Archives for posts with tag: songwriter

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.

Two great European narcotics: alcohol and Christianity. I know which one I prefer.”  – The Streets, “Never Went To Church“.

I’ve heard variations of this statement over the course of time. And usually it’s a bit of an irreverent way of eliciting a “yeahhh booze, woo!” kind of reaction. And it rarely fails. You won’t hear a “yeahhh, Christianity, woo!” too often. Well then, allow me break the mold: Yeahhh, Christianity, woo!

Seriously. I do identify myself as a person of the Christian faith and unlike nouned pseudonym cohort Mike “The Streets” Skinner, I’ve indeed been to church. Weekly as a matter of fact.

Why do I bring this up? Because the penultimate track from my record, Against the Northern Sky, is actually 1/3 a Christian song about the constancy that can be found in God. With the other 2/3 made up of homage to Nick Drake’s Northern Sky and this scene from Futurama(spoiler alert if you haven’t seen Season 4):

You wouldn't expect to find poignancy in paper balls thrown at crotches and purple haired cyclopeses in evening gowns, but, well, here we are. (spoiler alert if you're actually watching Futurama season 4 for the first time)

Crumpled paper thrown at crotches and purple haired cyclopeses in evening gowns. Was I really writing seriously about God a sentence ago?

I’m not a huge fan of contemporary Christian music as a genre though. I find it doesn’t quite capture the profundity of faith in today’s day-and-age. And musically I find it kind of trite. It serves a purpose I suppose, but there are some stellar examples of music about religion that I prefer. And that’s the kind of “religious music” to which I hope Against the Northern Sky belongs.

Keytar!

Most of the strings in the song is me on my violin. However, at about 2:50 some strings come in at a very high register. These strings are being played by the king of campy 80’s electronic music, the synthesizer.

Play that synth boy! er, girl...?

Play that synth, boy! er, girl…? er…Michael Myers?

But at 3:30 I come back in with my violin and it was a bit of a gamble but the play between the fake strings and the real strings is kind of interesting I think.

So listen to the religious-leaning synth-driven tour-de-force here before we move on to the final track of “The Learning Days”!

Blue Blue Satellite

Still with me? We’re trudging towards the end of the track-by-track analysis of my 1-year-old debut album The Learning Days. Will there be a reward at the end like those three-second hidden scenes after half an hour worth of credits at the end of superhero movies? Test your endurance over a few more insipid blog posts to know for sure!

So if I HAD to choose one song that I felt could be excluded from “The Learning Days”, it’s probably Science and Progress. I’m pretty open with the fact that many of my songs have very specific influences but Science and Progress takes it to a whole new level:

  1. The title and lyrics are directly based on Coldplay’s The Scientist
  2. The huge swell at the end is very much based on the huge swell of this very obscure song.
  3. The scream-y part during the swell that Dean wisely brought down in the mix was very much based on Glen Hansard’s much more capable scream-y part in When Your Mind’s Made Up
  4. The drum beat is very much based on the Verve’s litigious 90’s masterpiece Bittersweet Symphony.
  5. I used to say that this song is a sequel to Coldplay’s The Scientist. Song sequels themselves being a concept I stole from Metallica.

So what I’m saying is that I probably thought I was very clever creating this Frankensteinian monster of a song from stolen bits of mostly mainstream songs and included it on the record as a “hey, look how clever I am”. But if I remember my Frankenstein, which I don’t but am quite capable at looking up Wikipedia articles, it don’t end too well for anybody. The old timey-hot Bride of Frankenstein notwithstanding.

Untitled-2

Chicks with their hair on fire. Marriage material for reanimated corpse monsters and singer/songwriters alike apparently.

Blue Blue Satellite

For the life of me, I can’t remember why I wanted Thieves to have the little intro in the form of Things Stolen. Regardless, it’s there and its lyrics can actually be sung to the tune of Green Day’s Good Riddance(Time of Your Life) because in one of my earliest attempts at songwriting I always felt that song lacked a verse and I took it upon myself to write it. So the 20-second track is really just an inside reference Easter egg that only I would ever get. Classy.

The whooshing sound at the end of the track is actually a car going by outside since we were recording in the more open and un-soundproof upstairs church space. It worked out nicely since its timing at the end helps transition into Thieves….which now helps me transition to, well, Thieves.

“Gutter Folk”

Thieves wouldn’t be what it is today without one Jeremy Owen, a local Ottawa troubadour and inventor of “Gutter Folk”. His arresting songs are visceral and raw and he’s a cool cat to watch live. Even though I wrote Thieves back in Toronto, I never really got it and sort of wrote it off. But Jeremy got it and really re-introduced me to the song. Not only did he get the song, but he did so in an unfathomable way: I played it at an open mic night where I got through the first verse, hopelessly forgot the second and promptly abandoned ship and stopped the song. Before I could start the painful process of wiping the embarrassing performance from my mind, Jeremy approached me and said he loved the 30 seconds I didn’t screw up, wanted a copy of the demo and actually covered it at a subsequent show. And it’s from his performance that prompted the metamorphosis of the song from an uninspired 3/4-time affair to a soul-baring tapestry of woe captured in song. Thank you Jeremy.

2 am: a good time to start mixing

The other amusing story occurred during the mixing process. Thieves was the last song producer Dean and I worked on. And it was my last day in the studio, going on 2am and we hadn’t touched Thieves yet. Grudgingly and grumpily digging in for what seemed like an inevitable all-nighter, we first gave the track a quick listen. Dean almost lost his shit when, at the second verse, all the instruments came in already beautifully mixed. We had both forgotten that we had worked on the track previously and A LOT of the legwork was already done, meaning we’d probably be able to get home at a very reasonable 3am, play some xbox, get a good 3 hours sleep and f*** the dog at the day job the next morn fresh as a daisy.

These are the stories of Thieves. You’ve read them. You can’t un-read them.

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

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…

I really thought I was keeping the Toronto pre-release show pretty simple. And I believed this right up to a few days before showtime. Although I probably should have known better as I left my apartment in Ottawa.

It's schleptacular!

What I should have known was that I had to coordinate the set up of a rental P.A. system, a slideshow intro for two performers, that two out-of-town couples were well taken care of, three never-before-used stomp boxes, lighting logistics, a constantly changing guestlist and of course, the worst weather(or weather warning) of the season. Add to this the fact that I was trying to deal with these details with a shirt, tie, sweater and fitted faux-leather bomber jacket on, and it was quite the ordeal. Albeit a very fashion forward ordeal.

So what began as a musical extravaganza featuring a few bells and whistles became The Bells and Whistles Super Stress Show, featuring a bit of music. But that’s okay because the music served an oasis of calm in the middle of gigzilla. I was hardly nervous at all and yes, technical glitches did occur but I tried and hope I succeeded in moving past all of it with professionalism to deliver an entertaining show.

It was fun to be a headliner for the first time and to have a class-act like Kristine St-Pierre be my opening special guest. It was also fun to call her up during the encores à la George and Elton in “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” Also, the beauty and uniqueness of the venue helped distract the audience from, oh, say, daisy chained pedals disconnecting from each other in mid-air and crashing to the unforgiving floor with the even more unforgiving PA system amplifying the cacophony as if to say “Hey Blue, maybe plan a little better next time, yeah?

Nonetheless, the things people actually said to me at the end of the night was just all kinds of nice and made me feel like it was all worthwhile. And you know what? It was. Even if the grand piano’s supports had given out and crushed my legs and carefully colour-coordinated pants, it would have been worth it. Because having your own professionally produced debut CD, releasing it in your hometown to attentive, close friends and family and hearing their words of praise, encouragement and support can only make you strive onwards and upwards.

Thank you attendees. It was my humble honour to share some music with you for an evening. We’ll do it again. Soon.

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

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

So my studio time has ended. We didn’t quite finish everything up so I’m going to have to go back in to record one last track. Then comes the editing, mixing, mastering and the most important part: running the entire record through the T-Pain Super AutoTune 5000™.

But I can tell you the tracks that we recorded, thus officially revealing the tracklist for The Learning Days:

(in alphabetical order)
1. (Never) Let It Go
2. 30
3. Against the Northern Sky
4. Blues’ll Always Be the Blues
5. Do You Remember Me?
6. Don’t Cry (Tonight)
7. The Fair’s in Town Tonight
8. The Learning Days
9. Science and Progress
10. Sister Rachel (a.k.a.: “Inter-racial”)
11. Thieves

Going to take a little travel hiatus but it’s going to be nothing but The Learning Days, The Learning Days, The Learning Days once I’m back and hopefully the record will be finished just in time to cheer y’all out of the winter blues(…or drive you deeper into them, depending on which tracks you listen to).

Blue Blue Satellite