All I Want for Christmas (original song)

I’ve written and recorded a Christmas song for three years in a row – I feel like I’m on a roll. This year, I didn’t have an idea for a new song until I fired up Spotify one day and saw their new Holiday playlists. Front and centre was the 1994 Mariah Carey hit, All I Want for Christmas is You. I had an instant gag reflex to seeing this, as I really despise the saccharine lyrics. Yes, there are some really cool musical motifs and chord changes, but that’s really re-purposing from classic holiday songs written decades ago.

Lyrics and chord ideas

At first, I wanted to write a poetic treatise about how sugary and sweet Christmas and the holiday season seems to appear on its surface, but bubbling underneath are things like growing financial debt, family feuds, and an uptick in depression.

I made a short list of keywords: saccharine, sweet, sugar on the one hand, and darkness, depression, and debt on the other. But the poetry wasn’t happening. As I started writing the lyrics, things came out more subversive and almost like a parody of Mariah Carey’s hit. So I just went with it, including borrowing her title.

I introduced a deliberately subversive chord sequence, alternating between C-major and C-minor in the intro and verse. I borrowed this from Ramin Djawadi’s theme for Game of Thrones, which he explained on an episode of Song Exploder. It’s supposed to symbolize the two-faced holiday season, like I mentioned above.

Like all my songs, I developed the chords and melody through both singing and playing the piano. I worked out the chorus lyrics first, then the verses, along with chords and melody, and added the bridge the next day.

Arrangement, recording and mixing

After the song was finalized, I worked out a heavier arrangement with electric guitar, bass, drums, and a vintage organ (all through software instruments). I wanted more of a hard rock / punk attitude. I worked on adding a little more grit to my vocal performance.

The mixing was fairly straight forward; I wanted punchy drums and an in-your-face crunch to the whole song. I used compression and saturation to get a dynamic yet loud mix.

Hope you enjoy it and happy holidays!

See the streets light up
So obscenely bright they blind your way
See the stores fill up
Stuff you won’t keep past Groundhog Day

And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
Sick of all the saccharine
And never play that song…again!

Cram your bellies, filled up
Office parties, stapled smiles
Expectations build up
All the presents piled high

And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
Sick of all the saccharine
And never play that song…again!

Darkness creeps in
As the lights all come down
Bills they rack up
As you put on the pounds

And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
Sick of all the saccharine
And never play that song…again!

And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
All the sugar makes me numb
And all I want for Christmas is dumb!

Interview on ThatChannel.com – Liquid Lunch

I had a great time being interviewed for a youTube channel in Toronto last week. I got to chat with hosts Hugh and Yaz on a show called Liquid Lunch about my songwriting, Song Talk Radio, Beige Shelter, my blog, photography, and my Meetup groups. They also played my music video for Holiday Shopping Spree.

I also met some of the other guests – the fantastic all-female country/bluegrass band Dirty Dishes, and the truly inspiring visual artist and poet Blake Horsley.

I’d recommend connecting with ThatChannel.com to anyone in music, visual art, or literature. They have a great variety of videos on their channel.

Movember Man-isms Part 1: Physical Health

I’m a creative and intellectual guy first and foremost. I’d much rather be writing songs, playing piano, reading, watching great movies, and learning new things than going for a jog or doing a workout. I feel like this is hard wired in me, so I have to hack my way to engaging in physical activity. Bit by bit, I’m appreciating more and more that it’s as essential to my being as music and other activities. Well, not as essential as music, but hey, I’m learning, and that’s the important thing.

Who’s got my back?

I remember way back in high school, a bunch of us, and by us, I mean my math and science geek friends, mostly non-athlete types, thought it would be an easy credit to continue taking gym class after Grade 9. We had no sense that exercise was good for us; we simply wanted an easy class next to advanced math. I distinctly remember being taught a section on “Wellness.” We thought it was utterly hilarious that there was academia behind making sensible decisions about being active and eating well. After all, we were teenagers, and therefore invincible. Nothing could possible hurt us. We biked to school, we spent lots of time outdoors, and ate mostly home cooking. What was the problem? Certainly my enthusiasms at the time were mostly intellectual and creative; the physical would take care of itself.

I started having back problems in my mid-20s. Spending countless hours in an office, at a computer, no doubt played a critical role. Many visits to the chiropractor later, the pain always returned. I took up yoga and pilates (the “For Dummies” series on DVD were my instructors), which did help, but only when I was working out consistently.

Only this year, I happened to meet a personal trainer, and thought it was time to try something different. Keagan Campbell tailored a program to my specific needs. My only goal was for my back to stop hurting; I had no interest in developing a six-pack or increasing bulk.

I think the big change in my attitude was to accept that I can’t do this myself. For something like physical fitness, I have no expertise. DIY is great for many things, but this isn’t one of them. I need someone to tell me what to do, and that’s perfectly fine.

I’ve learned a lot from Keagan, feel stronger, and visit the chiropractor much less. Both my chiropractor and my wife have told me my posture is better and I look stronger. Keagan’s approach is also learning-based, so I can eventually become self-sufficient.

At the same time, I know that if I push myself too hard, I hurt myself and lose my motivation to continue. The whole “no pain, no gain” mantra just doesn’t apply to me. I had to ensure Keagan developed a program that pushes me, but not too much. Slow and steady wins the race, indeed.

When I do the workouts myself, I usually take in a podcast so I feel like I’m feeding myself intellectually too, and it feels less boring. When Keagan is working with me, we spend rest times talking about Star Wars, so that’s cool too.

Doctor says…

We hear time and time again that men don’t go to their doctor for routine check-ups. I guess the stereotypical reasoning is that we can muscle through anything just fine on our own, and it makes us look weak if we admit something might be wrong. This is clearly a case of guys just making up stuff to try and look better. The fact is, we all age and stuff that’s sometimes out of our control can go wrong.

Besides, for most things, we seek professional help. Auto mechanics, lawyers, contractors, programmers, the list goes on. With all these things, the assets we’re trying to take care of are more expendable and temporary than our own bodies: our cars, our separation agreements, our basement renovations, our digital gadgets. It’s cliché to say it, but also true: you’ve only got one body. And for you smart asses who claim you can get replacements for missing body parts ala Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, most stuff that goes wrong is way more subtle than having your appendages severed, and the replacement is never as good as the original.

I once went in for a physical and both my blood sugar and LDL (bad cholesterol) were a bit off normal. My doctor suggested I made a few minor dietary changes and check back in 6 months. I reduced my red meat and sugar intake (not dramatically), and in 6 months I was back in normal ranges. Is this story more or less embarrassing than having to take pills for the rest of my life because I never had it checked until it was too late?

I am what I eat

I’ve always had a sweet tooth. My mom (and many others) always fed us Indian sweets growing up. I didn’t find out until quite recently that diabetes is rampant in the South Asian community. Couldn’t possibly be all the roti and sweets, could it? I also found out that heart disease is equally bad, and in my genes too. My father had a (mild) heart attack several years ago and his father died quite young from a heart attack.

I’m pretty lucky that I can eat just about anything and not gain too much weight, but even this is not as true as it used to be. Just like my fitness health, I need to take small steps towards improving my eating habits.

In my late 20s, I developed a sensitivity to dairy. It took many rushed visits to the bathroom to figure this out, and in the end, all it took was my doctor saying, “Why don’t you try eliminating dairy for a week and see how you feel?” I think this was one of my first signs that my adult body was aging and changing. I’ve since learned which dairy products work for me, and which don’t.

When my blood sugar and LDL were tagged during a routine blood test, my doctor suggested dietary changes. I took small steps towards better eating; I cut sugary breakfast cereals out and reduced the sugar I take in my tea. When I order a chai latte at Starbucks (not very often) I order it “half sweet” which actually tastes better; more like chai, less like candy. As a couple, we’ve also drastically reduced our consumption of bread and heavy pasta, opting for thinner bread and gluten-free pasta instead. I still indulge the occasional sweet treat, but on average I’ve certainly reduced my consumption of high glycemic foods.

Very recently, I had an unusual day where I had a Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwich (on an English muffin) for breakfast and white pasta for lunch. I felt so lethargic and tired in the afternoon I almost took a nap at work. It’s amazing how different it feels when you fall back into a previous “normal.”


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 2: Mental Health

Mental health and taking care of your emotions is so essential to everyone. It’s a great feeling to learn about yourself to the point of knowing the things that work for you and give you joy. I’m still on my journey, and have a long way to go, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far.

Second time’s the charm

I find myself saying this truism from time to time: “The second time you try something, it usually works out better.” For myself, this includes marriage.

My first wife was a test case in emotional baggage. Her past was ripe with abuse, family tragedies, and emotional self destruction. My own past couldn’t be more different: loving, stable family life, opportunity, and valuable education. Things started falling apart seven years after we got married (no kids). She started expressing unhappiness, and how I couldn’t fill her emotional needs; incidentally, a revelation that came to her after seeing a therapist herself.

We tried couples therapy for a very short time. Afterwards, I began seeking professional help for myself. I recall my first session, complaining about my wife’s neediness and anger. My therapist turned the tables on me, getting me to see my own responsibility in the relationship. This was my first lesson in cognitive behavioural therapy: introspection, and understanding what I actually had the power to do. This was not easy; it took many sessions, most of which I felt angry at my counselor for not giving me easy answers. I didn’t want to look at my own faults; it was better to put the blame elsewhere. Of course, the truth was that I was equally responsible for the downfall of my first marriage.

I grew up being on the receiving end of care, and while I wasn’t spoiled to the point of always getting my way, I was always supported by family and friends. Hers’ was a life of disappointment after disappointment, always being let down, desperate for someone to take care of her. I too, was eager to be her provider. But I wasn’t up to the task; I didn’t have the skills or the practice to be anyone’s savior. The kicker was that while I so busy trying to be her everything, I didn’t realize that the whole ordeal was making me miserable too. The fellow she cheated on me with made it clear that I wasn’t the guy for her. He’s extroverted (I’m introverted), an enthusiastic smoker and drinker (I’m neither), and party guy (which I am not). I remember talking to my brother about this; he told me flat out, “Sometimes we’re just not able to be what the other person needs.” By 2010, we were divorced.

I think it’s this fear of failure that demotivates many men from seeking emotional support and help. I’m stereotypical in this regard; I wasn’t taught how to deal with my feelings at a young age. For me, I take an intellectual approach to emotional intelligence; tracing the root causes and reasons why I feel the way I do. Where do my insecurities come from? What did being teased and bullied as a child actually do to me? Understanding is the first step toward getting past blaming myself, and getting on to making things better.

Side story

As a bit of an aside, I have a story I love to tell my friends and anyone who’s willing to listen. As I was going through my divorce, someone told me that when any significant relationship breaks down, one person ends up on the high end, and one ends up on the low. I’m convinced I’m on the high.

Sometime after I moved out, I got a message from my soon-t0-be-ex-wife that she had a box of my stuff, and our camping tent, which we agreed I could have. I asked her to please drop it off at my office, as I didn’t want to reveal my home address (petty maybe, but still my prerogative). When she finally got around to dropping my stuff off, I asked her to leave it at the reception desk, since I didn’t care much to see her either. She told me I had to come downstairs to the car, because she has the six-month old in the back.”

I relented and went downstairs to get my box and camping tent, and sure enough, there was an occupied baby seat in the back of the car. When I got back to my desk, I had to do the math. We had been separated for about 18 months. Seems that for all the talk about having kids later, she didn’t waste any time once I was out of the picture. And if the guy she cheated on me with was the father, that’s a big minus, as he was already married with two teenage boys. The patterns of self-destruction she seemed to be so good at were reaching new heights.

Moving on

By this time, I had a better understanding of myself and was acutely aware of how much happier I was to be able to let go of years worth of resentment. By this time, I had vowed to invest more time and energy in myself. I think the idea of being selfish is largely misunderstood. There are two kinds of selfish: the first is deciding to invest in your own happiness, which results in better relationships with others. The other kind of selfish is being greedy and manipulating so that you can only be happy if others around you suffer. Here’s a list of really simple things that I neglected during nine years of marriage, and I knew would make me happier. I followed through with them all:

  1. Live within a 30-minute bike ride to work
  2. Get back into songwriting and music
  3. Be debt-free
  4. Meet new people
  5. Get back into playing tennis

Like any good songwriter, I got a few songs out of my divorce. One hasn’t been fully recorded, although writing this article has certainly got that fire stoked. The other is a song called Brand New Door, and it’s about moving on. My friend Sunny helped me with the vocal track.

I also met my future wife, and suffice to say, I knew from the get go she was a far better fit for me. I vowed to never let resentment build up again, and we’re actually pretty good at talking out our differences. We were married in 2014, which is also the year things started to unravel for me in an unexpected and unceremonious way.

The downward spiral

In late 2013, my fiancé and I were living comfortably together in a rented house in the west end of Toronto. We got a great deal on the place, playing landlord to the upstairs apartment. In less than a year, the owner told us he needed the house back. We were homeless, and ended up moving in with my parents, north of the city. (Incidentally, our first morning at my parents was also my 40th birthday.) My 30-minute bike ride to work was now a 90-minute commute through regional transit, subway and streetcar. This didn’t irk me too much, as I got a lot reading done, and I knew it was only temporary.

In early 2014, we were set to purchase a townhome close to our west-end rental. Everything seemed to be place until, on the day of our home inspection, I lost my job. I had never been fired before. It was sudden, unexpected, and emotionally brutal. I wrote a song about it.

I had no idea why I was let go. The organization I worked for had just undergone an operational and human resource audit. I can only surmise that the consultants told management they were paying me too much for my job. My position morphed into a slightly different one, as I saw on the organization’s website, presumably for a lower salary. There’s nothing quite like quantifying your worth in dollars to take a kick at your self-esteem. Looking for new work proved to be daunting task, as I found myself in a job market where I seemed to have no place.

Eventually, I leveraged a connection I had to land a stable, well-paying permanent position. Of course, there’s a downside. While I have a full-time job, four days a week I spend working by myself at home and one day I week I commute to another city to meet with my co-workers. While working from home is ideal at times (e.g. snowstorm), there are feelings of isolation and loneliness I can’t seem to escape. I know my productivity suffers by not being around the people I’m working with. I’ve tried to find other ways to be productive, by working on personal and freelance projects during lunch breaks and during times I would otherwise be commuting in the city to get to and from an office. As much as I am an introvert, and value time by myself, it’s still a struggle spending many hours on my own.

Finding a balance

So I’ve lost only two items on my “happy” list. I can’t bike to work anymore, and I stopped playing tennis a while back due a knee injury (from playing tennis). That’s not bad. I’ve recently started playing a greater role in my physical health.

I’ve since taken on many music projects, including co-hosting a weekly radio show and podcast, and being in an indie folk-rock band. I’m also meeting great new people through Meetup.com and other venues. I wrote about this a while ago.

I’m happily married. And my mom loves my wife. And my mother-in-law loves me. What more does a guy need?

At times, the future feels very uncertain, particularly with work. I think finding a balance is important, and it varies from person to person. For myself, my hobbies are actually really important to me, and I take them seriously. For everyone, I believe it takes a lot of introspection, and knowing yourself well enough to know what works for you and what doesn’t. We tend to spend a lot of time doing things we know aren’t the best for us, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective, and find ways to ensure you’re content with whatever situation you’re in. I’m trying and I hope you are too.


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 3: Social Health

Sometimes I have an easier time around women than men. I’d rather talk music, philosophy and health than sports, cars, or tools. Of course, these are just stereotypical interests of the genders, based on conventional views of gender identity. I like to think I’m neither stereotypical nor conventional in my thinking. I’ve been told, only by women, that I think like a woman. I presume this means that I’m not very confrontational or competitive, I’m gentle, and I’m sensitive. I can go with that.

The no boys club

I was at a BBQ party a few years ago, where I literally knew nobody there except for my now-wife, then-girlfriend. I found myself in the backyard, sitting in a circle of friendly strangers, a mix of men and women. One by one, the men left the chat and eventually I was the only guy left. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but I do remember that a bunch of guys came back, and the women all left. The guys carried on about home renovations, as I recall, to which I had nothing to say. This is not to say stuff like this happens all the time, but in this instance it was spelled out pretty clear to me.

I recently got a Fitbit, naturally after my wife got one. I don’t use it to anywhere near its full capabilities, but it does help me keep on track with moving and getting my steps in. For Movember this year, I set a goal to walk 201 km in the month – there’s only a couple days left, and it looks like I got close, but not quite. The social part of Fitbit is your list of Fitbit Friends – people you know who also have Fitbits, and you can compare your progress against them and either get encouraged or discouraged.  Most of my Fitbit friends are women, and all of my active Fitbit friends are women. Does this mean that Fitbit is a girl thing and therefore I shouldn’t use one? No, of course not. I tried it, I like it, it works for me, and I rarely go a day without it now. That tells me it’s good for me, and that’s all that really matters.

I don’t want to suggest that I only hang out with women. Some of my best friends are men. Every week, I co-host a radio show with two other guys. I’m in a band with three other guys. The key here lies in the content; even with the guys, we’re generally not about sports, cars, or beer.

“Sister in my soul”

There’s a song by the Canadian band Rush called Animate, from their 1993 album Counterparts. The song talks about the presence of the female psyche in the male mind, based on the theories of renowned psychologist Carl Jung. If the verses and chorus didn’t spell it out clearly, the bridge of the song states it plainly:

My counterpart – my foolish heart
A man must learn to rule his tender part
A warming trend – a gentle friend
A man must build a fortress to defend

It’s the moment you believe that gender itself is largely a social and cultural construct that you give yourself permission to break the rules. We’re not wired to like sports, cars, and GI Joe; it’s society and upbringing that makes it feel that way. As with all my “man-isms” I think it’s better to discover your own path and decide for yourself what gives you joy.

Even in areas of stereotypical “man-ness” I tend to go soft. I used to play tennis, and I found the guys I played with hit really hard. It got to the point where I hurt my knee trying to return a particularly forceful stroke. For a short while, I was meeting a female co-worker after work for some casual tennis; in this context, I was the one hitting hard, but it turned out we were a good match for each other. Sure, it wasn’t as brutal as playing with the guys, but I got a good workout, had fun, and there was a greatly diminished chance of injury. I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone; I only wanted to play tennis casually for both fitness and fun.

I’ve been a drummer longer than anything else I do musically. It’s where I’m most comfortable, and what I do best. I’m totally a rock n’ roll guy, but my drumming is not aggressive or too heavy. I prefer to use nuance, creativity, and attention to detail rather than pound my way to oblivion. I carved out this space naturally, and it feels right. In fact, there’s no voice inside me telling me I need to hit harder because I’m a guy.

Thinking like me

Our culture prefers to put things into small boxes, and gender is no exception. To me, there’s no such thing as “thinking like a guy” or “thinking like a girl”; there’s only thinking and acting like me. Sometimes this is hard for us to accept. We’ve all been brought up to believe the stereotypes, both boys and girls.

For guys, we never learned to talk about our emotions. We’d rather bury them, especially if they’re negative. It takes not only unlearning but practice to move beyond this. I’ve still got much to learn, but I’m lucky that I have a loving wife who I can trust with my deepest, hardest emotions and support me when I’m feeling down. Moving forward, I hope that I can open up this kind of dialogue with my male friends as well. I did reach out to a few friends when I was going through a particularly rough time several years ago (divorce) and it was encouraging. It’s amazing what happens when people, whatever their gender, become more open and trusting with their feelings.


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental healthphysical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 4: Sexual Health

I was brought up to believe that any discussion about sex was so taboo, that this belief was never even expressed; it was just strongly implied. So this topic, even to this day, is a tough one for me to talk about. Sometimes the ceilings that are built for us as children are hard to break past. This ceiling is not even glass; for a long time, I couldn’t even see what was beyond.

OK, enough with the architectural metaphors; let’s get to some childhood events that helped shape who I am today.

My Sex Education

When I was in Grade 7, I was entering a class with my buddies and to this day, I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but we were carrying on the way that 12-year-old boys do. I made some kind of a gesture in a random direction; I believe I was imitating the “Walk like an Egyptian” dance from the Bangles song of the same name. Turns out I unknowingly gestured towards one of the prettiest girls in our class, whom I had never even spoken a word to. For the weeks and months following, I was relentlessly teased by my friends and others about how we had a secret relationship. The lesson learned here was to forever be cautious and never express myself without careful consideration, especially in a physical way like a silly 80s dance.

My dad was a big fan of the 1983 movie Trading Places, starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, for its hilarious rags-to-riches-turned-upside-down story. We always watched the edited version on cable TV. One day, probably when I was about 12 or 13, he rented the videotape for us to watch together as a family. Naturally he didn’t know about the part when a topless Jamie Lee Curtis joins Dan Aykroyd in bed, because it got edited out for TV. My dad grabbed the remote control, stopped the tape and fast forwarded it for several seconds, mumbling something about my mom’s eyes hurting so we needed to take a break. Now, I was at an age that I knew this was utter silliness; surely they knew I had seen far worse in movies already. But I was also at a young enough age to not call him out on it, since talking about sex was totally taboo. And what did I learn from this experience? It only reinforced the taboo belief in my mind that anything sexual in nature was to be kept secret and not talked about with anyone.

In early high school, a friend of mine invited me over after school, like we had hung out many times before. But on this day, he had two girls over at the same time, who I didn’t know. He raided his dad’s secret stash of porn videos and we watched one together. I felt incredibly awkward the entire time, and excused myself afterwards. Even into my teens, sex was still taboo and I had no idea how to behave in this kind of situation.

Simply talking to girls was frowned upon when I was growing up. In high school, I had many friends who happened to be girls, but no girlfriends. The American comedian Hasan Minhaj summed it up perfectly in his excellent stand-up routine Homecoming King: (I’m paraphrasing) “When you’re a kid, it’s like, ‘No talking to girls!’ And then when you’re 30, it’s like, ‘Why can’t you talk to girls?’”

Many years later, I ended up marrying the first girl I really had a relationship with, which as it turned out, was a mistake. In hindsight, I realize that most things don’t work out the first time I try them; why would an intimate relationship be any different? I talked about this on my Movember Man-isms Part 2: Mental Health article. I stumbled through our first sexual encounters, and managed to learn through trial and error (not terribly uncommon, I realize). Today, I’m happy to say I’m in loving, healthy relationship with my second wife.

Fantasies and consent

Maybe it’s my lack of experience, but I feel like even my fantasies are on the cautious, careful side. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into the details. For those readers who are hoping I would, I’m glad I don’t know yours either! But this point has been solidified in my mind recently, with the recent #MeToo movement: fantasies are supposed to be fun and pleasurable; for me, there’s no fun without enthusiastic consent.

Another childhood incident resurfaced in my mind after #MeToo began making headlines. Around Grade 7, I was in the public library with a few of my friends, and somehow the discussion got around to sex, and they were teasing me that I had no experience. Today, I wonder if they actually had much at age 12. One of my friends told me, “You wouldn’t even know what to do if Madonna walked in here right now completely naked.” It’s true, I didn’t know what to say to that as the boys continued to laugh at me. I do remember thinking I would probably cover her up with my coat, because why would she be strolling in here naked? But I didn’t say that; I was embarrassed enough without making it worse.

There’s a special kind of rapture when there’s enthusiastic consent. So yeah, even in my fantasies, there might be hesitation and verbal or non-verbal foreplay, but always a strong willingness to get it on.


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental healthphysical health, social health, and sexual health.

How I Listen to Music: Smart Playlists

Way back in the day (c. 1988) I started making mix tapes. Now, I realize that these days, a mix of songs on Spotify can be called a mix tape, but I’m talking about the kind of thing that only magnetism and spinning spools can do. Real tapes had restrictions in the way that digital mix tapes don’t, particularly with regard to length. I used 90-minute tapes; that’s 45 minutes per side. Likely, and not by coincidence, vinyl LP records maxed out at 45 minutes as well. I would carefully time each song and come up with thematic combinations that optimized the 45-mintue duration. Not surprisingly, a mix could take hours to construct and record. It was meticulous work. In the 90s, making mixes from CDs, I had a mix tape called “Girls, Girls, Girls” which proved enormously popular among my university classmates’ walkmans, and featured great female artists or female-fronted bands like Frente, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, and Garbage.

Fast forward to c.2005 when I got my first iPod. A 2nd-generation iPod mini, to be exact, with a massive 4 gigabytes of storage, enough to hold 1,000 songs. At first, I put a bunch of random songs and manually created playlists on the iPod, all managed through Apple’s free iTunes software. Today, I have a an iPod Classic with 160 gigabyte capacity that literally holds my entire music library (10,560 songs as of today, November 5, 2017).

Getting smart about my playlists

A short while after using my iPod Mini, I discovered smart playlists in iTunes. These playlists are dynamically created based on criteria that I specify. My mind immediately went back to creating 90-minute mixes, but they could be constantly changing and updating themselves.

The keys to creating my smart playlists are:

  • rating each song, and
  • using the “comments” field to group them in meaningful ways.

The auto-populated “genre” field is largely useless as a criteria. I don’t care that the powers that be determine Sarah McLachlan as “adult contemporary” or “pop” or “rock” depending on the album; I want to tag my favourite Sarah McLachlan songs as “girls” and “Canadian” and “90s pop” for example (using the “comments” field).

As for rating songs, I use the following guidelines:

  • 1 star: I don’t want this song showing up in my smart playlists
  • 2 star: mediocre songs, I don’t need to hear these too often
  • 3 star: pretty good songs
  • 4 star: excellent songs, I want to hear these fairly often
  • 5 star: my absolutely favourite songs; these can make it into many smart playlists and I won’t mind

Suffice to say, most songs are rated 3 or 4 stars.

Building the smart playlists

Once I had most of my songs rated and commented, it was time to start building smart playlists grouped by tags in the “comments” field of songs. A few of my first smart playlists included:

Smart Playlist Associated comment
80s Pop Top 40 80s pop
80s Alternative 80s alt
Canadian Canadian
Smart Girls girls
Funkalisicious funky
Riffin riffin
Saxy and Horny horns OR saxy

I want to include mostly my favourite songs and fewer of my less liked songs. Since I’m thinking in terms of 90-minutes mixes, I limit my smart playlists to 20 songs (90 minutes, or one tape) or 40 songs (180 minutes, or two tapes). The math works out pretty nicely. For example, my 40-song smart playlist for 80s pop includes:

  • 16 songs rated 5-star, with comment “80s pop”
  • 12 songs rated 4- star, with comment “80s pop”
  • 8 songs rated 3-star, with comment “80s pop”, and
  • 4 songs rated 2-star, with comment “80s pop”

The lists are filled with the least recently played songs. This point is crucial. This means that every time the smart playlist refreshes, it automatically picks songs I haven’t heard in a while. Basically, over time, I get to hear ALL the songs I’ve tagged as 80s pop, while mostly hearing my favourites.

Here is my smart playlist settings for the 80s pop songs, one “auxiliary” playlist for each star rating:

0s pop 5 smart playlist settings

80s pop 4 smart playlist settings

80s pop 3 smart playlist settings

80s pop 2 smart playlist settings The auxiliary playlists are used to build a master playlist; they are never played individually. The master 80s pop playlist is set as follows:

80s pop smart playlist settings

Reusable Method

This method is reusable for any number of criteria. I’ve created many other dynamic playlists that effectively shuffle through my entire library of songs. When I add more music, I only have to rate the songs and add tags in the comments fields to make sure they find their way to the dynamic lists. The rest takes care of itself. The “Live updating” check box in the smart playlist settings makes sure the list is always reconstructed every time it is played. With my iPod classic, I have to plug it in and sync it before the lists are updated on the iPod.

The list of choices for criteria in iTunes is very long; you can base the smart playlists on just about anything. For example, I have a list called “Best of the Year” which looks like this:

Best of the Year playlist

And I had to create my own “Shuffle Songs” playlist, because the one built into iTunes would pick random weird stuff like old podcast episodes, songs rated 1-star, or classical music, which don’t work in my typical lists of more popular music. Here’s my customized “Shuffle Songs”

Shuffle songs playlist

The biggest advantages to using a geeked-out system like this is rotating through your entire music library and hearing songs you haven’t heard in a long while. It does take some effort and time to get it setup, but then it’s only a matter of rating your new music and putting some tags in the comment field.

Happy listening, and please comment below if you find this method useful, or if you have other cool (or geeky) ways of listening to your music.

Live music photography

Our band Beige Shelter performs gigs in and around Toronto. Sometimes I take my camera with me to practice live music photography and share my photos with the artists to help with their own promo material. I love supporting local music.

Lately, I’ve been trying to capture more subtle moments in performance. I used to try and capture the highest emotional moments (singers with their mouths wide open), but I’m finding the space to add a variety of shots where the energy is perhaps less but there’s also a sense of a performer being focused and “in the zone”.

For these photos, I shoot with my Nikon 85mm F1.8 prime lens on my crop body Nikon D7000 camera. I always shoot wide open and under-expose to get the sharpest photos.

Here’s some photos I took at two shows, at Spot One in Brampton, and Folly Brewpub in Toronto.

The Countless Few (#MeToo)

Following news of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, many of my female friends posted “#MeToo” on social media. Some of them even shared their own harrowing stories of sexual assault. Their courage and vulnerability really got to me. It’s one thing to hear about famous people who live a world away, but another thing to see these stories coming from people you know. Frankly, it made me feel sick that my friends had undergone such pain in circumstances where better behaviour on the part of men would have prevented them. I knew I wanted to express something, but I didn’t presume to speak for assault victims, or even the guys who perpetrated the acts.

Lyric writing process

I started with lyrics for the chorus:

Is it you too?
Of course we believe you
Wishing it weren’t true
Join the countless few

The idea for the “countless few” came from the notion that this issue is pervasive and it seemed like there were countless women coming forward, and certainly there are countess women who are accosted or assaulted every day. The “few” refers to the notion that, as a culture, we believe it’s rare, or only affects celebrities.

Later, I changed the first line to “You said, ‘Me Too'” as I wanted to include the “Me Too” phrase and I thought it would be more powerful than a question. All too often, I write lyrics that are questions, and I’m trying to make stronger, more affirmative statements. Not to worry, though, I saved plenty of questions for the bridge :).

On the first day of writing, I only had the chorus, complete with chords and melody. I wrote the verses two days later, and then the bridge on the following day. I changed one word in the bridge, “Gotta unlearn the hateful stuff” to “Gotta unlearn the hurtful stuff”, even though “hateful” first came to me, I thought “hurtful” was more appropriate and accurate.

Here’s my worksheet as I worked through the writing. You can see some more earlier versions of lines I went through.

Being conscious about chord choices

I knew I wanted this song to be haunting. I decided to drive both the verses and choruses with minor chords. The last line of the chorus (“Join the countless few”) begins on a major chord, to help highlight that phrase. I also employed one of my favourite chord tricks, flipping the V chord from minor to major (in this case, E-minor becomes E-major), which works best at the end of a phrase where you’re returning to the I chord (A-minor). Check out the chord progression at the end of the chorus.

I made a conscious choice to start with the relative major chord for the bridge, to give it a different colour than the heavily-minor-chord-driven verses and chorus.

I was also conscious about returning to a more haunting quality to end the song. I revisited the verse section with new lyrics and ended the song on the VII chord (G-major in the key of A-minor), which is very unresolved and leaves the listener hanging. Just like this issue remains unresolved, the song doesn’t conclude in resolution.

Production process

I started with recording the piano part, quickly discovering that I couldn’t play it to a click, or steady tempo. The verses had a natural slow down at the end of the each phrase, while the chorus and bridge kept a more steady tempo. So I recorded the piano part in “free time” and re-defined the grid to match my performance. Here’s a screen shot of some the tempo changes in the first verse and chorus:

Notice how there are deep slow downs as the verse lines end. The chorus maintains a more steady tempo.

At the time, I added a cello part and a drum part, but I suspected they just muddied up the arrangement. I slept on it, and the next day it was clear that the simplicity of the piano and vocal was much more haunting and effective. I did add a soft synth pad to complement the piano.

Final version

It’s nice when you’re inspired to write a new song and it comes together fairly quickly. I knew I had to get this out fast, before the emotion of what I was feeling faded. If nothing else, I think writing this song will open the window to looking at this issue in a healthier way.

Download the final lyric and chord sheet.

Can’t believe what I see
The shame of our time
What we’ve put you though
It weighs on our minds

You said, “Me Too”
Of course we believe you
Wishin’ it weren’t true
Join the countless few

There is no excuse
For stealing your pride
Sorrys won’t fix the pain
You don’t need to hide

You said, “Me Too”
Of course we believe you
Wishin’ it weren’t true
Join the countless few

How has this been taught to us?
Can’t we respect the lot of you?
Gotta unlearn the hurtful stuff
Gotta change our attitudes

You said, “Me Too”
Of course we believe you
Wishin’ it weren’t true
Join the countless few

Must listen to what you say
It’s our time to change

Neel on Song Talk Radio with his new Progressive Electro-pop songs

This week, I had the privilege of once again being the guest on Song Talk Radio, where I talked about my current songwriting and recording project of progressive electro-pop songs. For this project, I’m abiding by three self-imposed creative parameters:

  1. I’m not allowed to use the 4/4 time signature
  2. All my lyrics are stream of consciousness, random, and narrative-free
  3. The finished album of songs won’t have any breaks in the sound; songs will blend together like a DJ mix

I was also lucky to have my composer and manic creative friend Frank Horvat on the show in the guest host chair. Frank had some great insights when interpreting my songs and my creative approach. Thanks Frank!

Check out the show page on Song Talk Radio’s site, or just listen to the show here: