Live music photography

I recently purchased a new medium telephoto lens for my camera and put it to the test with photographing a couple of live music events. I enjoyed a “songwriters in the round” event at 120 Diner in Toronto. I already knew three of the performers, and got to meet and hear several new ones.

Beige Shelter was playing a show at Skeaky Dee’s, and I took photos of bands The Thick, The Cashews, and singer-songwriter David Dino White. For this show, the stage was bathed in a very bad blue light, so I converted the photos to black and white in post-production.

For another Beige Shelter show, I took photos of supporting acts Brian Sasaki and Wilson & The Castaways. The show was a great success at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club in Toronto.

The new lens is great for capturing sharp photos in low light. I find the keys to great photos on stage are using spot metering and adjusting the focus point as you shoot. I like to capture high emotional moments in the performances and where possible, get them with their eyes open. Framing with odd angles also adds a cool dynamic.

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

 

The generosity of Don Campbell

My singer-songwriter friend Jeff Greenway invited me to a BS Fridays  music showcase at the Cameron House in August. I was pleased to also see Melanie Peterson‘s name on the bill. Melanie is also a friend and a very talented singer-songwriter.

All of the performers were unique and talented, and one singer-songwriter, new to me, really impressed. Don Campbell‘s performance had a great rock energy, and his songs were catchy and well written. I introduced myself to Don after his performance, and told him about Song Talk Radio. I also purchased one of his CD’s, Sail the Grateful Way. I took a cue from another fan of his and had him sign the album insert with a generic personal message like “Neel, thanks for the support! Enjoy the album.” (You can’t expect a personal message from someone you just met.)

After I got home that night, I realized I didn’t have his CD with me. I must have left it on a table at the venue and neglected to put it in my bag satchel man purse messenger bag. I immediately messaged Melanie, who was one of the event organizers, to see if someone perhaps turned it in to her. No luck.

The next day, I contacted Don on Facebook and conveyed my woes. Don was very understanding, and graciously offered to give me a free replacement CD!

It took some back and forth, but last week we met for coffee and Don gave me another CD, again signed with a generic personal message. We shared a great conversation about performing, songwriting, and other stuff.

As for the person who snatched up my original purchase, you got some great music for free. And every time you open the CD you’ll see my name and remember what you did.

Thank you Don for your generosity!

Don Campbell CD signed personal message

Music Event Flyers

I designed a few promotional event flyers for music shows in Toronto. Deadlines were very tight, and I provided files suitable for both printing and sharing on social media, including banners for the Facebook events.

I Never Write Her a Song

My wife asked me why I never put her in a song, or one of our experiences, into a song. Good question. After much pondering, I thought it might be good to go all meta and write a song about how I never wrote her a song. And of course, in keeping with the meta element, by the end of the song, I realize I DID just write her a song.

I started with the chorus lyric and melody, defining the hook with a simple chord progression on the piano. Lyrics and the rest of the chords came after that. I also employed chord substitutions in the verse progression and as a transition from the second chorus to the bridge.

All in all, it’s probably the pop-iest song I’ve ever written, and some of my friends helped me out with a live jam of the song too! I also appeared as a guest on Song Talk Radio where the song was reviewed, including a mini-domestic disturbance with my wife who was on the radio with me!

It’s like we’ve been together for a million years
And I guess we’ll be together for a million more
But in all that time I’ve never smiled or shed a tear
And I never let my feelings out for show

She said I never write her a song
She’s right, and I’m always wrong

Now I’ve got a yearning stirring deep inside
Or is it just because she asked out loud?
Will I take pen to paper, and write it right?
Or choke up and admit, it’s all a fraud.

She said I never write her a song
I could do it, but it might take too long
She said I never write her a song

Maybe all she wanted was a love song
All mushy lovey dovey and googley eyed
But somehow I know she’ll get it
The kinda love that comes from her clever guy

She said I never write her a song
But look here, her song is now done

She said I never write her a song
Now she knows her song’s all for fun

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.

Artist interview on The Plug-In @ The Scope at Ryerson

I had the opportunity to be interviewed by one of the journalists at The Scope at Ryerson last week.  Alexia Kapralos hosts her weekly podcast, The Plug-In, around the latest in Canadian and international rock music.  I sat with her at the Ryerson studios for a short interview on my musical journey over the year and Song Talk Radio. She also featured my song “One Great Mistake” on the episode.  It starts at about the 8:50 mark of her show.  Thanks Alexia!

Scope at Ryerson interview

Earlier this month, I had the chance to chat with Scope at Ryerson reporter Sara Cristiano about my music, songwriting, my album Counterfeit Lampshades, and the creation 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.

Depend on Me

On April 1, 2014 (no joke), the Song Talk Radio Action Team had an episode where we wrote a song, or at least part of one, live on the air.  As one of the hosts, I suggested the idea of writing a song about a car accident, from the point of view of the brake pads of the car.

The guys liked the idea, and we ended up with the beginning of a song. During the show, we employed various tools for writing the lyrics, including using keywords and the rhymezone.com website.

Many months later, I decided to tackle the idea myself, with a more abstract take on the lyrics. I was also obsessed with taking a wide turn on the third line of the verse, then returning back.

Depend on Me is the result:

You said let’s take a ride
I’m always ready to go
Sometimes so fast I need to catch right up
I wish you’d go slow

You can depend on me
I’ll always do my best
You’re in control here
Let me do the rest

You can depend on me
Just don’t push too hard
‘Cause I just might break
Or maybe fall apart

You’re watching the world go by
I only see the underside
A dark and steely cold, that’s all I feel
A life sheltered and shrouded
You can depend on me
I’ll always do my best
You’re in control here
Let me do the rest

You can depend on me
Just don’t push too hard
‘Cause I just might break
Or maybe fall apart

You squeeze me
I grind against the tract
You push me
I brace for impact

Now we’re scattered and shattered
The waste, the wreck so fatalistic
Both our lives lay unfurled
Become another statistic