Songwriting Camps: Expanding Creative Connections for Commercial Success

2012SongworksVancouver.WebBannerBy: Vincent Degiorgio

Writing camps have become an increasingly important forum for songwriters to collaborate. In Canada, Justin Gray’s Creative Collective, and SonyMusic Canada’s Idol camps were among the first, both receiving support from the Songwriters Association of Canada. President of Tanjola Entertainment, Daniel Mekinda, remembers how the initial idea to stage a camp for Canadian idol turned out to be a great platform for launching the inaugural winner, Ryan Malcom.

“The first Canadian Idol Writing Camp was an amazing success. Every song on the album came out of that camp. It was an amazing experience to get more than 20 amazing songwriters congregating in one place for a week,” recalled Mekinda, who ran the camp while working for Sony BMG. While large-scale camps such as the Idol nine room extravaganza were common in Scandinavia, it was something new in Canada.

D-Pop is one of Europe’s most successful camps hosted by TG Management in Aalborg, Denmark. Held at various venues just an hour by plane from Copenhagen, the company that gave the world global superstars like Aqua has camped it up for more than 10 years now.

“I believe in doing what you love, and we love doing D-Pop” says organizer and partner Lotte Aagard. “We’re excited to hear every new song that’s been written. I truly believe as long as you have heart and passion in it, it stays fresh. For that reason, so has D-Pop.”

Thomas Wallen, the A&R head for Malmo, Sweden’s hyperactive Roasting House Music Publishing which has landed the No. 1 single in Japan, offered some advice on how collaborations should be put together. Spearheading a crazy roster of writers that has already conquered the Japanese market, he noted that it’s much more than throwing a few people in a room and saying “write!”

“I’d say you have to find a way of being both safe and bold at the same time”, says Wallen. “If you’re just one or the other, it gets boring and you don’t get the big songs you’re looking for. People need to get along, but the best result sometimes comes from when writers get together with skeptical minds and get overwhelmed by the skills of others. That’s when the magic happens.”

For the past seven years, the SAC has held its own professional camp called Songworks which has evolved from simply a “writer in the round” into one of our premier networking events. Held four times annually, Songworks has been introduced in Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Edmonton, and Vancouver to date.

Songworks is a professional invitation-only songwriting camp hosted by the Songwriters Association of Canada. The three-day intensive songwriting retreat is designed to offer writers the opportunity to collaborate on artist driven projects, allowing writers to develop long-term relationships with other songwriters and performing artists. S.A.C. members have the opportunity to submit for open chairs at a select number of SongWorks camps. Click Here for more information.

Vince DiGiorgio is an accomplished songwriter with sales that have exceeded 30 million units. He is currently President of Chapter 2 Productions. www.chapter2prod.com

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SongWorks Edmonton: Classic country meets euro-dance

SongWorks Edmonton 2013 Participants.  Clockwise from Top Left:  Cecil Frena, Bryan Finlay, Rachel Woznow, Olivia Wik, Sophie Serafino, Jimmy Whiffen, Ari Rhodes,Dan Davidson, Rob Wells
SongWorks Edmonton 2013 Participants. Clockwise from Top Left: Cecil Frena, Bryan Finlay, Rachel Woznow, Olivia Wik, Sophie Serafino, Jimmy Whiffen, Ari Rhodes,Dan Davidson, Rob Wells

Seasoned country singer/songwriter Jimmy Whiffen found himself in a brand new songwriting situation when he landed in the recent SongWorks Edmonton, his first ever songwriting camp experience.  Although the first moments of meeting with co-writers he’d never worked with before were somewhat challenging, he overcame any awkwardness and found new synergy beyond his usual writing styles.

Whiffen believes SongWorks is an important part of the creative landscape of Canadian songwriting because it brings songwriters together and the resulting collaborations makes everyone a better writer, while also improving the chances of writing a hit song.  While others may dismiss writing a hit as a goal, Whiffen acknowledges that “getting a hit would be very cool.”

We asked Whiffen to share his SongWorks experience with us in a mini-journal entry.  Here is what he shared.

In Jimmy Whiffen’s Words…

Jimmy Whiffen jamming out a song at SongWorks Edmonton.
Jimmy Whiffen jamming out a song at SongWorks Edmonton.

The writing experiences all three days totally stretched my imagination as a writer. The group of writers varying in styles and genres that were invited to this camp made it very exciting for me and opened my mind to further possibilities as a writer.

Day 1, I wrote with Dan Davidson, lead singer from Tupelo Honey, an Edmonton based rock band and a concert violinist named Sophie Seraphino. We wrote what I believe to be a modern day, radio ready, pop rock song, with a powerful melody and great lyric.  This song screams and I can’t get the hook out of my head. Dan’s great vocals and an added touch of class from Sophie really brought it home.

Day 2, Things started to warm up for me as I got to be the lyric guy with Rob Wells a very established hit songwriter with an impressive resume and a 17 year old artist/ songwriter from Edmonton with a powerful vocal range named Rachel Woznow.  We wrote a very melodically and lyrically catchy pop song. I love this song!  Rob was very quick bringing this piece together; making it sound like I could be listening to this on the radio as we speak and Rachel nailed the vocal on the demo. Very Cool!

Day 3, As mostly a country writer I didn’t know what to expect going in to write with Ari Rhodes who writes all forms of dance and electronica. Although my friend and co-writer Olivia Wik was on this session, also an Edmonton country singer song writer, I felt this was going to be an experience and it certainly was. What a blast!!!  It was like classic country meets euro-dance. Yippie!!  I think we got a hit, at least for me anyway.

This whole experience was a hit!
I would do this again anytime.

I was so happy to be invited to participate in the Edmonton song writing camp hosted by the Songwriters Association of Canada. Thank you Vince Degiorgio for hosting a great camp, it was top-notch!

Can you co-write and record a song a day for 3 days in a row? Ed Oakley and his SongWorks Adventure.

Left to right:  Dennis Ellsworth, Adam Williamson, Ed Oakley, Don Levandier, Shawn Chaisson, Ryan G. Hillier, Katrine Noel and Julie AubeNot in photo: Vivianne Roy
SongWorks Moncton 2013 Participants.  Left to right: Dennis Ellsworth, Adam Williamson, Ed Oakley, Don Levandier, Shawn Chaisson, Ryan G. Hillier, Katrine Noël and Julie Aubé.  Not in photo: Vivianne Roy

Ed Oakley is the most recent winner of the SongPitch.ca Open Chair opportunity for the Songwriters Association of Canada’s sponsored SongWorks professional songwriting camp.  He got to kick off 2013 with an intense cowriting experience.  Here are his takeaways from the experience.  Stay tuned for more Open Chair opportunities on the horizon.

In Ed’s Words…

Vince DeGiorgio has a weak stomach when it comes to tequila….the Laundromat Bar on St. George Street has a phenomenal selection of beers….do not park your car on the streets of Moncton when the winter parking ban is on and when QSC front of house speakers burn they make one hell of a stink. All this learned while attending the S.A.C SongWorks camp this past week in Moncton, New Brunswick.

For those of you not familiar with SongWorks, a little explanation is in order. SongWorks is a three day songwriting camp hosted by S.A.C. It involves taking nine writers, dividing them into groups of three, putting each group into separate rooms with recording equipment and tasking them with writing and recording a song a day for three days. Groups are rearranged daily so that you write with different artists every session. There is no topic or genre dictated.

Having never been involved in collaborative song writing I hope to carry the torch for this practice and give some insight into the concerns I had going into the camp. I will then address these concerns post-Songworks and shed light on the dark world of uncertainty that surrounds co-writing (I know, a little deep but I am feeling extra creative right now). Hence, the goal of this blog will be to persuade any timid songwriter into giving co-writing at least one try before dismissing it. Co-writing can have a profound positive effect on your creativity. Fresh from one of the premier songwriting camps in Canada, here we go…

Before Songworks: I am not good enough to write with other artists.

After Songworks: The genetic makeup of a songwriter is someone who wants to share, learn, experience and live in a supportive environment. These things are the essence of creativity. A writer who shuts themselves off from experience will have nothing to write about. For me, that meant that any weakness I had as a writer was overlooked for the strength I brought. Even if that strength only accounted for a small part in the song. Songwriters in these camps are nice people. They are too poor to be mean!

Before Songworks: I only write one type of music. I can’t write other genres.

After Songworks: You are blessed, and sometimes cursed, with being creative. Your artistic door does not close when it comes to writing other genres. You may prefer one type of music but as a creative person you cannot stop composing music. I can assure you that, no matter what type of song you collaborate on, nature will kick in and you will be throwing out ideas and coming up with structure and progressions before you even realize it.      

Before Songworks: It is too hard to write and record a song a day for three days.

After Songworks: There lies the magic of a songwriting camp. Yes, there is subtle pressure in knowing that you have one day to write a song, rehearse it and then record a demo quality version. But, how many times do we write a song…re-write it… change it…speed it up…slow it down…only to realize that the best version was within the original idea. Writing within a constrained timeframe results in the essence of the song being captured and completed before it becomes over analyzed. You will be surprised at how enjoyable this is. Stress brings out the humour in people and makes for some very funny moments. When I go back and listen to the songs we did I can hear an energy that sometimes gets lost when trying to make things too perfect.    

Before Songworks: What if I don’t contribute the same amount as everyone else.

After Songworks: You won’t. Sometimes you’ll contribute less and sometimes you will contribute more. There were moments in every day that I sat back and enjoyed the ideas of my other team members without feeling that I had to contribute. There were times when my ideas took center stage and became the driving energy behind the song. It was a beautiful thing. Every artist understood it. You will lead and you will follow. Feel the force Luke….

I am not a world renowned songwriter. Publishers are not beating a path to my door to get their hands on my songs. My skill as a guitar player is adequate but not noteworthy. Thankfully, Songworks is not a competition. By opening up to this process and letting go of my traditional way of writing, I have absolutely become a better composer. I would not have written three songs in three days sitting at my house last week. I surely would not have written the types of songs that I ended up co-writing. And most importantly, I would not have met the wonderful, creative people that I did nor established the professional connections that may carry me forward to future songwriting opportunities. Would I do Songworks again? Where do I sign up…..

Click Here to visit Ed Oakley’s Songwriters’ Profile.

 

One Last Song – The last day of SongWorks Vancouver 2012 proves to be just as productive

SongWorks Vancouver 2012 Participants: (from top left) Mario Vaira, John Pippus, Jeff Dawson, Laurell Barker, Dave Gaudet, Kate Morgan , Kaylee Johnston, Rachel SuterOmar Khan
SongWorks Vancouver 2012 Participants: (from top left) Mario Vaira, John Pippus, Jeff Dawson, Laurell Barker, Dave Gaudet, Kate Morgan , Kaylee Johnston, Rachel Suter, Omar Khan

Songwriting camps are an opportunity to tune out the world and get intense about songwriting – often with a group of strangers.  John Pippus embarked on this journey courtesy of SongWorks, an S.A.C. sponsored professional songwriting camp that brings together 9 professional songwriters.  Thanks to John’s play-by-play reports, we’ve gotten a taste of the pace and intensity of these kinds of camps, that are often held around the world to create the best environment for some of the best songwriters to write their best songs.  Here is John’s recap of his third and final day at SongWorks Vancouver 2012.

In John’s Words…

9:30AM I arrive with a dozen bagels and cream cheese from Siegel’s Bakery. Best bagels you can get, this side of Montreal. It’s the third and final day of SAC’s three-day songwriter camp. I’m tired but looking forward to see if we can make musical magic one more time. I’m assigned to write with Kate Morgan and David Gaudet. Kate is a 19 year-old writer, with a talent that belies her age. She’s spending a lot of time in Los Angeles these days working with well-known producer Brian Howes. Dave, our producer du jour is a skilled writer, guitarist, and singer, and knows his way around the recording gear. While we wait to get started, Kate plays me a song on her iPhone by Bruno Mars. She would like to try writing something along similar lines. His name is only vaguely familiar to me, but I like what I hear. Acoustic R ‘n B is the vibe I get with some pop ear candy. Right up my alley. And Dave’s too, as it turns out.

10:00AM By now it’s a familiar routine. We play around with a few chord sequences and within a few tries, we come up with something that we all like. The chorded riff evoke a sad or wistful mood, and Kate suggests a theme of knowing when it’s time to let go. Nothing stays the same. Kate and Dave get on a roll, I feel more like a third wheel for much of the writing process today. I come up with a few lines here and there, but they seem to have a flow going between them. I mostly play the riff over and over while they tease out the words, first for the chorus and then the verses. That’s OK with me. The ego has to be kept in check, the song is king. In other sessions, I’ll contribute more than my share, so it all comes out even in the end.

11:00AM We settle on a tempo, record a simple piano motif, and build the song from the chorus out. Dave lays down the acoustic guitar part. The tune slowly grows and we all like the direction it’s going in. While Dave loops and layers the sounds, I fill out my song camp evaluation questionnaire. Full marks from this happy camper.

1:00PM Pizza for lunch. Everyone is either bleary-eyed or giddy from lack of sleep and three days of intense creative work. We pose for a group picture. By now, we know the broad strokes of each others’ personalities and quirks. There is a lot of laughing and goofing around.

3:00PM Kate records her vocals. She has a warm, engaging voice. Dave adds some low harmonies. Then it’s time to build up the tracks with keyboards, drum sounds, hand claps, and a backwards guitar whoosh to kick off the first verse.

5:00PM Kate has to leave early, so Dave and I spend the last hour or so fine tuning what we have. The song is called “Ashes and Dust”. Vince comes in and has a listen and declares it ‘”great”. Music to my ears.

6:45PM SongWorks IV is over. It’s been a genuine thrill and an honour to be here with all these talented people. I’m exhausted but feeling satisfied. I’ve helped give birth to three songs, all solid, all in different genres, over three long days. Not only did we collaboratively write them from start to finish but we recorded them too. Each demo still has a few things that need doing – a guitar solo here, additional harmonies there, some extra whooshes and swirls to lift a chorus or make a breakdown more interesting. But they are, basically, done. And like any good song, they don’t need the extra bits to make them complete, it’s just nice to have. It’s exciting to know we’ve got songs that are going to see some serious pitch time!

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?