Every song’s creation is a story, particularly when there is collaboration involved. Here is another “story behind” blog by Rosanne Baker Thornley whose participation in last year’s S.A.C. Songwriting & Blogging challenge resulted in the song “A Little Too Late to Pray” written with Scott MacKay.
During the 2014 Songwriting Challenge I discovered Scott MacKay, originally from PEI, and currently residing in Calgary. An emerging singer / songwriter, I was extremely impressed with his tender, stirring and dark songs. And his voice – undeniably Scott, buttery, gravelly, smoky – I was quick to dub him “Bublé of the Bayou”. And like North Easton, Scott’s was a voice I was inspired to write for.
We had messaged each other during the Challenge expressing an interest in each others work, discussing a plan to collaborate on a song after the challenge. And so, a few months after the challenge ended, a message appeared on my phone “interested in writing a song?”.
Scott sent me a list of possible song ideas and a note that he liked songs that are clear / clever – that his goal was to write songs that are real speak so listeners are quick to understand – but at the same time songs that carried a highly original concept. Hank Williams, Loudan Wainwright the third, and Johnny Cash were examples he sited.
After perusing Scott’s titles and one-line descriptors – I emailed back that I had quickly gravitated to a few ideas, but in particular, his concept “Hearse. A humorous account of a hearse bringing someone to the grave. Tire goes flat, they run out of gas, etc.”. And as with anyone I’m writing with / for, I immersed myself in whatever music of his I could to get a better feel for his delivery and a deeper insight into his songwriting.
With Scott in Calgary and me in Toronto, distance meant that email and Skype would enable our collaboration. I do find this a bit of a cold aspect to long distance co-writing as I much prefer that once into the nose-to-nose work that my co-writers, their heartbeat and their energy, are right in the room with me. But given some my previous experience with North, I was better acclimatized to working via Skype.
I can’t emphasize how important it is to just take time to talk to each other. Not about the song or the work – just things – life. Learning about each other is so crucial to working together. This is especially important when you’re on the other side of a monitor and a mouse.
Scott sent me some rough lyric thoughts to get the process moving along. Entitled “Long Road to My Grave / Scenic Route to the Grave” – Scott’s lyric rough was written from the deceased’s perspective and the trials and tribulations of getting to the graveyard. My question to Scott after receiving his lyric was – “Yes, but WHO is in the coffin?” Percolating on the idea, I rolled it over and over in my head – until the idea of a less than perfect preacher came to me. Yes! I responded to Scott with – Possible Title : “A little late to Pray”, with a first round of lyric and a note setting the scene – “A good looking, über friendly preacher, clearly popular (particularly with the women, but not overtly so in public), has died. There seems to be a challenge in getting him to his grave. Gee that’s odd. He’s a preacher. He was so young and healthy. How did he die? Ah yes, that is the question.”
Sometimes lyrics are a line-by-line soul wrenching process – and then other times they land easy. Once I had the image of where I wanted to go and a chorus I felt was at the heart of the song, I just flew. So quickly in fact that Scott was quite taken back by how fast and how finessed my first version was. Scott was extremely enthused and inspired with the storyline and the lyric. Excited I searched online for backwoods banjo music and played it over and over in the background as I transported myself into the scene – onto the road with the hearse, the driver and the preacher. Hand off to Scott to start the music. When I’m writing lyrics I almost always have an idea of how the music will sit, which is how I build the lyric and structure of the song. However, I didn’t share the music I had with Scott, as we had determined that Scott would drive the music with the intention of him singing. So I wanted him to reach in and find what worked for him. Ironically, when Scott played me the song for the first time – it was pretty much the same melody I had been working with – which we were both a bit dumbfounded by.
There were about 40 emails back and forth and about 4 Skype sessions to finesse and complete the song. The chorus stayed much the same from the first version throughout our finessing the lyric together. We decided to eliminate portions of the song that delved too much into the preacher’s story and decidedly simplified and focused on the ride to the gravesite. In the end this served the song better. We spent time discussing the music structure as in “did we really need a bridge or would an instrumental and two lyric lines out to the final chorus do the trick”? I have a producer / engineer that I work with in Toronto (Ted Onyszczak), so it made sense to have Ted produce / engineer the song. With the beauty and convenience of technology, Scott laid down vocal and banjo tracks in Calgary and emailed them to Ted. Ted provided a rough concept, which included proposed instrumentation based on music / mood/ style examples Scott and I had provided him with. With the three of us in agreement on the direction, final tracks were coordinated and recorded. Mark Kelso (drums) having his own studio, provided and emailed tracks and Pat Rush (slide dobro, bass) came into the studio. Mixed and mastered, 3:52 minutes grown out of an inspired collaboration.
Rather an odd irony is the Preacher image I sourced to support the song on my website. Coincidently entitled “Preacher”, the existing image was shot by photographer Steven Ferguson, from Ireland. I was initially informed that there could be a 6-week delay in obtaining the rights to the image due to a requirement to have a signed model release before the agency could release the image. However, only days later I was informed that the shot was available to use, and that a release was not necessary. This, due to the fact that the subject in the image was, recently deceased.
It was a great experience working with Scott and we’re both truly happy with the outcome of this collaboration. Scott’s open demeanor and enthusiasm were key to the success of this song. And so we’re now moving onto our next song collaboration. The song at the middle, we will continue to learn more about each other and perfect our songwriting process. All good.