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.
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’.