Archives for posts with tag: writing

Ok, so let’s all move on from the fact that it’s been over a year since I’ve written. I know, I know…baaaad blogger.

Now then. There’s one thing that my musical exploits have reflected in my civilian life: Food. I suppose food and music have collided in the past…but, well…I’m gonna blog about it.

So the more I got good at “preparing dishes” (as opposed to “making food”), I would find myself busily going about a recipe when I would think to myself “y’know…this could maybe be bammed up with a bit of [random ingredient]”. Sometimes it would work (coffee and rosemary in beef stew) and sometimes it wouldn’t (beef stew and rosemary in coffee). But it’s making a connection between two tastes you savoured independently and then marrying them successfully that’s quite a thrilling and fulfilling accomplishment.

I find that it’s the same for music. When producing or arranging a song, I try to find instruments and sounds that will compliment it but that are also not your most expected elements. Some great examples (well, great to me) are the dark tom tom drums in my song “(Never) Let It Go” or the trumpet part in “It Was Love“.

With no false modesty, I think I’m pretty good at finding these matches. But sometimes, like Bovine Brew coffee, it just doesn’t work out. My latest song release, “Until“, is a perfect example of both a musical match and a music mismatch. Initially I sang the track like you can hear on the demo:


Then I met Lyndsie Alguire and it was nanoseconds between the time I heard her sing and the time I decided that perhaps her voice would compliment the track far better than my pained vocalizations ever could.

Right? 

Darn right I’m right! But despite the Lyndsie coup, the song was still languishing under another misguided musical attempt: the introduction of a harmonica during an instrument break. Despite the old college try from my producer, it still sounds like a braking freight train. Listen again to the above track and skip to 3:19.

Now as you wait for your hair to quit standing on end, enjoy the much better final version where we swapped out the harp for some subtle musical shadings instead of something that sounds like a wounded raccoon.


Voilà! Haute musical cuisine à la BBS.

Keep watching this space as I get back on my blogging horse!

Chef Blue Blue Satellite

Next on our track-by-track tour of The Learning Days…. “Blues’ll Always Be the Blues”.

This is probably the strongest song I’ve ever written. It weighs in at an accessibly bite-sized 2:52, it’s got a nice, moving pace and melody to it while still keeping it wistful, the verses and choruses are tight and succinct without losing any lyrical impact and Anders Drerup’s work on the pedal steel just crushes it…particularly on the solo. Producer Dean Watson also made some great suggestions to Blue Rodeo-ify the track once the solo comes in and I love the pause of anticipatory bliss at 1:48 just before the track really opens up.

“Like stones a-skippin’ on the water / we bounce along but eventually we falter / pick yourselves up sons and daughters”

This is probably one of the best lines I’ve written. Yes, “water/falter/daughter” are far from perfect rhymes but the analogy was truly inspired and is spot-on apt. I feel masterful lyricism needs at least four elements in perfect balance: something that sounds poetic, fits thematically, isn’t predictable by the listener and of course, rhymes. That’s why “girl/world” couplets are such a pet peeve to me; that rhyme is so prevalent in songwriting, it loses much of its poetry and it’s highly predictable so you’re already down 50% in Blue Blue Satellite’s 4 Steps to Lyrical Perfection. And that’s why I humbly submit that the above lyric is a gem because the four elements are at least 81.2% represented.

Now before my head explodes from self-congratulatory arrogance and I start humblebragging that this song made it to the semi-finals of the 2012 Unsigned Only competition and was covered twice in public by two Ottawa area artists, I will leave you with a link to listen to my untouchable brilliance for free: Best. Song. Ever……Ever.

Your move, Gallagher.

Blue Blue Satellite

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

Students, for this post please review Track 2, “(Never) Let It Go“.

This is the actual opening track of the album since Track 1 is a brief, instrumental intro. “(Never) Let It Go” may be my favorite track of the album. I feel the songwriting, music composition and arrangements come together tremendously well and I’m especially proud of the piano and dark sounding tom-tom drums in verse 2.

From a lyrical standpoint, I was experimenting a bit with this song. I was trying to emulate what many rappers do, namely switch up their rhyming schemes mid-verse. I think it works…even without the typical rap “uh-huhyeah boyeec’mon“‘s and of course, references to Lord of the Rings.

This is the first of four tracks that Anders Drerup, of the Ottawa-based band The Claytones, plays pedal steel on and anybody who tells me that the steel work on the song doesn’t just bring some serious beauty can get beaten by a bar of Dove soap in a pillowcase.

Untitled-4

The inspiration of such rappish rhyme schemes such as “See that setting SUN, another day is DONE just like the other ONES / I wish that it would LAST, the PAST becomes my FOE, but I’ll never let it GO.”

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’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