Archives for posts with tag: songs

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

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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…

Inspiration hit this weekend and I wrote one last song for the record. It’s a little risky to put it on the record so soon after writing it, because I could just be suffering from the songwriting equivalent of beer goggles. But at the very least it’ll be a different kind of song. In fact, it’s different from any previous song I’ve written mainly due to one factor which I will leave for you to discover when the record comes out in who-knows-when. The song will probably be the album closer and I wrote it with that in mind and I do think it’ll give the album a nice sense of finality.

Anyhoo, after a brief African hiatus, I head back to the studio for a few sessions this week to hopefully turn the who-knows-when to Wen-knows-when. I’ll tell you this though…that original November 26th I hoped for was waaaay off. There’s much work to be done and now that I’ve got the new Coldplay on my mind, I’ll no doubt be asking my producer for the Enofication of my tracks. So, soaring choruses about skies and birds with tons of ambient effects and a lot of “whoo hoo”‘s and “whoa oh”‘s. I can just see him sadly shaking his head when I start singing in a falsetto.

Blue Blue Satellite

On Friday, a professional musician came in to the studio and played pedal steel on a few of my songs. Just hearing a professional touch playing an instrument I adore on a song that I wrote was an unforgettable moment. Goosebumps, chills, tears…bodily functions were at peak flow. And although that last sentence has a powerful lack of eloquence and subtlety, I can assure you that Anders Drerup’s touch on a handful of my songs was as eloquent and subtle as a Shakespearean ninja(i.e. very eloquent, very subtle).

And let’s not forget a few days prior when Tim Watson stopped by to add some drums to a track as well. I just watched the video footage I shot and as it started I thought to myself, “Weird, I don’t remember listening to a kickass rock song in the studio”…then it dawned on me that it was my song with Tim beating the hell out of the skins for the track. A monster on the kit making a monster out of the song…and again, let me assure you, that is a good thing.

I blogged awhile back that I’d probably cheap out and muddle through all the instruments myself in order to save a couple of bucks. Am I glad I didn’t, and that I got these two gentlemen in because once you have the real deal on the tracks it just kicks it up several notches. I can’t wait to hear it all mixed and mastered… It. will. be. EPIC.

Blue Blue Satellite

…or to use the correct terminology I recently learned: “making my first record”. Which is weird, because I will be essentially recording my first CD. Regardless, allow me formally announce it:

Dear friends, in the next few months I will be making my first record. Although I am still very much an independent artist, my intention is to do this in as professional a manner as I am able. I have spoken to a local Ottawa producer, Dean Watson, who is well respected, connected and has a good track record and we have agreed to proceed with this project in the September time-frame. I have budgeted a significant amount of money for the entire initiative and even if this record turns out to go nowhere, I feel a need to do this now and to do it seriously and to do it right. And so, I am going to do it.

I’ve tried to be pretty low key in the past about pushing all things Blue Blue Satellite(that’s my stage name, for the uninitiated) but as part of my commitment to doing this project right, alas, I’m going to have to step up the self-promotion. I promise I won’t just cram it down your throats and be like “buy my CD, buy my CD, buy my CD, buy my CD, buy my CD.” I will try to offer something engaging and insightful that will hopefully keep you rockin’ along with me as I strike out on this endeavour.

I know I’m making a big deal out of this. And I know that most of you probably know people who have put out records of their own so it’s kinda like: “meh”. Still, I hope you’ll be willing to share in my excitement and be interested in joining me as I take this little journey. Or rather “continue this journey”…a journey many of you have been on at the important moments so please stick with me a little longer…at least until I can garner more than dozen YouTube hits.

Blue Blue Satellite

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(buy my CD, buy my CD, buy my CD, buy my CD, buy my CD….when it comes out)

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.