damn! I should open my own steakhouse!” And that’s what I find striking out as a pro musician to be like. Don’t get me wrong, the world would be a better place if every Backyard Billy Bob could open a steakhouses on their street corner. It would kick even more ass if next to these steakhouses there were cozy little music venues where I could walk in, secure a residency, pack the place every night and get a guarantee that would allow me to regularly go next door for steak.

Ah, if only the life of a professional musician could be made of steaks. Instead, it’s more made of microwave burritos. So the dream of taking the world by storm gets a reality check when you realize you’re doing your CD release in Ottawa on a weekday night in a small bar to a half-filled room…half of which are your musicians.

Oh, that last scenario? True story of a show I attended.…and he was a Juno winner.

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

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with cover songs. As a songwriter I feel that original songs is where the artistry lies. As a performer it’s fun to do covers but I always felt like a bit of a cop out because it’s an easy way to engage an audience without earning it. Unless, like me, you like to screw with your audience by doing really obscure covers.

Then there’s YouTube where a cute girl or two will do an acoustic cover of some pop-song-du-jour and garner over a million views. Case in point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ae-qoFPINCc. Meanwhile my original songs languish in an obscurity deeper than the covers I perform.

But in this whole equation there was one thing I never considered: What happens if someone were to cover a song of mine? Surely in that case I’d flip-flop and sing the praises of doing covers? Well, normally no…I’d easily avoid the embarrassment of flip-flopping because the notion of someone covering me seemed laughable. I mean, I can’t even employ the sentence “My YouTube views are in the ___’s” because I haven’t even cracked 10 is some cases. So just by the numbers alone, who would cover me?

But alas, 10 years of dipping my toes in the Toronto indie music scene must’ve put a black ball of cynicism in my being because I didn’t realize what a generous, kind, supportive, solidary and talented singer/songwriter scene I’ve joined since moving to Ottawa. A scene where Chrysalis, a free Ottawa-artists-covering-other-Ottawa-artists show could be put on, where TWO artists would end up covering songs of mine.

There’s a little known human emotion called elevation that is described as: “A mental ‘reset button’, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”* Chrysalis was a beautiful, uplifting evening that moved everyone present. It was telling that there were zero Alanis Morissette covers and only one Paul Anka and one Kathleen Edwards cover….and yet 2 Blue Blue Satellite covers. Blows my mind…the singer/songwriter community here in Ottawa is THAT supportive, close, respectful and humble.

I’ll admit, when I first signed up, I didn’t “get it”. To cover an Ottawa artist seemed restrictive for the performer and the audience. But last weekend really opened my eyes. The point wasn’t to do a cover of Sweet Home Alabama and have the audience rock along with you. The point was to nurture and demonstrate the wealth of talent in this city with the spirit of community driving it all. I’d take that any day over a million YouTube views.

For the record, here were the covers that were Blue Blue Satellite-related at Chrysalis:
Jeremy Owens performs Thieves by Blue Blue Satellite
Missy Burgess performs Blues’ll Always Be the Blues by Blue Blue Satellite
Blue Blue Satellite performs My Blue Sweater by Missy Burgess
Blue Blue Satellite performs Go Cast Your Shadow by Sjef Frenken

Blue Blue Satellite

I’ve been trying to push the envelope of my songwriting lately because I find I have a songwriting comfort zone: melancholy tunes using a Travis fingerstyle guitar picking folk technique. So to shake myself out of this wordy safe zone, I’ve been trying new things, new styles, new themes, new techniques. Unlike most musicians these days I don’t know how to auto-tune or else I’d probably try that.

One new challenge is something some local Ottawa folk singer/songwriters have organized for 19 years now called the Great Canadian Song Along. Basically they give you a topic and you write a new song on it. It’s like a school assignment. With a lot less research, but equal opportunities for plagiarism.

Shortly after I made my mind up to participate in the Song Along, the unexpected thunderbolt of inspiration hit and I churned out the song over 3 days. And with no false modestly…it’s a gem! I’m especially proud of this one because it’s pure Blue Blue Satellite; I can’t detect any of my influences figuring predominantly in the songwriting. The chord progression is similar to Jewel’s “Amen”…uh, in fact, it’s the exact same chord progression, but despite this, I think the song stands quite capably on its own.

It’s ironic though. I signed up for this Song Along to push the envelope of my songwriting and ended up writing…you guessed it…a melancholy tune using a Travis fingerstyle guitar picking folk technique*. But it’s a helluva tune.

Haven’t had a chance to produce the song yet, but here’s me performing it at the Song Along minus the showstopping loop pedal finale that was stymied due to technical difficulties:

http://www.bluebluesatellite.com/tunes/letitgo_live.mp3

Blue Blue Satellite

* actually it’s not Travis picking(a term I learned just for this blog post), but it still is fingerstyle.

Let me tell you a story. A story of torturous decisions, of trying circumstances, of struggling against the odds….a story of…..heavy metal.

About a year ago I had a couple of days of vacation booked to go down to Sacramento to see Metallica live. Yes, Metallica. Literally hours before my flight, some s*** hit the fan at work. And when you’re on a Marketing team with limited resources, when s*** hits the fan, the scatological blast radius is all-encompassing.  As evening wore into night(and as my early flight time loomed), the possibility that I’d have to cancel the trip and miss the concert became probability. It’s a good thing that the office was empty around midnight because I would have been bad company given the dark mood I was in.

After much agonizing though, I decided to go, dealing with the consequences as they came. And come they did as the situation worsened as I learned over costly long distance calls and text messages. By the time I got to Sacramento, I was out of my dark mood…and in a much dimmer, deeper, danker and dangerous one.

And then….the concert.

There is a holy moment when music connects with you. Really. Just. Connects. And like the alignment of the cosmos in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metallica, for one night only, was my Monolith. Being 28-year veteran Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, the band’s mastery of their technique and live show was something to behold. All the stress and tension from work didn’t just melt away but was lit on fire and cooked extra crispy in a hail of stage pyrotechnics and 115dB guitar shred. Never have I screamed along word-for-word and pumped my fist in the air with such reckless, furious abandonment than at this show.

I’ve been to a lot of concerts and many have been memorable spectacles in my life, but this concert, well this time…it was personal. And the frustration I was feeling from the “real world” took a back seat for a couple of hours as a monumental exercise in the power of music played out within me.

So the stigma of metal be damned. Or any type of music for that matter. I hope you’ve had or will one day have an experience similar to mine whether it be from a Metallica show, or a Justin Beiber show. Although it’d probably take another Metallica conert to allow me to vent the complications of attending a Beiber show…

Metallica: I thank you.

Blue Blue Satellite

It’s easy to become intimidated as a singer/songwriter; especially amongst other musicians. This one plays better guitar, that one has great vocal control, this one can name drop all sorts of obscure influences, that one has a handful of albums to their name. Well, I can claim none of these things. So how, pray-tell, do I not fold like a clean sheet of Hammermill whenever I take the stage at a gig or especially at an open mic where an underlying current of competition always festers? Well you have to realize one thing: every singer/songwriter writes pop music. I don’t care if you’re Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan or John Lennon…your bread and butter is the 3-5 minute song that will involve, at its core, four instruments.

Here’s the key: Rob, Bob and John-o are lucky, ‘cos if Mozart were here, he’d own all their asses.

You see, I was raised on Classical music. Now THOSE were musicians. When you’re writing operas and symphonies and concertos that can be hours long and you’re writing these for full orchestra, by hand, all by yourself…now *that’s* talent. Mozart had more talent in his pinky finger than Dylan, Johnson and Lennon combined. And I respect the hell out of those guys. You take the most legendary pop artist and compare them with the least of the Classical composers, and from a songwriting point of view, you’ve got yourself a fight between Mike Tyson and that weasely kid from Superbad.

So if you ever meet a songwriter who’s trying throw his weight around, just hand him a stack of manuscript paper and ask him to write you a three movement symphony for a 100-piece orchestra. It’s all relative…think of it in those terms and you’ve got for yourself a nice, level playing field.

Blue Blue Satellite

Concept album update:
Well, I think I’ve locked down the concept and even the basic story. I’ve even sort of sketched out the story arc and how many songs it’ll take to tell it. I’m hopefully going to start writing the first song soon…but I realized that if this Concept Album is going to happen, it’s not going to happen for awhile because writing 8 or 9 songs is no small task. Stay tuned.

I was watching a film by Hideo Miyazaki, the Japanese animation master whose genius movies always fill me with awe and a deep, deep, sense of burning jealousy. Petty envy aside, his process is one of months, if not years. Meetings, storyboards, screen tests, and of course, pages of pages of painstaking frame-by-frame hand-drawn animation and still, in the end, a soul-stirring finished product. This kind of discipline astounds me…but it it inspires me too. And so, the question du jour:

If my best songwriting comes from short bursts of inspiration, how can I apply the epic scope of moviemaking to it?

This is not a rhetorical question. There is an answer. And I have the answer. And the answer comes in two words: Rock Opera. Or perhaps a different two words: Concept Album. Or if you like efficiency, one word: Musical.

All similar terms to describe the answer and the next Blue Blue Satellite challenge(for me, not you). Although “concept album” would be a bit of a misnomer seeing as I don’t even have a regular album to my name. And come to think of it, even “rock opera” doesn’t fit because I sing folk.

Oh well, call it what you will, I’m going to take up the challenge to express with thematically related songs a story with definite plot points, character arcs and, considering my inexperience as well as my laziness, deus ex machina after deus ex machina!

So, I won’t give myself a timeline. It’ll give me something to work on indefinitely rather than bore you guys with yet another song about unrequited love…unless of course, it was all just a dream.

Blue Blue Satellite