Light Your Way collaborative songwriting

As part of the indie rock band Beige Shelter, we were approached to write a new song for a youth gang prevention event. Although we declined to perform for the event, we realized our new song was also a great message for mental health awareness and conversation.

My friend and Beige Shelter frontman Adi Aman had written a song a few years ago with a message to help out a friend going through some tough times. Adi sent me a rough recording and his lyric/chord sheet to play around with. In particular, he said he wasn’t very happy with the melody. Before I even got a chance to look at it, he followed up with a revised lyric that was more poetic and a bit more abstract.

The rewriting process

At the time, we were still involved in the youth prevention event, and I took this angle when rewriting the song. I thought a more direct lyric would be more effective in reaching young people. I also wanted to highlight the aspect of reaching out for help and getting it from friends and family. This, to me, is at the cornerstone of good mental health—people need to be willing to come forward and talk to someone they trust, and their communities need to be willing to listen, empathize and help as best they can.

I printed out Adi’s lyrics and chords and sat at my piano to work on the song. Starting with small edits, I quickly found myself rewriting entire phrases. I realized that using Adi’s lyrics as springboards, I could develop a much more direct song, and marry a melody to the words more easily. This is the sort of lyric I never would have come up with on my own, but using Adi’s original take as inspiration gave me the direction and focus I needed. Here are the working pages I used:

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I took care to develop a simple, flowing chord progression and catchy melodies. It was amazing how much mileage I could get from using C, G, F, and Am by playing around with the time between each chord change. I introduced a new, unheard chord to start the pre-chorus section. In other words, the Dm had not been heard in the song yet, but the rest of the pre-chorus chords were also used in the verse. This, along with the melodic centre change, was enough to give the listener a sign-post that the pre-chorus was a new section. For the chorus, I returned to the base C major chord but lifted the melody again.

Back and forth

I presented the revised song to Adi and he liked it very much. He had a few revisions for some of the chord changes, especially the unusual chords I used to end the chorus. Adi felt keeping it simple would be more effective, and once he sung it with his rich voice, I was compelled to agree.

Our bass player Tom made a suggestion for a lyric change at the end of the second verse:

Me: It goes “For your grief, but you know…” which is kinda cheap. We need a good word that rhymes with “grief.”

Tom: Believe.

Adi (singing): For your grief, but believe…

Me: And that flows great into the pre-chorus lyric “You have got the strength to carry on…” — well done, Tom!

Feedback from other songwriters

I presented the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup by playing back the recording from our latest rehearsal. Members found the song to have an inspiring message without being didactic, and with a good flow to the chords and melody.

We adopted two points from the group to improve the song:

  1. Revised the chorus lyric “And you think that there’s no way to see the light” to “And you think there’s no way out of your plight” so that the word “light” isn’t featured twice in the chorus.
  2. Extended the ending to repeat the main hook “We’ll be lighting your way” a few times before finishing the song.

Recording and Producing

We wanted to release Light Your Way as a single during the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) Mental Health Week between May 1 and May 7. I knew this would be a tight schedule to get it arranged, recorded, mixed, and released.

During our first recording session, we were still finessing lyrics and making small changes to the chords. I used a rehearsal recording to set the tempo for a drum loop. I recorded Adi playing his acoustic guitar and then recorded his vocals.

Tom recorded a bassline at his home studio and sent it to me. Meanwhile, I developed a drum track and added some piano comping. Our lead guitarist, Karan, was busy with final exams and couldn’t commit to the recording session. I asked singer-songwriter and guitarist Paul Vos to contribute lead guitar based on some noodling I had done on my keyboard. Paul did an awesome job with the last minute crunch and played the part with great finesse.

During the mixing stage, I decided the piano track wasn’t helping and re-recorded an electric piano track with a little more interest than simple comping. I still wanted the acoustic guitar to be the main rhythm instrument—the electric piano was just there to add some weight to the track. I also added a string pad and a tambourine to thicken up the choruses. Finally, I recorded some vocal doubles with Adi for the choruses, again, to give them a little more thickness.

Final release

We wanted something unique for the cover art. Adi happened to see a canvas watercolour painting of tulips that my wife Hema had done a few years ago. He liked it enough to ask her if we could use it for the cover art. She gave us her blessing, and I took a photo of it to develop the cover. We kept it very simple, with the Beige Shelter logo and the title. A big thanks to Hema for her beautiful contribution!

Here’s the final track, which is available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Google Music and other digital retailers. It was a great joy and privilege to write and produce this song with Adi, Tom, and Paul. Enjoy!

Winter Without You (with Shari Archinoff)

I met singer-songwriter Shari Archinoff at one of my meetup groups. Shari plays piano, guitar, sings, and lives in the same neighbourhood I grew up in.

The first time we met, I came up with a simple chord progression on the piano. Shari developed lyrics and a melody for a song about moving on from a relationship with a winter theme. We also threw in a little joke about the debate over the naming of Canada’s national bird. We completed a draft of the song in one afternoon.

Something I’ve been playing around with recently is trying to write in different modes. For the verse, I developed a chord progression in C major, but started the progression on D minor (the II chord). The mode reveals its slightly unusual nature when the G major chord turns up in the verse. Normally, if the song were in D minor, the IV chord would be G minor, but using a G major instead keeps the song in the key of C major, even though it doesn’t start with a C major chord.

A couple of weeks later, I had developed a more interesting chord progression for the chorus and some greater melodic interest for the piano verse part. Shari had completely re-written the lyrics with much greater attention to poetics and melody details.

We performed the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup in January. Feedback from the group was largely positive, and we ended up taking a suggestion to transpose the song a whole step higher. We found the higher key resonated a bit better with Shari’s voice.

We recorded the final version in my home studio. Shari added some wonderful melody variations to the final chorus.

It was a joy to work with Shari and we’re hoping to do some more writing together.

Beige Shelter – Rumours we make, Paths we Take production

I first met singer-songwriter Adi Aman, aka Beige Shelter, at the Songwriter’s Cafe meetup. He appeared on Song Talk Radio in 2014. His songs instantly appealed to me for their 90’s alt-rock inspired style, and his often spiritually deep lyrics. On Song Talk Radio, I recall commenting how his songs are actually about something.

Last year (late 2015), Adi contacted me with a request to have his songs produced as an album. We had a brief meeting during which I got to know Adi a bit more, and really saw his personality as a generous, people-loving individual, and how that shone through in his songs. We came to an agreement, and began work shortly thereafter. The plan was to produce 12 songs for an album.

Adi would send me his demo recordings, along with lyric and chord sheets. For most recordings, I would set up a session in Sonar with a simple drum loop (of my own creation, of course, since I am a drummer). He would then come over and record guitar and vocals to the beat. Often he would ask for extra “guitar licks” tracks and/or vocal doubles.

The producer brain

For some of the songs, I would make melodic suggestions for the guitar licks, or arrangement ideas for when to include instrumental breaks. I also added drums, bass, piano, strings, and other instruments using my keyboard and MIDI. Of all the aspects of producing, I enjoy this arranging process the most. It takes a careful listen to each song, finding creative ways to supplement the original performance, and at the same time, taking it up a notch. My piano and bass parts were often quite understated, providing a foundation for Adi’s performance without overpowering it. I think this is a key point for any successful production.

For one song, Midnight, Adi had written a lovely arpeggio pattern on the guitar for the intro. The rest of the song rocked out. I suggested a break in the middle where he would repeat the intro pattern at tempo. This served to open the song up and provide a breath before the final chorus.

Adi had a neat riff and chord progression for a song, but no lyric. We worked together as I made chord suggestions (on piano) and a key shift for the bridge. Adi worked out lyrics about racial diversity and inclusion, with some tweaks from me. We share the songwriting credit for Colours.

For Who I Am, Adi had written it as a medium-tempo guitar rocker with harmonica. He wanted to try it out as a piano ballad, so I took his chords and developed a piano, strings, and drums arrangement. We had to re-record his vocals, as the rocker style didn’t really fit with the more ballad-esque piano arrangement. We also forewent the harmonica in favour of a cello solo. I think this song helps to open up the variety on the album.

Adi wasn’t entirely happy with his song EdenI made a suggestion for chord changes in the chorus, which opened up the song to sound bigger. Interestingly, this song is almost entirely comprised of major chords (only one minor chord). In some ways, it’s my favourite track on the album, as it has elements of progressive rock.

Mixing, mastering and fine-tuning

I spent a lot of time going through each song with a fine-tooth comb, fixing notes in the MIDI tracks and tightening up the timing. For some, I used a fixed tempo grid to quantize all the tracks, and for others, I used Adi’s guitar recording as a tempo map. Since they were mostly recorded to a fixed drum loop, they were fairly consistent, but minor tempo variations still occur, and sometimes it’s better to embrace them rather than forcing them to fit a fixed tempo.

I also mixed and mastered the songs. I wanted punchy, clear drums and bass, and forward vocals to ensure all the lyrics were well heard. My new best friend became Native Instrument’s Transient Master.

Ironically, the sonically simplest song, She Now Flies, presented the greatest mixing challenge. It’s actually easier when you’ve got 6 or more instruments in the mix, with guitars, piano, bass and drums, than mixing a song with only guitar and vocals.

For the mastering process, I suggested to Adi that we each come up with a sequence for the album, then compare notes. He then arrived at a sequence that was a combination of my list and his. I made minor tweaks to the EQ of some songs, and applied the final volumes. There’s some finesse here too, as I didn’t want the softer ballads mastered to the same volume as the rockers. Hopefully someone out there still listens to complete albums!

The paths we take

Before we even finished the album, I was accompanying Adi on percussion for his gigs. Since then, we’ve roped in a bass player and lead guitarist as well.

It’s been an absolute joy working with Adi on this record. He had a very balanced approach to owning his songs and being open to suggestions for changes. As the producer, I would always take the approach of allowing Adi the veto power, to reject any suggestion I made. As it turns out, he took most of them. You can’t be too precious about your ideas, and understand that the vision for the record should be the artist’s, not the producer’s.

Listen to the album

 

Beige Shelter show at Lee’s Palace

As part of the band Beige Shelter (drums, percussion), we played our biggest show yet at the historic Lee’s Palace. The crowd was receptive, enthusiastic and supportive. Of course, since this was a “real” concert venue, the stage lights made it almost impossible to see anyone in the audience. But we know what we heard.

The Beige Shelter line up is: Adi Aman (songs, guitar, uke, vocals), Neel Modi (drums, percussion), Tom Kuczynski (bass guitar), and Karan Sabharwal (lead guitar).

I’m thankful to be playing with such talented musicians and Adi’s songs are passionate, heartfelt, and even spiritual. This is music in fine form.

Beige Shelter performing at Lee's Palace - L to R: Karan, Tom, Adi and Neel
Beige Shelter performing at Lee’s Palace – L to R: Karan, Tom, Adi and Neel

We also performed a well known hit from the 80’s:

Nature’s Lullaby (with Sonja Seiler)

This summer, I wrote a little progression on the piano which was intended to be a gently flowing chord progression and melody. I repeated it twice in the recording.  Having nothing more to do with it, I sent it to my friend Sonja to see if she would be willing to put a lyric and vocal melody to it.

Later on, we got together to hash out some ideas. Sometimes ideas can come from the strangest places. The piano sound I used was from Native Instruments “The Giant” and for lack of a title, I thought of “Giant…” and what’s something that’s NOT giant? “Giant Caterpillar.” So when we got together, we decided to write lyrics that reflected paradoxes or contradictions in nature, where the reality of things in nature may not be what they appear to be. Sonja came up with a gorgeous melody and beautifully poetic lyrics.

The final recording was done in my home studio, and we added a cello part to complement the piano and vocal. We also showcased the song on an episode of Song Talk Radio.

Catacombs (online collaboration with Mike B.)

I recently re-joined an online forum that I was part of many years ago called the Muse’s Muse.  It’s populated mostly by lyricists, and there’s ample opportunity for musicians to collaborate with lyricists to complete songs.  There are also threads for posting your works in progress for peer review, and showcasing your finished songs.  I even had my album reviewed on the site!

Someone started a thread called the “Short Song Challenge” and several members posted lyric ideas for a short song (under 2 mins) that contained at least a verse, chorus, maybe a bridge.  I took a lyric written by Mike B., and decided to put some music and vocals to it.  My first take was far too bright and happy for the rather dark lyrics, so I tried a more industrial approach with heavier drums and distorted guitar.  I got his lyric into a 54 second song with a musical intro and interlude, too.  I took a cue from my friend Phil and wrote the bassline first.

Jam session with Bruce Harrott – I Could Do Anything

I got to play drums for another Song Talk Radio Backup Band jam session, this time with the show’s co-host Bruce Harrott and his catchy feel-good song I Could Do Anything.  We had co-host Phil Emery on bass, and Eric Sorenson and Braeden Mitchell on guitars and backup vocals.

We practiced and developed our individual parts for about 90 minutes, then recorded several takes.  Once again, I recorded both audio and video, and captured the vocals as a separate track and mixed them in during post-production.

All in all it was a fun afternoon, and I feel honoured to play with such talented guys.

Collaboration with Dokter Nomi – Love is a Virus

Dokter Nomi, dance-pop music virtuoso approached me several months ago with a collaboration offer for his song Love is a Virus. He had the vocal track already recorded and had a couple of bed tracks already completed by other producers. This is the way he typically works, since he doesn’t play any instruments. He comes up with great lyrics and a melody and then collaborates with a producer to create the music.

I started with only piano to compose the chord structure.  Once I had a chord pattern I was happy with, I then layered on bass, drums, and synths to complete the track. The piano was no longer a part of the song, but it served as a template to structure the other instruments. We presented it at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup, and I made several more tweaks afterwards, mostly with tightening up the arrangement.

Nomi joined us on Song Talk Radio to talk about this song and two others. Check out the tune:

Janice Ho & Friends – Dance Without Judgement

The Song Talk Radio Backup Band, consisting of Phil Emery on bass, Bruce Harrott on acoustic guitar, and myself on drums, along with Eric Sorenson on guitar, and Alon Rodovinsky on guitar and backup vocals, accompanied Janice Ho on her soulful song, Dance Without Judgement, in an energetic arrangement. I got to channel my inner Phil Collins on the fill at the end of the second chorus :). Great fun and great performances from Janice and the band.

I recorded the audio and video, and captured Janice’s vocal as a separate recording, to mix it together in post production. I accomplished this by taking a send from the room mixer, and ensuring her mic channel was the only input going to it. The send ran into my Focusrite interface to be recorded in Sonar.  In addition to this, I setup my Zoom H2N recorder in the front of the room, near the camera to capture the drums and guitar amps.  My Nikon D7000 was setup on a tripod to capture the video.  I didn’t use the audio recording from it, as the Zoom captures a much warmer tone, and I could manually adjust the gain on the Zoom.

In post production, I first got the audio mix completed in Sonar. EQ moves on the Zoom recording consisted of a high-pass filter, scooping out some of the muddy low to mid-range stuff, and a hi-frequency shelf to cut down the cymbals a bit. Then with Janice’s isolated vocal, a deeper high-pass filter and a high-frequency shelf to increase intelligibility and shine. Gentle compression on each track, gentle compression on the master, some multi-band compression, and finally a limiter to chop off the peaks, gelled the sound together. After that, a simple sync with the video track and I was done.

Janice talked about this song and two others on her guest spot on Song Talk Radio.

Song Talk Radio with Neel and Peter

Last summer, I met Peter at the Songwriter’s Cafe meetup group, and shortly afterward, we began collaborating on songs. Peter is a poet and singer, with some rather intense and compelling lyrics around sexuality, politics, and other themes. Paired with some of my neat keyboard parts and arrangements, we created some unconventional music. Listen to the full episode here: