My moment will come! A songwriter muses on his journey of perseverance

Gary P, the Songwriters Association of Canada‘s current Featured Member, share some critical steps he has made in preparation for the moment he is waiting for.

In Gary’s Words…

I think back on my ongoing pursuit of a career in music and I remember that I have actually sacrificed and achieved more than I thought so far. I quit my 2nd year of a 4 year University course for Computer Science and had I continued I’d be a 4 time millionaire! It was “day 1” for computer design in 84. I chose to go to Musicians Institute in LA and worked for a year as  bartender to save up my rent and tuition. Fate stepped in and after applying I was awarded the Lenny Breau Memorial Scholarship to MI/GIT which covered my tuition for the year.

At that point even my sceptical musical father said: ” Well you ARE extra talented. Go for it and good luck son.”

We all beat ourselves up as we go through the ups and downs of a musical pursuit but we need to remember we do it because we LOVE music whether it be performing, writing or recording. I happen to love all three. It occurred to me after the recent release of my 2nd album as a singer/songwriter that yes I’m an independent artist swimming in a pool of millions of fishies and do not have a deal or a song placed / published but “Holy crap: I have an Album on Itunes, My 1st single is on the International Acoustic Music Awards compilation CD with the Trews in the US, I’m the featured artist on the SAC web homepage and my Album release concert is 2 months away where I will front my OWN band doing all my own music.” WOW. I have actually achieved more than I realized!

There are days I wish fame and fortune would scoop me up in its whirlwind! There are days I hear one of my own songs and tear up with pride that I am so blessed. There are days that I wonder why bother because success will never find me at this age. Then I write a new song thats stronger than my last. I smile at my accomplishments so far and I pat my own back for all the hard work I have done. I think of all the artists who have quit or had to quit due to life circumstances or choices and I’m so grateful to be an active independent recording artist!

David Francey reminded me at a songwriters seminar that success can come any time. Stick with your passion and keep writing and writing and writing. I support my passion / music career with a full time job and dream of becoming a full time singer songwriter more than anything.

I cannot imagine my life without music and will continue to grow as an artist. Should success come my way I will remind myself that Lady Luck had her way with me but I also pursued her my whole life. I will thank her with all my heart at the Junos for holding my hand along the way but allowing me to work toward my own destiny with my own vision, originality and love for my art. As I dream of success I thank my lucky stars for all the great gifts I have achieved so far.

For all of us who write and work and work and write….. Keep at it!  Our time will come.

Click Here to visit Gary P’s Songwriters’ Profile.

SongWorks Vancouver, Day 2 Play-By-Play

Mario Vaira, John Pippus, and Rachel Suter listening intently to their creation at SongWorks Vancouver 2012.

John Pippus, winner of the coveted Open Chair at the Songwriters Association of Canada‘s professional songwriting camp, SongWorks, gives us a look at day 2 of his adventure which happened last week.

Day Two

9:30AM Arrived on time. Bagel and coffee and a bit of chit chat then off I go with my assigned three-person team to write another song. How could there be a better way to spend a late November day? Today I was matched with Mario Vaira and Rachel Suter. Mario is a nice guy. Tall, soft spoken and thoughtful. He’s been nominated twice for a Juno award and writes music for movies, TV, and video games, among other projects. Rachel, more than half my age, knows the urban/pop scene, and divides her time between Los Angeles and Vancouver. She hit songwriter pay dirt recently, getting a song cut by Victoria Duffield and Cody Simpson. The big budget video for “They Don’t Know About Us” has racked up over 120,000 plays on YouTube in less than two weeks.

10:30AM We settle on a simple but catchy finger-picked four-chord sequence that I brought along with me. Double drop D, partial capo on the 5th fret. Mario says he’ll spend the next hour building an intricate beat pattern around it. Rachel is used to this way of writing. For me, it’s all new. She mentions the top line will come later. “What’s that?” I ask. She tells me it’s the melody and words. L.A. talk. Urban beats. I’m way out of my zone. And loving it.

12:30PM The four chord pattern, processed so that it no longer resembles my recorded guitar part forms the chorus. We still don’t have words, or even a concept. Rachel doesn’t seem concerned. But around this time she looks up from her computer and says she’s inspired by Omar, one of our fellow writers. He’s high energy and has been cracking us up with his spontaneous dance moves. Rachel says, “how about ‘we don’t need no dance floor’ for an idea”? Mario and I blink once, and say let’s go for it. Mario suggests we take a five-minute writing break and get down ideas around our theme. The music pattern plays over and over as we separately write random ideas around Rachel’s concept. I fill a page with lines like,”move with me on the street”, “the lights of the city sparkle and shine” and “move cuz you feel it”. Rachel is singing under her breath, “we don’t need no dance floor” and “feels so good tonight”.

1:30PM Lunch. I’m excited with what we’ve come up with so far. I plow through a serious portion of prawn vindaloo with naan bread and rice. The group gossips about Carly Rae Jepson’s latest developments. Omar does a rendition of Jesus Christ doing a cover of “Call Me Maybe”. Rachel gets it on her camera. I hope it shows up on YouTube.  Soon we’re back at work. We write verse lyrics, mostly I stay out of it, suggesting a line here and there but Rachel and Mario know their way around rap rhymes and rhythms and there’s not much I’m throwing in to the mix at this point that they pick up on. Meanwhile, I’m pushing for my two chord pre-chorus and simple melody to stay in, Rachel is resisting, she’s worried the tune will lose energy if we go with what I’m suggesting. Mario is considering all the options. In the end we compromise and we’re all happy.

4:00PM Rachel records her vocal, starting with the chorus, then the pre-chorus and finally the first verse. She’s got a clear, sweet voice. Mario gets her to double her part and add harmonies. So far, we don’t have a second verse written. The music for the verse and the chorus are based on our same four-chord pattern but the “top line” is different. The other writers come in and listen to what we have and I know from their body language and their attentiveness, even before they say anything, that this song rocks.

5:30PM Mario is fading. He’s had two long days. A song like this, with all the intricate beats and layering of sounds, really calls on all a producer’s skills. We don’t have a second verse written yet. I suggest we call it a day and plan to get together to finish the tune after the three-day songwriting marathon is over. Mario likes this idea. But then Vince, our leader, taskmaster, lunch and snacks provider, and head cheerleader comes in and says ‘let’s hear what you got”. We tell him we don’t have the second verse written and he says with a grin, ” get writing, you’ve got an hour left”. So we shrug, and do what we’re told. And miraculously, we get the verse written within twenty minutes. Funny how it goes sometimes.

6:45PM We’re done. We listen to the what the other two songwriting groups have come up with. We’re getting to know each other better, the happy and sad stories we’ve all arrived with. And our experiences in the music business, both good and bad. Beer cans are popped. Soon, we say our goodbyes, we hug and fist bump. We make plans for tomorrow – I’m picking up the bagels and I know just the place . I drop Mario at his house in North Van and head across the Lion’s Gate Bridge, those four familiar chords in my head as I sing ‘we don’t need no dance floor’.

A Sneak Peek Behind a Professional Songwriting Camp

For the past 3 days 9 professional songwriters have locked themselves into Deep Cove Studios in North Vancouver to come out with their best tunes at SongWorks, a professional songwriting camp hosted by the Songwriters Association of Canada and produced by Vincent Degiorgio of Chapter 2 Productions Inc..  Laurell Barker, Jeff Dawson, Kate Morgan, Rachel Suter, Dave Gaudet, Mario Vaira, Omar Khan, and Kaylee Johnston were joined by S.A.C. member John Pippus who won the SongPitch contest for a highly coveted spot on the camp.  While we got a few tweets from participants on the first day of the camp, it is clear that they burrowed deep into the creative process and disappeared from all things social media for the remainder of the camp.

Thankfully we planted a spy to give us a sneak peek into the workings of this prestigious songwriting camp.  Below, we have a breakdown of the first day of action from John.

In the words of John Pippus…

Day 1
I had trouble sleeping last night. Anxious dreams of going to summer camp were interspersed with lying awake thinking of random words and melodies that I could bring to the writing session. And as a result I ended up sleeping in! Packed up the guitar, notebook, and tuner, and flew out the door wearing my lucky socks with sparkly treble clefs on ’em.

9:30AM Got there just in time to schmooze with the other eight writers, a few straggling in after me, to my relief. Bagels and coffee, a quick orientation and pep talk from Vince, our fearless leader and then we were divided off into three groups of three. I was tagged to spend the next nine hours with Jeff Dawson (producer of Daniel Powter’s worldwide hit, “Bad Day”) and Kaylee Johnston (a young pop singer who I’ve met before on the Vancouver music scene).

10:00AM Down to business. We’ve all done this before, co-writing, but the pressure to write and record a tune in one day made us not want to waste any time. A brief go round to see where we were at, and who had what, and then we settled on a style (pop) and a first line suggested by Kaylee (“I called you up to let you down”). And off we went. Ideas, lines, and rhymes were offered, some accepted, some rejected. The melody suggested chords, and chords suggested where the melody could go next.  A few blind alleys, some low points where we were all out of ideas, followed by a word or a melodic phrase that got us fired up again.

1:OOPM  As lunch was called we were feeling pretty good. We had two verses, a pre-chorus and the almighty chorus mapped out. Thai food was on the menu. We reconvened with the others in the crowded office/reception area at Deep Cove Music where our three day writing marathon was being held. Outside the rain poured down. Soon Vince called out “five more minutes” and that was lunch. We headed back to our cramped production studio with the control board, couch, chairs, keyboard and a couple of guitars filling the space. The break had rejuvenated us. In no time, we had a third verse written and the chords for the bridge locked in. We agreed we would find some bridge words as we were building the tracks so we moved on to laying down the beds and finding a drum beat.

4:00PM Jeff’s skill with ProTools had us in good shape. Kaylee laid down a scratch vocal and I recorded the acoustic guitar. We decided to celebrate with a bottle of Malbec from the beer and wine store next door.

5:00PM Following a donut break (and I have to say these donuts were amazing) we listened to “Unbreakable”, the song the trio of writers next door to us had come up with. And what a song! Kelly Clarkson if you’re listening, this one has your name all over it.

5:30PM Technical glitch. Just as were recording Kaylee’s harmonies, the computer crashed! We lost 40 minutes trying to get the system up and running again. About the time the wine ran out, and after a couple of re-boots, we were back to where we needed to be to land our newly hatched epic, proudly titled “Let’s Fall Apart”.

6:50PM No time to add bass, or even harmonies (see technical glitch above). The day was wrapping up and rides were leaving. The day had flown by. Reflection would have to wait. There was just enough time for quick goodbyes, before dashing out into the rain. Tomorrow comes early. I wonder who I’ll be writing with, and what sort of song will emerge?

Know Where You’re Going – Mapping Out Your Song

by Debra Alexander

Your school teachers probably encouraged you to plan your essays before writing them. Perhaps they taught you about outlining, showing you diagrams using boxes and a funnel, stressing the benefits of including a strong ‘topic sentence’ in each paragraph.

Songs are like essays. They have a message, generally, that’s conveyed with a beginning, middle and end. There’s a sense of forward motion. As I write this, Katy Perry’s Last Friday Night is at number two on the Top 40 chart. While the general topic is partying, the underlying message is that the consequences of wild party behaviour are worth it, and that doing it all again next Friday is a foregone conclusion.

Experienced songwriters know that having a message is absolutely key to the process of songwriting. In Nashville, some writers book three or more cowriting sessions a day; they won’t waste time working on an idea that doesn’t have enough potential for development. From the out- set, usually, there’s got to be a message.

Let’s use another top-charting song, Dierks Bentley’s Am I the Only One, as a test case. Just look at that title. Get your songwriter brain think- ing. Ask yourself how the songwriter might potentially develop this idea, moving forward lyrically to the point where the idea in the title is expressed, “am I the only one?” Practice this when you see titles of songs you’ve not heard. Write down all the possible ways the title might be developed. Then make a map to see how the writers actually crafted the song, lyrically.

In this case, Am I the Only One is built in eight bar sections; two eight bar sections make a complete verse, and two eight bar sections make a complete chorus. This is what the song map would look like…

The song moves forward because the hook is delivered from a new per- spective. In the first chorus, it’s the singer’s. In the second chorus, it’s the woman’s. This is one technique that can keep things interesting. The mes- sage is: “come on everybody, let’s have some fun tonight.”

The Katy Perry song and the Dierks Bentley song both deal with the subject of partying, but each has a unique message to deliver. They use different techniques to create a sense of forward motion. Like a good essay or short story, they reach an emotional peak at about 7/8ths of the way through. They build to a high point where the message is crystal clear.

Try mapping your latest song. What’s your topic? What’s your mes- sage? How have you developed the song from section to section so that it moves in a forward direction? Did you reach the highest emotional in- tensity about 7/8ths of the way through? Is it interesting enough that you could listen to it repeatedly? Even if you didn’t know what you wanted to say from the outset when you sat down to write, you can help ensure that you’ll deliver a clear message by mapping out your song.

Debra Alexander is a veteran of the Nashville, New York, Austin, New England and Toronto music scenes. She cycles from Toronto to Mississauga to teach music theory and songwriting at Metalworks Institute.


The Legacy of Bluebird North

The Songwriters Association of Canada is proud to be the founder of the Bluebird North Showcase that happens across the country – celebrating the songs and stories of great Canadian songwriters.  During these informal acoustic evenings, each songwriter performs their own songs and shares each composition’s back story and inspiration. We’re hosting one in Port Perry on November 3rd and one in Vancouver November 6th.  Originally, published in last year’s annual reference edition of Songwriters Magazine, Bluebird pioneer Shari Ulrich looks back at BBN’s success- ful 18-year legacy, the thrill of discovering an expected gem and experi- encing the alchemy of songwriters connecting on stage.

With Bluebird North, the S.A.C. has created one of the most important benefits to Canadian songwriters possible – providing them with a stage, and helping them foster an audience. That’s the kind of tangible, hands-on advocacy that makes me proud to be associated with the S.A.C.

I was one of the participants of the very first Bluebird North, produced in Toronto for the S.A.C. by Marc Jordan and Amy Sky in 1993. Other than Folk Festival workshop stages, it was my first “song circle” – and I was hooked.

In 1995, Ron Irving launched Bluebird North at the Railway Club in Vancouver, and a year later he handed off the producing duties to me. Aside from a few shows produced by Ron and Roy Forbes, I’ve remained the producer (and, more recently, the host) of the Vancouver event since.

In those early years, our format featured eight songwriters in every show. The most daunting task was booking so many writers, while ensuring at least a few of them would draw a sizeable audience. The downside of having so many songwriters in the lineup was having to restrict each to just three songs apiece. Consequently, over time, the event morphed into a four-songwriter evening.

It took several years, of course, but we’ve finally reached that sweet spot where the draw for audiences is no long a particular songwriter but Bluebird North itself. Our audiences have learned that even if they don’t recognize all the names, they can always expect a spirited and highly entertaining evening, and will likely discover an unexpected gem.

I can never predict how a show is going to unfold but precious few of those 75 shows have fallen flat. If a show did fall flat, it was usually because the host was unable to put people at ease. The song-circle format, after all, can be unnerving for even the most seasoned of performers; it’s just the nature of the beast. A host who can charm those on and off the stage plays a critical role in the success of any show.

We’ve had many homes over the years, and I was determined to take the event out of a bar and into a theatre – more befitting the spirit of Nashville’s original Bluebird Café. It’s all about honouring the song, which is counter to a bar atmosphere. So when Margaret Watts eagerly invited us to the Roundhouse Community Centre six years ago, we knew we’d found our home in their comfy black box theatre (with its spectacular sound).

Bluebird North in Vancouver has become a coveted gig for both emerging writers and seasoned veterans, and not just those based in Vancouver! Being able to provide writers from across Canada a wonder- ful stage with great sound and an enthusiastic audience is a thrill. On the flipside, it means that hundreds of writers are now vying for a relatively small number of spots on stage, which puts me in a position of being the gatekeeper I never wanted to be. But my guiding principle is to keep the quality of the shows as high as possible so that audiences will remain faithful and continue to grow.

It’s been a tremendously rewarding 15 years. The alchemy between writers – their unique combination, the juxtaposition of their work, how they interact between songs and con- nect musically – creates an unparalleled concert experience.