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.

From Boston to NY City to Dublin to Touring Worldwide – Laine Henderson’s Adventures in Songwriting

Choosing to pursue  your passion for songwriting and music can take you places you never imagined.  For S.A.C. Member Laine Henderson, this has meant leaving the Vancouver North Shore where she was born and raised, studying alongside the very best at the Berkley College of Music in Boston, making a go of it in New York City, performing and songwriting in Dublin, then touring the world with the world-famous Riverdance show.  Each part of her adventure has added to the fabric of her music as well as the story of her life.  While we all might aspire to perfection and glory as our destination, Laine’s story is living proof that the journey has great value unto itself.   She recently released her album, “Occasional Rain.”  We look forward to hearing where these new songs will take her.

1.  Please tell us about your experiences training at the Berklee College of Music and how you came to discover your gift for writing songs.  I first attended Berklee on a vocal jazz scholarship. I wanted to study jazz music and sing jazz music. It was music all day, all night and weekends too. Every evening the classrooms would be filled with jam sessions and the studios would be busy splicing together projects. I received a few late night panicked phone calls to help finish a jingle project. It was overwhelming and inspiring. Songwriting came the following term as I scanned the school syllabus for classes. It had never occurred to me until that moment that people WROTE the songs we sing and I could do it too. I was very fortunate to have my first writing class with jingle writing legend, Jon Aldrich. He was wonderfully inspiring and made it sound so effortless. So, I jumped in pen first and began writing and trying to express my self poetically and tell my stories. Luckily they sounded fairly catchy and held together with just piano or guitar. When I hit Pat Pattison’s lyric writing class the following semester I was in for a shock…cut 50% of my lyrics and music? Do that again? My writing was never the same.

2.  You have lived for periods in New York and Dublin.  What was the environment like for making music in these places and what brought you back to Canada?  Moving to New York was a natural progression from Boston. Most of the people I went to school with were trying to make it there. There were open mics Mon-Thurs and then gigs to go to on the weekends. The week was packed with music, just like at Berklee and just as intense but without the safety factor of college. I would write in the mornings before catching the subway to whichever record label at which I was temping, then come home and write more before going out. I wrote a lot and with so many open mics was able to see what worked and what didn’t pretty quickly. It was all very exciting.

A few years later, Dublin became my new home. After the fast paced lifestyle of NYC, it was a complete shift. I quickly found myself among a good company of writers in Dublin via a few open mics. My first real gig was alongside Luka Bloom at the Ruby Sessions, which was amazing. My style of writing became more simplified and the goal was to tell a good story.

I brought my family back to B.C. more for personal reasons that musical ones, but it has been a very rewarding return. Not being centered in Vancouver, I thought I would bring the Vancouver scene to me at a writers round I hosted in White Rock. I met so many great writers every week and certainly feel apart of it now. Great support from writers like Ivan Boudreau and Jon Pippus have made me feel part of the writers scene and S.A.C. I am writing better now than ever.

3.  How have your travels affected the songs you write, as well as your record-making process?  My travels have always had to do with changes in my life so I think my writing has changed with each country or city. When I first started I was very jazz influenced and complex with a lot of turmoil. Life was fast paced and I rushed through my first album trying to cram in lots of texture and sound. Then, I wanted my life to be simpler and as a result so was my music. My recordings, nothing was pressed, became more acoustic which is where I was at for a long time. Now, I am pretty happy most of the time, so I am writing pretty happy songs, which I love. Luckily the producer of my album, Matt Rogers, sensed that because he made everything have a good feeling even if it was a slower song. We built everything up from the bottom and I had no idea where it was going, but Matt did and I trusted him completely. It was a long time between albums but definitely worth the wait.

4.  What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve encountered and how did you overcome it?  I have in the past liked to do things the hard way, but I think the biggest challenge for me was starting anew in a new country with only 2 friends in the same city. With no job, little money and few friends, I did what any writer would do….write…and get a job in a coffee shop. Getting out to those open mics made all the difference and bit by bit everything else came together. As it happened, I met the musical director for Riverdance in that coffee shop.

5.  You toured for two years as the lead vocalist with the Riverdance show.  How did those years grow you as a songwriter and how did they limit you?  The touring was great, fun, surreal and tiring and I wouldn’t have missed it. Singing Bill Whelan’s music every night was amazing and an honor, but while on tour I pretty much stopped writing. I dragged my guitar on every plane and to every city but when I went to write it just didn’t happen. Maybe it was the unfamiliar hotel rooms or changes in altitude, but I was blocked. As time went on, I wanted to be singing my own words and return to real life and get back to playing my own music. I became more committed as a writer than I had been before.

6.  What achievement in your musical journey has meant the most to you?  Riverdance was a pretty big deal, but, as a singer/songwriter, finishing this latest album has been the highlight so far. Working with Matt was amazing and having a finished product I am truly proud of was something I wasn’t sure would ever happen.

7.  What are your goals for the coming year with the release of your new album, “Occasional Rain”? One of my goals was to play Bluebird North hosted by Shari Ulrich. I have been to a few shows and always enjoyed them but felt I was capable of being up there, but not until I had something to hand out. I am happy to say Shari has invited me to play April 10, 2012, so that’s one less thing to do next year. Other than that, I want to get my music out to the world and write my next album. Hopefully, a couple of music videos will be showing up on Youtube and a few TV/movie/commercial placements will happen as well. If you know how I can get a song pitched to Michael Buble, let me know, I have a great one for him.

Visit Laine’s Songwriter Profile.

Highlights from the ALL-STAR Bluebird North

The much anticipated ALL-STAR Bluebird North took place last week at Koerner Hall, where the acoustics of the room took as much of a center stage as the artists that filled the place with magic.  Rarely do we get to hear songwriters with such acoustic clarity and intimacy.

Suzie McNeil, Melanie Doane, Blair Packham, and Marc Jordan

The line-up was truly stellar, featuring Melanie Doane, Suzie McNeil, and Marc Jordan in the first set, along with host, Blair Packham.  Melanie filled the hall with her delicate voice and intimate songs.  She also proudly shared that her daughter also had a gig in a choral performance that night.  Suzie took over with her powerful vocals and stories of healing a broken heart that inspired her latest album.  Marc Jordan unashamedly stated that much money was made from his Rod Stewart Hit, “Rhythm of My Heart,” as he proceeded to enthrall the audience with his own rendition, ending the first round.

Dan Hill, Jane Siberry, Blair Packham and Ann Vriend

To many attendees, the night already felt complete after hearing such inspirational talent.  But the second half continued to raise the bar on the evening with Jane Siberry, Ann Vriend, and Dan Hill.  Each had a distinct voice and story to bring to the table.  Jane Siberry sang songs with a message for the soul.  She also took the audience on a songwriting adventure as she enacted the process of songwriting with a song about vampires.  Ann Vriend brought a fresh sound to the stage with her lively piano playing and lyrical singing style.  Dan Hill shared and sang powerfully about the loss of his father and the reflection that resulted in his grief.  He also sang a song about redemption while sharing about the tragic and violent life of a young person he had watched grow up, who was later shot to death.  Dan ended the evening with a much-anticipated rendition of his famous hit, “Sometimes When We Touch.”  Special thanks to Blair Packham who wove the evening together with his clever banter and songs that ranged from witty to heart-felt.

The evening passed far too quickly.  We could have stayed all night.  We’ll have to stay tuned for the next season of Bluebirth North in the fall…

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