Tag Archives: Songwriters

Subway Songs

Published 06/26/2019

By Chaka V. Grier

For as long as I can remember, even as a small child, the subway performer – purveyor of the un-requested tunnel performance – mystified, and even saddened me. Standing under bright fluorescent lights, playing original music or cover songs, sometimes surprisingly pleasing, other times dubiously karaoke-ish. Seeing them, I often tried to avoid eye contact, while pondering why anyone would be drawn to performing in a space where 99 percent of us are relentlessly focused on getting from point A to B as quickly as possible?

I sometimes peered, as discreetly as possible of course, into their open guitar cases filled with change. The coins were most often scant, which is when the sadness would emerge. As a freelance writer, I knew that scarcity well; but I was grateful that, like the respectable starving artist I was, it was restrained to the private, virtual walls of my bank account, and not out there for the world to see. Yet throughout all my parent-like head shaking – “Why, seemingly nice subway guitar man, singing a pretty convincing rendition of Tom Petty’s ‘You Got Lucky,’ are you putting yourself through this?” – I noticed musician after musician performing proudly and passionately, despite the indifference of passers-by, and earning only random loose change.

Eventually, as the rise of music-competition reality-TV programs held me enthralled, I made a sudden connection. These shows fling open the doors to the grueling world of auditions, and trying to get noticed, and in some way, subway performers are the pioneers of such brutal public auditions. They’re akin to stand-up comedians, who bravely take to the stage in front of potential hecklers, cutting their teeth on indifference and possible ridicule in order to pursue their passion for laughs. In the case of subway musicians, they’re just as daring, for the love of song.

I soon took my nose out of the air and acknowledged the true greatness of the subway performer. Unbeknownst to me, I’d been witnessing one of the bravest things I ever see as a music journalist: under-appreciated artists, bringing their song and artistry to the coldest, most agitation-inducing, perfunctory spaces in my life. I had taken for granted how a steel drum playing in the winter brightened my mood, while I waited in line for my French vanilla coffee and two chocolate dip donuts. How saxophones, melodic folk guitars, and singing voices were often lovely signals that I was back at my station and heading home, or great distractions while I waited for a late friend.

One day I struck up a conversion with a talented performer at Bloor-Yonge station in Toronto. Turns out he’d been nominated for a JUNO Award and performed throughout Canada. So, this was a thing, a real thing! I was so curious that I Googled subway performing, and learned that musicians audition at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to play in these spaces. Performing in subways isn’t some last resort for those who can’t find any other venues. The musicians are licensed and allotted one of very few slots – 75, to be exact. They’re often roving performers, true bohemian artists, who understand the diversity, tenor, and changing communities in different parts of the city, simply due to performing throughout the 25 stations while licensed. Most do more than performing in the TTC; some teach, or record, or both.

Recently, the TTC program was named Underground Sounds. More stations have been opened to performers, and online auditions are being accepted for the first time. In some spaces, like those at my Finch station (as well as Bloor-Yonge, Spadina, and Main Street), I’ve noticed a striking black vinyl box that extends from the wall onto the floor, accented with music inspired decals. It’s a designated performer’s space, which, in a subtle but effective way, sets musicians apart from the rest of us, telling us that this is their stage. They’ve even created a hashtag, #TTCmusic, to celebrate these unheralded performers, who light up dreary tunnels, and bring vibrancy to our travel time. There’s something deeply generous in spirit about those who bring joy to joyless spaces, and some days barely make a few dollars for doing so. But they do so anyway.

So, this is my shout-out to the subway performers from Finch to Main Street, and everywhere in between. Thank you for your artistic courage. Thank you for making the mundane, sometimes unreliable, occasionally infuriating TTC travel experience more bearable. And thank you #TTCMusic for enriching my days with your soundtracks.

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.

Noble Work

Published 10/28/2016

By Andrew Berthoff

Since the Nobel people announced that the brilliant songwriter Bob Dylan is the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, not a few people have asked me what I think. Friends know my background in and love of literature as well as, of course, my professional life in communications and marketing in the music industry, so I guess it’s a logical question.

What do I think?

I think it’s great for the noble and honourable craft and art of songwriting and music creation. I love that it elevates SOCAN’s noble and honourable calling to fight for the rights of music creators and publishers. For that reason alone, I love it.

But, I suspect like Bob Dylan himself believes, the award is inappropriate – mainly because he likes to keep his craft and work simple. It is what it is. He insists “Blowin’ in the Wind” was written in 20 minutes. It flowed forth naturally, the muse striking with urgency and ease, as it miraculously, magically and rarely can.

Songwriting and music composition is almost always hard, hard work. There are the rare examples of instant classics, just as some Picasso masterpieces might have been made in minutes. But the vast majority of songs and compositions take figurative blood, sweat and tears – and measurable time.

Perhaps if Dylan took himself super-seriously and was precious about his work he might have a different opinion about receiving – never mind accepting – the Lit Nobel. That he’s so self-effacing and elusive about his art makes the honour that much more complicated.

I tend to think that giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to a songwriter is a brilliant and probably calculated PR stunt. It surprises and delights. It gets people talking. Like great art itself, it elicits a reaction, which doesn’t have to be positive in order to be successful. The controversy raises interest and awareness. By selecting the elusive and capricious Dylan, they must have anticipated that his response (or lack of one) would add intrigue and controversy to their choice.

But the stunt might come at a cost to the Nobel “brand.” There are not a few acknowledged literary masters who have taken umbrage, even more strident than what was seen following the debatable Peace Nobel awarded to Barack Obama after his relatively few years of work. In subjective prize-giving like this, inevitably it’s the list of who has not received the award that makes it questionable. The inference drawn is that Bob Dylan achieved more in literature than, say, Joyce, Proust or Nabokov.

While the credibility of the Nobel Prize might have taken a reputational hit that I don’t much like, I love the fact that the credibility of songwriting as an esteemed literary art-form has been elevated.

Just as they added a prize for Economic Sciences in 1969, perhaps a better solution might be for the 115-year-old Nobel organization to add a new category: Music. That makes sense, and would allow the prize to expand. As with novelists, playwrights and poets in contention for the Lit Nobel, all genres of music creation could be in line for the music prize.

And I would fully expect that future Nobel Prizes in Music will go to SOCAN members like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.