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.