Songwriting through grief

Me & Mom

It’s wonderful when songwriting can be a focus for our lives,  our raison d’etre.  At other times in our journey, it takes a secondary role as we deal with major life events.  How does a songwriter deal with grief?  How do we allow our hearts to remain open to inspiration and emotion when we carry what can often be crippling sadness of losing someone we love?  This is a question I have personally grappled with as I watch my mother waste away from Lou Gherig’s disease.  Each setback, brings a new level of grief which forces me to readjust my threshold for pain.  Sometimes I have the courage to dive into the turbulent waters of emotion that course inside of me.  Other times I choose Facebook, food, and television to take a break from feeling.

It’s been a 6 year journey thus far, filled with more lows than highs, and as I sit on the cusp of trying to release my sophomore CD, there’s so much I need to push through that I often question if I will be able to make it.  As I continue on this path to an inevitable loss (unless there is a miracle), I sought to learn from peers who have made it to the other side.  I asked three songwriters who have recently experienced the loss of a parent to share about their experience.  Unfortunately, one of them has stopped writing completely for over a year and is just in the process of taking steps out of the pit (and I am secretly rooting for this person).  The other two graciously peeled back the curtain to share how they are courageously moving forward.  Here is the insight of one of them.  The second one will be published later this week.

That’s When It Hits Meby Lynn Harrison 

Lynn with her father.

Writing songs has been helpful to me as I’ve dealt with grief and loss in my life, and I believe that many good songs can be written during bad times.  Because grief is a time of intense feelings such as anger and sadness, it offers rich emotional content—something that’s essential if a song is to have real power and meaning.  When we’re dealing with grief , we really care about something: we have something important to say.  In addition to that, I think that the form of a song, the beauty of it, can ease the pain of loss…can help us glimpse how our losses fit within the larger pattern of the universe. Music always involves tension and release; it comes to a form of resolution which offers solace.

Finally, I think that writing about grief and loss unites us with others. Everyone suffers losses. Not everyone can write about them, but songwriters can. Great songs inspired by grief, whether it’s death (“Tears in Heaven”) or romantic loss (“Yesterday”) or any other form of loss (“American Pie”) help us come to terms with what life is all about.  That said, writing during a time of loss is not always possible—we’re exhausted, under stress, or simply sad.  We shouldn’t feel obligated to write a song at any time!  And yet, if we do feel inclined to pick up a pen or a guitar during difficult times, we may be surprised at what comes out.  It may not be for “public consumption” but that doesn’t diminish its importance.

The song “That’s When it Hits Me” helped me tell some of my dad’s and my story in a way that would be remembered.  It was, in a sense, a eulogy.  On the other hand, writing the song was no substitute for the actual feelings that went along with Dad’s death.  I still have to go through all of them, some of which are confusing and don’t fit neatly into the form of songwriting.

Click Here to visit Lynn Harrison’s Songwriter Profile.

The case for a collaborators agreement

By Paul Irvine

Every year, thousands of new songs are registered with SOCAN as co-writes, the result of songwriters working together to create unique combinations of words and music that the writers hope will capture the public’s imagination.

When it comes to establishing rights in a new song, co-writers and publishers often turn to SOCAN’s work registration form for guidance. This form sets out, among other things, the work’s title, date of registration, the names of the writers and publishers (“shareholders”), and the percentage share of ownership that co-writers and publishers have in the work.

However, even if everyone agrees to their respective ownership shares and files work registration forms for the new work, other situations might arise that could be addressed in a collaborators agreement. This sets out basic rules for the new work and provides a contractual means to further establish and clarify co-writers’ rights and avoid future misunderstandings. Consider the following possible issues.

• If the co-writers are recording artists, independent of one another, co-writer A may wish to be the first to record and release the song. Under a collaborators agreement, co-writers B and C could grant A the first right of refusal to record and release the work, and issue a so-called first-use mechanical licence to A or A’s record company for their respective shares. If this first right to record and release is granted, co-writers B and C might want to specify that it is exercisable within a specified time period.

• If co-writer A were under a recording contract that stipulates, for example, a reduced-rate mechanical royalty (i.e., a controlled-composition clause) and free synchronization licences for promo videos, would co-writers B and C agree to similar royalty reductions and concessions with respect to their shares? If so, should these be limited to the subject recording agreement only? Are there other limitations? Should the non-recording co-writer(s) enjoy the benefit of this right?

• Is the work one of joint authorship — in other words, are the co-writers’ contributions indistinguishable from the whole — or does the work consist of two separate copyrightable elements, such as the lyrics on the one hand and the music on the other? Joint writers in Canada cannot exercise rights in a copyright work without the agreement of the other(s), although this does occur in practice, sometimes to the dismay of the uninformed co-writer.

• Crediting: whose name goes first? Alphabetical order? Is it based on who came up with the initial idea or who made the greater contribution? Or is it a partnership of co-writers who choose a group name (The Matrix) or put the names in the order the writers feel they sound best (Leiber & Stoller, Lennon & McCartney).

• A co-writer and/or his/her publisher may ask for exclusive rights to administer the work, including the right to grant third-party licences and to enter into third-party agreements concerning the work. If these rights are granted, accounting and audit rights should be addressed, in addition to a right of approval with respect to certain uses of the work (in other words, moral rights). Collaborators are subject to their agreements with their performing-rights organizations (e.g., SOCAN), with the author’s share of public-performance royalties paid directly to the writer by that organization, and in accordance with the organization’s rules. The key is that the agreement of all writers must be obtained for joint works if a third party wishes to publish such a work.

• Will the co-writers share the cost of making demo or master recordings? If so, will they co-own the recordings? Are there limitations on the use of such recordings?

This is just an outline of some key issues to consider when drafting and negotiating a collaborators agreement. After all, why not establish the ground rules early?

Paul Irvine is an entertainment paralegal at Sanderson Entertainment Law ( The general information contained in this article is not intended as a substitute for skilled legal advice on specific contractual matters.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author.

Lessons Learned Before the CD Release

Anyone who has ever taken the risk of releasing their own CD knows it is a mixture of stress, joy, and more stress along a steep learning curve, especially with the rapidly changing music industry. While most people spend the precious week before the “Big Day” pulling out their hair as they try to clone themselves to complete all the necessary tasks, Meghan Morrison took a breath to reflect and share what she has learned along the way, as she prepares to release, “We Are All Born Naked.”.  Hopefully it is helpful to anyone else out there who is planning on taking on the weary and wonderful task of releasing a CD.  We look forward to hearing what Meghan has learned on the other side of the release.

In Meghan’s Words…

It is Wednesday, September 21st and there are only 7 days until my CD Release. The clock is ticking! Being still in the thick of it, I have been asked to share some reflections on what I have learned thus far about the process. To be honest, I think I’ve learned more about who I am as an artist, than the process itself… but maybe that’s the best thing to have learned! Releasing an album isn’t just about selling CDs, it’s about knowing who you are and what you want to say. Then declaring it to the world … with confidence.

There are so many things to think about when putting out a new record and most of them have nothing to do with the music: What will the album artwork look like? Who is going to make/design it? Will we do Cds or just download cards? We need a new website design to match the album… what should that look like? Should there be a video to coincide with the release? How can we make that happen on no-budget?  What will the concept be? How do we get lots of people to come to the launch party? How can we get the event out to the press? How do we get the press out to the show? We need to update our bio … oh and photos! We need a new band photo so that we can have an up to date one sheet to send out to reviewers, radio, and venues for that tour we need to book to follow up the release with! Where are we going to play? How are we going to get there? Where will we stay when we’re there? … Can we afford this?

In the end it all comes down to one question: who are you as an artist? The answer to that question guides you when you create your music and it is the best compass to guide you through everything else.    It helps you make the right decisions on who to hire to help you with your PR campaign, record your album, create your artwork, choose the right venues to play in, and take your photos. When you have people who ‘get’ what you’re doing and are passionate about your art, they do a much better job when representing you. But, if you don’t know who you are as an artist, how can you expect them to?

If you are managing these tasks on your own and you don’t know what you’re trying to tell the world (that would be me and my last album … *le sigh*), the process of ‘figuring it out’ and  ‘making it happen’ will teach you more and more each time. Before you choose album artwork just because it’s cool, or accept an offer from someone that can help with the business side of things, ask yourself: Is this/are they consistent with who I am as an artist? Don’t settle on something until you can say yes.

I know I haven’t done this release completely ‘right’ or ‘by the book’, but I know that doing some things ‘wrong’ by established standards is right for me as an artist and I am proud of the album coming out at the end of the month. The process is the product. The process and the product are the artist.

Click Here to visit Meghan’s Songwriters Profile.

Meghan’s release is happening Wednesday, September 28th, at The Velvet Underground, Toronto, ON.

Your Song Needs a Deadline

Christopher Ward is a busy person.  When’s he’s not on the set of Instant Star, he’s busy co-writing as well as serving on the board of the Songwriters Association of Canada.  How does he find the time and headspace to finish the songs he’s working on?  He has discovered the importance of deadlines and wrote a guest blog for us on this subject, which he submitted before the deadline.

In his words…

I hate the idea of writing a song in a rush. Something in me resists the notion of any deadline for the creative process to work its wonders. But is that the voice of the perfectionist or the procrastinator-in-chief speaking? The artistic side abides by the ‘No song before its time’ idea but the pragmatist understands that deadlines are a reality and sometimes… the kick in the pants that forces me to work through fatigue, distraction and sloth to start, and most importantly finish a song.

I’ve seen a lot of young writers paralyzed in the face of actually putting down the guitar, cutting the ribbon and saying, “I now declare this song complete!”. Minus those words, the song can still get better, become perfect and remain above criticism from its creator or others. I remember this feeling well.

So, many choruses under the bridge later, I’m here to say I love a deadline! I create them for myself by setting up writing appointments for which I always come prepared with beginnings of songs and then follow-up dates where something has to be completed.

I’m not a big fan of the so-called ‘writing camps’ which are very popular but I’ve taken part in many of them and organized a few. Some of my most productive co-writing relationships have started there. For the Epitome Pictures show ‘Instant Star’, I helped assemble a team of nine songwriters; we’d meet at the Epitome office on Monday morning with the producers, writers and other creative people to get direction for upcoming episodes. Then, off to write in rotating groups of 3 for a week, at the end of which we’d present our songs at a Friday night party at the producers’ home. There was no obligation to finish every song but you knew the script writers would be mentally casting the songs as they heard them at the party so you wouldn’t want to miss that opportunity. Resistant as I may have been, I wrote some of my best songs at those sessions. ‘There’s Us’, written with Rob Wells, was used in Instant Star, and later cut by the Backstreet Boys.

I interviewed Lamont Dozier of the legendary Motown writing team of Holland, Dozier & Holland (‘Stop In The Name Of Love’, ‘How Sweet It Is’). He told me that Berry Gordy ran Motown like the assembly line that had previously been his workplace. If you were late for the Monday morning meeting, you were out of luck. At the meeting, the writers were told who needed a song and knew that competition and a deadline were part of the deal.

So, why don’t you try giving yourself one and see what happens! Good luck.