Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Treatise on Songs

My friend Jane Eamon is writing a book called "The Songwriter's Journey." The book will include reflections from a variety songwriters on a variety of questions. So a few months back, she sent me a list of questions to respond to. This is an excerpt of my response to her. I will be posting more excerpts over time.

What is a song? On the surface, it’s words sung to a melody. Simple enough. But songs are complex creatures that work or don’t work on many levels. On a musical level, songs have melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structures. They can follow or break musical conventions, they can be at different tempos, and in different time signatures. They can mix tempos and time signatures. A song can change key, or visit other keys and come back to the first key. A song can musically draw on or refer to other songs or styles. The music can be discordant, harmonious, energizing, melancholy, driving, simple, complex, funny, touching, sexy, inspiring, or relaxing.

The words can be from the point of view of an object, a person, a deity, or an animal. They can speak from first person, second person, or third person. They can be about nothing. They can be about everything. The lyrics can be playful, happy, sad, personal, technical, angry, old-fashioned, modern, spiritual, or thoroughly common.

The song can have rhymes. Or not. Techniques like onomatapoetry, alliteration, internal rhyme may or may not be used. The words might be concrete. Or they might be abstract. The meaning might be ambiguous, or it might be totally transparent. Metaphor and simile will certainly be there, but they can be more or less obvious, used in different ways, mixed, or not.

The words can “match” the melody in tone or feel. Or they can be juxtaposed. The song form can be simple or complex. There can be an introduction, verses, refrains, choruses, bridges, tags, and codas. There can be a lot of repetition, or very little.

Songs can serve a higher purpose, or they can be just for fun. Or both. A song can evoke strong memories, be a powerful tool for change, make you cry, inspire you to shake your booty, or get you into bed with someone. Songs can reflect and express the hopes, desires, fears, and triumphs of a person, or of a whole community or culture. They can be created in situations of incredible adversity and oppression. They can be of the moment, or they can strike a chord that lasts centuries.

So how do we go about creating these miniature masterpieces that we call songs? I think the answer will be different for every songwriter, and in a way, one of the tasks of the songwriter is to figure out what works for them and go with it. What’s right for me might not work at all for you, and vice versa. Discovering the tools and methods that help you create your best songs will be a lifelong journey if you choose to follow that path.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008


My friend Laurie has an excellent blog called "Not Just About Cancer" that (among other things) chronicles her experiences as a breast cancer survivor. Her writing is insightful and inspiring, and sometimes just downright hysterical. She's writing a "blook" that's due to be published sometime next year.

Recently she went to the "BlogHer" conference in San Francisco. And she got her picture taken with Grover. I'm jealous.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Be Prepared!

A few months ago, my partner and I decided to buy tickets to see Kate and Anna McGarrigle in concert at Hugh's Room. The tickets were very expensive, but we decided to make a date out of it and not worry about the cost. We even made reservations for dinner to underscore the "date" idea.

The night of the concert, we arrive and take our seats. The club is filling up-- the McGarrigles are playing two nights in a row, but even so, we hear both shows were sold out. As we eat, I looked around at the audience. I'm surprised that I hardly recognize anyone. "Who are all these people," I wonder? "Why do I never see them at other folk music events?" Most of them seem like boomers who live in the suburbs, perhaps, and I wonder whether they come to Hugh's Room because of the dinner theatre atmosphere (a little classier than your average folk music concert series church basement) and the nostalgia factor (reliving their rebellious folk-singing young adulthood of the 1960's).

We finish our dinners, complete with dessert. I'm feeling incredibly full, a little bit sleepy, and looking forward to just relaxing and enjoying a concert by two of my musical heroes. I head towards the back of the club for a visit to the washroom, and I see the owner of the club, along with the person who books concerts, and the floor manager. So I walk over to say "hi," since I know them all.

"Hi Eve," they all chime, and then one of them says, "Do you want to open for Kate and Anna McGarrigle?"

I assume they're joking, but after a few seconds of kibbutzing, I realize they are absolutely serious. It turns out that Kate and Anna are planning to do one long set, and the Hugh's Room staff wants to have a break partway through the evening. So they need someone to perform an opening set.

At first I think of all the reasons I can't do it -- I don't have my guitar, picks, or capo. I wasn't prepared to perform -- no fancy outfit or anything. I walk back to my seat and tell E. what just happened.

"Are you crazy?" she practically shouts, "You HAVE to do this. You go back there and tell them you will open for Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Right now!"

Ever the obedient partner, I go back and let them know that if they are still looking for someone, I could do it, but I would need to borrow a guitar. We quickly arrange for me to borrow Kate's guitar and Anna's capo. I even borrow a pick from Chaim Tannenbaum, one of their longtime accompanists.

And I play a half-hour opening set. I have no CDs to sell, no mailing list, and I am wearing a t-shirt with a logo for "Mama Clucker's," a famous chicken eatery in New Orleans. "Best Legs in Town!" says the slogan across my chest. It is definitely a moment to remember.

And I'm so glad that I did it. The place was packed full of people who had never heard me before, and I got a very enthusiastic response (although of course I wasn't able to sell any CDs or get anyone on my mailing list). Thankfully, I did know about five people in the audience, and one was my friend Collette, who took this picture with her cellphone. It's not great quality, but it is proof.

The moral of the story: Be Prepared! You never know when you will be asked to sing.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Once: The Movie

Last night I rented the movie "Once". It's a low-budget Irish movie about two musicians who meet on the street and develop a musical partnership.

It's rare to see a movie about music that gets it right, but this one does. The main characters are played by musicians. Glen Hansard, the leading man, is a member of the Irish band "The Frames" (he also played the guitarist in one of the other great music movies of all times, "The Commitments"). The leading woman is Marketa Irglova, a compelling piano player and singer.

There's a lot in the movie about the process of musical collaboration, songwriting, trying to survive as an independent musician, and (of course!) love and its many twists and turns. And the music is stunning.

It's quirky, funny, sad, and very moving. Rent it!

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Swinging on a Pendulum

A few weeks ago, I was running flat out-- I went from the Mariposa Festival, directly to the Haliburton School of the Arts (where I taught guitar for 7 hours a day, five days in a row), directly to the Canterbury Folk Festival, and finally home. It was a pretty hectic couple of weeks.

And then, just like that, it all came to a screeching halt. Three weeks with no gigs. I almost don't know what to do with myself.

But it will all change again in about a week, when I’ll get on a plane and head to Nova Scotia for the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. A few days after that, I’m in Owen Sound for the Summerfolk Festival, and then a few days after that I leave for five days for The Woods Music and Dance Camp, where I’m one of the main organizers and I teach a guitar class.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, really, because festivals are fantastic gigs for musicians. It’s a chance for us to perform in beautiful environments, for people who truly appreciate the music. And probably best of all, we get to hang out with each other-- a rare treat in a business where we are often criss-crossing the country on our own, rarely seeing or talking to each other.

But I can’t help thinking about the "feast-or-famine," pendulum-swinging existence I seem to live most of the time. Finding the balance between the different aspects of my work and personal life is not easy. When I’m in an intense period of performing, I’m not able to do much of anything else. And when I'm not intensely performing, there is usually a host of other things I should be doing. There's booking gigs, writing songs, recording, applying for grants, keeping my web presence up-to-date, following up on connections made at festivals or other gigs, practicing, running the office, being my own manager, planning, and so on. But to be honest, after an intense few weeks like I just had, when I find myself with unstructured time, it's pretty hard to put my nose to the grindstone and get down to all the things that need to be done.

In short, I don’t think I’ve yet managed to find a good balance between performing, teaching, writing, practicing, recording, running an office, booking and managing myself, not to mention relaxing every once in a while. I wonder if I ever will.

It doesn't help that the lines between my personal life and my work life are now blurred beyond recognition. Once upon a time I worked normal, nine-to-five jobs, where I showed up at a workplace and I had stuff to do every day that fit into a larger structure. Then I went home and had a personal life. It's not that I wasn't working hard, but I had a sense of work time separated from personal time. Now I have to create my own structure. Sometimes I’m better than at other times, but generally I’m a pretty un-disciplined person. I'll jump from one thing to another, never quite completing anything, and since I don’t have to work at particular times, I find myself working at very odd hours sometimes.

And sometimes, when I should be working, I goof off. I admit it. I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder, and it's hard to be motivated when I don't have a deadline.

And my latest epiphany: modern technology does NOT help with this problem of work/personal balance (I know, I know, where have I been the last ten years?). Ever since I got a laptop and we put a wireless router in our house, I can work or play from anywhere, leading to the “I’ll just lie on the couch and answer all my email” syndrome. I find myself responding to work emails or updating my website while I’m watching TV, or just before I go to bed (which leads to the equally egregious “I went to sleep at 3 am because I thought I’d just check my email before bed” syndrome). Am I relaxing? Working? I can't always tell.

I know I'm not alone with this dilemma. A quick search revealed a few different bloggers writing about this very issue, here and here. Seems we're all trying to figure out where work ends and play begins.

I love what I do, and I know I’m lucky to be able to do it. I try to remember that when I find myself clinging for dear life to that swinging pendulum, struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

OK, enough kvetching. Time to go book myself a gig. Or update my website. Or finish that song. Heck, maybe I'll goof off...

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Very, Very Special Watermelon

In the interests of keeping my readers informed about the latest in watermelon news, I feel compelled to post this item.

Apparently, last month a watermelon was sold at auction for ¥65,000 (almost $6000 CDN) in Japan.

Who knew there were such things as "watermelon auctions?" This got me curious, so I looked up "watermelon auction" on Google. In between links about the $6000 watermelon, I discovered this link, about another watermelon sold at auction for $4000 in Australia.

Is this a trend or something? Is watermelon suddenly a "must-have" item, hipper than flip-flops or carrying a miniature dog around in your purse? I'm picturing Sotheby's or Christie's Auction House listings, with descriptions like,

"This watermelon, of the organic sugar baby variety, was grown by Lord Pommel of Grace Hill. It was believed to have been harvested in 1894, a fine vintage prized for it's texture and colour. Other watermelons in the vintage are reported to have an appealing nose with a hint of raspberry and an aggressive finish. This specimen is particularly valuable, having been owned by William Faulkner while he was writing his masterpiece 'As I Lay Dying.' Rind is in excellent condition, with no scuffs or pockmarks. Starting bid $9000."

I hope the buyers really enjoyed their watermelons.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Learning Guitar = Living On the Edge?

Last week I taught a one-week guitar course at Haliburton School of the Arts.

I had eleven adult students, with a wide variety of experience. Some had never played guitar before at all, some had a little bit of experience, and others had decades of playing under their belts. All week they worked away at learning how to make chords, how to play bass runs, how to keep time and play together, how to fingerpick and how to sing a bunch of folk, country, and blues songs. It was a challenging and exhilarating week for me.

And almost a week later, I am left with a feeling of deep respect and awe for my students. Signing up for a class like this means you are purposely putting yourself in the position of trying to do something you don't know how to do. How often do we as adults put ourselves in that position? I would venture that most of us find a certain comfort zone in our lives, where we rarely risk looking stupid. We gain training, take jobs, develop expertise, and stick with it. Once we are adults, do we ever openly admit to having no clue as to what we're doing?

And yet, most of the people in this class had no clue what they were doing at least part of the time. That's why they were in the class, after all. So they spent a lot of the week, out there at the edge of their comfort zone, trying to play "boom-chuck." They were patient, open, and they all made big strides over the week. It was a joy, as well as a very humbling experience, to spend time with them and help them on their musical path.

One of my students was zoom, author of a blog called knitnut, and this morning I turned on my computer to find this very fine post on her blog. I was already in the middle of writing this piece, but she put it better than I ever could. Thanks zoom! And thanks to all of my Haliburton students for living on the edge.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The People's Music

There is a wonderful five-part series airing on CBC Radio's "Inside the Music" right now. Narrated by Gary Cristall, "The People's Music" is a look at the history of folk music in English Canada.

It's about time we had a program like this in Canada -- up until now, it seems like we've been sadly lacking in documentaries that trace the history of folk and roots music in Canada. I've only caught one episode so far, but it offered a fascinating glimpse into the developing folk scene in Canada in the 1950's. I'm looking forward to hearing more.

Now, when are we going to get a film version?


A 5-part documentary series on CBC Radio
on the history & development of Folk Music in English Canada
with Gary Cristall

Airing Sundays: July 6, 13, 20, 27 & August 3 on “Inside the Music”
Noon – CBC Radio Two
8pm – CBC Radio One (1/2 hour later in Newfoundland)
& on Sirius Radio (check schedules)

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Full Circle

A few weeks ago I sang at Amnesty International Canada's Annual General Meeting. I performed my song "The Streets of Burma," which is being used by Amnesty as part of a campaign to help free one of the monks imprisoned in Myanmar.

In a way, my performance at the AGM was completing a circle. "The Streets of Burma" was born last fall, when I was invited to perform at a benefit for an Amnesty International chapter in Thornbury, Ontario. I had been thinking about writing a song about the "Saffron Revolution" in Burma/Myanmar, and I had jotted down some initial ideas, when I realized that the upcoming Amnesty event would be the perfect place to sing such a song. Deadlines are always helpful for me, so I worked away at the song, and sang the first draft for Amnesty International Canada Group 82 on November 7, 2007.

It was gratifying to sing the song in that context, but I worried that writing a song just wasn't enough. I wanted it to do more than just help people remember what had happened in Myanmar, I wanted it to help spur listeners to action.

Shortly after that, on a whim, I contacted Amnesty Canada's national office to see whether they might be interested in using the song somehow. To my surprise they responded right away, and the result has been a postcard campaign urging the Myanmar government to release U Gambira. Over the last six months I have sung all over Ontario, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, and everywhere I've gone, audience members have enthusiastically signed postcards to help free U Gambira. I've personally mailed in hundreds and hundreds of postcards, and I know that Amnesty members have also been circulating and mailing the postcards from all across Canada. I never dreamed that my song could have such an immediate, concrete impact, and I'm thrilled to be associated with a respected group like Amnesty International.

So, on June 14th, I got up in front of a room of Amnesty International members, activists from all across Canada, and I sang "The Streets of Burma." It was the very beginning of their weekend meeting, and I knew that the hundreds of delegates there had a lot of hard work in front of them. My song, in the large scheme of things, wasn't the most important thing for Amnesty International Canada that weekend. But in that moment, I felt the synergy of a simple song bringing exactly the right spirit and energy to a particular group of people, and for me, the circle was completed.

Over the course of that afternoon, I heard about Amnesty Canada's activities over the last year. I saw a special tribute to Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, who recently received the Order of Canada. And I watched democracy in action as the meeting began and members rose to make points or suggestions. I met dozens of Amnesty members from big and small communities. One had been distributing the postcards in the Kitchener-Waterloo school system. Another asked if her chapter could use my song at their event this August. Many took more postcards to distribute in their communities. It was an honour to perform for and meet these hardworking people who are doing so much for human rights.

Thank you, Amnesty International Canada for inspiring me to write "The Streets of Burma,"and for keeping the flame of human rights burning bright around the world. It is a privilege to be a small part of your work.

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Play On, Oliver

On Thursday, we lost one of the bright lights in the Canadian music firmament, Oliver Schroer. Oliver was one of the most creative and innovative musicians I've ever known. He was also the tallest fiddle player ever on the planet.

With just his fiddle and bow, he could evoke whole worlds in a few minutes, as he coaxed beautiful and unearthly sounds seemingly out of nowhere. His tunes were by turns whimsical, nostalgic, funny, fantastical, unbelievably joyful, but sometimes also very dark and brooding. He was not afraid of the uncomfortable, the disturbing, or the dissonant.

When I was around Oliver I always had a sense of a person so infused with life that he couldn't wait for the next adventure-- even the next moment-- to be taken in and experienced (And then sometimes magically turned into a tune!). If you could say someone lived life to the fullest, that was Oliver.

And so it was when he learned that he had cancer. Oliver somehow was able to take in the whole experience full on, and, rather than let it slow him down, he used it as a catalyst to continue composing and recording, right up until the night before he died. And in a remarkable act of love, he brought his whole music community along with him on his journey, participating in several "Olifiddle" tribute concerts, and finally, performing his "last show ever on this earth" before a sold out crowd in Toronto.

Oliver kept a blog of his experiences of the last few months, and in it he reflects on his life and his impending death. There are many, many very wise words in that blog, but I'll just leave you with one of the last things he wrote:

Sometimes I think of dying as taking a trip, a trip far away to a place from which I cannot come back. We all know people who do that...move to Tasmania. (great place, by the way…) The point is, we wish these people well on their journey, but we don’t get all choked up and overwrought about it. We remember them fondly, and they live on in our memories through stories and the legacy they have left. We toast them in absentia, and hope they are doing well in their new digs. Well, my whole journey feels a bit like that. I am going to this place we will all go, and my travel plans are just a bit more immediate than yours. (Though life is strange, and I still might not be the first to go. Just be careful crossing those streets and driving those cars, folks.) I think a lot in terms of metaphors to help me understand things. I have been informed by the stationmaster that my train is coming in immanently, and that I should be ready to get on board when it does. But until that train comes, I am still doing what I am doing fully and completely.
Wherever Oli is now, I'm completely convinced that he is drinking it all in, and composing some fine tunes. Play on Oli, we'll miss you.

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Newsflash: July 18 at Hugh's Room

Just announced:

On Friday, July 18, I will be performing in a split bill concert at Hugh's Room here in Toronto with the amazing Catie Curtis, one of the Boston area's finest songwriters and performers. I have heard about Catie for many, years, but I've never had the chance to meet her or see her perform. To my knowledge, she has never sung in Toronto before, so this is a very special chance to see her live.

If you like intelligent songwriting with lots to say, you won't want to miss this show. Here's a recent review from Penguin Eggs Magazine:

"Certainly an equal to folks like Nanci Griffith or Shawn Colvin in songwriting style and ability, Catie Curtis is one of those artists you rediscover as you pass by at a folk fest on your way to see someone else. When you stop to have a listen, you remember once again that she is worth stopping for. Her songs are confident and concise with a sweet poetry that is defined by its simplicity. She touches equally on either side of the folk-pop hyphen."
Listen here
Buy Tickets