Tag Archives: Canadian Songwriters

Music venues need to provide non-alcoholic drink options

Published 07/11/2019

By Damhnait Doyle

A shorter, abridged version of this SOCAN blog post, written by SOCAN Board of Directors member Damhnait Doyle, was uploaded to The Toronto Star website on July 10, 2019, and printed in the newspaper on July 11, 2019. Following is the original, full-length version.

I really began drinking when I started in the music industry.

I was a blisteringly shy and introverted girl from Newfoundland, not long out of Catholic high school, finding my feet in downtown Toronto. I was young, scared, and surrounded by people I had admired and idolized my whole life. I felt like a fraud, an imposter.

Straightaway, I had a hit with my first single; suddenly, my video was on MuchMusic several times a day. Anxiety was coursing through my veins at lightning speed. This happens when your greatest fear is people looking at you, and you have to go on stage for a living. I was so nervous, I threw up in a bucket, stage side, before my first headlining gig (no booze was involved). Shortly afterward, someone bought me a shot of tequila before I went onstage, and boom! I had my liquid courage. I could go out there, and the fear turned into adrenalin. It felt like the answer.

Musicians don’t drink like normal people. You drink before gigs, during gigs, after gigs, on your day off, on a travel day, at the airport bar, the hotel bar, in the bus, the back of the van, when the show sucks, when the show is off the hook, when your song is on the radio, when no one’s playing your single, when you can’t get arrested, when you get arrested. In music circles, alcohol is both the journey and the destination.

When you’re doing it, you don’t realize that alcohol is putting a blanket over your intuition. Your body could be screaming out, “What the hell are you doing? Stop drinking!” and you’d be all, “Wow, my blanket is really loving this Rioja.” It creates a lack of communication between your brain and your physical body and spirit. When you suffer from depression and anxiety, as so many creative people do, the alcohol that you think is taking the edge off of anxiety, is actually building a fire around your body, stacking it with kindling, paper, and logs, and setting it ablaze. Add on the logs of a 4:00 a.m. lobby call, a nine-hour drive to the gig, and nothing but Tim Hortons for three weeks, and you have an issue.

I woke up almost a year ago and realized alcohol wasn’t serving me anymore. I was done. I hadn’t even considered it as an option before that. On paper, I didn’t have a problem. People asked , “Why would you stop drinking, I drink way more than you.” It’s as if society says the only legitimate reason to quit drinking is if you get thrown in jail, or you get a DUI. Now, sobriety is catching on. People are having a collective awakening, that they don’t have to drink just because they always did, and because everybody still does.

I’m writing this because I didn’t see many stories of people in my sphere talking about it, and when I did, I rejoiced. Listen, there are some cool-ass sober musicians. I know this because I’ve Googled that exact phrase 100 times since last August. That really helps – knowing you’re not alone is an incredible gift, so I’m adding my voice, and passing it on.

Next to having my family, quitting drinking was, hands down, the single best thing I’ve ever done. This includes getting up to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Willie Nelson, every night for two weeks, with my band Shaye, on tour. Not drinking is the bomb.

I won’t lie, it was hard to stop.

I had to re-wire all the neural/social pathways in my brain. The first gig not drinking, the first conference (CCMAs), the first writing trip, the first time in the studio, etc. It takes a lot of work and determination to counteract the mindless habit of drinking. I can’t even begin to fathom the struggle that musicians who are in hard-core recovery from hardcore drug and alcohol use have to go through every day. They have to go to work surrounded by the very thing that threatens their lives.

I don’t know of many other careers where you’re not only allowed to drink all the (free, Free, FREE!) booze you want, but you’re expected to do so, to some degree. Still, I was shocked, when I stopped drinking, by the lack of non-alcoholic beverage options (and, no, water and colas don’t count) at bars and venues in Canada. I believe everywhere a musician goes to work (and yes, even though it’s nighttime, and it’s fun, and it’s your favourite band, it’s still work for the musicians and crew), there should be a proper non-alcoholic option. Sometimes, you just want to have something in your hand, something that lets you blend in, without having to explain why you’re not drinking. Not to mention, non-alcoholic (NA) beers are delicious, taste just like regular beer, have only 30 calories, and won’t give you a hangover or a gut.

For bars and concert venues, the profit margin for NA beer could be just as high as their alcoholic counterparts, or higher. They just need to stock one row, one measly row. I’m not saying they should charge as much as they do for real beer, but I’m gonna be so happy for the option, I’m not gonna complain.

So we’ve got the mental health/addiction component, but we’ve also got the #metoo component. #Metoo demonstrated that silently sitting with something awful causes rot – and if you don’t catch it in time, you disintegrate. Thankfully, our industry is having the necessary conversations: How do we fix, how do we prevent, how does this never happen again? We have to look at the facts, which tell the story, with a running theme throughout: Alcohol. Almost 50 percent of all sexual assaults involve excessive amounts of alcohol. You can’t make up someone’s mind about how much to drink, or how to behave; but if you don’t at least offer up non-alcoholic options, sexual assault statistics will stay the same.

I want to thank Allan Reid at CARAS and the team at SOCAN for making sure that non-alcoholic beverage options were available at this year’s JUNO awards, and at the SOCAN Awards Gala. It may seem like a small thing, but it creates a ripple effect. I’d like to see us band together as an industry and make sure that every festival, every club, every bar, everywhere that musicians go to work, has a non-alcoholic option. Until then, I’ll keep on sneaking my NA beer into bars, and having way more fun than I ever did.

Digital revolution fosters more hurried, less skillful creative process

Published 10/12/2017

By Miranda Mulholland

Classically trained on violin and in voice, Miranda Mulholland is in high demand as a fiddler and singer covering a wide range of styles. She’s a member of the duo Harrow Fair, and the fiddle trio Belle Starr, and makes select appearances in the violin show Bowfire. She runs a music label, Roaring Girl Records; founded the new Sawdust City Music Festival in Gravenhurst, ON; is a member of the Board of Governors of Massey Hall/Roy Thomson Hall; and sits on the board of the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA).

I love looking at drafts of artwork. I love early versions of novels, songs and poems. I love sketches of paintings. I recently saw an early oil sketch of John Constable’s “The Haywain” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

You can see the skill, of course, but comparing it with the final version that hangs in the National Gallery, you can clearly see the thought, decision and composition that he worked through to arrive at the end result. I almost prefer the sketch.

There’s an art economist, David Galenson, who talks about the process of creation. He differentiates between the flash of lightning versus the arduous creative process. We hear a lot about the first type, what he calls “conceptual innovators”. The songwriters who wrote a song in minutes and it went to number one. The painters who sat at a canvas and with deft strokes completed a masterpiece. This idea goes back to ancient Greece, and the muse visiting with ideas of brilliance. But the notion that this is how it always transpires pays short shrift to the actual grueling and painstaking work and revisions that most artists’ work undergoes. These are the “experimental innovators”.

Leonard Cohen took six years to write “Hallelujah.” Bruce Springsteen took six months to work on the lyrics to “Born to Run.” Margaret Mitchell took 10 years to write Gone with the Wind and our own Alistair Macleod wrote his stunner No Great Mischief in 13 years.

Creating art is the use of skepticism for what’s come before, and the application of curiosity, which leads to the imagination arriving at something utterly new, through skill. In an increasingly hurried world, it’s important to use long-term thinking. Governments, funders, publishers and labels need to remember that most artists need time to develop, grow and realize their visions.

For instance, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, when asked about the pressure the publishing industry puts on writers to write quickly, said, “Quality work takes time. As a writer, my principal observation about why other writers fail is that they are in too much of a hurry. I don’t think the problem with writing in America right now is a failure of output. I think it’s a failure of quality.”
Our current social climate has been moving further away from time and skill. The notion that anyone can record an album in their bedroom and upload it for free is in theory a democratizing one, but it begs the question: Just because you can, should you? There’s a whole “amateurizing” movement which is exactly the same concept – a democratizing idea, but put into practice, what does it amount to and how does it translate to the consumer?

When I was in Grade 7, I was in a string quartet that would play for weddings. The cellist had put the group together and managed the bookings. She was the most inexperienced member of the quartet musically, and didn’t practice enough. For the last wedding I played with that quartet, the bride had requested Pachelbel’s Canon – which is right at the top of the Wedding “hits package”; I’m sure you’ve heard it many times. The cello part has eight notes in it – the same pattern, over and over. She didn’t ever get through the sequence without a mistake, and the piece came off as pretty amateur affair. I tried to be diplomatic after the wedding and suggested that perhaps “we,” as a quartet, should practice more before we accepted any further payment for our services.

Her response was that the bridal party seemed perfectly fine with it and didn’t notice the mistakes. But this is my problem with that: we were hired to notice. We were hired to be the experts, the arbiters of taste and skill. When this contract gets fuzzy, quality suffers. Trusted tastemakers have been eradicated by shrinking budgets and replaced with algorithms.

I’ve had some wildly sub-par service with Uber and Airbnb, and read some pretty poorly written “news stories” and blogs that just regurgitate press releases – or what’s known as “citizen journalism” – and I wonder when we got so afraid of skill and expertise.

True tastemakers are becoming endangered. There has been a vast and exponential growth in output and content in the last 20 years. While reviewers and consumers are drowning in choice, paid arbiters of taste are being laid off and replaced by amateurs.

One of the purported benefits of the digital revolution, that we’re all by now very aware of, is targeting. Because of the vast amount of data collected from all of us, we can target our exact audiences. We can be precise, allowing niche-market music to find its consumers.
The trouble is, niche isn’t easy. Because the streaming system is built on market share, the miniscule fraction of a cent you get per stream decreases wildly if your music isn’t in the mainstream. The less it’s streamed, the less it finds its way into the playlist algorithms, and then the less it’s ever played again. Niche becomes an ourobouros, a worm swallowing its own tail. Not only that, but because it’s financially such a small part of the market, it’s sometimes erased altogether.

But fostering niche is important. Why? When you look at language, there are words that are rarely used. They’re not mainstream words. They are able, however, to capture a sentiment absolutely and completely. Did you know that the word groak means staring silently at someone while they eat? That’s not a word you use on a regular basis, but I’m glad it exists.

When we limit and hinder access to these words we actually limit thought. Remember Winston Smith in 1984, a novel that gets more timely by the day. His job was to get rid of words from the dictionary to limit and control thought, creating “newspeak.” Things like spell check and text predictors are speeding up this process.

I believe algorithms threaten to limit and control as well. The calculations are based on decisions you, and those with similar taste profiles, have already made. This is limiting to imagination, and to those surprise discoveries, and against-type choices, that radically change thoughts. And changing thought patterns is one of the most powerful things about art.

So, what key piece are we missing here? We can find it in the artistic process. It’s the key to creativity: imagination. Imagination leads to skepticism, not in doubt but in curiosity. It allows us to not accept absolutes and givens, and to envision new perspectives, solutions and realities. We can employ the tools “skepticism” and “curiosity” to take ownership of our decisions, and unlock new and exciting thoughts, discoveries and inspiration.

News, music, book suggestions, products we might like popping up in our targeted ads is easy. But easy isn’t always good. We need to be more skeptical than ever, and reclaim the power of being our own tastemakers.

A Crisis, Not A Career-Ender

Published 05/30/2017

By Unison Benevolent Fund

In 2009, The Unison Benevolent Fund was an idea scribbled on the back of napkin. Inspired by a catastrophic accident that had left a brilliant musician in dire straits, music industry veterans Jodie Ferneyhough and Catharine Saxberg saw the incredible compassion and generosity that poured out of the Canadian music community – but knew more could be done to provide members of the industry with a safety net in such situations. Eight years later, Unison has developed into a truly robust resource for Canadian music industry professionals in times of crisis.

All of Unison’s services – counselling, wellness support and emergency financial assistance­are provided for free, and with the utmost discretion. That’s why Unison is so grateful when someone chooses to come forward with their experience, and publicly acknowledges its role in their life. One of the artists to have done so recently is Kaleb Hikel, the composer and musician behind The Sun Harmonic. Below, you’ll find his reflections on what brought him to Unison.

How did you discover The Unison Benevolent Fund, and why were you looking?
I found Unison by recommendation, through a friend of mine in the music business. We were talking at lunch about my recent discovery of the pain in my wrists while working at my day job and music simultaneously. At that point, I was unaware of what it meant, and where it was headed. I would be diagnosed with tendinopathy in my left wrist in August 2015, and in my right wrist two months later. I would need some sort of support to quit my work and transition into a long-term recovery period. If I had to let go of my day job as well as playing, writing, and recording music, I knew I couldn’t do it alone.

What support was most valuable to you?
I spent my downtime in a focused recovery from the repetitive strain injury that was persistent in both of my wrists. I was going to a clinic in Toronto weekly, while paying my basic expenses at home with the support of Unison. Without Unison’s support at that point, the only other option would have been dismantling my home studio and abandoning entire recording projects. It was a confusing time.

What resources do you think the Canadian music community could have provided to support people who find themselves in situations similar to yours?
I think it’s taboo to talk of injury, and mental or physical sacrifice, in the career of a working musician. The scene is all about inspiration, perspiration, and determination, but all of these come at a cost to your body and your mind. I think there could be more resources available to the music community to prevent injury from happening at its root! More presence at conferences, festivals, online, anywhere that they can reach active musicians who haven’t yet been injured.

How has your life as a music industry professional changed, or evolved, since you first contacted Unison?|
Life has regressed, re-invented itself, and maybe even re-invigorated itself since I first reached out to Unison. I went from releasing my own indie projects, and touring across the country, to not being able to play my instruments at all for three months straight. My songwriting was heavily affected – but ironically, inspired (writing lyrics only, very little playing). I still haven’t performed an official show – no more than three songs on any stage – since August 2015, when I played on the beach in Grand Bend. I hope to get shows back up and running this year, to share all the emotions and songs that I’ve written in my long, yet creative, recovery.

Would you have words of advice or encouragement for someone reaching out to Unison, or programs like it?
The hardest part for me was to be able to take it very seriously so quickly. Struggles are constant in the field of live performance, and in the lives of independent musicians, but the injury came on too fast for proper planning. I had to take a hard look at myself and say, “This could be the end of your music,” and then convince myself that a break from it all was better than a finale. I would encourage everyone who’s on the verge of an injury, or in recovery, to keep their eyes on their art. And continue creating –  without furthering your injury, of course. It has been one of my most creative times, and that’s a considerable positive to arise from an unwelcome negative in my life.

To find out more about Unison’s free, confidential programs for Canadian music professionals, or to make a donation, please visit unisonfund.ca.

Drake: More than a rapper

Published 03/29/2017

By Howard Druckman

After the 2017 Grammy Awards, where “Hotline Bling” won for Best Rap/Sung Performance, and Best Rap Song, Drake said, “I am referred to as a black artist, like last night at [the Grammys], I’m a black artist… I’m apparently a rapper, even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song,” during an interview on Apple Music’s OVO Sound radio. He said he finds himself pigeonholed in categories like rap, even if “Hotline Bling” is arguably a pop song.

Truth is, Drake is remarkably eclectic in his musical tastes. On his new “playlist” (but really, it’s an album) More Life, he samples Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “Devotion,” South African DJ Black Coffee’s “Superman,” Australian artist Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Building a Ladder,” and even a snippet from the Sonic the Hedgehog video-game theme. He’s exploring genres like afrobeat, grime, even Arabic music, and more of the dancehall, trap and other Caribbean roots he first explored (and took worldwide) on VIEWS.

But Drake is a keen listener to, and promoter of, all kinds of music. For example, when he curated the musical accompaniment for a Sotheby’s S|2 gallery exhibit of work by African-American artists from the last 70 years, among his choices was seminal 1930s acoustic blues originator Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues.” Even more astonishing than the choice was that Drake said he listens to the song before every show, because “that’s how I get set.”

In another example, the basis of “Hotline Bling” was a sample of the 1972 Timmy Thomas one-hit-wonder, slow-jam plea for peace, “Why Can’t We Live Together?” It’s music Drake reportedly fell in love with after his right-hand-man producer Noah “40” Shebib played it for him. In an interview with Nardwuar, who played him a personal message of thanks from Thomas, Drake responded with, “I just want to thank him for making incredible music in the time that he was making music. And just for doing something that’s timeless, because it’s really difficult – not only for something to resonate with you years later, but be good enough to actually take a piece of it, and be able to make something else from it. That takes a really special creation.”

Perhaps the most remarkable example was a short-lived online leak of Drake singing a verse of the Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico’s 1973 version of singer-songwriter Jackson Browne’s sadly beautiful ballad “These Days,” which he penned for her in 1967. Drake teamed up with Barf Troop’s Babeo Baggins to do it, for a covers EP. “Basically ‘These Days’ is my favorite song,” Baggins told Fader. “I just shared it with my friend, he had never heard it before. He connected with it too, he thought it was a really great song.” Drake’s unlicensed version has long since been removed from the internet, and hasn’t been released by Baggins, but you can hear Nico’s version here.

Maybe it’s because he was listening to his dad’s record collection as he grew up. Maybe he’s just musically open-minded. Maybe he’s easily bored and needs to explore. Maybe all three. But whatever the reason, Drake connects with all kinds of music, which only makes his own that much stronger.

Why are Canadian songwriters the best?

Published 12/1/2014

By David McPherson

There’s a line from a songwriter friend of mine that goes, “Most of my friends have all moved on/Dollar bills have replaced their songs.” When I think of Canadian songwriters, this line resonates because most, on the contrary, don’t give up. Sure, many take another job (or two) to supplement their income, but the majority continue to toil on the unpredictable road of a professional singer-songwriter, ditches and all. Why? As another songwriter told me recently, “There’s nothing else I know how to do.” And Canadians’ lives are much richer for the gifts they give via their words and music.

We’re familiar with the greats, all SOCAN members: Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Luc Plamondon, Gordon Lightfoot, Serge Fiori, Joni Mitchell, Robert Charlebois, Gord Downie, Bachman & Cummings, Ian & Sylvia, Cuddy & Keelor and more recently, City & Colour, Tegan & Sara, Louis-Jean Cormier, Drake, Julien Mineau, Serena Ryder, Shad and deadmau5, among others. And that’s just a handful of the songwriting talent that exists in our country. Many have won JUNOs, ADISQ and SOCAN Awards, some have been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, some have even earned the Order of Canada. And for every one, there are hundreds more writing great songs. Small wonder SOCAN has more than 120,000 members.

What makes their songs so good? The pride and passion they bring to their craft. Their ability to tell our country’s story, dissect our nation’s history, or tackle the eternal mysteries of the Canadian heart and soul. I see today’s song-crafting men and women playing at various Toronto venues every night of the week, testing their work on anyone who’ll listen. A good song can give strength in times of trouble, joy in times of despair, make you linger long on the lyrics and want to sing along. There are many such quintessentially Canadian anthems: Consider Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire,” Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” Robert Charlebois’ “Un Gars Ben Ordinaire,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon Pays,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” to name a mere few.

It’s a cliché that Canadian songwriters are attuned to nature because of the wide open spaces of our nation, but the seed of that idea is true. Those spaces, our cities, and our harsh winters and hot summers all affect the national character, making for the kind of memorable metaphors that so many Canadians can relate to. Think of Joni Mitchell’s line, “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” from “River,” the vastness of the country portrayed in Ian & Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds,” or the snow falling on the deep silent water of Lake Ontario in Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” Has anybody captured the essence of the frozen North better than Stan Rogers in “Northwest Passage”? Or the pleasures of life in a Canadian factory town better than Stompin’ Tom Connors in “Sudbury Saturday Night”? Or the vagaries of the road back from the big city to the small hometown than The Guess Who’s “Running Back to Saskatoon”?

Canadian songwriters don’t shy away from political and protest songs, either. The examples are endless. Buffy Sainte Marie’s anti-war song “Universal Soldier,” a hit for British singer-songwriter Donovan in the ‘60s; Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” which captures some of the helplessness of political action; The Tragically Hip’s “Wheat Kings,” which tells the story of David Milgaard, falsely accused of rape and murder, then freed after 20 years in prison; and K’NAAN’s “Wavin’ Flag,” an anthem of hope and inspiration for oppressed peoples.

Artists from around the globe have recorded songs penned by our talented songwriters. For example, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of the most covered songs in history, having been recorded more than 300 times. Lightfoot’s songs – which have won 15 SOCAN Classics Awards, among countless other accomplishments – have been covered by Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Sarah McLachlan and Bob Dylan, who’s called Lightfoot one of his favourite songwriters. Homegrown songwriters have placed innumerable songs in countless popular TV shows and movies, too.

Canada’s songwriters have also written or co-written smash hits for others, in a wide variety of genres, and our songwriters’ success on the world stage continues to grow. Take Rod Stewart’s “Rhythm of My Heart,” co-written by Marc Jordan and John Capek, chosen to open the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland; Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” co-written by Thomas “Tawgs” Salter; Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl,” co-written by Chantal Kreviazuk, who also co-wrote – along with fellow SOCAN members Adam Messinger, and Nasri Atweh of MAGIC! – “Feel This  Moment,” a worldwide dance smash by Pitbull featuring Christina Aguilera. Proud SOCAN member Stephan Moccio co-wrote one of the most successful worldwide hit songs ever, Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.”

Judging by the collective of writers I’ve come to know – and sometimes interview as a freelance writer for various publications, including SOCAN’s Words + Music – there’s no reason to believe our influence will wane in the years to come. On the contrary, the number of SOCAN-member songwriters and composers who received royalties from outside of Canada doubled from 2007 to 2012.

Still need proof that Canadian songwriters are the best in the world? Go to your local live music venue tonight and hear one of them perform. Listen to the music. Absorb the words. And feel lucky that we live in a country brimming with the best songwriting talent in the world.