Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Song to Close The Year With

I know, it's been a very long time coming. Here it is, the last song in 2011 for the project, before the new year turns my world on its head (more about that later).

Creative Commons License
Given how long it was since the last one, one might expect a grand and polished product. Unfortunately, that is not the case. I'll be coming back to this song down the road, I think. There are horn lines bouncing around in my head that will take me some time to sort out, and many of the tracks could use some serious touching up (or outright scrap and redo). But, in the interest of sharing instead of letting it sit on the shelf collecting dust, it is being unleashed upon the world.

The song grew out of the slide guitar riffs in the chorus and verse. As musicians who I've jammed with have come to learn (poor bastards) I often like to slip into reggae grooves in the middle of a song out of nowhere. It stems partly from my love of Big Sugar, who are masters at infusing blues and rock with rich, thick veins of reggae. I can't do it nearly as well as them, but it was fun nonetheless.

The lyrics started with the chorus, and the verses were built around it. I wanted to keep the quasi-gospel, semi-protest combination often found in classics like "The Harder They Come" by Jimmy Cliff or "Could You Be Loved" by Bob Marley. Or even just a fun, joyful vibe like "Pressure Drop" by Toots and the Maytals.

Oh right, I hinted at big changes ahead. So I did, so I did...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It Be Rainin' Guitars Up In Here!

[NOTE: I am fairly certain that were I to utter the above phrase, I would sound like an incredible dork. If anyone sends me a sound clip proving that the above phrase can be spoken in a way that is full of awesomeness, I will immortalize it in a song featuring your clip and the subject(s) of this post (it's gotta be good, though).  Just upload it to my Soundcloud dropbox.]

If you have zero interest in guitars, you might as well stop reading; the rest of those post will serve only as a sleep aid.  For those that do, at the very least you can enjoy some eye candy even if the details bore you.

In the past months, two new guitars have entered my collection. While that may make me sound like Mr. Moneybags, both of these instruments were a long time coming and the arrival of one was never supposed to coincide with the other. They are also moving guitars out as they come in, one of which has already found a new home.

Every song that has been recorded for the project (not counting Mean Left Hook of course, which was recorded long ago) has featured my Variax 500, a veritable Swiss Army knife of a guitar. A few weeks ago - after nearly a year on order - the next generation Variax has reached my hands. I'm not going to go into great detail talking about this one, not because I don't love it but because there's already a fair number of reviews on various blogs, forums, and online magazines. I'll keep my assessment short and sweet; if a rechargeable battery, custom tunings at the flip of a switch, and the ability of the guitar to remain useful if you absent-mindedly forget to charge the battery sound like highly desirable or must-have features to you, this guitar is worth it (otherwise, one of the previous generation Variax will likely do you just fine).

The second guitar is a custom build that I began back in May. I've always wanted to build my own guitar, partly to entertain the tinkerer in me, and partly to create a guitar that was exactly what I wanted it to be. For years I owned a 1983 Squier '57 Vintage Re-issue Stratocaster. Anyone familiar with this model knows that at the time Squier were making these re-issues better and more historically accurate than their American-made Fender counterparts. As wonderful as the guitar was, I wasn't enjoying it like I once was. I have developed a taste for thicker, baseball-bat like necks, the tone of the pickups didn't speak to me like they once did, and I had a desire to get creative with the electronics.  Rather than modifying the guitar and destroying the unique and coveted prize that it was, I sold it over the summer to someone who will hopefully appreciate it for exactly what it is.

And so I set to work creating a replacement that would suit me to a tee.  While I won't go into the long history of where all the parts came from (mostly a mix of eBay, a guitar parts supplier called Warmoth, and three red pearl-topped knobs I bought almost 15 years ago when the music store I was working at went out of business), I'll touch on a few of the deviations from your typical Fender Stratocaster that make it special:

At a monstrously thick 1" for the entire length, the only Stratocasters ever offered with a neck comparable to this were early Jeff Beck signature models.  In fact, despite many players commenting on the comfort and tone of thick necks (both of which I can confirm), there are almost no guitars on the market that have them.

Rather than go with a big-name pickup manufacturer such as Seymour Duncan or Dimarzio, I wanted to go with something outside the norm; a diamond in the rough, if you will. I ended up selecting Wilde Pickup's MicroCoils, launched in March of this year. Wilde is a pickup company started by Bill Lawrence - a legend in the pickup design field - and his wife Becky (also a highly respected pickup maker). They're noise-resistant, sound killer, and are incredibly responsive.

I based the wiring on the Strat Lover's Mod found on GuitarNutz, which effectively adds 8 additional settings on top of a Stratocaster's usual 5. The one alteration I made was including a capacitor in the out-of-phase switch to create what is referred to as 'half-out-of-phase'.

The verdict?  I had a lot of fun putting this guitar together, and the end result is a distinctive and unique guitar that feels and sounds exactly like what I had hoped to achieve.  When all is said and done, it really wasn't that difficult or expensive, and there's some excellent resources online when in doubt.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bill C-11, Part 2: We Don't Need No Stinking Badges!

[Just in case anyone finds the origin and evolution of mis-quotations interesting - as I do - you can get the scoop on my selected title]

Last time I talked mostly about the implications of digital locks and their ability to wipe out any rights Bill C-11 grants. From further reading it sounds like the exemptions are not governed by the locks policy; the anti-circumvention rule is only applicable in cases deemed infringement. However, my position remains the same. Circumvention methods will likely be targeted for litigation, regardless of the context they are used in.  And once again, we will almost certainly see burden of proof placed on the supposed 'infringer', an individual or group without the means to adequately defend their perfectly reasonable actions in a legal setting against the onslaught of a large media corporation's legal team.

But there's also another scary part to the bill.  If passed, it would make mandatory the "notice and notice" system that is currently used on a voluntary basis by Canadian internet service providers.  For those unfamiliar with the "notice and notice" system, it works like this: an Internet service provider receives notice from a copyright holder (which these days means large organizations like the RIAA/MPAA) that one of it's subscribers may be engaged in infringement by making available copyrighted material.  The ISP then has the option - now obligation - to forward that notice to the subscriber and keep records on their identity for six months.  No further action is taken by the ISP; they do not forward on the subscribers information, remove the supposed offending material, or punish the subscriber.

While this is still undeniably better than the notice-and-takedown system found in the states, I have a couple issues with this system. Firstly, we're once again seeing a great deal of power placed in the hands of organizations like the RIAA and MPAA to stir up trouble unchecked. They do not have to go through any law enforcement or judicial body to verify their actions are just; there is no requirement for them to provide evidence for their allegations. There is no punishment if they make false claims, so there is no reason not to make frequent, spurious claims. If they tell the ISPs to jump, the ISPs don't even have to ask "how high?"; this bill has told them exactly how high, and to do so without question.

The second problem is the impact of this mandate on Internet service providers.  An indication of the volume of these notices has already been presented, and it's no small number, reaching thousands of notices per week.  For the large ISPs, this is likely an inconvenience, but manageable given their resources.  For small ISPs, on the other hand, even being forced to deal with several hundred a week could be a burden in an already difficult uphill battle against the powerful oligopoly (we Canadians all know who they are).  This ineffective system will only serve to place a damper on competition in the Canadian ISP market.

All right, enough of this darkness and despair... back to happier events in the next post.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

At Long Last, Some Music

Two months of silence has yielded two minutes of music......... Wooooo!

Pretty Sure That Yesterday I Hurt You

Creative Commons License

It may be short and simple, but that's all the song seemed to call for. Musically it seems to draw somewhat from the folk rock camp, which has crept into some of the other tunes as well. The lyrical theme for the song came from a dream, which is rare as only once or twice a year do I ever remember anything about my dreams upon waking. Perhaps it is better to term it a nightmare as it was far darker than the song's lyrics suggest. I remember it closed with a horrid feeling, an suffocating sadness in the realization that the words that had left my mouth seconds before had irreparably harmed the loved one in my dream. I could sense the scars forming within as their face fell, knowing that no amount of tenderness and care would ever make them whole again.

But who wants to write a song like that?!  So I wrote this song, which is still tragic but a little less so.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bill C-11, Part 1: Rock Beats Scissors, But Lock Trumps All

I try to make this blog educational, and Bill C-11 is a topic that really can't be talked enough about. If you haven't read at least one article on the new copyright bill, you owe it to yourself to at least have a quick read. At a glance you may feel that it's unlikely to affect you or that you're comfortable with the measures being proposed, but what is going on is really quite sinister.

The first thing to note - if it hasn't sunk in - is that digital locks trump everything. Yes, you are now allowed to make backup copies or move from one device to another. Yes, you are now allowed to make temporary recordings of broadcasts for later consumption. Yes, you are allowed to use copyrighted content for fair use purposes such as education, satire, and parody. Yes, you are allowed to incorporate legally-acquired copyrighted content into your own non-commercial work. But every single one of these permitted actions can be nullified by digital locks.

Also consider that such practices such as region locking would also fall under this provision. At first glance this might not appear to be an issue, but consider that content from Europe and Asia may not be available in a version locked to the North American region. We therefore find that these rules may restrict the migration and influence of culture from other parts of the world.

There's also the lock-in factor. Not only could digital locks be used to tie content to a particular device, locks on the device itself could potentially be used to deny alternative content. This could give rise to anti-competitive behavior in the marketplace.

The one thing that doesn't seem to get touched on is that fact that the party to apply a digital lock to the content won't necessarily be the rights holder. In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of the time this won't be the case. The e-Book George R. R. Martin's next novel won't be encrypted by Martin himself or his publisher, rather Amazon will do so before placing it on Kindle Store. There have even been cases of Amazon using their DRM to place restrictions on works in the public domain, which by definition should have no such impediments.

You won't hear many artists and creators speaking in favour of the digital locks provision. More often than not, they're railing against it just like the rest of us.  In the end, they stand little - if anything - to gain by the locks.  They will not be the ones who see the money from court settlements over circumvention lawsuits. Restricting legal purchasers' ability to share their content is unlikely to significantly increase their sales as legal purchasers probably weren't the ones who would disseminate the artists work copiously and the pirates aren't likely to knuckle under and buy the music. Instead reducing exposure to a potential audience or having their existing audience driven away by restrictive policies.

There's even more to this ugly bill, but I'll save that for next time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On Second Thought...

Last night I had gotten ready to share the next song. I finished the mixing and mastering and uploaded it to SoundCloud to include on the blog. I was all set to write up a post talking about it this evening. Then I gave it another listen.

It's not a complete atrocity. Somewhere in there I can hear a good song, waiting to be uncovered like a gold vein in a cavernous mine. But man... there's a lot of crap to blast out of the way first. I recognize that sometimes I'll have to share something that might not be as good as what has come before it, but as I looked at the list of songs I've produced so far, I realized it doesn't belong up with them (and that's saying something).

So, I'm going to shelve it. I hate doing it, both because it's been a fair while since anything has shown up on here and because it feels like a cop out. But I have to be honest with myself about the song: it's just not ready yet. And that's OK. Six months from now, a year perhaps, it will still be there and maybe I'll know what to do with it then to unlock its potential. A couple things already come to mind:

  1. I feel like the song could really use some extra instrumentation. Some Hammond B3 organ or piano are immediate thoughts, but there may be more. I'm still not very good with MIDI sequencing yet, so maybe through a couple other songs I can learn to work in it well enough to create tracks for this song that sound fitting and organic.
  2. My vocals are already pretty rough to begin with, but having to throw out takes due to outside noises makes an already bad situation worse. I'm not about to plaster the entire room in soundproof foam, but I may look into creating a makeshift vocal booth (which despite the name will not be an actual booth).

On a positive note, I've got another song fully written and waiting in the wings. It's simple (solo acoustic), short (it may not even clear a minute and a half), and shouldn't take long to record.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Yes, I'm Still Alive

Yes, August was a quiet month, even quieter than July. C'mon, it's summer, for crying out loud!

In all seriousness, I can't blame it on life getting in the way. Part of it was not kicking my own ass to sit down and record. Breaking out a guitar to work out a song structure or molding lyrics hasn't been too difficult to instigate, but a fresh, empty track list is an uneasy thought. Recording is when I have to figure out how the extra bells and whistles I'm hearing in my head are going to come to life. This is usually combined with me discovering how short the final result is going to come, but I need to remind myself that none of this is set in stone; I may not get there this time, but maybe down the road I might be able to make it happen.

On a positive note, I've now laid down a full core track of the song, worked out the dynamics of each section, and found the samples I'm going to need. Now that it's rolling, hopefully it won't take too long. In terms of influences on the sound of the song, I'm dipping into my singer/songwriter favourites such as Neil Young, John Roderick, Jeff Tweedy, Ray Lamontagne and Steven Page.

I actually placed two challenges/restrictions on the current song. The first was to have a longer title. Every song I've written so far have had pretty short titles, and I thought it might push my mind into other areas by basing it around a phrase.  The second was to get away from writing from the perspective of a person/character. Even narrative songs like "The Law Did Rise" and "Isle Dauphine" feel like I'm writing from the narrator's view. I made it an aim to write the lyrics from a more abstract standpoint. We'll see whether these two limits were worthwhile.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Else is New?

Interesting fact I discovered after writing and recording the last song: turns out "Transylmania" is the name of a 2009 horror spoof from National Lampoon. A definite contrast to the more peaceful theme I was going for in the song. Oops. Perhaps I need to learn to engage in some research when I write this stuff.

I still haven't picked/found a jumping off point yet for the next one, that seed with which to grow a song around. It's not that there aren't any available; in fact, there's a multitude of ways I could get myself started:
  • What I've been listening to lately. I've been trying to ingest a wide musical mix, so there's plenty of sounds to pick from (or mix together)
  • Song-crafting tools, like those found on the website for February Album Writing Month
  • Competitions like Song Fight!
  • Random, ridiculous thoughts ("Is a smiley face ever sad that it has no nose, never getting to experience the sense of smell?")
  • Deep, vivid emotions... I should get me some of those
So really it's not so much a blank slate, more of a large chalkboard filled with ideas, and it's just a matter of circling one and running with it.

But another part of the reason I haven't started yet is that I'm taking care of a couple other musically-related things. When I first started this project, I really thought songwriting and singing were going to be my big problems (and they were and still are). What I wasn't counting on was my guitar playing being as rusty as it has turned out to be. It's proved extremely difficult to even get through an 8-bar solo without flubbing notes I'm aiming for. So, I've started getting myself back into a practice regime, and I'm keeping track of my activities so I can monitor my progress and make sure I'm moving forward. I won't go into detail (unless anyone expresses interest) as everybody's goals are different, and exercises that aren't going to contribute to you sounding like the way you want to sound are a poor use of valuable time. But I will point out some things that I feel are universal and have been trying to keep in mind:
  • Practice to a beat.  Metronome, drum loop... doesn't matter. The important part is trying to match a steady rhythm. Having nimble fingers is useless if you're not going to be able to keep time with other musicians or backing tracks.
  • Start slow. I kicked off my first serious practice session at 60 beats per minute. Quarter notes. It might feel slow as hell, but starting slow and gradually increasing lets you focus very clearly on everything you're doing to make sure you aren't playing fast but with poor technique. It also forces you to concentrate on keeping time, not impatiently speeding up or slowing down out of monotony.
  • Get it right. If you can't do it many times in a row without messing up somewhere, you're not ready to take things up a notch; if anything, you might need to pull back a bit
The other thing I'm doing right now is building a guitar, or rather putting one together from parts. Why? Well, it's not because it's economical, as I could get something off the shelf for less. I could claim it's to build something that nobody offers, but it still might be cheaper and easier to grab an existing guitar and make a few modifications. When it comes down to it, I really have just always wanted to try piecing together a guitar for the fun of it. I've always let the practical side of myself talk myself out of it, but there comes a time when you remind yourself that the most memorable and enjoyable moments in life rarely have anything to do with practicality. I'm still waiting for one more key component to arrive, but I'll be sure to share more about it. I will say that patience is a must when building/assembling a guitar; it can make all the difference between a final product that ends up no better than a Walmart special or something comparable to a finely-crafted instrument from a reputable maker.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Alright, It's Finally Done

So here it is, the song I talked about so very, very long ago.

King of Transylmania

Creative Commons License

I wish I could say the few days past my initial month-end target of July resulted in perfection, but... well, I'm going to avoid talking about what I don't like about how it turned out (ugh) and focus on what I do like about it. I think I managed to strike a good balance between funny, sincere and sweet (though part of me wonders whether I spread myself then and achieved none of them), producing a lighthearted tone while remaining sensitive to the topic. I'm also pretty happy with the drums; it's probably the most complex arrangement I've done to date, and I think they added some liveliness to an otherwise simple 3-chord (technically 4) pop/alt rock song.

One approach I did try with this song was recording several full end-to-end takes of the vocals, ignoring any screw-ups and continuing on to the finish. Afterwards I pieced together the best phrases from each one. This seemed to give a much better result than trying to capture one verse/chorus at a time.

I also found out just how much the mic picks up in my non-soundproofed studio; though you'll never hear it once all the other instruments are piled on top of it, when I listened to the vocal tracks in isolation I discovered muted cries of one of our cats on the other side of the door.  I refuse to list him in the track personnel.

Where this song comes from musically I'm not quite sure. I feel like it probably draws on some of the music I used to hear way back in high school, bands like Barenaked Ladies, The Odds, and Crash Test Dummies, combined with some of my more recent discoveries like Jonathan Coulton, They Might Be Giants, and Elvis Costello. My apologies to these artists for associating their good names with this monstrosity. Despite it being a style I enjoy, it's not one that I've ever really explored in my playing, and I think it shows.

Well... back to the drawing board.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sharing is Bad, Apparently

Still working on the next song. Unfortunately it's somewhat vocally ambitious for me; at one point it calls for a three-part harmony/canon. I predict many, many vocal takes and a lot of cutting and pasting. But I refuse to dumb the song down; if I'm not going to try to stretch my limits, I might as well stop now. Hopefully it won't be too painful to listen to.

In the meantime, I've come across a couple interesting items I thought I'd share. I enjoy checking out TED talks, as they have some pretty neat topics and speakers. I recently watched one from Derek Sivers, web entrepaneur and founder of independent music-focused services CD Baby and MuckWork. According to research, those who share their goals with others are less likely to reach them, as acknowledgement and recognition received can create a false sense of accomplishment.

The second is an article shared by Sivers on Twitter (yes, I'm now on Twitter, though truthfully I mainly just treat it as a news aggregator) that recaps a clinic at Berklee given by Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter/guitarist John Mayer. In it he urges the audience of music majors to "manage the temptation of publishing yourself". He cites that not only does it detract from time spent on one's craft, it can end up acting as a replacement creative outlet - or rather non-creative outlet - that dulls your creative ability.

Do I agree with the arguments? Despite that fact that I'm sitting here writing this post, I actually do. I can appreciate the psychology behind the mind confusing saying with doing. I seem to have escaped that so far.  Part of that is likely due to the rather vague aims I've shared, and part of it is that despite the praise and pats on the back I've gotten so far, I've still managed to retain my perspective on how incredibly little I've come and how incredibly far I still have to go.

I also agree with Mayer's suggestion that the desire to promote oneself needs to be managed.  Emphasis on "managed", not discarded. While someone who does want their music out there does need to find an outlet to do so (as we aren't all Grammy-winners with major labels shelling out thousands/millions to promote us), when the temptation of the outlet starts to trump the temptation of the content, you've got a problem.

I also understand where he's coming from with putting stuff out there before it's ready. This approach can definitely work for some, but when you're someone who will never feel like their work is truly ready, it can be paralyzing. Some people can rely on a producer to help make that call for them. In my case, I have to act as my own producer (and I'm fully willing to admit I'm terrible at it).

So, while I'll definitely keep those articles in the back of my mind, I don't think I'm going to change things at the moment. I haven't broadcast any specific goals and I'll keep it that way, though that doesn't mean I won't share progress or minor targets.  I don't think this blog is chewing up too much of my time or having an adverse impact, but I'll keep an eye on myself.

One final article, before I go. Jonathan Coulton shared an article written by David Lowrey (founder of alt-rock band Camper Van Beethoven) that goes back to the topic of unpredictability in the music business discussed in my previous post. It looks at it in a very analytical, scientific way, which I suppose speaks to the engineer/geek in me.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Future of Music (Biz), part III

Alright, time for the grand reveal as to the source of the questions in the previous posts in this series.

The questions came from a blog post a couple months ago by Jonathan Coulton, in response to an interview he did with Alex Bloomberg for the Planet Money podcast on NPR.  While the interview itself was fine - albeit somewhat shallow in its discussion - what transpired a week later was the kick to the hornet's nest.  Two hosts from NPR Music - Jacob Ganz and Frannie Kelly - joined Alex for a follow-up analysis of Jonathan's interview.  Both felt that his approach to success was unlikely to work for anyone else, that he "won the Internet lottery", and in Frannie's case compared him to "a Snuggie.... We didn't know we wanted it, and then all of a sudden we did."

Jonathan's reaction, understandably, was one of disappointment and frustration.  His blog post provides a thoughtful and eloquent rebuttal to that assessment.  The gist of his argument is that his model is replicable, that his achievement of success isn't dissimilar to that of other artists, and that what has changed is the landscape of the industry to allow new avenues for these things to happen.

The table below shows my own breakdown and comparison of what I interpret to be the traditional path for artists and the alternative path taken by Jonathan.

The Traditional Path The Alternative Path
The artist works hard to create good music The artist works hard to create good music
The artist attempts to find places to showcase their music that will be discovered by record company representatives. The artist attempts to find places to showcase their music that will be discovered by market demographic, i.e. potential fanbase.
The record company signs the band and molds them for appeal to their perceived market demographic. The artist engages with fans, allowing them provide direct feedback on their work.
The record company markets and promotes the band to their market demographic through highly-controlled channels. The artist empowers the fans act as their marketing/promotion force through lenient use of works.

See? Not all that dissimilar.

Both approaches hinge on the same amount of luck, reliance on seizing opportunities, and hard work. The key difference is the relationship between the artist and their audience.  Before our modern connected world, such direct contact wouldn't be possible; no mechanisms were available to widely distribute content at almost zero cost, and communicating via word-of-mouth with a sizable group of people could not be achieved so easily and rapidly.  Are these advancements unique to one man alone? Definitely not.

The other key difference, as I've brought up before, is that traditionally a great deal of the ownership of your copyright is handed over to publishers and master recordings becoming the property of the record label. There are no doubt exceptions, but this is the typical case. The new approach is the possibility to retain 100% ownership of your material.  Sure, you might not have the means to collect any sort of mechanical or performance royalties, but as the collection and distribution of these royalties favour larger artists, it might not have amounted to much anyway. In its place, you have the sole right decide what is done with your work. A fan who wants to cover your work no longer has to be worried that just because you were comfortable with it, they might still face the wrath of your publisher.

[Interesting fact: Many are aware that The Verve were taken to task for "Bitter Sweet Symphony", which used a sample of an orchestral arrangement of The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra (a sample which bears very little resemblance to the original song). What many might not be aware of is that the lawsuit was initiated by ABKCO Records, who owns the Stones' copyrights from the 1960s. The Verve had apparently already negotiated the licensing of the sample from ABKCO; it was only after the song's success that ABKCO decided the sample had been used too greatly and sued for 100% ownership. From the sounds of it, ABKCO's CEO and former Stone's manager Andrew Klein was not a very nice guy.]

Lastly, there's the matter of the definition of success. Ordinarily, unless you were selling a ton of albums and playing large venues, you weren't making a decent living. This may seem surprising, but consider that the record label takes a huge cut to pay back advances involved in recording and marketing (and continues to take a significant cut afterwards). In contrast, the modern independent artist may not reach gold/platinum album sales or play in front of a sea of thousands, but the ability to pocket a much greater percentage of the earnings can mean a comfortable income.

If the measure of success is obscene fame and fortune, the traditional model may be the only way to go. But if the aim is to make a modest (or possibly greater than modest) career on your own terms for a smaller but closer fan base, there's definitely an alternative approach, and it's available to anyone.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Fight is Over

So, the results from Song Fight! were posted a few days ago. Out of 17 entrants, I placed in a 4-way tie for 4th. For what I created, I'm happy with that. There were some killer songs put forth by the top three finishers. The three artists I shared my ranking with were great as well, and I feel pleased to be put in their company.

The feedback I received from my fellow competitors and site regulars was nice to get. Many praised the general vibe of the tune, as well as the lyrical content. On the criticism side, not everyone was keen on the murky-sounding guitar tone I used. And while the comparisons from some to musicians such as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave were meant as compliments, others felt the song wasn't very original sounding. Both are fair assessments. My choice in guitar tone isn't going to appeal to everyone, and not everyone is going to be impressed by a traditional-sounding 8-bar blues.

Based on that, would I have done things differently? Not much, but maybe a little. If I were to come back to this tune in the future, I'd definitely get a bit more experimental with it.

Overall, Song Fight! was pretty neat to do, and I'll definitely be trying it again down the road.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Wishbone and Isle Dauphine

As I wait to see how the last song does on Song Fight!, I should take the time to get caught up on a post or two (and yes, get back to the next recording). I never did do a tools-of-the-trade for Wishbone, so I'll cover them both, which is probably best as I've covered a fair bit previously.


Rock Hard Funk drum loop collection from Beta Monkey
Fender Precision (on Variax Bass) directly into audio interface
Intro: Martin D28 (Variax) into tube pre-amp (HD500)
Main Guitar: Fender Stratocaster, bridge pickup (Variax) into Gibson EH-185 (HD500)
Chorus/solo guitar: 2004 Limited Edition Les Paul Standard into Dr. Z Route 66 w/ Tube Screamer and Tremolo (HD500)

Fender PrecisionMartin 1966 D-28 (2898-6)Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Stratocaster - Front

I initially composed Wishbone on my acoustic guitar, which led me to include the acoustic intro (however, the Variax acoustic model was used for simplicity's sake).  This is also the first time I decided to break out one of the prizes in my meager guitar collection: my 2004 Limited Edition Les Paul Standard. It felt natural to use this for a ZZ Top-inspired tune, making sure to give its tone plenty of bite.

Isle Dauphine

Jazz Essentials I drum loop collection from Beta Monkey
Kay Maestro M-1 upright (on Variax Bass) directly into audio interface
Guitars (all Variax and HD500)
Acoustic: Martin 0-18 into tube preamp
Banjo: Gibson Mastertone banjo into tube preamp
Electric: Danelectro 3021, tuned to Open C, into a Fender Bassman

1964 Kay M-1 Upright BassMartin 1956 0-18 Shaded Top (3052-2)Gibson 1926 TB-3 Mastertone Plectrum (4094-5)

Again, I started composing this one acoustically. The deep, rumbling electric guitar tone was not at all what I initially had planned, but when I remembered I had a setting on my Variax in Open C tuning (the song is in C minor), I thought I'd give it a shot.

One of the members on the Song Fight! forums suggested that a "megaphone effect" for the vocals might have been neat, in the vein of Tom Waits. I wish now that I had taken a second to try that. I suspect it would have been a good addition.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Firefox fixed!

For anyone who noticed the last song wasn't showing up properly - along with everything on the Music page - when using Firefox, I believe I've fixed it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Song is In, And The Fight Is On

Well, this is it, the outcome of a week's effort (well, spare time that is) to take part in a Song Fight! battle.  I was planning to wait until the song showed up on their website, but I decided I might as well go ahead with the post. There was no point in doing it last night, either; everybody was watching the hockey game, and then any potential readers I might have in Vancouver were busy setting fires (what, too soon?).

Isle Dauphine

Creative Commons License

I think the reason I was drawn to the title for this SF! battle was because I remembered Dauphine Street from the French Quarter in New Orleans. The song was initially more uptempo when I first came up with the chords, but it settled into a darker, slower feel more along the lines of "St. James Infirmary Blues". If I end up deciding this song is worthwhile returning to in the future, I'd love to get horns and piano in there for a better dixieland jazz sound. At least I managed to work in some banjo.

Isle Dauphine is actually the name of a golf club on Dauphin Island, which is on the Alabama coast. When the island was discovered in the 17th century by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, he originally dubbed it "Isle Du Massacre" when he stumbled across a large pile of skeletons (it turned out later that it was just a burial ground broken open by a hurricane). Now, given those two pieces of information, which would you be more likely to draw material from?

I kind of feel like it unconsciously borrowed a bit from The Law Did Rise. The vocals are somewhat alike in their phrasing, and the song structure has some similarities. They're even thematically similar in their tales of caution. Don't get a zombie to fight your battles, they'll eat you afterwords. Don't overindulge on your host's hospitality, or they'll kill you in your sleep and steal your transportation. Perhaps I should take up writing jingles for PSA ads.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Kicking Ass and Taking Names

Were it not for the use of parentheses in the titles of the previous two posts and the concern of overuse, I would have more appropriately titled this "Kicking (My Own) Ass and Taking (On) Names".

As to the first bit, a new song will be up next Tuesday night, Wednesday night at the latest. Why the deadline? Every once in a while, I pop over to Song Fight! to see what's up. Song Fight! is a weekly/bi-weekly songwriting competition, where the you must submit a song with a provided title. I listen to the entries for the week's competition, often take part in the vote, but I have yet to enter. When I saw this week's title, I quickly got an idea in my head, so I'm going to take the plunge and put in an entry which is due on Wednesday morning. I'll have only had a little over a week - the shortest I'll ever have gone from a blank page to finished product - but it's going alright so far.  The instrument tracks have all been worked out and most of the lyrics have been written, and the recording that I've done so far has gone well. We'll see whether it stays that way; I always find the last stretch to the finish line is the worst.

Entering a songwriting competition definitely feels weird to me. I've never viewed music as a competitive act as some musicians do; I've always felt that the only person I try to outdo is myself, and that one should always view others as peers and collaborators. But this project is about trying different things, and so I will. Truthfully, it does look like those who take part are a friendly, supportive bunch, so hopefully any criticism I get out of it will be constructive (though I can take some trash talk if it's dished out).

As to the second half of the post's title, I'm still trying to decide what to enter the competition as. My own name? The Uncomfortable Project? An alias/stage name? I wasn't expecting to encounter this question for a while yet. I'm still very much in the process of figuring out what to do with the music I'm creating. Does it all fit together? Are there distinct voices being encountered that would be better suited to being under separate umbrellas? Will it work with just me, or is it something that I'm going to need to collaborate with other musicians on to reach something of real substance, and should therefore present as if it were a band/group?

I know it may seem like I'm over-thinking this - and perhaps I am at this stage - but the reality is it can make a difference. Once a choice has been made about 'who' you present your work to the world as, it can be difficult to make changes without losing the history you've built up, and conversely it can also be difficult to shake your past if you want to switch gears a bit. That's not to say it can't be done; Colin James, for example, has no problem juggling his rock, blues, and swing ventures. But I'd say that's more the exception than the norm.

I think for now it'll probably end up just being submitted as 'The Uncomfortable Project' until I get a better handle on what I'm doing. In any case, I've got my work cut out for me. Time to get back to it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Future of Music (Biz), Part II

Okay, final set of 'mystery' questions (and answers); as I said before, I'll explain more where these came from soon.

From an economist’s perspective, is filesharing/piracy hurting artists, or just labels (or is it hurting anyone)?

Does it hurt artists? I'd say that the benefits likely outweigh the harm. Neil Gaiman has argued - as quite a number of artists have come to do - that obscurity is a far greater danger to artists than the piracy of their work, and I'm inclined to agree. An artist's greatest assets are the loyal fans, the ones that will buy your albums (even when they clearly don't have to), come to every show they can make, and try to tell as many people about you as possible. These are the people who will truly make it possible for an artist to make a comfortable living. If five pirated songs or albums gets you even one of these, it's a net win. I'm not saying it doesn't stink to lose sales of your music, but if it gets you someone who then buys every successive thing you put out and will be a guaranteed ticket every time you visit their town? Hard to argue with that.

Does it hurt labels? Yes and no. There are a number of reports and studies that more sales are being made as a result of artist discovery through filesharing, so if anything they are bringing in more money. This fits with what Gaiman describes. If this is resulting in adding loyal fans at the expense of 'casual' fans (I'll apply this label as someone who only buys a single track on iTunes that gets played on the radio, or doesn't get interested enough to warrant going to shows or buying merchandise), the label can also expect and look forward to follow-on sales and income from other revenue sources.

On the other hand, this won't continue if they insist on pushing back against piracy in a way that insults or harms the customer - or the artists, for that matter. Many of us remember Sony's rootkit debacle. Many of us have a good laugh at the "You wouldn't steal..." PSA ads before we see a movie in the theater... A MOVIE WE JUST PAID FOR! We're also seeing more artists - even highly successful ones like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead - proving that independence can actually work fairly well. If the customers become increasingly frustrated with the actions of the labels and want to engage with the artist they love directly, and the artist becomes increasingly frustrated by the restrictive, profit-hungry attitudes of the label and want to engage with the fans directly, labels are going to feel the sting as they get eliminated as a middleman.

What are the efficiency breakthroughs that we have yet to discover, who’s going to figure out how to profit from this shakeup?

This is a tough one; the Internet has already allowed huge advances in efficiency. The ability to distribute, find and purchase content on the web is lightening fasts and cost virtually nothing. Features like Eventual Demand now make it so that an artist can know exactly where it's worth going and what size of venue they will need; no more wasted trips and half-empty venues.  Sites like Kickstarter can take the risk out of capital-heavy investments like recording and touring.

The one place I think there might be a need is a way to pull in all the information in this new landscape. There's a lot going on that isn't being tracked, money that's not being counted. As a result it can be harder for new businesses to start up and take part in this climate when it's difficult to generate numbers for a business case.

Other than that, I can't think of anything specific; if I had, I'd probably be tearing around the house right now, attempting to find the quickest means to perform a brain dump of this fantastic, profitable idea.

How can we rethink antiquated intellectual property laws in a way that continues to “promote the progress of science and useful arts?

This is a question I often ponder. As much as I rail against what the current state of copyright and intellectual property protection has become, I can't deny that artists should be the ones who decide what rights they give and what rights they reserve, and that those rights for both parties need to be protected.

I think one real big problem in the current system is the all-or-nothing approach that the law and organizations around intellectual property are set upon. You either reserve all rights, or you give up all rights rights.  The some-rights-reserved model, such as the Creative Commons licenses, is something they don't want to touch; in fact, once you've released something under CC-license for non-commercial purposes, you'll often have a hard time finding a collection organization such as SOCAN or ACAP that would deal with you if you want to license it for commercial purposes. On a positive note, there has been some evidence that CC-licenses are at least being properly, legally recognized.

In the end, it ultimately comes down to protecting the value to the rights holder without that protection serving to eliminate any value it has to the public, which is what we're seeing now. If the true value in an information economy is familiarity and availability rather than scarcity, then perhaps the laws need to focus on how to make sure intellectual property is properly attributed rather than making sure it isn't distributed.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Playing Mr. Dressup with the Blog

Just trying out a new look.  Feel free to post a comment letting me know whether you like it or hate it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Future of Music (Biz), Part I

Now that this month's song is out, time for more thoughts, musings and opinions as I prepare the next one.

The landscape of the music industry - at least when it comes to the mainstream consumption of music - is changing, and with those changes come a great number of questions. The source of the questions below I will reveal in a future post (I like to add some mystery; I'm like the movie Memento, only without the kick-ass plot), but for now I'll just take a second to explore them.

How can the people who used to work at labels continue to have careers bringing valuable services to artists now that the landscape has changed?

Are labels going to disappear? I highly doubt it, though it wouldn't surprise me to see a noticeable reduction. But what I do believe is that the market has shifted. In the old market, artists had to chase labels with all their might; you'd push your best friend in front of a car if it meant a slim chance that an A&R guy from one of the labels would show up at your show. If you were lucky enough to get the attention of the label, you had to be prepared to take a wafer-thin sliver of the pie, and the rights to your music were forfeit to publishing companies.

In the new market, the Internet and social media have turned the services offered by labels, agents, and publishers into a luxury rather than a necessity. Recording, marketing, distribution, merchandising... all of these areas are available to artists directly such that they can quite easily develop an independent career. In this new climate, we may see more labels courting artists rather than the other way around, and there will be far greater negotiating power in the hands of the artists.

So how can former label employees survive in this scary new world?  Even if an independent artist doesn't require the full suite of services pitched by a record label, it is quite likely they will still need assistance in one or more areas, even if it's simply because they don't have time to manage it themselves. What I expect we'll see is the formation of businesses providing specific services directly to their end customer. Artists will commission their own music videos, order their own merchandise, etc. In this age, the businesses that survive will be the ones that recognize that these days, the musicians are the ones in control.

How much money is actually being made in this space that never gets tracked as part of the music industry?

I can't begin to guess at the amount, but I bet it's growing more significant by the day. When independent musicians avoid conventional entities like Ticketmaster as well as contracting goods and services outside the umbrella of a label, a lot of money won't show up in the industry charts.

One big mystery is the cash flow from patronage. While sites like Kickstarter almost certainly have metrics that can be tracked, I'm sure this currently shows up nowhere in the mainstream numbers. Then there's money that's almost impossible to track that comes from fans who hand their favourite musician or band a $20 after the show or send them some money via PayPal, either as compensation for some downloaded music or simply as an act of supporting an artist they care about.

What percentage of full time professional artists are making a living, and how does that compare to the old record biz?

At the recent eG8 conference in France, John Perry Barlow - Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and former Grateful Dead lyricist - gave a stellar performance as a last minute invitee to a panel on Intellectual Property and Cultural Economy in the Digital Age. At one point, he makes the claim that right now there has never been as many musicians without day jobs in our history.

I have little doubt he's right. Never has it been so easy for artists to reach their audience. Never has it cost an artist so little to produce a professional product. Never has data and statistics been so readily available to make productive and efficient choices in professional endeavours. The barriers for entry are the lowest they have ever been to make a decent living at your craft.

I'm still fairly sure that the number of musicians without day jobs is still in the single digit percentages, and I would guess that to date the increase couldn't be more than a percentage point or two. But I suspect that this is partially due to a lack of awareness by many musicians of this shift in the marketplace or how to deal with it. Once this awareness kicks in and some growth in knowledge and attitude takes place, we'll almost certainly see the percentage of full-time professional musicians extend into double digit percentages.

Anyway, that's my two cents. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to fire off something in the comments; I enjoy discussing this stuff.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Song #4 is here!

That's it. Papers over, pencils down. Sign it, stamp it, ship it. Stick a fork in me, 'cause I'm done.

Seriously though, enough is enough. There comes a point where I just have to cut myself off. Am I 100% satisfied by the end product? No. But if I demanded that, there never would be an end product. I also find I can start to make things worse as I continue dwelling on elements of it. This tune was difficult to mix; I suspect it may have required a lot more adjustments to faders and EQ's, more than my amateur attempt at engineering could achieve. It may not be perfect, but it at least captures the spirit of what I was going for and won't make anyone wish they were born without ears (I hope). And when it comes right down to it, I can always come back to a song later if it turns out it's worth coming back to.

Anyway, on with the song.


Creative Commons License

I'm not entirely sure where this song came from. I believe at the time I was thinking about Hokum tunes. The euphemisms and innuendo are certainly included, but looks like I left out the humour. Oh well...

I didn't have a funky groove in mind when I initially conceived of the song, but somehow my love of early ZZ Top - numbers like "Just Got Paid" and "Cheap Sunglasses" - worked its way in, especially in the modulations during the solo. When I grow up, I'm going to play just like the Reverend Billy Gibbons (this is assuming that life expectancies are dramatically increased through medical advances, and adulthood now starts at 95). Where the rest of the sound of this tune came from, I don't know.

Time to continue on. Hopefully it won't be anywhere near as long for the next one.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Update for the iCrowd

For the iPhone/iPad readers out there, I managed to fix things so that those without Flash will now get an HTML5 player to stream the music. Hopefully everybody is covered now.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Progress on the Next Track... and a New (But Old) Song

The next tune should be ready within the week. With the exception of taking another stab at the guitar solo, everything has been tracked and it's now just a matter of getting it mixed and mastered. It's not the tune I talked about last month; I was working on them both, and this one just happens to be the one that got the attention. I won't say to much with it just around the corner, but it's a rock tune with a thick vein of funk throughout, and I hope you'll enjoy it.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share something to tide you over. It's not really a tune to be considered part of the project, more of a reflection back to my early musical endeavors. When I was recapping my trip to New Orleans, I talked about performing a swing tune I wrote with my old band when I was back in high school. Our placing in that battle-of-the-bands won us a two-song demo's worth of recording time at the home studio of one of the organizers. That swing tune was one of the recordings, and it's the one you hear below.

Mean Left Hook

Creative Commons License

So where did the tune come from? I'm somewhat prone to what are called styes, which can cause an angry-looking bump on the eyelid. I'd frequently get asked what the deal was with my eye, and after a while of giving the same old straight answer, I started having a bit of fun with my answers.  On one particular occasion when asked what happened to my eye, I responded, "never mess with a woman with a mean left hook". Afterwards I realized it would make a good lyric, and I managed to form a song around it.

The recording itself was pretty tough. Due to the fact that the "recording booth" was a basement room that couldn't have been more than 8 feet by 6 feet with a 9-piece drum kit taking a substantial portion of the space, we had to track the instruments one by one rather than play together as a group. I don't think a single one of us had ever been forced to record in such a degree of isolation before. It was certainly difficult, but somehow we managed to pull the parts together.

I could try to re-record this tune - and at some point I might - but this recording of the tune is special to me. The song wouldn't be a fraction of what it is without the other members of the band I was a part of. They were three of the finest musicians I have had the opportunity to play with. I respect them greatly, so if any of them somehow stumble upon this post and do not wish their name associated with it or their performance used, I will gladly edit their name out of the post and/or remove the tune.  Until then I want to give my heartfelt thanks to Jeff Graville (drums), Matt Schrock (sax), and Alan Fiddler (bass) for helping give life to a tune that never would have seen the light of day if it weren't for your contributions.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Week in The Big Easy, Part Three

Okay, last one...

Day 6:
Today was another trip into the Garden District on the Magazine Street bus. After a few stops which included a guitar store and pawn shop (I didn't find anything of interest), we decided to again venture outside of Louisiana cooking and had a great lunch at Nacho Mama's Mexican Restaurant. It's worth repeating: it's really hard to go wrong with dining in The Big Easy.

Another goal of this trip was a return to Jim Russel's Record Store. While I don't own a record player, I had decided that some vinyl and sleeves might make inspiring wall decoration for my meager recording studio. There are a number of other stores in the city that sell vinyl, but none of them had them same vibe as the organized chaos of Jim Russel's.  While I missed out on the Jimi Hendrix album, I did manage to pick up a B.B. King album, a live Cream album, and a copy of Led Zepplin IV, which was another one of my early cassette acquisitions.

Following a second helping of the Storyville Restaurant's killer po' boys, we made our way to Woldenberg Park for the final stop Railroad Revival Tour.  My wife Denise had heard our local rock station running a contest for tickets to this show - headlined by folk-rockers Mumford & Sons - and we decided we'd guarantee ourselves attendance to the show. While I prefer the intimacy of small clubs to large outdoor stages,  the bands involved did put on a stellar show.  I don't consider myself much of a country fan, but I must admit I enjoyed the old-time Americana style of openers Old Crow Medicine Show (which included some guest appearances).  The second opener, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, have a musical style I can't figure out how to describe, but they were also neat to listen to.  Despite having nowhere near the roster of musicians of the large ensembles opening the show, Mumford & Sons managed to still fill the stage with their sound.  The encore saw every member of all three acts on stage - at least 20 musicians in all - and demonstrated that a jam-packed stage makes for one hell of a party.

Day 7:
We tried to fit a few more events into our last full day in the city.  The first was a tour of the New Orleans Rum Distillery. Having sampled some of Cuba's finest rum (an experience I can enjoy as a Canadian), I was pretty impressed with the distillery's offerings; their unaged white rum was one of the most drinkable white rums I've sampled, and their spiced rum was dangerously tasty.  Needless to say, some bottles came home with us.

After an excellent lunch at Magnolia Grill, we went for beignets at Cafe Beignet.  Beignets are a New Orleans staple, similar to a doughnut and covered in powdered sugar. We had tried beignets at Cafe Du Monde on our second day, but were later told that Cafe Beignet's version were much lighter and closer to the original recipe.  Between the two, I give Cafe Beignet the edge.  On our friends' good word, we tried Huck Finn's for dinner. As this would be my final dinner before leaving, I went full tilt on the Louisiana fare: a trio entree of Crawfish Etoufee, Gumbo, and Alligator Sauce Piquante with a side of cornbread. Magnificent.

Haunted Walks are fun; in addition to being entertaining, they often include great details about the history and architecture of the city. We've done them in Kingston and Ottawa previously, and New Orleans was the best yet. In addition to displaying an excellent knowledge of the cities history - both factual and paranormal - our guide Andrew was an absolute riot.

I was worried that on the eve of the New Orleans Jazz Festival that Frenchmen Street would be jammed, but The Spotted Cat once again had enough room to accomodate us. The New Orleans Moonshiners put on a great show (Denise had actually bought a copy of their disc at Ben Polcer's show earlier in the week, who is a member of the Moonshiners).  After a while, the smoke and perfume became too much for Denise and we headed out.  I wasn't disappointed by this for two reasons.  Firstly, I hadn't expected to be able to take in any music at all tonight, so just getting to see the Moonshiners was a treat.  Secondly, had we not left at that exact moment and been walking down that exact street back to our room at that exact time, I wouldn't have passed one of my favourite guitar players in the world, Jeff Beck.

I'm not a star gazer; I could care less about catching a glimpse of Brangelina, Nicholas Cage, or other New Orleans celebrity denizens. But walking by one of your most admired guitarists as he makes his way to enjoy some local jazz before headlining the opening night of the jazz festival still felt pretty damn cool. It also gave me a pretty good sense that if this is where Jeff Beck hangs out when he comes to town, I had been hanging out in the right place. To be clear, I behaved myself and walked on by; the man just came for the music, not to be accosted for an autograph or photo (neither of which I was concerned about anyway).

Day 8:
The final day, and nothing to much of note as we had to depart for the airport early in the day. After a last trip around the French Market for souvenirs, we stopped at The Marigny Brasserie for a quick lunch before saying our goodbyes to our wonderful hostess at the B&B and heading to the airport.

That's pretty much it. If anyone has questions about New Orleans, by all means, feel free to ask them in the comments; as you can tell, I enjoy talking about the place.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Week in The Big Easy, Part Two

I honestly thought this was going to be a two-parter at most, but it appears I can blather on at length; expect one more after this.  Anyway, getting to it...

Day 3:
Being Easter Sunday, we knew we weren't going to be in for a very busy day, but there was still quite a bit open.  We started off the day (after another amazing breakfast) walking through the French Market, which is essentially a flea market geared at the tourists.  That's not to say it wasn't neat to walk through; I ended up picking up a souvenir or two later in the week.  At the end of the French Market, we stopped for a snack of popcorn crawfish at the Market Cafe.

After walking about the French Quarter a bit more to see what was or wasn't open, we stopped at the Royal House Restaurant. It was here I had my first taste of alligator with an alligator po' boy. You often hear that alligator tastes like chicken, but I would argue it has a taste of its own.  After a bit more walking around and a brief break back at our room, we decided to take a little break from the traditional Louisiana cuisine and go for a bit of Thai food at Sukho Thai in the Marigny neighbourhood. As I said, in New Orleans, it's very hard to go wrong when picking a place to eat, and Sukho Thai was no exception.

After dinner, it was back to Frenchmen Street.  This was our first night at the Spotted Cat, which quickly became our favourite hangout for the trip.  Drawn in from the street by the sound of some killer dixieland jazz, we spent the evening enjoying Ben Polcer & Friends.  I'm not quite sure what else to say about them other than they were fantastic to listen to.  Piano, banjo, and quartet of horns proved that neither drums nor bass were critical for churning out an incredible rhythm.

One thing that's very different about the way they do things in New Orleans is the way the live music is funded. Very few places charged any sort of cover despite having several acts a day, some starting as early as 2:00 pm (there was, however, usually a one drink minimum per set). The bands also make heavy use of a tip bucket, with one band member often taking a break while the rest of the band plays, working the room with the bucket. You got the sense from that while they likely did get a bit of pay from the club, they relied heavily on the tip bucket for their pay.  I'm not sure if it's an approach that would work in a place like Toronto (though as I don't take in a lot of shows, for all I know you may see it up here), it looked like a fairly successful way to do things in New Orleans. Of course, that's the view from the outside; when I'm there again (and I will be) I may have to get the scoop from the musicians themselves.

Day 4:
The day before, we booked an afternoon tour of the Honey Island swamp with the Cajun Encounters tour company. While the airboats with the giant fans may look exciting, we were told that speeding around on them doesn't give you much of an opportunity to enjoy the sights of the swamp itself, and the wildlife hate them. So we stuck with the riverboat.

It's not hard to understand why the Louisiana swamps and bayous have a great influence on music; in contrast to stereotypes that swamps are dirty and dark, they are beautiful.  As we wound through the cypress forests, Spanish moss hanging from the branches, our guide Ted Gauthier shared stories of the plant life and wildlife in this unique ecosystem, the conservation efforts to preserve them, and the effect of Katrina on those who live their lives in this place.  He also pointed out a honey-producing Tupelo tree, the source of inspiration for a Van Morisson song. Though everyone comes for the alligators, they really are a very small part of the majesty and history of the swamp.

After getting back from the tour, we had a late lunch at River's Edge Restaurant of seafood omelette filled with crawfish. If it seems like we were going heavy on the crawfish, you can't get them up here, so best to get them while we could.  We toured the city on foot a bit more before having a late dinner at Deanie's Seafood Restaurant.  Despite the apparent popularity of the place, we weren't actually as impressed with this place as we were with most of the other restaurants.  It wasn't terrible, and it could have simply been a fluke, but it didn't live up to the expectations we had.

Back to Frenchmen Street again, and back to the Spotted Cat. Tonight we caught the set of Dominick Grillo and the Frenchmen Street All-Stars. Initially playing some Davis-Mingus-Coltrane era free jazz when we arrived, they quickly branched out into blues and swing as the night went on. At one point, a nearby swing dance troupe decided to grace the club with their presence, putting on a lively show for the rest of the night as the band played on.

Seeing the swing dancers reminded me of an experience I had back in high school. The band I was a part of was playing a battle-of-the-bands hosted at the high school. As a band focused on jazz and blues, we were very much the black sheep of the show in amongst the punk, grunge, and metal bands. Swing had gained a bit of popularity at the time with "Jump, Jive and Wail" and bands like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, but I was still feeling unsure of the reception we would get.  Halfway through our first tune - a lively swing number - I looked down into the audience. Not only did it seem like people were taking in interest in us, a couple were feverishly swing dancing together directly in front of the stage. Seeing those two dancing so happily along to our music was one of the greatest feelings I've ever had making music.

Day 5:
Today started off with a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. No, I was not dragged there kicking and screaming. New Orleans is considered to be the one of the best cities in the world in terms of cuisine. There's a reason that songs have been written specifically about Louisiana dishes (it's actually a Hank Williams Jr. tune, but I like Healey's version even more). So I was actually looking forward to the prospect of learning Creole and Cajun cuisine. The instructor, Anne Leonhard, was excellent; beyond the cooking itself, the entertaining 10-15 minute history of more than 200 years of New Orleans culture and it's impact of the development of Creole/Cajun cuisine was fascinating. By the end of the class we had been shown the preparation of (and ate) jambalaya, gumbo, bread pudding, and pralines.

After an afternoon trip to the Audobon Zoo (which is nowhere near the size of the Metro Toronto Zoo, but was fun nonetheless), we took in the Red Fish Grill for dinner. Not only had our friends eaten there earlier in the week and loved it, but our cooking instructor also highly recommended it. Louisiana seafood is excellent, and this restaurant did wonders with it.  For anyone going there, Red Fish Grill is a must.

When we arrived at Frenchmen Street, the Spotted Cat was packed, and most of the other jazz clubs seemed to be between sets. Cafe Negril still had space, and John Lisi and Delta Funk with Jason Ricci were putting on a great show.  While an interesting funky groove was being laid down on a electrified resonator guitar when we arrived, we were also treated to some Chicago-style blues as the set went on.

If it seems like I'm glossing over the musical acts in these posts, it's not intentional; it's just difficult to describe in words what they were like.  All of them were great, and I'd recommend checking them out to anyone.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Week in The Big Easy, Part One

Time to share a secret. While juggling the writing of multiple songs was part of it, the other reason for this month's slide in schedule was also due to the fact that I've just spent the past week on vacation in New Orleans (while I realize the vast majority of people who read this blog are close friends and we had someone house-sitting for us, the security nut in me isn't a fan of letting it be known on a publicly-accessible site that I'm going out of town).

Spending time in one of the greatest musical cities in the world definitely warrants coverage on this blog. I could strictly stick to the music I experienced there, but I'd be doing a disservice to this place if I didn't share my thoughts on everything that makes it the wonder that it is, especially since it undeniably has an impact on the sounds coming out of New Orleans.

There's plenty to talk about, so let's get started:

Day 1:
We arrived at our bed and breakfast late in the evening, which was a few blocks North of the French Quarter in the neighbourhood called Treme. Treme is one of the cities oldest neighbourhoods and has gained some recent notoriety with an HBO series of the same name. The proprietor, Cindy, was kind enough to let us know where the few places were where we could still get a nice meal this time of night, several of which were on Frenchman Street in the Faubourg/Marigny neighbourhood.

While Bourbon Street gets much of the attention for being the hotspot of the French Quarter and the location of the famed Preservation Hall, the real musical epicenter of New Orleans is the two-block stretch of Frenchmen Street that contains the best music establishments in the city.  Blue Nile, Three Muses, d.b.a., Snug Harbor, The Spotted Cat... these are just a few of the clubs that host the city's finest musicians.

After a nice dinner at The Praline Connection, where my wife and I enjoyed Jambalaya, Crawfish Etoufee, and our first taste of Sweet Potato Pie, we found ourselves in Cafe Negril listening to an excellent reggae band called Higher Heights.  From what I understand their lineup has shuffled quite a bit since Katrina, but the current roster performed a fantastic set. We then decided to pack it in after a long day of travel.

Day 2:
After a delicious breakfast at the B&B, we met up with a couple friends of ours who we discovered a few weeks before would be in New Orleans for a couple days at the same time as we were before departing on a cruise. We spent the morning and early afternoon on the St. Charles streetcar and touring the Garden District, taking in the architecture of the neighbourhood's homes, businesses and institutions. During this walk we discovered Jim Russel's Records, a store packed wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, with vinyl (as well as some CDs, cassettes, and video games). We would return later in the week, but I regret not picking up a Jimi Hendrix record which happened to be one of the first albums I ever purchased on cassette and was already gone by that time. Lesson learned.

Back in the French Quarter, we visited a local brewpub, Crescent City Brewhouse, to sample some oysters, both cold and hot. I had never tried oysters before (unless I'm mistaken, I'm not sure any of us at the table had) and I very much enjoyed them. The brewpub's beer was also quite good. While mainstream American beers may deserve the disdain we Canadians give them, brewpubs and microbreweries south of the border know what they're doing. The 5-beer sampler I had was excellent, the weissbierr topping the set.

In the evening we got our first taste of Bourbon Street. While Frenchmen Street is the place for music, Bourbon Street is the place for partying. That's not to say there's no good music to be had; plenty of the bars emanated blues and rock covers from talented cover bands, and Preservation Hall is just around the corner on St. Peter. But Bourbon Street is clearly rooted in the booze, beads, and breasts experience of Mardi Gras. We treated ourselves to some large, alcohol-heavy iced drinks, then started looking for a place to eat.

It's really hard to do wrong when it comes to cuisine in The Big Easy, and Storyville Restaurant is proof of that. Though at a glance it may look like a simple drinking hole (with two mini bowling lanes) that would offer mediocre pub fare, we had some of the finest crawfish and soft-shell crab po' boy sandwiches of the entire trip there.

After a long day of walking the city, we decided a walk out to Frenchmen Street wasn't in the cards, but it's not as if the day was devoid of music. Every cafe, restaurant, and bar in the city plays the finest jazz and blues. Walking down the street I heard Robben Ford's rendition of "Chevrolet" from the stereo of a passing car. No matter where you are in New Orleans, you can't escape the music.

Alright, enough for now, time to get to some songwriting, recording, and general guitar antics. More on the rest of the trip later.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What's Brewing

I'm going to break with tradition and not release a song by the end of the month. While this might seem like I'm backsliding already, it's actually quite the opposite. I have three songs on the go at the moment, each one with lyrics and musical arrangements at various stages of completion. Rather than focusing on one and letting the other two sit on the back-burner, I want to try keeping all three moving forward to make sure I don't miss any moments of inspiration, or the chance that one might lend ideas to another. This is certain to make a full recording of any of them impossible by month's end, but I might manage a brief demo or clip. At the very least, I refuse to reach the end of May without releasing a full track.

I won't talk about them all now (gotta save something for later) but I'll give you the scoop on one. The song is a love song written from the perspective of a schizophrenic, making his case to the object of his affection that in spite of - or even because of - his delusions, they'd be great together.

The idea for this tune comes from a couple places. Very often on crime dramas and such, they feature paranoid schizophrenics going on killing sprees, commanded to do so by their delusions. Occasionally the show will remember to point out that not all paranoid schizophrenics are violent, but it's usually followed up shortly with a scene of the individual in that particular show being very, VERY violent. Rarely do you ever see the illness depicted in a less harsh light (A Beautiful Mind is the only example I can think of), and it just doesn't seem fair.

The second source is a man named Ian Chovill. Ian was a guest speaker at a lecture in a sociology elective I took in university. He talked about his experiences with schizophrenia that first appeared at the age of 17, as well as the difficulties and stigma he encountered. He has written several papers and articles on the topic, appeared on CBC Radio discussing mental illness, and developed educational and awareness projects to help those in need. I remember being struck by how vividly and clearly Ian recounted his delusions, how easily they blended for him with reality. They weren't dreams or nightmares, becoming foggy and faded with time and the use of medication; they were memories, as real, permanent and powerful as any moment of our lives. I suppose I knew that the past wouldn't simply disappear, but hearing him describe it drilled home that for all intents and purposes, those experiences were - and still are - as real for him as anything else was.

So, this song is attempt to bring a little fun, joy and levity to an illness that gets an excessively bad rap.  I'm not arguing against medication, and I'm not suggesting that schizophrenia isn't a serious condition.  I just feel like maybe it would be nice to celebrate that having a few screws loose doesn't mean you can't be as warm and loving as anyone else.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hell is NOT other people

So far on this blog I've stuck mostly to talking about songwriting and recording, and sharing various pieces of music with you. But the other side of this project is finding other musicians to play and collaborate with.

Despite the fact that I am really enjoying the stuff I'm creating by myself (this month's songwriting has been a blast so far, by the way, and I'll talk about that soon), I'm always at my happiest when playing with other people. If I thought for a second that the only outcome of this project would be me only performing alone with an acoustic guitar - or even electrified with backing tracks - I'd shut it down right now. That's not to say I wouldn't do that at all; I suspect I may have a hard time finding musicians willing to play the drivel I create here (if for no other reason than it's going to be stylistically varied and licensed in a way they might not agree with). But ultimately I'd like to see an ensemble come out of this in some form.

While I do have friends that are musicians, this doesn't mean I have an instant pool of bandmates. Some of them I greatly enjoy discussing music with and even jamming with occasionally, but differences in our musical tastes make a cohesive act an unlikely scenario. Some are simply geographically inconvenient for trying to regularly meet and collaborate. And others are quite content with noodling at home, already have a musical endeavor of their own (in some cases several), or are professional musicians who I wouldn't want wasting their precious time with an amateur venture such as mine, even if they were willing to do so.

As a result, I've had to find ways to meet more musicians.  I've tried a couple approaches so far, and I'll share how successful I've found each of them.

1) Jams at local bars, pubs

One of my first thoughts was jams. For those not familiar with jams, it involves having a host act - sometimes a full band, sometime just one or two people with guitars - who allow anyone who comes in to either join them or in some cases take over the stage entirely.  You tend to see all sorts come out: singers, guitarists, bassists, drummers, harmonica players, keyboard players... sometimes you'll even get some big band instruments like sax making an appearance.

This actually hasn't been as fruitful as I would've hoped, though admittedly I might have better luck if I headed into Toronto rather than stick to Brampton.  The turnout of people to play with has been meager. Some of the singers would probably also be better served by attending karaoke rather than a jam; that's not to say the didn't have a nice singing voice, but it seemed like they were mostly interested in just pounding back a few drinks and belting out the few tunes they knew without a care in the world.

The other problem with jams is that sometimes you don't know what you're going to get for a host, and you have no idea what songs they'll know. The last one I made it out to was hosted by two guys with acoustic guitars.  As more of an electric and full band player, it was difficult to find common ground with them. If the host doesn't know any tunes I'm used to playing, I usually take the attitude of "I'm happy to play whatever you feel like, I'll pick it up as I go along", but sometimes the host will choose something convoluted where there's no chance I can see stuff coming if I don't know the song. The end result is it doesn't go well, and you get the sense they'd be happy if you never came back (they'll usually make some polite comment like "hope to see you again", but their tone and body language would suggest otherwise).

I haven't wrote off heading out to jams like this completely, but it certainly hasn't met my hopes so far.

2) Classifieds

There are a number of specialized classifieds for finding musicians to play with, such as Bandmix, but sites like Craigslist and Kijiji also have sections for musicians. I decided to try Kijiji as a first attempt. I did my best to spell out in my ad what I was aiming for: people who were interested in being a "weekend warrior", being in a band where being creative and gelling as a group was taken seriously, but nobody was looking to drop their day job and chase a crazy dream of becoming huge rock stars. I also made sure to give people a sense of the musical styles and musicians I was into.

I received quite a few responses, and as you might expect from Kijiji, quite all over the place. A number of people clearly didn't pick up on my musical tastes and listed influences that were far removed from anything I'd go for (and I'm fairly open-minded). Others didn't quite grasp my goals; some were simply inviting me to come hang out in their basement and play Eagles songs, while others wanted me to come out an audition for their band, making it clear that they expected a definite level commitment for becoming "the next big thing".

Somewhere in amongst the junk, I did get a couple e-mails that have panned out. One guy had decided he wanted to host a bi-weekly jam at his home. I've been going to these jams for over a month now and it's been a lot of fun. The guys who come out to it are a great bunch; they're all talented individuals who are easy to get along with. This may not lead to any sort of performing group, but I'm perfectly happy with it just being a relaxed get together a couple times a month that still forces me to work my musical muscles in a full-band setting.

The second one was a drummer looking to put together a cover band. He does play in an established band already - which he doesn't plan to quit - but he's been somewhat disappointed with the direction his band has taken. Rather than do full night, paying gigs of covers with some original stuff throughout as they used to do, they're moving towards only doing the originals, performing unpaid short sets opening for larger bands in the hopes of making it big. So he's looking to put together a side project for himself that sticks with the full-night-of-mainly-if-not-all covers approach. It's still in its infancy; I met with him over a month ago now, but he's been in the process of moving to a new house with his family, so it's put things on hold. I've kept in touch with him, and hopefully it works out.

So that's where thing are at the moment on the collaboration front.  I still might see about adding to my network of musical associates, but it's a start anyways.