Sunday, December 21, 2008

the surest cure for writer's block

i hadn't written a song for a couple of months, until the perfect storm of circumstance conspired to finally make it happen. shall i tell you about it?

every respectable songwriter has a train song. it sounds like a train. it's full of romantic images, folky scenes of hobos, wanderlust. full of yearning.

i wanted to write one, but i had no idea how. i was put off by the idea of repeating those worn-out images, fearful of not being able to come up with my own way to do it.
so it was just another idea on my brainshelf, ready to fall off and roll around when i was ready. there are always a few of those.

couple of weeks ago i attended a meeting of a Mariposa Folk Festival committee charged with instigating Arts U - two days of workshops before the 2009 festival at the Orillia campus of Lakehead University. my daughter had just come home for the holidays and wanted to see our good friend Susan, who has been something of a mentor. i invited Suse to come for a drink, but she was exhausted from working on the final touches of her PhD dissertation, and not a little distracted.

Susan emailed the next morning, apologizing for not coming, explaining that she was "on this freight train". she said it twice, just to make sure i got the point. she also said that she had been working on some songs, mostly while driving back and forth to school. i immediately responded, claiming the idea of the freight train, unless it was something she was already working on - quite possible, as we all need a train song. i added some lines that sounded like a chorus, and crossed my fingers that i could continue with her blessing. which came soon after.

i didn't set to writing it right away. needed to let it ferment, find a rhythm while walking, let some more ideas fall off the shelf. my usual process.

i happened to have lots of free time. a billion things to do before christmas, of course, but things went well and i set aside a day when i would have the house to myself. the day of the meeting of our writers' group, which added a certain immediacy to the proceedings.

this is the value of confidence, when you are good at something and have done it enough, and well enough, to know that chances are good that you will pull it off once again. i hadn't written anything in a while, and there are always doubts, fears of the block being stronger than your resolve to end it.

the other thing driving me was love, for my friend Susan, who i like to call Suse-my-muse. this would be the third song she had directly inspired.

i think i've said here before that my songs are gifts - of love, of thanks, of appreciation. it's what makes me do it. and it's the perfect gift - i'm enveloped in the spirit of a friend or lover, i indulge myself in the beauty of the artistic experience, i make something, which i give away and i keep as well.

it came pretty easily - my brain had been doing the work unconsciously for a couple of weeks. mostly i just opened the flood gates, and it was done by tea time.

i wrote it on the steel guitar, of course - sometimes there's no decision to be made. it sounds something like a train. i thought it wise not to stretch the metaphor too much, so the train images are mostly restricted to the refrain, and the last line of the bridge:

i hear our girl is in town
you'd like me to come around
this meeting is done, but i gotta run
run or be run down

i'm on this FREIGHT TRAIN, i can't get off
FREIGHT TRAIN, it never stops
FREIGHT TRAIN, call the railway cops
can't get off of this freight train

woods are bright with snow
your love would love to go
friends and trees will keep
while i'm buried deep
under all these things i know


imagine what joy will bring
when you stop, and hold everything
when love is in town. don't mind goin' down
with that diesel-driven thing

i'd love to write something bold
i write 'til it gets old
let me catch my breath, don't you catch your death
waiting in the cold


i like it a lot, and so does Suse. the writers' bloc didn't offer any changes, so i guess they liked it too.

so that's how it worked this time. stay tuned for the next one.
have a safe and happy holiday.
meantime,write something and give it away.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

story songs (continued)

as i was saying...
it was a couple of months before i wrote another Donnelly song,and i must have realized it was time to come up with something with a little lighter feel to it.

the Donnellys ran a coach business, taking riders from Exeter to London and back, in direct competition with the existing Flannigan line. there was only enough business for one line, and even that was threatened by expanding rail service. there are horror stories of how the clan dealt with their competitors, including extreme vandalism, threats, arson and the slaughter of horses.

i chose to tell the story of a particular journey from the viewpoint of a woman passenger. The Donnelly coach would leave Exeter just before the Flannigan stage, and Tom would race to get to each successive stop first, having been passed by Flannigan's, which was faster because not so heavy with passengers. this made for dangerous times on the narrow roads. sure enough, Tom Donnelly tried to pass the lighter stage on the descent into Birr. the stages collided and both ended up on their sides, sliding to a stop in the village, spilling riders, baggage and barrels of vinegar on the road.

the woman and her sister successfully sued Tom Donnelly for his reckless endangerment. he paid his fifty dollars and went back to driving the stage.

the song ends the first half of the live show, on what has to pass for a lighter note, although the choruses predict the revenge to come:
"and it's only a matter of time/ 'til the next crash, the next crime
1. and the unlucky ones will pay the devil's bill
a matter of time before innocents are killed.
2. and the frustrated no longer trust the law
a matter of time before the final straw.
3. and the bravest of us sue the bloody crew
a matter of time to find what we can do.

i was beginning to look at the placement of songs, what i had and the holes i still needed to fill. thinking back, i may also have been looking for some redeeming character to concentrate on.

it is a story with no obvious "good guy": even the poor victims proved evil when they participated in the White Boys' vigilante justice.

so i latched onto Patrick Donnelly, who must have raised his share of hell by the time he left home in 1867 at the age of eighteen, but who from that point seems to have led a peaceful life. he also tried many times to convince his family to leave the district, as the troubles grew and revenge was threatened.

"Blood and Fire" is a list song: it introduces each of the seven brothers, in Patrick's voice, and the chorus tells his reason for wanting the family to escape:
"You see, i have these premonitions
of blood and fire and deathly sounds
of men in black, and Bridget screaming
then silence in the holy ground."

outlines of the boys' personalities would be listed again in "Johannah's Prayers", ie. similar information from another mouth.
if the Donnelly Project stretches to a second cd, perhaps each of the boys will get his own song.

immediately next, i wrote the song which would follow "Blood and Fire", "Nowhere at All". it tells the major point, that the feuds of Biddulph Township were not created there, but carried over from Tipperary where most of the settlers, protestant and catholic, were from.

it also outlines the particular fight between James Donnelly and Patrick Farrell, who owned the land upon which the Donnellys were squatting, and the murder of the latter by the former. this song would lead directly into "Ain't Fooling Anyone", where James dresses as a woman and hides out in the woods.

i was thinking it was time for another uptempo number. also that the story of Pat Farrell's son William being taken in by his father's enemies was too good to pass up.

how could it happen?
"How can he ride with the Donnellys?
How can we be saved,
when they recruit from our side?
His father must be spinning in his grave."

"The Ballad of Billy Farrell" poses the question, and, contrary to the songwriters' code, answers it.

at some point, i had decided there would be ten songs in total, and i was now at nine. a number of considerations resulted in the song "Wisdom":
i needed an ending song, hopefully with an a cappella chorus;
i needed to put myself in the story, to make the connection with why i wanted to tell the whole thing, because i had been robbed of the opportunity by a head-in-the-sand education system;
i wanted to acknowledge that, as inevitable as the snowballing criminality may have seemed, the massacre might have been avoided had the Donnellys heeded the visions of their son Patrick.

i also had a timely bit of inspiration which jumpstarted the song. i saw my pal KC at the Minesing Unplugged Festival, where he was signed up for my songwriting workshop. he had recently visited the cemetery in Lucan, and told me that visitors were in the habit of throwing coins on the Donnelly graves, in order to fend off bad luck.

lightbulb! that would become the coda, repeated a capella with the choir:
"I'm throwing coins on your grave
to ward off the evil here
to find the wayward truth
the unlikely wisdom there."

once again, other things fell into place as well. when i figured out what year it would have been when Pat left home at eighteen, it turned out to be 1867, the year of confederation. so i placed myself as a teenager (which i was) in centennial year, 1967, at the cemetery (which i wasn't), thinking about him, why i hadn't been taught the history, thinking about making my way from my family, thinking about writing songs...

it feels to me like a very powerful way to end. i hope it does as well for listeners and folks at the shows.

speaking of the cd, i just found out yesterday that it is being picked up by CBC Radio, nation-wide.

first one to hear a song on the radio and let me know wins a free cd!

thanks for reading. now go write something.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

writing story songs

my friend Jennifer has asked me to sub for her next week with her songwriters' club at the local high school. she asked me particularly because i write story songs, and she doesn't.

this is a relatively new development for me. not too long ago, i might have said the same thing as she: "i don't write stories".
all it took for me to change that was to become emotionally attached to the idea of telling a series of stories, a piece of Ontario history, which became The Donnelly Project and the cd Blood and Fire.

i was passionate enough about the idea that i ignored the fact that i had little experience in writing stories.

the key was the aforementioned "emotional attachment". reading books about the Donnellys' rampage through mid-nineteenth century southwestern Ontario, i put myself in the place of the participants, and the stories grew from there.

the first one i wrote, which predates the Project by almost four years, was written from the perspective of a member of the jury in the first trial against James Carroll, leader of the vigilantes ("White Boys") responsible for the massacre of five of the Donnellys in February 1880. that trial ended in a hung jury, hence no conviction. there was a huge outcry at this injustice, since evidence included eyewitness testimony by the only survivor of the murderous arson. i asked myself how that could possibly happen, and answered in the voice of my fictitious character:
"I did what i had to / I've a wife and a family
The White Boys could slaughter us / like they did the Donnellys"

this was a man who had lived in Biddulph Township for thirty years, who had seen firsthand the criminal and unpunished doings of the Donnelly clan. as tragic as their demise was, most folks would have been more relieved than anything, glad to have the spree of arson and mayhem ended at last. a man certainly wouldn't go out of his way to anger the mob who had done it.

and things fall into place. i was researching as i wrote that song (Hang the Jury), and i came across a song written around the end of the century, the cadence of which exactly fit the chorus i had written. so part of it became the second chorus. and i won't have to share the residuals, as the writer is both dead and anonymous:
"Birds don't sing and men don't smile out on the Roman Line
Their faces grim, and so they'll be until the end of time
For the midnight hour brings alarm, no horse will pass the Donnelly farm
Stay off that road or you'll come to harm, out on the Roman Line."

a world 125 years in the past is foreign territory for any writer. but, when i put it in a personal context, i found that i could imagine, if not the circumstances, at least the emotions involved, and that's the core of my writing.

so, 3 1/2 years later, interest grew into obsession, and i dove into the Project, heart first. as i look back, i see that the first song that came to me was "Kevin Kelly's Lament for Bridget Donnelly".

Bridget was a niece, who spent the last year of her young life living with the Donnellys of Lucan, having come from Tipperary, as had they. not much is known about her, but i imagined a sweet, loyal, hardworking girl. i also imagined a young admirer, son of an enemy of her uncle James. it was a natural for a tragic Romeo and Juliet kind of story, this time with the potential lovers given zero chance across the gulf of a bitter feud, ending in her unnecessary death and his endless regret:

"This prayer's too late to offer up / i'm too proud of a man
i loved the bones of a Donnelly, / and her blood on my brothers' hands"

i named the character Kevin Kelly after my friend of the same name, who was instrumental in the project, having given me the book (The Donnelly Album, by Ray Fazakas) from which i would garner most of my song ideas, and a mountain dulcimer, on which i would write perhaps the most powerful of the songs, The Flight of Johnny O'Connor. there was a family of Kelleys (note the spelling) on the side of the White Boys. the rest is fiction.

for that one, i found it easy to put myself in the shoes of the unrequited lover. i could so identify with being in love with an unattainable woman, perplexed by her exotic and confounding ways:
"she never missed the peat, or the songs so lovely, sad
i never missed a chance to tell her that was mad.
she loved her new-found family, the devils that they were
she'd never hear a word against them, her faith in good endured."

i still get goose bumps when i sing that one.

the next song was "Ain't Fooling Anyone", the story of James Donnelly hiding out for months after he murdered Patrick Farrell, told by an unnamed citizen.

i had gathered from talking to people that perhaps the most common image of James was his dressing as a woman while he was a fugitive to help his wife Johannah in the fields. so i started with
"the murderer is wearing a dress / he's helping his wife with the crops
he ain't fooling anyone / except maybe the cops"
and ended with the elation of the storyteller at Donnelly's conviction and impending execution (which never happened):
"The joy, the joy, unforeseeable joy / finding him no longer here
what kind of power can a wee man have, / behind a wall, on a rope, in the air?"

same sort of position as the man in Hang the Jury, but i thought it warranted repetition, as being a widely-held opinion.

the sheer intensity of the climax of the stories, ie. the brutal beating and burning of James, his wife Johannah, son Tom, and his innocent niece Bridget would have been enough of an emotional impetus for me to write the next song. the fact that there was an eyewitness to the scene, in the person of a teenaged boy, was awe-inspiring. i picked up the dulcimer Kevin had given me, and imagined a barefoot Johnny O'Connor running through the snow in utter darkness, away from the rising flames of the Donnelly homestead:
"Run, Johnny, run / flames lick your heels
barefoot in the snow / you can hardly feel
hurry to the Whalens' - stop, you've gone too far
there's barking from the house
behind you in the dark
"Call up the boys!" you cry, / "to quench that awful fire"
"What fire?", Mrs. says. "The Donnellys - they've died.
"men with blackened faces came to take old James,
but killed them all instead. And i know the leader's name!"
"Whisht, boy, be quiet," Mrs. Whalen says
"It's a load of trouble you'll be bringing on your head."
"But i'm the only one alive who knows what went on inside.
The only one alive, but for those of the killing tribe."

the mountain dulcimer was crucial in setting the tone and feel of the song - driving, immediate, and authentic to the time period.

the confidence i gained from writing such a powerfully emotional song allowed me to take on the task of writing from the perspective of one of the most foreign characters - Johannah Donnelly.
imagine if you can a short, stout woman, every bit as fearsome as her terrible, thieving, murdering husband, who, while James was away in prison (when his death sentence was commuted) raised her sons to be "seven devils".

i remember watching the movie "The Secret of Roan Inish", to get a feel for the language and customs of Irish folk. there was a beautiful scene with the grandmother damping the fire to make it safe before bed, and saying an accompanying prayer: "I rake this fire, as the true Christ rakes us all. Mary at the foot, and Brigid at the head. And may the brightest angels from the city of grace preserve this house and all within 'til the coming of the Day."

so that was how i inhabited Johannah for the purposes of writing the song "Johannah's Prayers": i had to get past the caricature of her as the female devil, and try to find the loving, church-going mother, which of course she was. but it was also said that she vowed that, if any of her sons failed to take revenge on any enemy of the family, may he rot in hell.
"Seven sons mine, hear your mother's prayer:
Our good name is now within your care
Our enemies can burn, you must not frgive them
The only failure now is to fail to take revenge"

having success writing from the viewpoint of someone as foreign to me as Johannah was a revelation. no, i may be stretching it a bit. it's obvious to me now that it had been a major hurdle, but passion and dedication had paid off. at the time i'm sure i was just glad to be one song closer to the end of the Project.

it was a couple of months before i was able to write the next one. i remember feeling a bit stuck at this point, five songs down, perhaps five to go. lots of ideas for characters and songs, but nothing immediate and compelling.

tune in next time for a tour through the final five.

in the meantime, if you're writing a story song, here's my tip for the day:

know your character(s) well. inside-out. know them way past the point of what you are going to tell us about them. listeners attach themselves emotionally to characters in songs. this requires depth. think of a successful character as a minutely detailed oil painting. pencil sketches just don't measure up.

i'll be back soon - sorry if you've been checking in for nothing new. sometimes i'm just not sure what to write about, but, as i've just proven, if you want to write, all you have to do is write.

Monday, October 13, 2008

three of my favourite letters: DIY

i am in the happy position of heading up a monthly songwriters' bloc here in Simcoe County. the only sad part is that we can't open it up to everyone who would like to be a part of it.

we're coming up to the sixth anniversary of the inception of the Barrie and District Association of Singer/Songwriters (BaDAS/S). Don Bray and i started small, with a few of our most trusted friends, and gradually and cautiously grew the group, with the ever-present aim of keeping things friendly and constructive.

and it has been a great success for almost all involved. we have about 20 members now, half of whom show up on a regular basis. we've only ever had one initiate quit. that was after one session, when he immediately realized he had absolutely no interest in hearing other writers' takes on his material. fair enough. he writes some pretty good stuff without us.
we also have one member who has never been to a session. we live in hope.

so, maybe you're one of those who would like to be in our elite little group. or maybe you're just out there somewhere, and you would like to be invited into one like it.


if you write songs, you probably know a few others who do as well. so start up your writers' bloc and invite them in. feel free to use my acronym idea - it would be so cool to see these things popping up everywhere - in Saskatoon (SaDAS/S), Moncton (MaDASS), Sutton, Cannington and Beaverton (SCaBAS/S), Haliburton and Regional District (HaRDAS/S),.. you get the idea.

meet once a month at one anothers' homes. drinks, nibblies, make it a fun event. then get down to work. budget approximately 15 minutes per song. first participant plays the song. he/she then gives out copies of the lyric (if there is one. people do write instrumentals). do not reverse this order - you want people to listen intently, and you want to know if something wasn't clear to them before reading the words.
all criticism must be constructive. if you hate the song and think it absolutely unredeemable, say nothing.
and if you think that your friends, singularly and as a group, are tough enough to take that kind of criticism in a healthy way, think again.
the sole purpose of your bloc is to encourage writers to become better writers. some, if not all, will feel competitive urges and want to belittle others' work, but you have to try your best to keep these to a minimum.

so tell the writer what you like most about the song, what works for you. offer her alternative suggestions for word choices, melodies, song structure. keep in mind that the song is probably not fully formed, that the writer is still finding his way with it. also that there is likely to be a strong emotional attachment to the song. we sensitive types are easily bruised.

don't pick nits. among ten people in a room, someone is going to be turned off by a particular word, phrase or piece of melody. don't waste time on tiny details of personal taste. the song belongs to the writer. she is the final arbiter.

go on to the next song, and the next. if you like, you can do a half-hour writing exercise with the group. this is something we've added fairly recently, and it's been a hit.

invite others in, after consulting with the group. grow gradually and with care. think about hiring a professional singer/songwriter to run a workshop with you. have a yearly DIY Getaway weekend at a lodge somewhere and invite every songwriter you know. we do this in January at an outdoor education centre, with 30-35 folks, many of whom we've never met.

you will soon find yourself in a beautiful community which you helped create. it's a wonderful feeling. next thing you know, you will be blogging, daring others to do the same in their corner of the musical world.

so many corners. go on, i dare you.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

what i want to say to you is...

writing is more inside you than out, but it flows between the spheres, at the line where Life becomes Art. this line is Metaphor. inspiration seems to come from without, even when it does not. the sum of your experience is a rich trove of creation, connected and re-connected through your heart and your mind.

and your audience is the same, ready to assimilate your images into their experience, to recreate them and find resonance.

writing is love and generosity. your love of writing itself, and of the things you choose to write about, given freely to anyone who might share your love.

writing is work, but work you choose to do, work that rewards you with insight and a better life.

the best writing is honest - readers/listeners lose interest with falseness. even when writing fiction, you must tell the truth. which means you must know your story and your characters far beyond what you commit to paper or put to music.

good writing is more grown than built. it grows from an idea, through a conglomeration of related images, ever expanding, freely formed but which will at some point suggest structures with which to organize themselves.

writing needs to be free, uncensored. and unedited, until the final stages. play with the language you love, find rhythm in speech and in the written line, which is only a substitute for speech. language is heard in the head of the reader. trust the sneaky images you find when you play - don't ignore what you think might not "fit". it does - you just have to find out how. put it in your character's hands - what is it to him/her? you can answer this, because you know everything about her/him, or are at least willing to find out.

be brave, have fun, make something new. and be proud.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

what the hell do i know?

i have a new songwriting course starting in a couple of weeks in the old home town. i know this because the doubt vultures have started to circle.

where do i get off, standing in front of folks paying good money to hear me rattle on about my Art?

they could do it for themselves. they listen to music, know what makes a good song. they have melodies in their heads, things they want to say. they could do it without me.

i have selfish reasons for holding these classes. the more money i make doing what i love, the fewer hours i have to work selling paint in a box store. and i like being up there, the supposed expert with the heavy credentials: writer, performer, recording artist, promoter, founder of a burgeoning songwriters' bloc. i've written some very good songs, but rarely admit to the very terrible ones.

i should also admit that the very good songs were written with the help of my best friends, in the aforementioned writers' group.

but they didn't just appear for me. i started the group with my buddy Don, when we needed something to kick-start our moribund writing ways. selfish reason, but what we ended up with was a community of writers helping one another, not just us.

a small community, and a closed one, i regret to say. so now i'm trying to reach and engender a larger, more open community. plans are underway in this neck of the woods to start songwriting clubs in the public and high schools, and my friends and i are very excited about being a part of that. we run free workshops at the Mariposa festival every year, and the scope of that will increase next year to the thursday and friday before the festival weekend.

and i run my songwriting classes through the city, four wednesday nights in a row, fall, winter and spring. people show up, not really knowing what they are in for. hell, i'm not sure myself. when i anticipated my first course, i had never done eight hours with the same group, so i felt most comfortable doing quite a bit of planning. i found myself delving into the structure of a song. the building blocks. practical exercises. linear progressions. do this, then this, then this.

trouble is, i don't know anyone who writes like that. i certainly don't - as you can gather from previous articles. so now i'm a little more free with how i teach. it's more about finding your way of writing.

and people do need help finding their way. that's why they come. they're open to the chance to learn something about writing songs that they haven't found on their own. because what i said in the cynical opening is true: they have it inside them already. they need some tips on how to get the bucket down the well and back up again; whether they want to drink the water cold, or put it in a certain kind of vessel and light a fire under it; what to cook in it, and how they will know when it's done; which parts to use and which to toss; and how to present it to their community.

doubts are usual when you place yourself in the position of "teacher". and healthy. i think i'd rather be called "coach". it often feels that way, when i'm up at the white board, writing and diagramming students' ideas, pointing out the perfection of a phrase or a melody line they've just shouted out, egging them on to continue the inspired thread, open themselves to ever wider possibilities, or to go deeper, to the emotional core. when it's really working, i'm animated and encouraging. if one is suggested by circumstance, the way things are going, i have the perfect exercise to illustrate a part of the craft, or just to have some fun with it.

one has to remember that most folks aren't there for serious study, at a parks and rec. class. Rec means recreation. it seems an oversimplification, but i write for fun. "fun" is the kind of simple, perfect, unambiguous word that writers need most. i enjoy writing almost as much as having written - it's much more fun when you're happy with the end product, and singing it for your best friends, or a group of friendly strangers.

and it's not the easiest balance to attain, getting folks to have fun while they are sharing intimate offerrings of their minds. i am very cognizant of keeping the atmosphere as supportive and non-threatening as possible, for the sake both of the humans involved, and their work.

when the classes go well, which they usually do, i have as much fun as anyone, and sometimes i go beyond "coach" to "cheerleader". it is an incredibly satisfying thing to help someone come up with something spontaneously beautiful. at times their immediate reaction is one of surprise, often followed by wonderment at my lack of surprise.

it's the first thing i see when each one of them walks through the door behind the hockey rink on the first wednesday: "there's a songwriter. i wonder what she will come up with. and another. i can't wait to find out how he writes from emotion. and another. i can almost see the stories in her eyes...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

what makes a good song/a song good?

i've just spent a couple of hours being judgmental: judging makes me mental.

i have the distinct privilege of helping my good friend Jennifer vet the applicants in Barriefolk's youth songwriting competition. we need to come up with a short list of ten worthies to showcase on the first night of the festival, where the real judges will face the toughest task, ie. picking one of them to win a spot on the main stage, $500 and some valuable recording time.

i just looked up the word "vet": "to examine or appraise expertly".

i suppose i am somewhat an expert when it comes to song writing. i do it, i teach it, i bring groups of people together to get better at it. but i didn't appraise these songs as much as an expert as i did as an appreciative listener. there were eight songs which Jen and i both agreed would be on the short list: no need for discussion on their relative merits on the grounds of lyrical interest, melody, structure, emotional effect, etc. they just worked. music enjoyed.

the songs on the bubble take a little more thought, and it's best to look upon their potential rather than where they failed to "work". things missing can be added. things oversaid can be shortened.

new writers, young and old, need to learn to edit, which in my book means "simplify". verbs - action words - move the story. nouns name important things. adjectives should be few and perfect. get rid of unnecessary modifiers, especially adverbs, the dreaded modifier modifiers. and when you do use an adjective, use an unexpected one. the simpler your lyric, the more potential power in each word, so make them powerful.

Art is Metaphor. very strong statement, very true, and a metaphor in itself: power, truth, irony - all in three words. now try this:

Art is like a simile. blah blah ouch. the simple lesson here is, avoid similes, use metaphor. (not to say there aren't a million great similes, eg. "and love is like a warm wind/you can't hold it in your hand..." Lynn Miles. never say never.)

even more powerful, don't say "love is an ocean". it's a metaphor, better than "love is like an ocean", but not as good as writing the lyric so we know that love is an ocean without your ever having said it in so many words.

all writers also need to beware of cliches, but it's only arithmetic that makes it even more dangerous for young people, who haven't been exposed to them as often as we fogeys have. if a young writer comes across an old saw for the first time, it's not trite to him. it's fresh and perhaps perfect.

this is the thing about cliches, which folks tend to look on as trite language. but it's only overused language. and usually the reason it's overused is that it's clever and holds some universal truth and we wished we had said it first.

i have friends who are deathly afraid of cliches. i use them regularly. when you think about simplifying a song and getting your message across at the same time, simple universal truths can be very handy. it raises the bar rather high to expect yourself to come up with new ways to say everything, and to have them understood. but be wary of using those worn phrases, groups of words which almost become a single word because they appear together so often.

even more difficult is expecting to come up with new musical ideas. of which there are none, by the way. wait, that would make it impossible, not just difficult. it bothers me very little when someone says that something in my new song reminds them of someone else's song, or another of my own. i guarantee you: if you come up with a series of notes that has never been heard before, i don't want to listen to it. it could only be awful, jarring and sick-making.

here's a perfect example of familiarity being a good thing:

i went to our local song circle the other night, with the express purpose of exposing my new song to the light of day (cliche, by the way). now this song i wrote from the perspective of my best friend Don, who also happens to be a songwriter, and who also frequents the song circle, 'though not on this night. i had tried to put myself in his place, to tell the story of the terrible summer he has just gotten through. i did a pretty good job of that, but realized there was a bit of melody i had used in an earlier song. ah well, so the song sounds like me. that's okay.

so i play the song. buddy Jim is getting coffee, so he misses the first part and doesn't really twig that the lyric is supposed to be Don speaking. or does he? because the first thing he says is "that's got something of the sound of a Don Bray song." i still can't hear it myself, but something is definitely working there.

because i have been known to channel Don in my writing. the most obvious example is a song i wrote called "Shadows", which i immediately realized sounded like something Don would come up with. sure enough, he loved it - to the point of recording it on his last cd, Taxi Moon and I. the greatest compliment a writer can give you is when she or he says "I wish i wrote that".

and you know, even in the kids' songs that won't make the cut, and those on the bubble which might, there are lines of lyric and melody that i wish i had written.

i told Jen that i hate the thought of discouraging any of these teens by rejecting their efforts. but when i listen to the songs one more time, i can't see it happening with any of them. there is such urgency, such passion, such truth in what they are saying, singing and playing.

i'm really looking forward to hearing the ten on Hallowe'en night. my work will be done, i'll relax and enjoy it. and i hope the kids who don't get to showcase are there too, and keep at it, maybe enter again next year. musical tastes sometimes seem to erect walls between generations. these young writers and i are building the same bridge from opposite sides of the wall, and we'll meet in the middle, in a lofty place of joy.
that was a metaphor, in case you didn't catch it.

a metaphor is like a simile, only better.

thanks for reading. now go write a song.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

how to be a pushy canadian

i was a typical lower-middle class canadian boy, raised to be polite and unassuming. i've had my moments since, but basically i'm still that person.
so it's a bit difficult now that i'm trying to get myself out there, as a performer and teacher of songwriting. it goes against the grain for me to shine my light out from under the bushel.
it's a fairly common phenomenon among my musical friends, many of whom have what it takes to be out there playing to a wide audience. we play at song circles and farmer's markets and tend to look down our noses at those who aren't so backward at coming forward, laughing at their shameless forays into show biz. and we get even more ruthless if they're successful at it, seeming to play at every festival and concert series. they really ought to be ashamed of themselves.
how can one be both an artist and a self-promoter? the bit of buzz that's happening around my new cd is mostly thanks to friends and supporters, who are excited for me and would like to see good things happen. so my bud Scotty tells his aunt about it, she happens to work for the London Public Library, tells the collection people about it. they're keen on anything relating to the Donnellys, so i sell four cds and my work is now in libraries. it's a lovely thing, but the proverbial bulldog is still licking his chops.
i'm very fortunate to have a wife who has made a path for me, herself finding a degree of fame and success in her art, which is knitting design. she is also an introvert (opposites attract!), so it was even harder for her to promote herelf. Deb is a great help when it comes to this stuff, both in the practical side, like showing me how to blog and use Publisher for promo material, and the gritty self-knowledge side. she asks all the right questions and has 42 million (that's her favourite number for purposes of hyperbole) ideas for my campaign.
interesting choice of words. i probably wouldn't have used "campaign" if we weren't in the midst of an election, but it is somehow apt, and a useful nudge to myself, to start taking the Project seriously, and embark on a mission to share it with the unsuspecting world.
i'm convinced that a lot of people will take to the Donnelly stories the same way i did, when i got the chance. in a way, it has been my mission for a while, to rectify the lack of their telling. our history books are full of holes, which aren't much better than lies. but for the same reason, it hinders their elaboration. as unbelievable as it may seem, after 128 years, people still don't want to hear about it, never mind talking about it. you can witness this with a visit to Lucan, a lovely little town with a museum and an engrossing piece of history to promote it. thing is, it's not easy to find the museum, and even harder to find it open. it's uncanny.
but that doesn't really have much to do with me getting out there - it's just a dangerously handy excuse.
i am actually enjoying the exercise of producing promotional material. it is very much like writing a song from another's perspective - as i did in 9 out of 10 songs on Blood and Fire (and even in the 10th, i fictionlized myself as being 3 years older and passing through Lucan, which i did not do at the time): you have to anticipate what the artistic director is looking for, and the best, briefest way to give it to her/him. the package i'm working on is a one-page maximum, for the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals conference in Ottawa next month. also much like songwriting - keep it simple but inspiring, and edit, edit, edit. you can't tell them everything you'd like them to know, so you have to work at whittling it down to what's most important, what will draw them in. everything's there in the cd - your job is to get them to open it and to want to pay attention when they play it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

what's in it for me?

this is me relaxing at Shelter Valley Folk Festival, where i let other performers entertain me as my ever-expanding fame and fortune rolled on out...

hyperbole is the constant friend of the songwriter. but things are starting to happen for me, as the cd gets into more hands and pairs of ears. and life falls into place and offers opportunities to advance itself, much as a song does.

this is how Art meets life. about six years ago. i finally got around to writing a song in response to Steve Earle's ironically-titled "Justice in Ontario", which had pissed me off some time before. In it were three stories from our province where justice was not served, including the massacre of the Donnellys of Lucan.

now, we weren't taught about the Donnellys in school, as it was a shameful chapter in our history. but i had learned enough to know that the Donnellys had terrorized Biddulph Township for close to forty years and had paid little for their crimes. Earle sang something along the lines of "Sure, James was no angel, but he didn't deserve to die". my immediate response was "Well, Steve, you Yankee hypocrite, actually he did. " James was sentenced to hang for killing the man who had held title to the land upon which Donnelly was squatting. his wife Johannah took a petition to the Attorney General, Sir John A. MacDonald, who commuted the sentence to seven years in Kingston. by the time he got out, Johannah had raised their "seven divils" to carry on the family tradition of arson, terror and dirty tricks.

the law was useless in most of their attempts to curtail the boys' activities. no matter how many times they were in court, the usual outcome was a slap on the wrist or meaningless fine. a couple of the sons did time, but returned to pick up the slack.

the local priest took it upon himself to institute the Biddulph Peace Society, otherwise known as the Vigilance Committee, hoping that by organizing the townsfolk in large numbers against the Blackfeet clan, the latter would give up and leave.

but the Donnellys and their friends stood firm. mounting frustration of the "White Boys"
finally culminated in the indefensible massacre on the night of February 3, 1880.

there was a young eyewitness to the horrible scene, who by all accounts was entirely credible. Johnny O'Connor named the few men that he had seen clearly, and James Carroll in particular, as the obvious leader of the mob.

the first trial ended in a hung jury, the second in a finding of Not Guilty. Carroll went free, and no one was ever punished for the five deaths that night.

i wrote "Hang the Jury" from the view of a fictional juror in the first trial, caught between relief that the terrible Donnellys had been despatched, and fear of reprisals from the White Boys should they manage to convict any of their lot.

that was how i was able to find the "truth" in the two sides of the story which Earle had turned into one. i had to inhabit a character, imaginary though he might be, in order to imagine what it might have been like to live in those times.

that was a watershed moment for me, in many ways. i learned how to write a powerful story, working from emotion. i went on to write many more very different songs, with greater confidence and conviction.

five years later, i revisited the stories in Ray Fazakas' The Donnelly Album, thought rather naiively that it might be fun to embark on a "project", and found myself soon in the grip of my own obsession with the stories and finding a faithful way to bring them to life. i wrote nine more songs, recruited Susan Charters to furnish stories to intersperse with the music, and arranged for a few very talented friends (Alyssa Wright, Carol Teal, Jennifer Ives, Don Bray, Scotty Thomas) to play, sing, record and produce. we invited our friends to come to two shows in December, 2007, which were recorded live, then engineered and mastered by the wonderful

Mr. Bray. another friend, Robin Hadfield did the art and duplication, and hey presto! i have my first cd: Blood and Fire: the Donnelly Project.

but then what? i had dreamed about, and then worked at, getting the damn thing out there for so long that i hadn't really considered what to do with it. the thing had had so much momentum, i guess i thought it would just carry on somehow. but that's not how it works.

so it's taken a while. starting this blog got me thinking about putting myself out there, sharing the gift of homemade music. then a few practical things to get the cd into the hands of those who might most be interested and help spread the word. and it's beginning to pay off.

i was surprised how gratified i was when i received my first library order - four cds for the collection at the London Public Library (London is the big town south of Lucan). i love libraries. and i love the thought of my writing and performance being a part of a "collection" of materials to inform and entertain anyone and everyone.

i've also sent one to the museum in Lucan, which includes a log home much like the one in which four of the Donnellys died. and Susan and i are booked for a show in nearby St. Mary's in April.

when i addressed the cd mailer "Lucan, ON", there was a rather chilling moment when it hit me: "this is where it all happened". even after all this time, i am still extremely moved by the power of the stories. and very happy that i embarked on this arduous, joyous journey.

this is what songwriting can do for you.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

if a song is sung in the forest...

does anybody hear?

my friend Bob told our writers' bloc one time that he writes songs for nobody but himself. doesn't consider the audience at all.

this was extremely interesting to me, as foreign notions usually are. we were discussing the dangers of editing too early in the songwriting process, especially when influenced by the consideration of what an audience might think.

i agree with this in principle. editing should come very late in the process. i think of a song as a growing thing, which should be allowed to become itself, suggest its own structure, dart out in unanticipated directions, like a plant towards water, towards light. editing is necessary, and necessarily merciless, but it needs to wait until the thing has finished growing.

but i always have an audience in mind. most of my songs are gifts, things i want to share with specific friends, loved ones, or with groups of strangers i'm looking forward to meeting. i imagine them listening as the song is building in my heart, my head, my hands, my voice. i smile at the thought of their reactions, laughing at an inside joke or nodding at some universal truth i've managed to snag in a brilliant fleeting moment.

Friday, August 22, 2008

where does one begin?

the blank page can be an awesome enemy. but so easily conquered, when you think about it. write something, anything. instantaneous victory, the enemy annihilated.

people don't write because they think they don't know how: a writer is someone who holds a secret, some magical knowledge.

but you know what a writer is? someone who writes.

i've named this blog "followthatsong" because it's catchy and attaches a visual image that anyone can identify with. but it also sums up the way i write, when i write well. when i write badly, it's because i'm forcing it for one reason or another, trying to make it happen. when i write well, it flows out of me and it's all i can do to keep up with the tide of images and melody.

Bob Dylan says that creativity is experience, observation and inspiration. i would add "emotion" to the list, but otherwise it's a pretty sound summation.

experience: you don't have to have experienced first hand the thing that you are writing about,

but the richer your life, the more likely you are to have a feel for complexity and multiformity. so, instead of staring at a blank page, wishing you could write, why not go out and do something?

observation: and when you go out, don't look at the sidewalk thinking your deep inner thoughts and wish you could write something. watch people, animals, things, landscapes, colours. listen to speech, the wind, the waves, birds, leaves. feel rain on your forehead, the boardwalk under your feet. taste the salt on your lips. smell the air in the woods.

inspiration: and when you observe, be inspired. by folks with passion, beautiful things, humorous happenings. trigger memories, feelings, write down snippets of thought. walk to the rhythm of a phrase. give it a melody.

that is how i write a song. when i get home, i pick up the guitar, put chords to the nub of melody, and it grows from there. i don't plan the structure, but i know it will come. the structure fits the song, not the other way 'round.

and at magical times, the images and music come so fast i feel like hailing a cab and yelling "followthatsong!"