Archives for posts with tag: singing

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.

Now we come to the two hidden gems on the record: “30” and “Do You Remember Me“. I kind of threw these tracks in to round out the number of tracks on the album but I tend to forget that they’re pretty good tunes.

We recorded these “live off the floor” which basically means I sang and played the song live all the way through and producer Dean recorded it. We recorded both tracks in the kitchen of the studio for a different acoustic vibe. Although I think Dean just wanted to be closer to the beer.

Both songs are musically similar sounding and when planning the tracklist I decided to call attention to this rather than play it down so I put them back-to-back.

Ottawa’s Kristine St-Pierre sang the backup vocals on “Do You Remember Me”. Kristine has a beautifully clear, strong, polished voice topped off with an outstanding vibrato. I, on the other hand, have a terribly muddied, weak, amateur voice topped off with an outstanding lack of vibrato. So Dean had to tell her to dial it back slightly so that her vocal style would match mine and not steal the show. And if anyone could steal the show by simply singing “oooooooh ahhhhhhh”, it’s Kristine.

Interesting tidbit: At about the 50 second mark of “Do You Remember Me” you can hear one of the bones in my thumb crack. You can’t really correct much when recording live-off-the-floor so the toll of age on my poor, frail hands are immortalized in that song. It would have been funnier, though, if that had actually happened on “30”, which is a song about getting older.

550px-Crack-your-knuckles-Step-08

…sad song lyric sad song lyric sad song lyric CRACK!! sad song lyric sad song lyric…

Blue Blue Satellite

Recording in a real studio was very enjoyable mostly because I got to experience what I’ve seen in movies, TV and magazines: Talking to the producer through soundproof glass over headphones, singing into a “plosive screen”, being surrounded by mounds of equipment for which I’d have a hard time finding the ‘on’ switch…

But it was enjoyable also because it brought out different aspects of me as a performer I never expected. Namely, the aspect of being a singer. Oh, I’m still a crappy singer but I was very proud of how few takes it took me to get a pretty acceptable performance. Sometimes we even settled on a “scratch track”(a placeholder take) as the final take. There is the theory, of course, that since my singing is weak to begin with, it doesn’t take that much effort to reach that bottom rung of the singing ladder. Nonetheless I also enjoyed doing the singing takes much more than anything else. When playing the instruments, I was very conscious about technique and precision. But with the singing, I felt very free and liberated to just pour as much mood and emotion as I could into the vocal performance.

That being said, whoever invented vocal correction technology is a life-saving genius.

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

Looking back at the Blue Blog, I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about this topic before. If ever I had a pre-rehearsed, ranting opinion about something, it is the following:

Accusing an artist of selling out is itself a sellout.

I’m applying this specifically to musical criticisms, like when an artist switches styles, not when an artist hawks an ad or sells their song to a Burger King or a Grand Theft Auto.

First off, the sellout argument has been so over-used that it carries zero weight and tells your listener or reader nothing about your opinion. It’s like being anti-gay marriage and wading into the debate armed only with the already-specious “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” line. It’s lazy reasoning.

Secondly, if a songwriter who’s known for, say, deep, introspective lyrics decides to do a bubblegum pop album, as long as he or she still writes all their own songs, that’s not selling out. If you and only you are creating something artistic, no matter how “commercial” or “mainstream” it is, it’s still coming from your own creative force and that makes it unique and legit…i.e. not a sellout.

I’m saying all this because I’ve found that I’m running out of ideas for songs. Specifically, the lyrical theme of a song…i.e. the subject matter. I’d love to tell you that I’ve had a hard life and that I’ve hitchhiked coast to coast and met every type of man, woman and child along the way and therefore have a wealth of songs buried in me, but the truth is, I’m an average, middle class Canadian. So what does that mean for Blue Blue Satellite lyrics? It means….I lie. If I can’t come up with lyrics from the heart, I will make them up. That’s right. So if I write a song that sounds uber sincere, think twice…I just may want you to think it’s sincere. But, following from my “sellout” theory above, it’s the very fact that I want you to think it’s sincere that makes it sincere. It’s pretty much the songwriting equivalent of movie making. I’m sure Coppola would have loved to capture and chronicle the life and drama of a real mafia family in real-time, but since he couldn’t, he created a fictional account of one. But it doesn’t make it any less of a powerful film.

So here’s the twist. My latest song, “The Storyteller” is a song about all of this. I think the line “but even if there’s one attentive ear / you’ll see it drive away the doubt and fear” sums it all up. In the end, who really cares if a songwriter wrote a song, if it’s in line with their previous work, if they actually experienced what’s being sung, if you’re interpreting it as they intended? If you’re touched by a song, that’s what’s real and that’s all that matters.

I will end this blog now, before I italicize it to death.

Blue Blue Satellite

When it comes to my vocals, I’ve always been the first to admit that it can use work. “Work” is an understatement, it needs slave labour. I’m not  arrogant enough to reject vocal lessons, but until I actually take some, I cover up my weak singing with what I am only too arrogant to claim: great songwriting. But there is another way….

And that way is to add a vocal harmony of a voice that’s better than yours. If you are not familiar with the concept of harmony, it’s essentially the bread and butter of Simon & Garfunkel. Actually, it’s the “bread” of Simon & Garfunkel. The “butter” would probably be, you guessed it, songwriting. So add all that up; great singers, great harmonies, great songwriting equals legendary folk duo. Which is why they’re Simon & Garfunkel and I’m blogging about Simon & Garfunkel.

Anyway, I finally wrote a song that features a prominent vocal harmony by a close friend of mine. She was definitely one of the milestones in the early evolution of Blue Blue Satellite so I’m happy we were able to record this together and have it for the archives. I think our voices blend well and sure enough her quality voice redirects attention from my inferior one. The song is called “The Storyteller” and you can hear it in its entirety here:

http://www.bluebluesatellite.com/tunes/The Storyteller.mp3

Blue Blue Satellite