Inspiration VS Deadlines: Two Paths to a Song

Scott Perrie
Scott Perrie

by Scott Perrie

Writing songs can be tricky business.  Whether you’re a songwriter, or someone who enjoys listening to songs, at one time or another you may have wondered about the songwriting process.  For me, a song always start with an original idea, a moment of inspiration, whether it’s a guitar part, a melody or a lyric, and from there it grows into a finished song.  I’ll share with you two examples of songs I’ve written that appear on my debut EP “Everything Gives”, and how the songwriting process for each was very different.

I wrote Above The Clouds in about 15 minutes on a cold winter night in Regina back in November 2012.  I was playing around with finger picking at the time, which is how the song started.  I was plucking a chord progression, trying to let my intuition guide me.  I started humming a melody and I quickly had a verse and chorus idea I liked.  I often get a feeling, a sense of what I want the song to say and then I try and run with it.  I had just flown to Regina from Vancouver to visit my girlfriend (now my fiancé).  I missed her and the words that came out felt simple but natural.  I tried to edit them at one point but ended up going back to the original lyrics, because that’s what ultimately felt the best.  I think the simplicity of the lyric made the song relatable, and I’ve since played it for a number of wedding ceremonies over the past year.

Nobody But You took over 5 years to finish.  The song started with a guitar riff and a melody idea but the lyric did not come so easily this time.  I had some words for the chorus but every time I tried to write down words for the verses it didn’t seem to work.  So I let it bubble and stew inside me, hoping that by giving myself more time the right words would eventually come.  Leading up to recording “Everything Gives” in January 2013 I knew I wanted to include Nobody But You, but I still hadn’t finished it.  Sometimes the best way to help finish a song is a deadline.  I started gathering all the different lyric ideas I’d written over the years, and ended up splicing together old lyrics with new ones.  I also changed the order of the verses to make the story more cohesive.  I was really happy with the finished song even though it took me 5 years to complete.

Whether it takes you 5 minutes or 5 years, remember to stick with it, follow your gut and enjoy the process, because in the end you might end up writing a great song.

Click Here to visit Scott Perrie’s Songwriters’ Profile.

Flood of Inspiration: Creativity springs from difficult circumstances

Leslie Alexanderby:  Leslie Alexander

Every writer experiences the dreaded “dry spell” – a stretch of days, weeks or years when words refuse to come. Sometimes it’s because they are too difficult to utter, or perhaps the sense that no one is listening overwhelms the creative spirit. Sometimes the drought is occasioned by events so cataclysmic that the period of incubation before which they can be expressed seems to stretch into infinity. For the writer, words are the vehicle of identity and without them, we are shipwrecked high and dry in a desert where water of the soul is either memory or a mirage.

That’s how I felt when I moved back to my hometown of High River, Alberta, following a sad split with my ex, producer and touring partner John Ellis. Without him by my side on stage, much of the fun seemed to have gone out of  playing, and I was tired of fighting the business on my own. With my mom in the last stages of a terminal illness, I turned my attention toward her, finding that at the end of the day there were no words or musical notes left. I decided to follow her example and seek a career in health care, taking a job as an aide and applying for practical nursing training at a nearby college.

Trading my orchard home on the Thompson River for a cut-out condo in small-town surburbia seemed a hard pill to swallow. I’d hoped to find a small garden cottage near the river, but I just couldn’t afford it and settled instead on what I fondly dubbed “Pleasantville Gulag” – a series of fake-quaint condos arranged in a prison-like quadrangle, softened by the camoflauge of artful landscaping. I felt surrounded by strangers I was too shy to approach. It wasn’t home but it would have to do.

High River wasn’t quite home either, not anymore – since I’d left 25 years ago, new neighborhoods had sprung up every direction, along with chain stores and big-boxes, the better to keep business out of the historic downtown. The changes I saw there were for the better – murals adorning the old brick buildings which housed funky coffeeshops, art galleries and stores and well as the now-legendary Gitters Pub, where music was played six nights a week. That’s where I went to exercise my musical demons and make a few new friends.  For a full year, though, life centered around hospitals and care homes, school and study. My old life of writing, recording and touring seemed a distant dream.

In April, 2013, Mom died. The first wave of grief passed and the flotsam of her life was cleared. Then a dark Thursday in June came, when the waters of the Highwood River rose with a torrential downpour and the lives of those who lived in High River changed forever. After a three-week evacuation, many of us returned to find our homes totally destroyed, and others left with damage that would take years to overcome. Many lost their livelihoods as well, as businesses all over town were devastated.

I returned home with a crowbar and a hammer and no idea where to start with the gooey mess that used to be my basement. Before I knew it, those neighbors that had seemed so distant were working right alongside me, tearing out my mucky insulation and drywall. During the first three days back, everyone in the Gulag worked together to make our homes clean and mold-free. Luckily, the condo development had flood insurance, and the repairs to my basement were covered. If I had gotten the little cottage in West High River that I’d wanted, I’d have been ruined. And I discovered a community to which I now feel I belong. After three years of tumultuous upheaval, it seemed for once that trouble had passed me by.

For twenty years the craft of songwriting was an integral part of my identity. Every major event that flowed through my life was examined through the lens of the creative process. I would begin a song not knowing what it would teach me about it’s subject, and by the end I would have an answer of sorts. Some songs were constructions; others came purely from the source, almost fully formed. These are the moments a songwriter lives for. Writing a well-crafted song is an enjoyable enterprise, but true fulfillment comes when we get the sense that we are an instrument ourselves of something larger. At that moment, it’s not about career, or hit songs, or having our picture in the paper. It’s about getting something right, and not necessarily by our own power.

This was the experience I had when the song “High River Strong” came to me. At first I intended only to play it for friends, but by their reaction I realized could raise more spirit, and perhaps some money, by recording and releasing it. At first the thought overwhelmed, knowing what I do about the work involved. But the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. My first choice was to work with my friend Leeroy Stagger, who I knew to be a very busy man. I decided that if he could make the time, so could I. He replied to my text with immediate enthusiasm and offered to round up players. We contacted my “husbeen” John Ellis and engineer Sheldon Zaharko in Vancouver to help. I thought Johnny and I would never work together again, but here he was bringing his incredible talent to my cause without hesitation.

Local radio, as well as the Calgary Herald and other news outlets got behind the release.  We threw up a website at www.highriverstrong.org where people could download the song in return for a donation, and a put together a compilation CD featuring the tune which I placed in local stores. I rounded up a group of local musicians who donated their talent for a series of benefit shows, where I was reminded just how much fun it is to be onstage making music with friends for enthusiastic listeners. Since those shows we’ve continued playing and have decided to form a band, something I never envisioned doing again. Never say never!

Together we raised a few thousand dollars for the flood fund, but more importantly gave the town a positive, hopeful anthem to honor and commemorate their experience. My sense was that a river of inspiration flowed through me, bringing hope not just for my neighbors but also for myself as an artist. I am still pursuing a career in health care, feeling that having a new life to write about can only fuel my contribution as an artist. I am not so interested in chasing the brass ring of the music business any more, but glad to know that the well of creativity in me is alive and well. All of the attention and ego-satisfaction I craved now pale in comparison to the realization that what really matters are those things of the spirit that can’t be kept in a basement box to be swept away according to the whims of fate. With everything it took, the High River flood brought me renewed faith in the generosity of friends, the unexpected gifts to be found in hardship and the enduring power of song, and for that I will always be grateful.

Click Here to visit Leslie Alexander’s Songwriters’ Profile.

Memories from the beginning of the S.A.C.

by:  Terry McManus

One of the more interesting and important parts of any profession is the representation of that profession to the public and to those who work with those professionals. From the middle ages when “guilds” became the representatives of those who worked on the churches and castles to present day society, such groupings have played an important part in the progress of such groupings. It was with this thought in mind that I approached Stephen Stohn in 1987 and asked him about the ability to copyright a song in Canada and if there was a professional organization representing songwriters in Canada. I knew that there were songwriters participating on many of the boards of related associations, but I was not aware of one that served only songwriters.

Stephen told me of one, the Canadian Songwriters Association, that had been started in the early 80’s but had never really gotten off the ground. (Like many new enterprises, professional associations have a high failure rate because of the time and money commitment to make them work.) He referred me to Donna Murphy who was an executive at CIMA (then CIRPA), who had some knowledge of and had helped the fledgling group of songwriters some years before. Donna and I spoke on the phone several times and then we decided to meet with Greg Marshall, one of the principals for the original organization. Stephen arranged for us to use one of the smaller boardrooms of McCarthy Tetrault in the TD Centre and we had our first meeting with the four of us present. Although Greg was enthusiastic about re-energizing the original idea, his time was limited and so he agreed to lend his name but he could not participate. Stephen also generously lent his name to the enterprise and he was happy to attend board meetings and to counsel us but his own very busy practice precluded any “hands on” work in building up the association.

So Donna Murphy and I embarked on a several month mission to present the idea to the rest of the music industry through a series of informal lunches that not only helped us define some of the more pressing issues for songwriters but also gave us great insight into the need to bring in some of the “name” writers who were interested and who were earning. Enter Eddie Schwartz and Rich Dodson. Eddie’s very positive and literary influence was immediately felt by his reasoning for renaming the group and the Songwriter’s Association of Canada instead of the Canadian Songwriter’s Association. “With all due respect to Canada, we are songwriters working in Canada not Canadians who happen to be songwriters!” And of course, he was right.  I came up to Toronto from London weekly and we held board meetings monthly.

With Eddie and Rich and Stephen’s blessing and encouragement, Donna and I continued to “lobby” the industry and Donna was able to help generate some income for the organization through some grants for research on songwriters for the Ontario government.( In the days of typewriters and regular mail, Donna put in many many hours digging up facts and numbers while I wrote more broad generalized papers about what was needed by our profession.) Both Donna and I wrote many papers during those first couple of years to keep the money flowing so that we could get the word out. Everything was new and everything was possible!

I think the turning point for the organization came with the plans for PROCAN and CAPAC to merge. (Up until that time Canada followed the US model of two performing rights societies, one which favored ASCAP and one which favored BMI.) When Nancy Gyokeres of SOCAN told us about the plan I was immediately on board because I had seen the east / west divide in songwriters and I knew that in order to have a national organization, we had to have songwriters from across the country. I saw the opportunity to not only bring the performing rights organizations together, but to grow our association. We were able to get  a financial commitment from SOCAN  to hold a national meeting and so the phone calls began.

I had lived in Vancouver for a couple of years where PROCAN ruled the roost and the West Coast writers were fiercely loyal to that performing rights society. I got on the phone and I started to call some of the top writers and ask them to join SAC and to get behind the amalgamation of the two societies. I talked for hours to many of them but it was Bill Henderson who really cracked the ice out there. We had a spirited conversation about the fact that the west coast already had a songwriters association and why was there a need for another. I offered to make him a vice-president of SAC in order to assure him that the west would be represented and I still remember him laughing and saying “You want to make me a vice-president of a society that I am not even a member of?” But thanks to his open mind and ultimately his brilliant leadership, not only did he join with us, he went on to lead the association to bigger and better things and even serving on the SOCAN board.

Eddie Schwartz, Bill Henderson and Donna Murphy were all critical to the establishment and success of the SAC. As we brought on more board members besides Rich Dodson such as  Ron Hynes, Roy Forbes, Shari Ulrich, Ron Irving Joan Bessen and others,and as we reached out to our Quebec counterparts the organization took hold and we found a place at the table.

As to my question to Stephen about the ability for songwriters in Canada to protect their own works in this country, that is now the Song Vault. Along with the Song Vault are a myriad number of services to help, guide and promote the young songwriters career and all of those are ideas born in those days.

It is very gratifying to look back today at the establishment of SAC and all of those services to its members and to remember that first conversation over 25 years ago that has brought all of this to fruition. You, as songwriters who live and work in Canada, are so fortunate to have such a strong and vibrant society to help you climb the ladder and to make sure that your place is recognized culturally and financially.  Many thanks to those people who were so important in making this happen!

Great memories!