SLOW BLEW

SAC Songwriting Challenge : 6 in 6 (really 7 in 6).

I’ve stepped into the SAC pool for the second year to push even further beyond where I push myself on a daily basis. Already challenged by the volume of writing I am doing outside of challenge, curiosity has got the better of me and I’ve stepped (crazily perhaps) into this years challenge because I was hesitant to miss the party. And why? To see what else is waiting in me to be written. To reach beyond the beginnings of songs I have already stumbled across and started or have squirrelled away in my phone, my notebooks or on random frantic bits of paper. To be inspired and fueled by the “ask” of the assignment and its parameters. To challenge myself to see where that takes me. And to see who else is walking along the same road.

2014 SAC 6-in-6 Challenge

The challenge last year found me 6 new songs that I was very happy to write, one of which was a solid co-write (“Turn” with North Easton). I happened across some great songwriters whose paths I might never have crossed if not for the challenge and my life is that much brighter for having come to know them. A few of these songwriters I now work with on an on-going basis and our worlds have taken on a different shape because of it. The challenge last year had a waterfall of positive impact on my writing and songwriting career – illustrating to all the writers in the group, that regardless of your level of songwriting, there’s value in putting yourself out there, to seizing opportunities to learn, to moving your songwriting forward and to the possibility of falling into great alliances.

Enter Matt Dusk.

The first challenge “ask”. An intriguing song request for Matt Dusk. I’ve been familiar with Matt’s music since I had the pleasant opportunity years (many years) ago to happen across and meet Matt at the Toronto Beach Jazz festival where I happily walked away with his album thinking ‘this guy’s got something good going on”.

I’m a slow brew on this song request. I’ve listened to the songs Matt has provided to better understand where he sees his groove evolving. I’ve immersed myself in his music to get a sense of who he’s been and who he is now. Matt floats in the background of my life as I listen, ask questions and percolate possibilities. Listening for the in-between – I am searching his music for the underlying feel and space of Matt Dusk. And amidst a sea of words that swim inside my head  - I am waiting for the right words to speak to me on this one.

North Easton and I have decided to team up on Matt’s song challenge. After what was a rather rocky start last year, North and I have found a unique groove in our collaborative approach and have been writing and continue to write, some pretty decent songs. It just seemed to make sense that we would write this song together.

Here’s a song written recently by North and I “Deeper than the Ink”. Enjoy.

CO-WRITING WITH SCOTT MACKAY

Through a Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) Songwriting Challenge, I discovered Scott MacKay from PEI. Scott is a very talented, emerging singer / songwriter and I was extremely impressed with his tender, stirring and dark songs – his voice – undeniably Scott. Butter sweet, bitter smoke, I was quick to dub him “Bublé of the Bayou”. And like North Easton, Scott’s was a voice I was inspired to write for.

One day, after the challenge was over, a message appeared on my phone “interested in writing a song?”.
And so we were off and running.

Scott sent me a list of possible song ideas and a note that he liked songs that are clear / clever – that his goal was to write songs that are real speak so listeners are quick to understand – but at the same time songs that carried a highly original concept. Hank Williams, Loudan Wainwright the third, and Johnny Cash were examples he sited.

After perusing Scott’s titles and one-line descriptors – I emailed back that I had quickly gravitated to a few ideas, but in particular, his concept “Hearse. A humorous account of a hearse bringing someone to the grave. Tire goes flat, they run out of gas, etc.”. And as with anyone I’m writing with / for, I immersed myself in whatever music of his I could to get a better feel for his delivery and a deeper insight into his songwriting.

With Scott currently residing in Calgary and me in Toronto, distance meant that email and Skype would enable our collaboration. I do find this a bit of a cold aspect to long distance co-writing as I much prefer that once into the nose-to-nose work that my co-writers, their heartbeat and their energy, are right in the room with me. But given some my previous experience with North, I was better acclimatized to working via Skype.

I can’t emphasize how important it is to just take time to talk to each other. Not about the song or the work – just things – life. Learning about each other is so crucial to working together. This is especially important when you’re on the other side of a monitor and a mouse.

Scott sent me some rough lyric thoughts to get the process moving along. Entitled “Long Road to My Grave / Scenic Route to the Grave” – Scott’s lyric rough was written from the deceased’s perspective and the trials and tribulations of getting to the graveyard. My question to Scott after receiving his lyric was – “Yes, but WHO is in the coffin?” Percolating on the idea, I rolled it over and over in my head – until the idea of a less than perfect preacher came to me. Yes! I responded to Scott with – Possible Title : “A little late to Pray”, with a first round of lyric and a note setting the scene – “A good looking, über friendly preacher, clearly popular (particularly with the women, but not overtly so in public), has died. There seems to be a challenge in getting him to his grave. Gee that’s odd. He’s a preacher. He was so young and healthy. How did he die?
Ah yes, that is the question.”

Sometimes lyrics are a line-by-line soul wrenching process – and then other times they land easy. Once I had the image of where I wanted to go and a chorus I felt was at the heart of the song, I just flew. So quickly in fact that Scott was quite taken back by how fast and how finessed my first version was. Scott was extremely enthused and inspired with the storyline and the lyric. Excited I searched online for backwoods banjo music and played it over and over in the background as I transported myself into the scene – onto the road with the hearse, the driver and the preacher. Hand off to Scott to start the music. When I’m writing lyrics I almost always have an idea of how the music will sit, which is how I build the lyric and structure of the song. However, I didn’t share the music I had with Scott, as we had determined that Scott would drive the music with the intention of him singing. So I wanted him to reach in and find what worked for him. Ironically, when Scott played me the song for the first time – it was pretty much the same melody I had been working with – which we were both a bit dumbfounded by.

There were about 40 emails back and forth and about 4 Skype sessions to finesse and complete the song. The chorus stayed much the same from the first version throughout our finessing the lyric together. We decided to eliminate portions of the song that delved too much into the preacher’s story and decidedly simplified and focused on the ride to the gravesite. In the end this served the song better. We spent time discussing the music structure as in “did we really need a bridge or would an instrumental and two lyric lines out to the final chorus do the trick”? I have a producer / engineer that I work with in Toronto (Ted Onyszczak), so it made sense to have Ted produce / engineer the song. With the beauty and convenience of technology, Scott laid down vocal and banjo tracks in Calgary and emailed them to Ted. Ted provided a rough concept, which included proposed instrumentation based on music / mood/ style examples Scott and I had provided him with. With the three of us in agreement on the direction, final tracks were coordinated and recorded. Mark Kelso (drums) having his own studio, provided and emailed tracks and Pat Rush (slide dobro, bass) came into the studio. Mixed and mastered, 3:52 minutes grown out of an inspired collaboration.

Rather an odd irony to our story, is the Preacher image I sourced to support the song on my website. Coincidently entitled “Preacher”, the existing image was shot by photographer Steven Ferguson, from Ireland. I was initially informed that there could be a 6-week delay in obtaining the rights to the image due to a requirement to have a signed model release before the agency could release the image. However, only days later I was informed that the shot was available to use, and that a release was not necessary. This, due to the fact that the subject in the image was, recently deceased.

It was a great experience working with Scott and we’re both truly happy with the outcome of this collaboration. Scott’s open demeanor and enthusiasm were key to the success of this song. And so we’re now moving onto our next song collaboration. The song at the middle, we will continue to learn more about each other and perfect our songwriting process. All good.

“A Little Late to Pray” is available to listen to in the “HEAR” section of my site www.rbtsong.com

CO-WRITING WITH NORTH EASTON

Every song is a journey – at the middle of which is a compelling statement, an engaging story, an emotion. Set to a melody – it’s your perception, your belief, what you struggle with, or towards – your aspirations. And whether the song reveals your deepest corners or is a story captured and told through your eyes – whether it’s your song to sing or for someone else to sing – at the heart of the song, is you.

Challenge accepted
In February I received a Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) email about the 2014 Songwriting Challenge hosted by Christopher Ward. Six songs in six weeks with almost a hundred writers participating. My brain ramped up, I held on, and wrote and wrote and wrote as the songs came to me.

The final weeks’ challenge – to collaborate with another writer in the group. Although I’m no stranger to co-writing, I’ve become pretty entrenched in my solitary writing ‘space’. So collaborating with someone I didn’t know and anticipating that it was likely going to take place over Skype, I thought was going to be completely out of my comfort zone. However, determined to successfully complete the challenge, I reached out to singer/songwriter North Easton from Ottawa. I had been intrigued with North, and the songs he had been posting throughout the challenge. I also very much admired the intensity, emotion and tone in his voice. Genuinely talented – this ‘might’ work.

Enter North
One week, one song with very little time to spend working on it – North and I were literally thrown together into virtual space with our individual styles.

We both agreed that a photography exhibit by Boston, Massachusetts photographer Trent Bell was of interest to write about. Bell had created a series of powerful portrait images that showed what a group of prison inmates would tell their past selves if they could turn back the hands of time. Each inmate asked to pen a letter to their past selves, Bell edited their letters into the background of their portraits, serving as powerful testaments to their regrets, their mistakes and their new-found wisdom. I was truly inspired by this body of work, as was North.

Now … North works on an ongoing basis with writers of all levels who look to him for his songwriting experience, expertise and guidance. He too has amassed a considerable catalogue of songs over his career and of course, established his own methodology for writing songs. After our initial conversation on Skype about our ideas and intention for the song, we both set off on our own to write. Feeling confident in North’s ability to drive the music, I focused my energy on building the story and lyric. Reading and rereading the prisoners letters, I felt their angst as I emotionally transported myself into the cold dark cell to sit on the cot and stare out the window. Meanwhile, North, excited with the potential in the song, quickly grabbed his guitar, climbed into his studio and sent me back an almost completed song – excited and confident that he had captured the ideas we had discussed. However, I had also written a lyric which I felt better captured what we needed to portray.

Battle on
“This is not going to be easy” – a sentiment shared by us both. In fact, after our 2nd Skype session, with me standing my ground and North his – I was pretty sure I was going to end up writing my collaborative song all by myself. Clearly he was inflexible and this wasn’t going to work. And North was thinking pretty much the same thing about me. With the song at the middle we started talking, opening up, truly listening to each other, North agreeing that the direction of my lyric would serve the song better. And so with one week to complete the task, we battled back and forth, working nose-to-nose, each of us bringing the strength of our writing styles to the table. Our mantra “in the spirit of collaboration” was repeatedly mentioned (muttered) to underline changes we wanted, or would agree to. With barriers down, we experienced the magic and pure energy of the song unfolding and taking on its own life – each line, each note, getting stronger as we analyzed it, together.

“Turn”, is a song with passion and purpose. A song we both agree is some of the best work either of us has done. In fact, I sent it to the photographer with a note about the songwriting challenge, letting him know how far his reach had been with his “Reflect” project. His reply to hearing the song “I have not words. I could only cry as I listened”. Trent has since informed us of his plan to create a documentary around his “Reflect” project and has asked to use “Turn” in his soundtrack.

There’s an underlying magic in what North and I have working together – I’ve been writing long enough to recognize it when I see it. It was, and continues to be a rewarding experience working with North. As fate would have it, we now work together in weekly writing sessions and are in the midst of building some street cred for our songwriting alliance. And the challenge of long distance writing while not ideal, seems to fade into the background. I’m thankful that technology enables us to write together, however, I just know that if we could be 2 heartbeats in a room, our writing would fly even higher.

Since Turn, we’ve written “Deeper than the Ink” and “My Nicotine” which we’re in the process of recording, and we currently have more new songs in the works. While we continue to be two alphas in a virtual room, most importantly, we both greatly value what each of us brings to the collaboration. And because of this, we’re smiling more.

“Turn” is available to listen to in the “HEAR” section of my site www.rbtsong.com

I’m hoping to get Trent Bell’s “Reflect” project to show in Toronto. Will keep you posted on that.

rbt

LIFE IS TIMING

I had a friend tell me recently – “life is timing”. Stepping out, stepping in. Time has its own plan. And so it seems, it’s my time to turn the music back up. Not unlike a sea of musicians who pay their dues and struggle to play for their supper, I spent most of my younger years wearing the singer, songwriter badge, following signs on the highway to wherever managers and booking agents pointed me. My cloth is cut from years of riding the road with players and crew who were like brothers. Playing venues that sometimes brought in the lone guy who nursed a beer all night looking for the ‘dancers’, to fully packed houses with all eyes forward. The phenomenal energy of stepping out onto the stage with the band – every note, light and flashpot striking in perfect unison. And, well, there were other nights too :-O Despite my romance with and confessed addiction to performing live, always at the heart of me, was my songwriting.

Fast forward. Album released, music career intentionally shelved, passion diverted, a family, a business, 3 dogs, 4 cats, lists of lyric lines, occasionally tuning my guitars. And now once again, the music is calling. Driven by a simple spark and ignited with the revised intention to write songs for other artists. Funny, this was something I used to balk at back when because I was writing “all the songs for me”. And without any aspiration to pack a bag and head back out on the road full time or ambition to promote myself as yet another re-emerging recording artist – I’m liberated.  I look at the songwriter moniker on my homepage and feel calm. Crystal clear. To be back in the studio working with old and new friends / players is pure utopia. Absorbed in writing I watch mere moments slip away into hours (I love that). And, I’m Inspired in my new collaborations with the amazingly talented singer / songwriters I’m working with – something I’ll touch on more in future blogs.

As for playing live … who knows. Timing.

What I do know is – I’ve come back to the music – and it feels like home.

rbt