Blue Skies of Summer

There is nothing quite like playing an outdoor show on a beautiful summer afternoon.  This was taken at the Beats N’ Eats Festival at Baturyn Park in north Edmonton a couple weeks ago.

SR at Beats_Eats_July 2017 cropped

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Closing in on a release date

Final mixes are done and we are sending the tracks to be mastered at Golden Mastering in California in the coming week.

From there, we will send master tracks for replication on a small run of CDs, as well as uploading to CD Baby for distribution to various online retailers, including iTunes.

It will be a soft launch of the record in November, meaning that I will release some or all of the album but plan for a more formal release event in the coming months.

Everett’s been wonderful to work with throughout this process, and I’m very pleased with the results so far; and especially for the opportunity to work with some talented musicians who performed on the record.

Stay tuned for more soon.

 

SAC 2016 SONGWRITING CHALLENGE WEEK 4

I’m late submitting this week but I met the challenge.  This week we were asked by Toronto-based singer-songwriter Emma-Lee to “tie two tunes together” by marrying parts from different unfinished songs into a new composition.

This was a hard challenge in part because I have many unfinished ideas but trying to bring them together in a new arrangement is surprisingly difficult.  Different rhythms, different keys, different moods, etc.  After sifting through my iPhone scratch recordings for some time, I finally decided to merge a melody from one fragment of an idea with a guitar riff from another.

The chorus was part of the guitar riff idea and the melody came from a very different song idea so I essentially had to write the lyrics from scratch.  The chorus is suggestive of a theme but I had to work out an angle on it.  In this case the lyrics aren’t too specific but lend themselves to a relationship-type song.  I decided I also wanted to keep it simple and short, so I opted for two verses with a short bridge, bringing the whole thing in under 3 minutes.

It’s a bit more pop than what I’ve been writing lately and the production is more than I would usually do for this kind of demo but I had fun with it, and that’s what matters

We’ve Both Been There

I know that love can be confusing-
when it undermines those plans you made
But I also know it bears repeating-
you’ve got two choices when you’re scared

We’ve both been there
We’ve both been there

I know frustration likes to hang around-
ticking like a time bomb that you wear
Before it blows you need to recognize-
there are others out there who still care

We’ve both been there
We’ve both been there

And I won’t tell you no lies-
cause I can see in those eyes
we’ve both been there

We’ve both been there

Words and music by Gordon Gow, Copyright 2016
Featured Image by Holly Jay flic.kr/p/sjJRJA

 

SAC 2016 SONGWRITING CHALLENGE WEEK 3

This week’s challenge from Michael Perlmutter from Instinct Entertainment was to do a co-write with another participant.  The subject of the song was to be about “relationships” and the process was intended to allow us to be able to share our own experience “with a co-writer may help to craft the story and share the feeling in a more profound way.”

Collaboration presents many challenges unto itself; not the least of which is finding a time  and place to do it.  Online connections are good but face to face is probably better for me, and unfortunately that wasn’t going to happen this week because of other commitments.  However, I did manage to contact two Edmonton-based writers, BoneDog Dixon and Shauna Specht, both of whom I met through the SAC Edmonton Regional Writers Group.

My approach going into the challenge was to lend what I feel are my strengths in lyric writing to the collaboration.  Given the time constraints I also felt it better to draw on some material that was already somewhat developed rather than trying to create from scratch.

I write lyrics in tandem with music, using it as a kind of scaffolding for the process.  The scaffolding can then be pulled back to reveal a lyric.  That was the case with both of these songs.

I offered to send BoneDog a lyric with the title “That Love Ain’t True”, which is about the kind of relationships that really aren’t honest or healthy.   I felt that it fit with his blues-influenced approach to songwriting.  Originally it was written with a series of short verses followed by a refrain.  BoneDog suggested I expand the verses and he added some additional elements to the lyric.  His musical approach is really interesting, and very different from what I would have imagined for the song.  I like it, and think that if we were to continue working on it that I’d want to do an overhaul of the verses to give it a stronger coherence internally and possibly inject some dark humour into it.

I offered Shauna a lyric with the title “Save it for the Brokenhearted”, which is about a long term relationship that has come to an end;  however, it’s not a sad ending but rather two lovers who have reconciled with themselves about it and realize it’s time to move on.   Shauna was drawn to the theme but decided to take it in quite a different direction than the original lyric.  She retained some of the thematic elements and a few lines but it is also a completely different song after the co-write.  I’m impressed with what she’s done with it in such a short time span and now have a greater sense of how an idea in a co-write can develop in unexpected directions.  If we had more time to work on it together I’d probably press for a different chorus as part of the co-writing process.  Nonetheless, my compliments to her for this song, which is now called “The Book of You and Me

Overall, it was a great experience this week and it’s encouraged me to start thinking more seriously about the possibilities of doing more co-write experiments.

 

 

SAC 2016 Songwriting Challenge Week 2

Okay, we’re into week 2 and the Challenge has been issued by Northern Pikes member Bryan Potvin to write a song that tells a story.  He says that in addition to a compelling storyline it “should be a song with memorable melody, chord structure and rhythm that speaks to the ideas within the story.”  Make the story drive the lyric and the music, he says.

He includes some great sample tracks as points of reference, including “Cats in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin) and “She Ain’t Pretty” (Northern Pikes).  Of course there are many others, including Gordon Lightfoot’s epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and Towne Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”

It’s a difficult challenge on several levels, not the least of which is to grapple with the question “what exactly qualifies as a story, anyway?”

Merriam Webster has a few ways to define it but I like “an account of incidents or events” or “the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work.”

In its essence, however, a story has characters, a setting, and some kind of action unfolding in time.  I suppose this can be contrasted with a lyric that is either impressionistic (“Where the Streets Have No Name“) or one that expresses a set of emotional statements in relation to a chorus (“Walking on Sunshine“).


The Process

Fortunately I had a story idea for a song that had been sitting idle for some time.  The challenge gave me a good excuse to develop it.

I assume the characters and the dramatic element of the story will be obvious to listeners but the timeline is a bit different because it works backward from the recent past to the distant past through the three verses.

This is what I wrote on my worksheet when planning out the song structure:

Verse 1: minutes before
Verse 2: hours before
Verse 3: years before

I’m not sure it’s a narrative as much as the singer recollecting a set of related moments in second-person POV.  Does that count as a story?  If we accept the first of Meriam Webster’s definitions I noted above (“an account of incidents or events”) then it does.

I really like singing the melody in the chorus and feel it ties the elements together with compelling hook but that is ultimately for listeners to decide.

The performance and recording could both be improved but I’ve decided that we’re all friends here and so I’m not going to overwork the demo this week.


The Result

Can’t Take it Back

An empty bottle beside the bed-
the darkness clings to the things you said
Like shattered glass on a broken mirror-
These lines of force are now crystal clear

The fever broke about 2am-
You were sick from drinking, soaked in sin
You raised your voice then you raised your hand-
out came that demon you could never understand

You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back
You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back

A set of keys beside the door-
she pleaded so many times before
trying to save you from yourself-
a gesture of love that you ignored

You slammed the door when you left that night-
at the sight of tears in the fury of another fight
And you knew where the road was gonna lead-
with those warning signs you never chose to heed

You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back
You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back

Time ticks away-
time ticks away
time ticks away-
then it’s gone

A lover’s note inside your coat-
twenty years ago it gave you hope
she said “I do” when you took her hand-
but you burned it to ash-
in the flames of a foolish man

You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back
You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back

Copyright 2016 Gordon Gow

SAC 2016 Songwriting Challenge Week 1

The Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) runs an annual songwriting challenge for its members.  I did it last year and found the experience difficult but very rewarding.  One of my posts from 2015 is here.

The challenge this year is to write four songs in four weeks under the direction of a set of mentor/challengers.  Each week presents a different type of challenge.

SAC members who participate in the challenge are asked to record their result each week and post it online with some commentary.

So here we go …


The Challenge

The challenger is Toronto-based producer and songwriter Murray Daigle, who posted this for us:

Write a song using no more than 2 chords — OR —  Write a song that has a single repeating riff (1-bar in length)

This challenge is designed to make writers focus on fundamental “hooks” to create a great song. Also to underline the “catchiness” of the melody, vocal rhythm and lyric will be very important. This limitation takes away the writer’s ability to simply use a chord pattern change and define the musical space. You will actually have to write verses, choruses and bridges that define themselves and “speak” as they should in the context of the song.

Murray also provided a list of examples for us to consider, including some classics such as “Eleanor Rigby” (Beatles), “Born in the USA” (Springsteen), “When Love Comes to Town” (U2).


The Process

I went with the 2-chord challenge, although I had considered using my looper to try out something with a repeating riff.

Keeping to 2-chords is hard because there is such a strong desire to add a third chord for resolution and/or harmonic progression against the melody.  However, the challenge really forced me to pay close attention to melodic and rhythmic elements of the composition.

I listened to some of the examples provided by Murray and adapted a technique from “Eleanor Rigby” that I used to give a sense of movement in the song.  Here you can see how the Beatles simply reverse the order of the chords to differentiate between verse and chorus:

Rigby chords

Heartwoodguitar.com

I began with several different ideas, playing around with a Travis-picked D/Am progression but dropped it in favour of something a bit more bouncy that moves between the I and the IV (‘C#’ and ‘F#’).  This gave me a bit more to play with in terms of the interaction between the melody, lyrics, chord changes.

For the pre-chorus I make a slight change by holding on the IV for an extra bar before returning to the riff.    It isn’t quite the same as reversing the order but it does briefly shift the emphasis to the IV and breaks up the pattern.

I also drew on my Pat Pattison theory of songwriting and made subtle changes to the way the lyrics are set between the verses and choruses, “leaning forward” in the chorus to give it a bit more emphasis and remain consonant with the thematic shift in the song.

When I arrived at the end of the second chorus it felt like the song needed a bridge of some kind, so I changed up the rhythm and used a lower and more open voicing of the IV chord:

F chord

Capo 1

The lyrics, as often is the case for me, started out largely as muttered gibberish but slowly evolved into a reasonably unified theme.  I find the process of just singing nonsense, recording it as a series of takes, and then listening back to it generates lots of interesting and unexpected ideas.  Often the gibberish singing produces longer, more rhythmic lyrics than I might otherwise come up with.  Revising it all and giving the song a coherent meaning can be difficult but it usually comes together after a couple days.

FullSizeRender

Lyric worksheet for “Shine On Young Heart”


The Result

Shine On Young Heart

She picks me up in the morning light-
She knows what she’s doing
But for the dust on the heels of my cowboy boots-
I came home with nothing

She dreams of a season scented-
With suntans and Fridays
Sayin’ life is like a long ride in a limousine-
Just lean back and enjoy

She knows just the thing to say-
She puts my mind at ease that way-
It’s a brand new day-
We’ll watch the children play-
You know the sun is here to stay-
Shine on young heart

When I turn back, lose track keeping time-
Choking with fear
She’s there with that halo in her hair-
And whispers for my tears

She knows just the thing to say-
She puts my mind at ease that way-
It’s a brand new day-
We’ll watch the children play-
You know the sun is here to stay-
Shine on young heart

I know you love me

She knows just the thing to say-
She puts my mind at ease that way-
It’s a brand new day-
We’ll watch the children play-
You know the sun is here to stay-
Shine on young heart

(Copyright 2016 Gordon Gow)

 

Recording at Maggie’s Hill cabin near Edmonton

We had a big weekend, recording lead vocals for five songs and backup vocals for another four songs.  Maggie’s Hill cabin is a historic site just east of Edmonton.

The cabin was built by a Metis settler in 1891 and provides a blissful location for creative work.  My producer Everett LaRoi and I were joined by his sister Renee, as well as Alice Kos and Karen von Klitzing who both provided backup vox for the record.

IMG_1041

Song Forms Part 1: Verse/Chorus

Modernist designers introduced the notion that form follows function to suggest that the intended purpose or function of any object should dictate its shape or appearance.

For songwriters, this is an important idea because it draws attention to the musical form that we use to provide a structure for our compositions.  If we assume that the hook is the heart of a song (it doesn’t seem right to call it the ‘function’) then the form should follow in such a way that best supports that hook.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but Sheila Davis in The Songwriters Idea Book offers a helpful overview of the three major song forms that have tended to dominate in the field.  This is changing with genres like rap and EDM but let’s ignore that for now.
music in the late afternoon sun

The three major forms are the verse/chorus, the AABA, and the AAA.  Each has several variations, but basic idea is that these forms support different kinds of hooks.  Let’s focus on the verse/chorus form for now and I’ll discuss the others in future posts.

The verse/chorus form is very common and well suited to songs that have a strong hook that can stand on its own with a lyric and melody that bears repeating.  The verses support the hook by using a variety of approaches including plots based on time, place, point of view, etc.  The sections are usually very distinctive, with most listeners able to easily identify the difference between a verse and a chorus.  Very often the title of the song is the first line of the chorus in this form.

A good contemporary example of this form is found in “Beautiful Day” by Charlie Robison.  The song includes a lengthy 16-bar instrumental break after the second chorus before continuing to a third verse/chorus.  (Amazingly, however, the song still comes in under 3 minutes, ensuring it is radio friendly.)

A common variation of the verse/chorus form is to include a bridge after the second chorus that provides musical contrast to both the verses and the chorus.  The song form looks like this:  Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus.  Sometimes there is a short instrumental break after the second chorus and before the bridge.

A good classic example of this form is Bryan Adam’s “Cuts Like a Knife“.  The 8-bar bridge is placed after the guitar solo and with the lyric starting “Another night/another lesson learned”.  The chorus then follows and ends the song.

A second common variation is the verse/climb/chorus, which adds a pre-chorus or ‘climb’ in between the verse and the chorus.  This form is used to build up energy for the release of the hook, or sometimes to provide an important lyric line that helps to set up the chorus.

A good contemporary example of this form is JP Hoe’s “Save You“.  The climb after the first verse begins with the lyric “so tell me where did it go wrong..” with the chorus starting on the line “You tried to own the sun …”.  The climb in this case is essential to a plot twist in the lyric (listen for it).  It’s interesting to note that the title is buried in the chorus, but in my opinion the musical hook is so strong that it doesn’t matter all that much.  It’s also worth mentioning that the song has a bridge-type section based on the both the music and lyrics of the climb section.

Form follows function, and for songs with strong, repeatable standalone hooks, the verse/chorus structure is both effective and often anticipated by listeners.  In the next part I’ll talk about the slightly more elusive AABA form.

 

Tacoma ER22C SJ by brett jordan

Preproduction session 5: get back (to where you once belonged)

Tracking will start on the record in January but the last preproduction session of 2015 was about continuing to run songs and exploring ideas for arrangements.

One important point that came out of the conversation was about capturing the essential energy of a song, and how that energy changes as a song evolves from a seed into a demo and beyond.  Sometimes the seed of the song captured on a smartphone or a scratch track has a liveliness to it that slowly disappears as it is massaged into a more complete piece and arrangement.

As a result there are times when it may be helpful to scrap the demo version and go at a song fresh in order to re-energize it and bring back the sparkle of that first blush of an idea.

Philosophers and anthropologists talk about liminality, that moment of first encounter with something new and unknown.  It’s a notion that captures the idea of a threshold, of disorientation, of radical potential.  The liminal energy of a new song is vital, and trying to bring it out in a record is a priority if the track is to come alive for the listener.

Studio LaRoi empty_Dec. 20_2015

Everett LaRoi’s home studio where we will be recording in January

One of the tracks planned for the record, “Meet me in Montreal” has been indelibly etched in my mind with an arrangement I cobbled together for the first demo of it.

Everett and I had an important conversation about that song yesterday, discussing the idea of departing from that demo version and taking it in a brand new direction from a production standpoint.

And while the demo version is familiar and has some good ideas in it, I’m totally okay with trying something new as a way to recover that liminal energy and inject into it some outside creative influences.  I realize that it’s not quite a tabula rasa but it is more about returning to that original place of inspiration … or getting back to where I once belonged.

 

Preproduction session 4: the sound of silence

This session we continued to run songs, discussing structure and arrangement.  One of the important considerations as we begin to imagine the songs in production is the balance between sound and silence.

Context, as they say, is everything, and learning how to use silence to frame a melody and lyric can really bring out the most in a song.  One proverb I came across sums it up well: words are silver but silence is golden.  We frame the words with silence.  Silence makes it sing.

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Everett and I running songs in his studio

In any case, working in the modern digital studio with hundreds of gorgeous sounds at your fingertips makes it very tempting to fill up the silence with a rich but unnecessary arrangement.

We know this and so we’ve been talking about how to strike a balance in the songs that will give them an interesting sonic texture that brings out the most of the melody and the lyrics.  A golden frame for silver words, as it were.  When does the lap steel come in?  At the beginning or in the second verse?  Does it play throughout, or only at one or two points in the song?  Should we have backup vocals in this part?  What about a tone wheel organ?  Or nothing.  Just a single note the guitar maybe.  So many possibilities.

From a production standpoint, one approach may be to try out lots of different ideas and explore options before making decisions and stripping it to the essentials.  But this still comes down to a subjective decision in the process, and one where experience and a sense of discipline will pay off in the end.