That’s a wrap….

Six weeks of being challenged by the SAC Songwriting Challenge. And yes, there were some “challenging” moments. But surprisingly few, considering how ill-prepared I was for this. Yes, I have writtten songs before and even on occasion collaborated with other people but never in such a concentrated amount of time, in so many genres and with complete strangers often in other cities.

The variety of challenges was good. The support from the coaches Debra Alexander and James Linderman was great. The co-writing was the best. The scrutiny of our submissions took some getting used to. When I have a new song, my habit is to play it live and see how people react. And, over time, make changes until the song feels solid and whole.

Not here. Each week we threw pieces together, dressed them up with a few chords, slapped a bit of production makeup on ’em and sent them down the runway. Sometimes to kind applause – sometimes to crickets.

Each challenge was a learning experience – and in a good way. Not the “oh, putting my hand on a hot stove really hurts” kind of education. More the “oh that’s how you do it” kinda thing.

And above all, I was most fortunate in my roster of co-writers. Considering the hundred or so people involved in this challenge, the chance of ending up with someone with whom I did not connect was quite a distinct possibility.

Didn’t happen. Every collaboration was fruitful and loads of fun. None more so than with Braeden Mitchell, my co-writer on the Matt Dusk song.

Braeden and I connected early on with the idea that we wanted to write a fictional character for the Dusk song – one who, like Matt Dusk, was seeking to change his direction in some way. The person in the song needs a more drastic intervention but that is part of the fun of it.

Braeden and I met only a few times over the weeks but the time in between helped us to have fresh ears each time we went back to it. The brief was to write sometime more contemporary and groove-based than Matt Dusk’s previous material. They say to write what you know, this is what we came up with – Bad Habits.

My other collaboration on a Matt Dusk song was once again with Scott MacKay. Scott has a wonderful connection to classic songs and creates old-soul, down-to-earth music that is gratifyingly easy to write to.

Here’s a beautiful duet he has conjured up.

And just a reminder, even though I’m done with the challenges I’m not done yet. The results for Weeks 5, 6 and 1 have still to come in and I may keep writing this blog even after that.

So please stay tuned.

Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?

So so close to the finish of the challenge. It makes me quite sad to think this is all coming to an end soon.

But let’s not dwell on negativity. It’s been a good week.

Just wrapped up production and approvals on my song for Week 6. For this one, the directive came from Cara Heath –  owner of With A Bullet, a radio promotion company. Her brief was to create a new song that would work currently at either Pop (Hot AC or CHR) or Rock (Alternative or Active Rock) Radio formats. The choice of the two was ours but her challenge was for us to write this song to be around 4 mins in length. Then we were to edit it down to no more than 3:30 mins while still retaining the essence, dynamics, and structure of the song. I chose Pop.

For this challenge I teamed up with Toronto jazz singer, Julie Mahendren. I had loved her voice from the first time I heard it so I was thrilled to be able to work with her. We worked very efficiently – I pitched her a concept and some lyrics, which she liked. I sent her some references for the sound I was looking to create (Frank Ocean, Janelle Monae, The Weeknd) and we were off. She sent her vocals and piano melody. We played with the chords and structure. I built a scaffolding to hold the song, Julie added a cool synth line. I fleshed out the production, Julie sent more vocals, harmonies, more harmonies, choruses, ad libs – I have never used so many tracks in GarageBand before. My machine was groaning under the strain. And I’m using one of those old pull-start, gasoline-powered mac computers, so it was touch and go – as you can imagine.

There were a few long nights but by Monday 2pm EST, we were done. And here it is.

Much thanks to Julie for being such an able and fun co-writer.

And while I am on the subject of gratitude, that these past weeks have been such a pleasure is due mainly to the people with whom I have met, corresponded and/or collaborated. Particularly Mikalyn Hay, Scott MacKay, Craig McIvor, Braeden Mitchell and especially Adri-Anne Ralph and Kathryn Berry. The last two wonderful songwriters (and killer vocalists) bore the brunt of my learning curve as we worked together in the first two weeks of the challenge. There were many others of course who wrote songs I loved, helped answer my questions and just provided friendly conversation. So thanks to all of you Challenganians, I’ll miss this greatly.

And in case you are curious, here is the long version of this week’s song.

Like Uncle Karl says…

Despite my best efforts to avoid doing my taxes, they did get completed, delivered to the accountant and almost finished (I forgot a few things, okay?). And in the midst of all this addition and subtraction, a song or two got written.

Actually, I had a hand in four songs seeing the light of day this week. If I may quote a famous German fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” And busy, I was this week.

Each of these tunes came off the assembly line in a different manner. Two burst out willingly, almost fully formed with shape and purpose. One loped along, graceful and unhurried with calm certainty. But the last song emerged kicking and screaming, mishapen – cheated of feature by dissembling nature – as one might say. If one were Shakespeare, that is.

So let’s talk about that particular song, the dificult one. In some ways, it seemed to have a lot going for it. As per Jordan Howard’s request it was rife with lust, love, danger and featured a female anti-hero. Check. A nice set of lyrics that talked of love and hinted at destruction. Check. A damned sensual vocal from Kathryn Berry as the spooky girlfriend. Check. The perfect setting for this jewel of a vocal. Chec… not so fast.

Ah, see, there’s the problem. I wanted to feature a heartbeat throughout the song as both a thematic and a literal connection to the title and some of the lyrics. So how to do that and not be repetitive and boring? First I tried a kind of Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” but that seemed too far off the mark for the Week’s objectives. After some positive feedback on two of the other songs that I worked on, I tried their very stripped-down approach on this piece. But the song felt unfinished. Too raw.


How about a little of this and a little of that? Nope. Fine…. how about electric guitar? I don’t think I’ve used that on any challenge yet. Hmmm. Not bad.

Send it off to Kathryn for her take.

Poor Kathryn. I keep trying new versions and sending them to her for feedback.

She approves. We’re good. Yay, we have a song this week. Here is our Week 5 submission:

For two of the other songs I have worked on this week, I provided lyrics and a vocal melody. The music already existed. Very evocative, inspirational music. One co-writer, Scott MacKay had three very promising pieces of music for me to try. I created scenarios or a mood for each of them and he chose one. It came together very quickly. This is how Scott’s song turned out.

The other came from music Craig McIvor created. Again, a really cinematic piece that was great fun to write for. In both cases, I tapped into my melancolic Irsh nature and brought forth doom, malaise and betrayal. I must be a lot of fun to live with, huh? Here’s that song:

The last song of the week I will just tease. It’s for the Matt Dusk challenge from Week 1. I’ve been writing it with the very talented (and extremely well-mannered) Braeden Mitchell and we are both very happy with it.

So soon. Soon. Very soon.

Standard Tax Avoidance Procedure.

Midway through Week 5 of the challenge. Still pouring over other challengers’ songs and blogs, sending out my “like” and loves, checking to see if anyone has commented or even noticed mine. And after struggling through a week of working on my own, I have taken on several co-writing partnerships. Things are going well.

And by “going well”, I mean that I have quite successfully put off getting ready for a meeting with my accountant. Sure, I’ve spent a bit of time adding up receipts and hunting down old invoices but not nearly enough. And now here I am, spending precious hours of my day bloggin’ to you people.

This week’s challenge comes courtesy of Jordan Howard, Creative Director of CCS Rights Management. Among his company’s many services is sync music licensing and that’s where we come in. Jordan is looking for songs to pitch for a new series on Lifetime that stars Christina Ricci. The series can be best described as a 19th Century “Dexter” and centers around a female anti-hero. There’s lots of emotions – Love, Lust, Hate, Danger bubbling up. Musically the songs are in the vein of: Black Keys, Bon Iver, Band of Skulls, Carolina Chocolate Drops, James Vincent McMorrow. Or more specifically, for one episode, they want a replacement for Hozier’s “To Be Alone” – a new song in a similar wheelhouse and lyrically similar.

First thing that strikes me, is that this criteria is – loosely – a good fit for a song I have been working on with sexy chanteuse, Kathryn Berry. It’s a dark little number with lots of lust, jealousy and bad relationships woven into it. So that helps.

I’ve also reached out as a lyricist/topliner for two other projects. Both have come together quickly – which is encouraging. Especially after last week’s slow drip of water torture.

And it leaves me more time for taxes.

So, I gotta go. Talk to you soon.

No big production.

Whew! Made it. Crawling across the finish line. Been a bumpy week. If I haven’t quite managed to wrestle this week’s song into submission, at least it’s a draw. God knows, I wrastled.

Was going to send it out into orbit earlier today until I got a call from my son’s school and spent a few hours in emergency with him. Nothing to worry about. He’s a teenager so I have one of those cards and since this is his tenth visit, it’s free. Did put a bit of a crimp in my plans to add more instruments and rethink the song.

Perhaps it’s for the best. Part of the directive from Mr. Irving included the suggestion that you break out of your comfort zone. For me, that meant not over-producing the song. I like the production aspect of song-writing – it’s like being in the darkroom after taking a photo. There’s still a lot of room to play around. Of course it could just be that I hate to declare a song finished, so it’s a way of prolonging the release of it. Either way, this is the least-produced tune I have sent out in the world so far this challenge.

But first, about the content. Originally it was a little ruder, sparked by a Roseanne Carter Cash remark about a song she was about to play “If this don’t put the c&%t back in country, nothing will.”

My song has been taught some manners and is considerably more housebroken since then, but the intention still remains. Metaphorically, all you city folk need some good country lovin’.

Oh, and big thanks the Braeden Mitchell for his voice and support. Cheers mate.

Just shoot me.

As faithful followers of my blog may remember, I mentioned that writing songs for a living would be fun. First of all you’ll have to imagine that I, in fact, have followers. Secondly, that was a dumb thing to say. I’d be hanging from the rafters within a month.

The week started promisingly (as those imaginary followers may recall) and I thought I had the makings of a good submission for the edgy-country-pop song. Yeah. Well that went sideways in a hurry.

I wasn’t going to go into too much detail but, if classic comedies have taught me anything, it’s that other people’s pain is funny. So let me share my pain.

First, I record my idea for a song. Listening back it seems to me that the verse and chorus don’t match. There’s no lift when you get to the chorus. So then I play around with transposing the key of the verse. I don’t want to touch the chorus ’cause I like the way it sounds. Now saying “transposing the key of verse” makes it sound like I know what I’m doing. I don’t. Normally my method is trial and error – which can sometimes take months. For this song, I only have a week. Well, now only 6 days. But James Linderman (one of the Challenge facilitators/coaches/therapists) posted a chord transposing chart so, yeah I did some transposin’. Still took me most of the day. Played around with it, got it together, recorded it and gave it a listen.

It. Sucked.

This point, late in the day, was not the time to tackle it again. Nope, now it was time for bourbon. Give it another listen in the morning.

Next morning, still not working. Not firing all cylinders. And this go around, I’m on my own – no collaborators, no perspective. So I send it to our therapists… I mean coaches James and Debra.

While I wait for a response, I become more convinced the song is crap so I write another one. This one goes pretty well. But it had existed in my head as kind of an anthemic heartbreak kinda thing. Instead it comes out as a rattling Johnny Cash amphetamine rocker. Not exactly what I had in mind.

Then James gets back to me. In his opinion, the song is musically solid but could use some lyrical adjustment. It had been from the point of view of a small town guy stuck working in a big city. Maybe change it to a woman in the city. That helped.

So next day, I rewrote and rewrote until my rewriter was sore. It was starting to come together but not easily. Got new lyrics, the change into the bridge fixed and picked up the tempo. And recorded another version. Number 3, if you’re keeping score.

Today, Braeden Mitchell dropped by to work on another song we’d been doing together. I ran it by him. He liked it and I had him record the vocals so I could get a bit of distance from the tune. Not surprisingly it sounded a hell of a lot better with his voice on it.

So this weekend I’ll decide on how to produce it and be done with it. And the next time I say how fun and easy this songwriting shit is.

Just shoot me.

Week 4

Y’now, this is fun. Writing songs for a living wouldn’t be a bad way to go. I say that despite – or even because – there is enough stress, deadlines, managing of creative people, pleasing clients, etc. that it wouldn’t be a dream job. But a fullfilling and interesting one.

This week, the client to please is Ron Irving- songwriter to the stars. His brief is brief and to the point: Write an edgy country pop song. Male artist, early 20s. No mention of marriage or kids.  No references to “partying at the lake”, “trucks and tailgates” and no “bro country” vibe. Given that the man has written for Anne Murray, Terri Clark, Michael Buble and others, he ain’t fooling around.

But it just so happens that I love country music. At least half of my musical purchases last year were country albums. Most of the others were rap so that’ll tell you where my head is at. So will the fact that I still call ’em “albums”. Country music songs are songwriting at its peak. No other current form of popular music uses story-telling, metaphor, real-life details, precise phrasing and mass appeal in such a consistent way.

So I like it. But can I write it?

We shall see…

I do have an idea. Hell, I’ve got more than an idea. I have verses and a chorus. But I am really enjoying the co-writing aspects of this songwriting challenge so I have put out the word and am hoping to find someone sympatico with whom to co-write.

Operators are standing by.

Getting it wrong.

You know, you can never tell.

I thought that I might be done early with this week’s challenge (write a commercial track in varied lengths suitable for a child-focused campaign – in case you aren’t a faithful reader of this blog).

But no.

Scheduling and technical problems caused the creative process to extend right ’til the end of the weekend. And here we are. A finished track in :60 second, :30 second and :15 second lengths. Not only that, but versions with a male and female vocal each. The female voice this week is provided courtesy of the amazing Mikalyn Hay. She did a fantastic job despite her busy schedule. I know, I know, my fault again for working with talented people.

Here is it. The version I am submitting.

But is it possible she did too good a job? I’m not sure but I may have wanted her to get it wrong. The song is a frail little thing and I think that a flawed voice might have fit the naive tone better. So I tried it with my voice to make sure it was wrong. So I got that right… the wrong part. But at least that version had the :30 second and :15 second versions also.

Given that this was the first challenge that I worked on by myself, I really miss the added perspective that a co-writer brings.

Guess I’m getting spoiled, huh?


Dear blog, I am sorry I haven’t written to you in a while.

It’s not like I haven’t been busy. Still working on the few wrinkles left on the Lana Del Rey-ish song for Matt Dusk. Had a good writing/get-to-know-ya session with Braeden Mitchell and have another one later today. Man, the guy is talented. He has a single coming out next week “I’m Young”, so look for that and check him out.

And I came up with an idea for the Week 3 commercial song challenge that fleshed out rather well. It is currently out in the ether waiting for vocals to bring it down to earth.

So, I guess that is part of it. Nothing is settled on and, for some reason, until I have something nailed down it seems like I am temping fate to talk about it in much detail. So please bear with me.

The other part is that a lot of my time has been spent checking out the other songs created by my fellow challengees (?). I think it is valuable and instructive to see how others have responded to the same directives in their wildly diferent ways. It is also humbling and intimidating too. Yeah, I hate that.

But despite what I may be learning and the connections and friendships created, bottom line is I am spending a helluva lot of time on Facebag. And, well that just ain’t natural. I fear I shall be punished for it with bad song juju.

So pray for me. Or if there is some sort of offering I should make to the spirits, let me know. Should I burn some kind of incense… or weed… or tires? Whatever, as long as it works.

The other side of the fence.

Funny, I thought that finishing the song for week two would allow me a bit of breathing space. Nope. ‘Cause there’s all these songs posted by the other songwriters – and their blogs – that I want to check out. Just not enough hours in the day.

I haven’t listened to everything but particular shoutouts to Tea Petrovic, Maryjane Viejo and Kate Carswell for spectacular work that gets everything working together – words, music, arrangement and production.

Truth be told, I am learning more from some of the other writer’s (and my own) mistakes. One thing that was particularly clear in this challenge is how unforgiving meter is in this pop format. When you are using turns of phrase and conversational idioms (which is a crucial part of connecting to this target audience) this rhythm of words has to be very precise or it feels …. (what’s the technical term?) … Bleh! Yes, that’s it.

Memo to self. Try not to be bleh.

And now. Week Three.

The brief for this week is to do a :60 song/bed track for a commercial. Specifically something child-like, light and playful, fun, capturing the moment and that captures the spirit of a child. Not emotional or heart-stringy — something that’s purely fun. Can definitely be somewhat quirky, while appealing to a mainstream TV audience.
A few references in terms of tone are The White Stripes’ “We Are Gonna Be Friends”, “On The Radio” by Regina Spektor, Sheryl Crow’s cover of “Sweet Child O Mine”, “Big Yellow Taxi” or “Mushaboom” by Feist. Or something along the lines of Karen O’s tunes for ‘Where The Wild Things Are’.
The spot is 60 seconds in length, with 30 and 15 second cutdowns, so the submissions need to be at least 60 seconds long, but be able to capture the same sentiment even if only 15 seconds was being used.

Oddly enough right now in my day job, I am overseeing the creation of three pieces of music – 60 seconds in length to be also cut down to :30’s, :15’s and stings. Except in this case, I’m the client.

Does this mean that I now have more insight into how the musicians create art to measure? Or does it give me a leg up on understanding a client’s needs in such a situation? Will this unique vantage point give me an added bonus when I have to put together a music track of my own?

Um… Nope. Not yet.

Still in the dark at the moment. But I will keep you posted on how the week progresses.