Inside the Brain of a Canadian Rock Songwriter

With four albums in seven years, two of them gold; 10 Top-10 singles, two of them No.1 and one gold; multiple awards, for best single, video and live group; and close to 800 live shows under its belt, including support slots for the Rolling Stones, Robert Plant, Guns N’ Roses, Nickelback and KISS, the Trews are the Canadian rock band that never rests.

Brothers Colin and John-Angus MacDonald, recently graced the S.A.C.’s Bluebird North Toronto showcase performing some gems from their recently released acclaimed acoustic album, Friends and Total Strangers.  Colin, lead vocalist and one of the songwriters of the band, took some time to answer 20 questions about his thoughts on songwriting.

1. What got you started writing songs? I was just always interested in songs I just tried writing in my teens and loved it and kept going with it.

2. What comes first– the music or the lyrics? It usually starts with a riff, melody and chorus line. I work on the lyrics right up until we’re in the studio recording the song.

3. At what point do you think about the arrangement of the song? When we feel like we have a good riff and melody we start thinking about compelling way to present the song.

4. Where do the lyrics come from? Sometimes it’s just me and other times I’ll co write with Gordie Johnson or Simon wilcox. Both excellent lyricists.

5. Have you ever written to a pre existing lyric? I’m always on the lookout for good words or lines in books, movies, magazines, newspapers, blogs. If I see something I like I jot it down and sometimes it ends up in a song.

6. Have you ever written to a pre existing track? No

7. What are your favourite themes to write about? Relationships of any kind

8.  Is there a concept that you have yet to write about that you’d like to write a song about? I’d like to write a good song about my hometown or old neighborhood

9. Are there any rules to songwriting that you consistently adhere to? Rules kill creativity

10. Is there a songwriting rule that you continually ignore? Discovery is key, when you are inspired by a new sound, song, tuning or instrument you come up with new and interesting things

11. Is there a genre specific “rule” that has enhanced your last couple of cuts? No.

12. Ever suffered from writer’s block? Yes it comes and goes.

13. Any remedies for writer’s block? Alcohol and coffee. Listening to some new music or reading a great book

14. Do you work with a producer on demos or do you self produce? We self produce our demos and we hire producers for our albums

15. What was the track you least expected to place? Our song ‘when you leave’ was placed in a budweiser commercial years ago.

16. What’s the most obscure royalty cheque you’ve ever received? I just cash the cheques

17. What’s your favourite studio experience? Bathouse in bath Ontario was very conducive to the creative process

18. What’s the lamest comment you’ve ever heard in response to one of your demos. I don’t hear a hook

19. What’s the longest period you’ve gone without writing? A month or two, I usually always have something on the go,

20. What’s the strangest co-write experience you’ve had? I wrote with Maestro Fresh-Wes, it was awesome!

How to Make a Music Video with No Budget

Allister Bradley‘s song “What a Day,” is an uplifting song whose story is captured in his video, which placed third in a local music video contest.  How does one produce a music video with no budget, no crew, and limited time? This is a question many independent artists face, so we invited Allister to write about his video-making adventure.  Read on…

by Allister Bradley

I released the song “What A Day” on my second album (“Too”). Shortly thereafter, Kitchener arts journalist Colin Hunter announced a local competition for music videos by independent artists. Entries for the contest had to be newly-shot videos, and the timeframe was only six weeks. Immediately my interest was tweaked… Wouldn’t it be great to shoot a music video? I have thought about visuals for several of my songs, but they get pretty complicated depending on the song. This particular song, though, is a straight-up ‘carpe diem’ anthem which lends itself well to video.

The Challenge
My challenges: no crew, no budget, and very little time. I already owned some semi-pro camera equipment and editing tools, and had some experience with basic video production, so I decided to shoot and edit it myself, begging friends and family for assistance where possible.

The Concept
So, where to start? With a story, of course!
I figured I should plan out the scenes for the video on paper, to convince myself that I could cover all the bases in a short period of time, and that I could shoot it myself or with a skeleton crew of amateurs. I figured out what characters I would need on-screen, what locations I would need, and where I would need help. Plus, I would need to learn more about lighting, composition, pacing, chroma-keying and other editing techniques. All in a few short weeks!I even had a part in the video for my 10-year-old son, Sean – he would play a young Allister Bradley in several scenes. (He would also operate the camera for an early-morning location shoot on a day away from school!) I planned for plenty of visual contrast – day vs. night, still vs. moving, singing vs. character acting, and worked out ways to weave in and out of the contrasting visuals.

The Gear
I did spend some money, by the way – at the hardware store, buying the parts to build a homemade “fig rig”, a camera accessory that serves as a poor man’s steady-cam. Google “fig rig” and you’ll get the picture…Each day, as I carved out enough spare time to shoot or edit segments of the video, I would either shoot static shots with a tripod, or when I could find a camera operator, I’d shoot some moving shots.

The Cast & Crew
One day, it was my wife, Karen, behind the camera. Another day, it was my musical partner, Steve Robinson, and as I mentioned before, Sean pitched in to help shoot video as well (though the fig rig was bigger than he was…). The cast included myself, my brother, Rob, his girlfriend, Krista, and Sean.One of the most complicated sequences was the elementary school sequence at the beginning of the video. Sean was great, doing take after take to get the timing right, even though I had him in a t-shirt and it was only about 3 degrees Celsius outside! I’d wrap him up in a jacket between takes to keep him warm.

The Journey
After getting the outdoor shots, and then working on the indoor shots with special permission from the school principal, it turned out the camera was faulty and all the shots were ruined. I turned to the ‘B’ camera and re-shot the indoor sequence in only a few takes – easy, since Sean had practiced all the movements!  Bit by bit, I continued down the list of required shots, filling in sections of the song and working on editing even before shooting had finished.

As luck would have it, I finished the last of the outdoor shooting only hours before the first snowfall of October, which could have seriously complicated shooting!I finished editing the video in time to enter it into the contest, and the video ended up in third place! I know I’m still an amateur video producer, but I always like to understand a process so that when I hire a professional I can work well with them.

Memorable and Not-So-Memorable Moments
The whole experience was great, filled with challenges and opportunities, and with a little bit of everything entering the mix:- Losing the entire school interior shoot due to a faulty camera, and having to quickly re-shoot with a B camera- Spending hours one night driving through town looking for an existing location with the right lighting for a shot (the night-time, down-lit exterior shots during the bridge of the song)- Shooting a scene (the break-up scene) inside a busy shopping mall without the benefit of crowd control – people thought we were shooting a jewellery commercial…- Using concealed in-ear monitors to sing along with the song while shooting – Building the fig rig and enjoying the steady-motion benefits of using the tool  With a new album nearing completion, I’ll have to start thinking about making another music video soon.

A Yoga Class for Songwriters

Michelle Dumond is our newest Featured Member.  Her songs conjure up a magical vibe that take listeners to distant places and dreams.  While her songs are imaginative and creative, she is well-grounded in her musical and songwriting skills.  We invited her to write some tips and encouragement for fellow songwriters.  Hope you enjoy her “yoga class” for songwriters…

By Michelle Dumond

This may be an article, but let’s pretend it’s a yoga class, OK?  So adjust your tights and get comfortable, we’ll start with a meditation.  You may want to switch off with a friend, guiding you through it.

Sit, spine straight, relaxed tongue, body and breath.  Hold your mind for 10 counts on the delicious breath flowing from the nose.   Bring to mind a blissful experience you had with music (one where others were present).  Connect with the sense of love in the body- the “man, I love You” that happened with your friend.   Connect with the compassion that arose in the heart (you wanted everyone else to be happy too, if they were glum you wanted to uplift their hearts).  Conjure up the sense of joy that rejoiced in witnessing others bliss.  Bring to mind the expansive equal friendliness that saw everyone in that room as deserving of happiness.  These are the 4 infinite thoughts.

Good.  Come back.  Where were you?  At a rave or club?  Swing dancing? With your band?  These feelings of blissful expansion we can feel with music describe the same states we aspire to on the spiritual path.  Applied, these 4 infinite thoughtseeds can blossom into a magical world beyond imagination.  Music is part of all spiritual traditions and until fairly recently, was only used in a sacred context.  It is invisible, fleeting, strongly affecting, personal  and can spark inner and outer revolution.  Music brings us together unlike any other art form.  According to the yogic texts, we can use blissful music experiences to create a life of more of them.  Woohoo!First we have to explore karma and emptiness, however.From a yogic perspective, it is our perceptions that colour a world empty of any inherent meaning or value.  For example, if you want to wreck havoc, tell someone to put on some “good” music, at a party.   The problem, of course, is that one person’s good is another’s MC Hammer…or Elvis, or….get the point?

We have basically three modes: craving, aversion and bliss which correspond to prana flowing in the left, right or central channels of our subtle bodies.  These perceptions of craving and aversion that we experience are of themselves empty too; meaning they aren’t permanent, we aren’t in control of them in the moment and they aren’t random.  They have been generated by our past deeds.  Want to have the perception of a lot of great music flow into your life?  Watch your mind, and root out any and all cases of being critical or divisive in speech or thought.So next time you hear a song and bliss out, know it’s not coming from that song.  Connect with the 4 infinites and send them out.  Offer them to all and sundry.  Bow down to the merit that brought upon this experience.Try it.  See what happens.  Catch you on the dance floor, Angel!

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Visit Michelle’s S.A.C. Profile and hear some of her songs: 
www.songwriters.ca/member/MichelleDumond

The warmth of music during Frostbite

BBN Frostbite
The first Bluebird North at Frostbite Festival featuring Manfred Janssen, Ryan McNally, Kate Weekes and Kim Beggs.

Music and frostbite go hand in hand. Well they did this past weekend anyway. I had the privilege of attending the 33rd annual Frostbite Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon (Feb 18-20). An event that is an immersion into minus 40 celsius and music, the 3 day festival was held at Yukon College and featured such great artists as Bahamas, George Gao, Joaquin Diaz, Kim Beggs, Mississippi Sheiks Tribute, Sarah MacDougall, the Weber Brothers and many others. Frostbite offered more than fours stages for a variety of musical tastes and each one was “all ages” bringing out more than double the number of attendees from last year. Workshops were done on Ukulele for Beginners by Uke-Master James Hill and some amazing jamming was heard in the “Woodshed” room both saturday and sunday.

BBn Frostbite 2
Bluebird North #2 at Frostbite Festival featuring Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas), Nathan Rogers, Sarah MacDougall and Eekwol (r to l). Amazing!

The S.A.C. sponsored two Bluebird North stages at the Frostbite Festival that featured singer/ songwriters Manfred Janssen, Ryan McNally, Kim Beggs, Kate Weekes, Nathan Rogers, Hip-hop artist Eekwol, Sarah MacDougall and Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas). There were two Bluebird North events and both offered audiences a glimpse into the creation of these original songs and the stories behind them. These events were held in the Cafe Degele at the Yukon College to packed rooms. We hope this is the start of a relationship with Frostbite Festival and Music Yukon that will see the Bluebird North event appearing regularly.

A private event was also held at the Music Yukon offices on friday, February 18th offered Yukon songwriters an opportunity to learn more about the S.A.C. business to business music file-sharing initiative. Alot of great questions were asked by participants and the event ended with some wine, food and networking.

Mae Moore takes a “Slow Tour” across Canada

by Guest Blogger:  Mae Moore

I was on my way to perform at the Home County Folk Festival in 2006, waiting at YVR to board my plane. With an hour or so before departure, I went for a pre-flight walk as I always do, or should I say, did. This particular stroll led me to the bookstore and I purchase a book titled, ‘Heat’ by British author George Monbiot. Somewhere over Lake Superior, Monbiot argued that the single worse thing a human being can do with regard to the environment is to fly. Before the chapter ended, I made a conscious decision that the last flight that I would take, would be the one that took me home.

As a touring musician, this has proven to be, well, challenging. Crossing Canada in a van is time-consuming, tiring, dangerous and not always practical if you have a gig in Windsor on a Friday and one in St. John the next day. The upside is that you get to see a lot of this great country of ours. The downside is, well, you get to see a lot of this great country of ours.

When I began to set up my tour in support of my new album, Folklore, I wanted to take my time and not get caught in the frantic buzz of trying to do too much. I wanted to savour the experience this time. I wanted to really connect with the people, see their landscapes, and make real friendships. I am taking the train in March, from Vancouver to Halifax and back, with stops in Toronto, Ottawa, and Winnipeg and shows inbetween, The train is a greener alternative but takes some serious planning, as it does not run every day, unlike it’s European cousins. Train travel in Canada is expensive and would be prohibitive, if it were not for ViaRail’s OnBoard Entertainment Program for musicians. In exchange for two 45 minutes sets a day, Via provides the passage. The rest of the time is mine to write new songs, learn Gordon Lightfoot’s “Great Canadian Railroad Trilogy” or gaze out the window and watch the aurora borealis unfurl.

Click Here to read her bio.

Why Music Theory is like Boating

by Guest Blogger:  Thomas Kovacs

I have to get my boating license next summer.

I bought a book to study for the boating license test. Inside the book is one of the most perfectly worded paragraphs I have ever read that makes a compelling case for the study of music theory!

“Many of the terms used in boating are not common in everyday speech. These specialized words can save time. They can tell in one or two words ideas that might take many words to express. For example, boaters would not refer to another boat as being ‘straight out from the middle of the left side of our boat, and at right angles to our centre line’. They would describe the other boat as being ‘abeam to port’.”

Like boaters, musicians have their own set of “specialized words” that can “tell in one or two words ideas that might take many words to express”. Imagine how awkward it would be if during a jam session you had to tell another musician, “Play an A note, a C note, and an E note all at the same time”! Hopefully, just saying, “Play an A minor” should be enough.

In the early 90s, I studied jazz vocals at Humber College where I obtained a good working knowledge of music theory. Since then, I have been a student of many songwriting workshops and brought my songs to many songwriting evaluations. My knowledge of music theory proved extremely valuable in helping me better understand the workshop instructors and song evaluators whenever they used a “specialized word” from music theory; words like “tonic”, “resolve”, “fifth”, “sub-dominant” and “tension”.

In a classroom setting, an instructor will most likely explain some aspects of basic music theory for those students who need it. Understandably, such explanations are usually done fairly quickly since most of the class time has to be spent on the course material. And of course, outside a classroom, people in the music business simply do not have time to hold an aspiring musician/songwriter’s hand.

Not only has my knowledge of music theory helped me in songwriting workshops but it is also proving very beneficial when working alongside other musicians. I do a lot of solo gigs where I’m free to present a song to my audiences in whatever way I wish. But when I’m playing with other musicians, we all have to agree on how a song will be presented. Doing so requires rehearsal and a lot of communication between band members. I’m currently in weekly rehearsals with a band as the lead singer and acoustic rhythm guitarist. When we work on how to present a song, the other musicians use a lot of musical theory terms with each other. I can far more readily understand and communicate with them because of my background in music theory. In the end, our common language of musical terms makes working on a song a lot easier.

So if another musician suddenly asks me to play the first inversion of the tonic, I’ll know exactly what to do. Just like if next summer another boater asks me to bring my boat “abeam to port” … I’ll know exactly what to do!

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Thomas Kovacs will be presenting a Music Theory for Beginners course at Ryerson University on Saturday, April 16.

Click Here for details.

How to write a love song without cliches

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we’re very excited about having such an unashamedly romantic artist as the Songwriters Association of Canada‘s latest Featured Member and are ever grateful that he took the time to share some of his thoughts on songwriting.  The Globe and Mail has described Reid Jamieson as writing, “Achingly beautiful songs…. a haunting quality not soon forgotten.” Reid is a regular member of CBC’s Vinyl Cafe Orchestra who often steals the show. He recently released his third full-length, all original, and self-funded album, “Staring Contest.”

A visit to Reid’s profile on the S.A.C. website, one is immediately mesmerized by the vulnerability in his performance and the honesty and depth of his lyrics.  Reid is able to be romantic without resorting to cliche.  As some of you attempt to write a love song for your source of inspiration this Valentine’s Day, may we suggest taking a listen to Reid’s music and reading his insights below.

1.  What is your typical songwriting process from start to finish? 90 percent of the time I pick up the guitar and play a chord progression and a melody magically appears. I may stream the whole song and let the passion be my guide. Over the past few  years, if the lyrics don’t pop out fully formed I hand the song over to my fabulous co-writer and manager (and wife), carolyn v.mill. she is a wonderful editor and lyricist who knows my mind and heart. She then adds and subtracts to make the song whole. Or in the case of Rail and By Your Side, I wrote the music and she wrote the lyrics. Two heads are better than one!

2. Your songs maintain a romanticism despite a growing cynicism in society.  How do you write songs that stay tender without resorting to cliche? I grew up very shy and without a lot of interaction with the opposite sex. This made me try harder when I did eventually reach out. One of my ways was, and continues to be, by writing songs. I am happy to say I have a very romantic relationship so that gives me a great inspiration to be saying tender things, and due to the longevity of the relationship – a reason to keep it fresh.

3.  You’ve been compared to Roy Orbison, Jeff Buckley and Damien Rice.  How much have you drawn inspiration from these artists and what other artists have influenced your sound and songs? Its so helpful to listen to, and figure out, what makes other singer/songwriters affect you. Someone like Orbison pulls you in emotionally with his voice and takes you on a journey and never lets go until the song ends. Even then you may have to go and listen again to see how he did it. He had a particular penchant for writing songs that challenged him vocally – I think I do that too. McCartney is obviously a very strong songwriter whose way with a melody is incredible. The sheer amount of beautiful and inventive songs he has created have inspired me since childhood. I am inspired by writers who were inspired by him, like Crowded House’s Neil Finn who like McCartney was not afraid to write a popular song without sacrificing his art. Ron Sexsmith too, a real troubadour.

4. How many songs did you write before choosing the songs on “Staring Contest,” and did you get outside help in the song selection process? Approximately 30 songs and honest feedback is key for sure. Reactions from playing them live to strangers especially, and for friends and the mrs.

5  Do you use any tools for songwriting such as a rhyming dictionary, recording devices, etc.,? The only tool I really use is a little digital recorder to make sure the songs are captured while in the process of creating them. Very helpful in this age of distraction.

6.  What is the best piece of songwriting advice you would give to fellow songwriters? You won’t always know when you are writing what will turn out to be a great song. Let go of your filters and judgements as much as possible. This is where the truly great stuff comes out. AND to also mean what you say! You will feel like a jerk years later when someone asks you what the song is about. I should know!

Click Here to hear his tunes.