Cultivating a Local Songwriters’ Stage

Crowded Coffee Shop
Full house at Trees captured by Marq DeSouza

Cultivating a local stage for songwriters is a great way to build an audience, not just for your own music, but fellow artists in your neighbourhood.  It can make live music accessible to people who might not otherwise seek it out, create networking and collaboration opportunities for local songwriters and boost the business of a local coffee shop or bar.  We interviewed longstanding S.A.C. Member and talented acoustic soul-folk artist John Pippus about building a thriving community and audience in Vancouver at Trees Organic Coffee & Roasting House.  May his answers inspire you to consider building your own stage for local artists to shine.

1. How long have you been hosting Friday nights at Trees (Organic Coffee House) in Vancouver?
I took over managing the music nights from – are you ready – Carly Rae Jepsen back in the spring of 2006. Her other job was working the esspresso machine! Eight and a half years later I’m still there pretty much every Friday night. I book and host the evenings and sometimes I play too. I was booking Dan Mangan, Hannah Georgas, and Wanting Q long before they were on anyone’s radar.

2. What do you look for when booking talent on these evenings? What kind of show do you hope to bring to people?
I look for people I want to listen to, it’s that simple. Usually it’s solo singer/songwriters, but sometimes I have duos, trios and various genres from folk to jazz and beyond. The largest act I’ve booked was a six-piece band with a horn section. That was a little loud, you can’t blow a trumpet softly I’ve learned. Keep in mind, the “stage” is a few square feet in front of the coffee roaster and next to the cheesecake display fridge.

I look for acts that take their talent seriously. That means, at a minimum, they have a web presence. Even if they’ve never performed before or don’t have an album under their belt, they’ve got something recorded and online. Preferably they also have at least one or two live performances posted on Youtube. I can tell within thirty seconds of listening to what they send me if I want to book them.

3. How is performing in a coffee house different from regular bars or larger venues?
Bars, as we all know, tend to be noisy, alcohol-fueled joints where most of the clientele is not there to appreciate the subtleties of the songwriter’s art. Which is fine if you’ve got a foot stomping reel you’re pounding out in the corner and the crowd is singing along. It’s rare to get a hushed room in the larger venues, unless you’re well up the pecking order.

Trees is a listening room, I remind the audience of that at the start of every show. And you can see the whites of their eyes when you’re performing and vice versa. So it’s intimate and on a good night it can be very magical.

4. How has this show become a part of the Vancouver music community?
By being consistently ‘there’ every Friday night. Pay is by donation, split by three acts and the venue holds only 45 or so, so it’s not a large payout. But performers get a listening audience and I don’t make a big deal about getting the acts to bring out their own crowd. I know how hard that can be, especially when you’re performing in your home town ‘yet again’. We treat the performers with respect, we book new acts along with the touring acts, and since Trees is unlicensed, younger performers can come and bring their friends.

5. Are there sound limitations or challenges for a coffee house?
You’ll hear the blast of steam from the espresso machine or the beans being ground from time to time. But I’ve gotten used to it, and I think the audience has too. The smoothie orders can be a bit loud though. The occasional noisy table is told nicely to keep it down, and if that doesn’t work, I’ve been known to get a little testy.

trees6. How have the owners at Trees played a role in building this community?
Doron Levy is the owner and he was very patient, at the outset, in letting the scene build slowly. They also maintain the calendar listings on their website (treescoffee.com) and this past year they’ve started doing a monthly blog feature on one of our performers. The whole staff is supportive; working the Friday night shift is always in demand with the employees.

7. Why are these Friday evenings and events like this important in supporting the songwriting community?
Listening venues are rare. And at Trees we maintain that vibe We’re also small and casual enough that performers just getting launched as performers are made to feel welcome. The sets are only about 35 minutes in length so it’s not like you’ve got to carry an entire evening. Oh, and one more thing, we expect the performers to play original material, with only one or two covers, so that’s the opposite of what some of the bars want. We also have an Open Mic Night on Thursdays that have become very popular. Local singer/songwriter Marq DeSouza hosts those evenings.

8. What suggestions do you have for any singer/songwriters looking to cultivate a similar on-going show in their community?
If you have the right personality for hosting a regular music night then it’s a fantastic way to establish yourself on your local scene. I’ve made many contacts by doing this job. The right personality, I would suggest, includes being reliable, having a sense of humour, and being more or less organized. It really helps that I can play, so when there are last minute cancellations I can fill in. Buy a small P.A. and go talk to a coffee house owner about hosting a weekly music night. I told the owner that I would take on managing the music nights as long as it was fun, and all these years later I can still say that’s what it is.

Click Here to visit John Pippus’ Songwriter Profile.

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Co-Writing Coast to Coast with the S.A.C.

Dayna Shereck, John Pippus and Lucy LeBlanc
Dayna Shereck, John Pippus and Lucy LeBlanc

by Dayna Shereck

I can list several reasons why the S.A.C. has been so important in my personal journey as a songwriter, but would like to say that the fellow writers I have met and the connections I have made have had the greatest impact.

Several months ago, through a network of songwriters on Facebook, I came across a song that was posted called “Half A World Away”.  I immediately connected to the song and was eager to see who had written it.  John Pippus and Lucy LeBlanc of Vancouver were the creators, and they had developed something really magical. I re-posted the song and complimented the writers on how much I liked it.

Early this past June I had the opportunity to go to Vancouver for a couple of days and wanted to see if I could do a co-write while I was there.  I emailed the SAC Regional Writers Group in Vancouver and was quickly connected to Lucy LeBlanc, who was so warm and kind.  She suggested a three-way co-write with her writing partner, John Pippus, and I was delighted.

We figured out a central meeting spot that was convenient for everyone. I was staying at UBC, and Lucy was coming from White Rock.  Lucy and I met at the station closest to John’s place and we headed over there together.

I spent a little time observing their co-writing style and identifying the best way for me to fit in.  I quickly learned that Lucy was a wonderful lyricist and John was a great melody man.  We bounced some ideas around, and I loved some of the riffs John was playing. I was slowly developing a chorus in my head.  It was a little country, and I thought it might be something we could work with. Lucy immediately began to piece together a story, and John nailed down the verse melody with a catchy guitar riff that I immediately fell in love with. Within a matter of hours the song was coming together.

Lucy LeBlanc adds, “Dayna came prepared. She had a chorus for a country song that seemed to crackle with energy. So, we started working with it, throwing out ideas and crafting the verses. It’s a good feeling when it all comes together, and you end up with a song that resonates among each of us.”

It was my first time writing away from home–with the exception of Nashville…and it made me feel so grounded to be writing while I was in a place that was completely new to me.

After our first session we were tremendously excited about how the song was developing and made arrangements to meet the next day to finish it. With the exception of getting stuck on a musical bridge, we did almost finish it, and sorted out the bridge and fine-tuned the details over skype once I got home.

Lucy was able to do some sightseeing with me, and graciously helped me find my way back to where I was staying.  As I sat on the bus and replayed our song through my iphone voice notes, I felt even more confident about what the three of us had created.

I was happy to have connected with Lucy and John in Vancouver, and would certainly access the S.A.C. to set up co-writing opportunities when travelling to other cities. The song we wrote is called “ I Still Want You”.  We are hoping to have it demoed in Nashville and hope to have it pitched to an artist.

Visit the Songwriters’ Profiles for this trio:

Dayna Shereck
Lucy LeBlanc

John Pippus

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?