New single for December

The holidays can be a difficult time for those away from home.  Here’s a new single from the album that conveys the loneliness of Christmas amidst  the stark beauty of a northern Canadian winter.  Dedicated to all those who will be away from their families this year.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Preproduction session 2

Everett and I are continuing to run songs and explore ideas for the upcoming record.  Here we are in his home studio working on parts for “You, Me, and the Almighty.”  At this point, most of our effort is focussed largely on playing the songs together, listening to them in a raw form, and then talking about structure and arrangements.

For this song, we’ll likely keep things relatively simple with guitars and possibly a slide steel.  I’m keen to try out some unusual sonic elements to give the song a darker quality, and Bry Webb’s album Freewill is something we’re listening to for ideas.

Photograph by Renee LaRoi Design.

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