Archives for posts with tag: Wen-Jeng Chen

I debuted my two of my newest songs live at an open stage the other night. It’s been awhile since I’ve played live and it was a good feeling to “be back” of sorts. I was at Supermarket in Kensington and this seems like a pretty high profile open stage. By which I mean it’s very much a showcase of people who want to show off. Me included.

It helps that there’s a full band setup on stage so there’s a wide range of musical styles represented. Which is a good opportunity for me to sit back and silently pass judgement on the acts. Yes, I’m that shallow and competitive. But not delusional though and I’ll readily admit that many of the acts schooled me. But mostly because they played a style of music that is very condusive to large, late night drinking crowds who really aren’t there to see you. So up-tempo full-band blues and rock jams always got a good response from the crowd. Singer/songwriters not so much.

But I was comforted in the fact that very few people are doing what I’m doing, which is moody folk songs using a finger picking guitar style. In *my* mind, that says that Blue Blue Satellite is unique. Realistically however, that says that nobody is interested in Blue Blue Satellite’s music. Whatever, while I’m still independent and “undiscovered” I’ll stay true to myself…which is a good thing because I’ll therefore probably be true to myself for a long time to come…

Blue Blue Satellite

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Be forwarned. This is going to be a very music-nerdy kind of post.

I’ve long had an affinity for the pedal steel guitar. You may have seen it if you’ve ever seen a traditional country band and there’s some dude you think is lazy because he’s sitting down, playing a guitar that’s kinda on a table.

Well, that’s the pedal steel. And he’s not lazy. Sure, it’s sweet being able to sit down and play an instrument, but from what I know about how a pedal steel operates, he’s not only playing the guitar with his hands but he’s controlling the volume with his feet and controlling the string tension with this knees…all in real time.

Here’s an example I shot when I visited the Grand Ole Opry a few years back. (link axed for copyright reasons)

Technical skill aside however, the pedal steel creates one of the most beautiful modern musical sounds I know. The only way I can describe it is it sounds like a warm desert wind. Especially when played as accompaniment to a slower ballad. My favorite band Mojave 3 are the masters of this. Unfortunately, pedal steels start at around $1000 and are difficult to learn(I’d imagine) and would be a tough addition footprint-wise for my home “studio”:

My point is for years I’ve been trying to approximate the sound of a pedal steel. I used to use a synthesized midi patch(I think it was Pad 6 (metallic)) to decent results which you can hear on thesecond verse of my song “The Fair’s in Town Tonight”. On my latest song “Thieves”(listen now) I tried a method which I think is the closest yet: using a slide on an electric guitar then tweaking the volume fades using software. And by “slide” I mean “empty wine bottle”. A quick note about the song. I think it’s a good song, not great. Musically, it’s pretty stock but I think its strength is more in the lyrics for a change. But it was a nice benchmark for my new quasi-pedal steel. “Benchmark”? “Quasi”? Wow, I wasn’t kidding when I said it’d be a nerd post.

Blue Blue Satellite

How could I write “My favorite band Mojave 3 are the masters of this.” without backing this claim up?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgdvf4Mzkg8

Ok, I’ll level with you oh anonymous blog reader. I like the FOX TV show “Glee”. They’ve got a nice little thing going there with a fun cast of characters, energetic arrangements of some classic tunes and hoo doggy can that little Lea Michele belt a tune out something fierce!

Recently I was in attendance at the finals for an American Idol-type contest for the Toronto District School Board. The “opening act”(if one can really have an opening act for a high-school knock-off of a reality show) was a choir of mentally challenged students. Yes, there were a lot of polite smiles and cheers but in all honesty they were pretty good and the crowd got behind them. They may not have been Vocal Adrenaline or even New Directions circa Glee episode 1 but as the host, Funkmaster Flex(or something), said, they really showed us the joy of music.

And I guess that’s what I like about Glee. It may not be completely my style of music(quite often it’s the polar opposite) but the spirit is there. Good songs, punctuating the emotional arcs of the characters, delivered with passion and enthusiasm….even if they tend to have the beautiful singers front-and-centre and the aforementioned Lea Michele is an established broadway singer. You know, it’s very telling to just compare the title of this show with another music-oriented show: “Glee” vs. “Idol”. As a musician I can tell you that there is much glee to be had in music. What the hell does being an idol have to do with music?

Blue Blue Satellite

I don’t know if songwriting is a skill or a talent. I tend to think of it as the latter but for society’s sake, I hope it’s the former. That is, something that anybody can pick up with a little instruction and practice. Songwriting is such a wonderful experience. So rewarding, so artistic, so cathartic, so….needed. So when I think of it as a talent that only a few are gifted with, it seems unfair to those those who are missing out.

So here’s my small attempt to let anybody experience the magic of songwriting…I’m going to attempt to break it down into a skill. And I’ll do it by trying to concretely describe how I write my songs.

For starters, you need inspiration. Whatever moves you. The girl, the world…anything. Sometimes just coming up with a title for a song gets the creative juices flowing. This happened to me with my newest song. I thought “Thieves” would make a good title and ran with it.

Then maybe decide how you’re going to approach the songwriting. Are you going to recount the story as a narrative(e.g. Boy Named Sue) or express it poetically and abstractly(e.g. Blowin’ in the Wind)? That’ll get you going on lyrics. And remember, lyrics don’t always have to rhyme.

Next up, melody. If you can hum or whistle, you can invent a melody. My only advice in this department? Make sure it’s not predictable. Melodies are like written sentences. Don’t write the melodious equivalent of “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Finally the accompaniment. Unfortunately this does require you to know how to play some kind of instrument that can do chords. My weapon of choice is the guitar. Piano’s a good one too. To be honest, I’ll often start with the accompaniment(the chord progression) but I didn’t want to turn people off who can’t play an instrument.

And that’s pretty how to write a song. Sure there’s song structure, instrumentation, phrasing, time signatures, rhyming pattern, harmonies, backup singers, tempo, percussion, samples, extended drum solos, weird Coldplay falsettos and mid-song raps to consider, but that’s pretty much the gist of it. At least for Blue Blue Satellite. And if all else fails…steal steal steal. But not from my songs.

Blue Blue Satellite

Popular music is a funny thing. If the idea of being in the right place at the right time was ever apt, it most certainly is for pop musicians.

By contrast, look at sports. No rec league athlete will ever claim to be able to hang with the pros. And if they can, you can bet that they’ll be plucked from obscurity pretty damn fast.

Now back to popular music. I’ve had the pleasure to play on the same bill as and watch some very talented local musicians. Key word being “local”. They aren’t known outside of their own little circle of friends, family and modest fanbase. And probably never will be. Yet if I were to hear their songs on the radio in a set of other, “established” artists, I wouldn’t bat an ear, if indeed an ear could be bat.

Now, I’ve written some good songs. Well hell, I’ve written some great songs! I honestly believe that my songs such as “Sister Rachel”, “Against the Northern Sky”, “The Learning Days” to name a few are all songs that would feel at home in a set of say, Coldplay, Damian Rice or Feist songs. Certainly Jack Johnson or John Mayer. Hell, I’m feeling ballsy…I’d even put those songs up against U2 or Tom Petty.

Delusional? Nope. Bitter? Uh-uh. Blinded by my sad inability to have my music heard by more than 10 people? Hell no. A little cocky swagger never hurt anybody. Just ask Oasis. But at the end of the day, John Q. Softballer will never hit like Barry Bonds. But can “Against the Northern Sky” give, say,  “Hallelujah” a run for its money? I most certainly think it could…

Blue Blue Satellite

A couple of weekends ago I played my first benefit. It was for METRAC, a local organization which raises awareness of violence against women and children(metrac.org).

It was a very fun evening with 20 or so acts going on in a span of 4 hours. Pretty epic but if you think about it, it’s essentially just a by-invite-only Open Stage. But hey, Blue Blue Satellite got an invite, so who am I to judge? It may have been a rapid-fire 10 minute set but it was a great cause.

I was lucky enough to have had a very stable and happy childhood so the thought that there are women and children in my city who are victims of violence or who live in fear thereof, during this time of year especially, is sickening. I hope the money we raised that night does some good.

Regarding the show, I did two songs…tried to keep the mood light, so I did a Christmas song and an upbeat song(covered Sara Melson’s “The Holidaze” and did my own “Photographs and Wine”). I guess it’s a good thing that we only had 10 minutes…any more and I would have run out of happy songs to sing. And if there’s any truth to the “know thy audience” adage, well, a Sunday holiday crowd full of children was no time to be playing my moody, melancholy shoegaze tunes like “The Fair’s in Town Tonight” or “Against the Northern Sky”.

So thanks Monique Barry(organizer), Cadillac Lounge and METRAC for a good time!

Blue Blue Satellite

Way before I started doing the singer/songwriter thing, I was a drummer. Scratch that, I *wanted* to be a drummer. I’d sit on the edge of my bed and air drum. I didn’t just flail my arms around aimlessly, somewhere along the line I actually picked up the mechanics of the drum kit and I’d actually air drum accurately to a song. I have a memory of being 11 or 12 years old and of having memorized perfectly the drum part to INXS’ “New Sensation”. Till this day I still remember some of the fills in the song.

Long story short, I had my first opportunity to drum with a band. I subbed in for my friend’s after-work band. All original songs I’d never heard before, all new musicians I’d never met before.

And I almost choked… Choked at how friggin’ awesome I was!

Somehow, years of air drumming and paying close attention to drum parts and styles and techniques in songs actually translated to the real thing. I can’t explain it…mostly because if I try to, I’d end up claiming I’m some kind of drum savant or that drumming is extremely easy. Two assertions I’m not willing to make.

I used to be a bit sheepish about admitting I spent many an hour air drumming but not only do I feel vindicated now that I know I can hold my own in a band but also this:

http://www.apple.com/trailers/independent/adventuresofpower/

Blue Blue Satellite

I once heard it said that it’s not the amount of applause after a performance that tells you how good it was, but the silence just before the applause.

I won’t pretend that I’ve held an audience spellbound enough to garner that moment of awed stillness, but it does make me reflect on something. For years now, I’ve been playing at Toronto folk venue the Free Times Caf. And more often than not, I’ve had a very rapt, respectful crowd at those shows. I’ve played my trilogy of pretty, sad and pretty sad songs(“Don’t Cry”, “The Fair’s In Town Tonight”, “Against the Northern Sky”) and the room has been dead quiet. It’s quite a compliment and oddly quite a rush for me as a performer.

Lately however, I’ve had a rapid-fire opportunity to play at three different Toronto venues: Cadillac Lounge, Koolhaus and Holy Joe’s. Cadillac Lounge was cool, but the other two, well, I got a dose of reality. The reality of “if they don’t know your music, they’re going to talk over you”. I don’t blame them, really. I’ve always been quite cognisant of the fact that no matter how great I believe my music to be, somebody else will think the complete opposite. Oftentimes, that person will be in the room during your show. Oftentimes that person will have something to say loudly to the person next to them during your set. But as the clich goes: if you can just reach one person…

…And I consistently do. The Koolhaus gig was an expensive advertising fundraiser with high-powered execs with an open bar at 5pm where I was playing off in a corner. I did my thing, nobody was really paying attention, but after I wrapped up my set and was packing up, one of the wait staff gave me a “hey man, nice set” and really, that’s all I need to hear.

I wrote a song, and someone else dug it. Trs cool.

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Coldplay has “Life in Technicolor”, Oasis has “Fuckin’ in the Bushes”…

Instrumental songs to which they enter their concerts…ok, and I’m not sure if Coldplay does but Oasis definitely does.

A few times now, I’ve experimented with different entrances to my shows. Once, I entered from the back of the room playing a song on the mandolin while walking through the crowd(inspired by Travis’ and Guillemots’ live entrances), once I had a sample from a movie play that I thought was apt(inspired by a lot of White Zombie songs) and most recently, I wrote a short instrumental song and used it, not so much as an entrance, but as something to kick off my set and set the stage. Check ‘er out on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sj-H04CvNRI

Once day when I have a bit more money(like, millions more), I’ll enter from an elevator-like platform within the stage to much fog and strobe lights. Kinda like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X2Fot4I094 (R.I.P.)

Thought #2

I used to dislike it when artists would take a song that’s special to you and then really change it live. I remember I saw a live version of “Who Will Save Your Soul” by Jewel once. She took a cool, rootsy folk song that I quite enjoyed and turned it into this pseudo-jazz version which I was so not feeling.

Anyway, being the hypocrite that I am, I’ve been doing this lately with one of my more popular songs: Sister Rachel.

For the record, I now have 4 versions of this song:

1. The “album” version (see this Myspace page)
2. The original live version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KQtH4nPfMM)
3. The slowed down, tuned down, lazy version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZuopGstHRU)
4. The mandolin version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6CynB0xOB8)

I apologize to anybody who has come to a show hoping to hear the version they know and love only to have me mess around with it live…

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I’ve never been a lyrics guy. When I listen to music I automatically focus in on the music, the instrumentation and the general mood of the song. It won’t be till quite a while later that I realize what the song is about. That’s why I’m always surprised at shows when people chuckle at humorous lyrics…I’m always thinking “People are actually listening to lyrics? What did I just miss?” (unless of course, if it’s one of my own shows in which case I’ll usually think “what the? that lyric wasn’t meant to be funny…”)

Paradoxically however, I find that when I write, I do pay attention to lyrics and I try to write as original lyrics as possible. That means not rhyming “world” with “girl”, “sad” with “glad”, “me” with “be”, any -ane word with “insane” and other such pedestrian rhymes. That’s where hip hop can be amazing…they rhyme things I can only wish I had come up with. Like Nas rhyming “CBS” with “See B.S.” or Black Thought rhyming “Young LL” with “hard as hell” with “Gargamel” with “Patti LaBelle” with “madamoiselle”…brilliant.

The point is, I’ve posted my latest song called “The Learning Days” and it’s got my favorite lyric I’ve written thus far:

If memories were able to burn / Would I be a coward with fire or a man with a lesson to learn?

Other favorite lyrics/rhymes I’ve written:
Trouble’s a million miles away / Or is that just my naivete
The cause of this inconsistency / is my attention deficiency
It’s so automatic / life and mathematics

Enjoy the new song…it’s front and centre on my homepage.

Blue Blue Satellite