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

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.

Holiday Shopping Spree

Through co-hosting the Songwriter’s Meetup and Song Talk Radio, I get to meet many singer-songwriters in and around Toronto. Some of them have written original Christmas songs, including Carmen Toth’s This Christmas I’m Giving You Love and Melanie Peterson’s Santa’s Sleigh. Themes of peace and love tend to come up, as is typical of many holiday songs.

Of course, I try to be different. So, I wrote a song embracing consumerism and throwing playful jabs at the status quo of creative types. This is not to say I find typical holiday themes trite or tedious, but I do commend singer-songwriters who put their own special twist on these themes. In fact, it’s a tricky business writing a good original holiday song instead of playing cover versions of well established songs. Carmen and Melanie have done a great job with songs and performances that are sweet, thoughtful, and festive. It’s clear to me that I was inspired by these singer-songwriters to write this song.

Writing and recording the song

I wrote the lyrics over my lunch break one day, and the piano part after work. I did a quick demo recording and presented the song at the December Songwriter’s Meetup. A main critique of my song was that the holiday aspect wasn’t clear until the end of the chorus. I took the suggestions and revised the first verse lyrics, and wrote a new holiday-esque musical introduction with glockenspiel section. I also took a more deliberate approach to my melody, thanks to some suggestions from my singer-songwriter friend Melanie Peterson.

I recorded a final version, and then set to work creating a video. I spent about two hours at the Toronto Eaton Centre, listening to my recording on repeat and shooting footage of shoppers, interesting sale signage, and the latest big-screen TV’s at Best Buy.

During a Beige Shelter rehearsal, I asked our bassist Tom Kuczynski to record me playing the keyboard and singing the song. Tom’s also a talented photographer and videographer. I then edited together a quick video.

All in all, this was a quick and fun writing and recording process, with a push to get it done before Christmas. It’s amazing what you can pull off when you have a hard deadline to meet.

Lyrics

Your new greeting card
Peace and love for the holidays
I say good fortune for all
And dollars to spend on sales

You wrote that song
The evils of materialism
Give away half your guitars
To the needy and poor musicians

You know what
I like my stuff
Makes my life easy
You know what
It’s never enough
Holiday shopping spree

Always preaching moderation
Credit cards gotta stay at home
Support your local economy
Don’t be a consumer drone

You know what
I like my stuff
Makes my life easy
You know what
It’s never enough
Holiday shopping spree

Get what you want
Not what you need
You’d better like
What you got!

I only wanna spend
Christmas with you
Binge watching on Netflix
On my brand new
75-inch, L.E.D., 4K HD, and 3D
Smart TV with 1000 watt, 5.1 surround sound

You know what
I like my stuff
Makes my life easy
You know what
It’s never enough
Holiday shopping spree

Song Talk Radio appearance

On November 24, once again I appeared on Song Talk Radio as the featured guest.  I spoke with Bruce and Phil about three of my latest songs, and in a special twist, Sonja Seiler joined us as co-host and co-writer of one of the songs.  We talked about collaboration, anthropomorphism, and whether or not I could pull off writing a love song for my wife.  Check out the complete episode, including the songs, here:

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.

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

Hurting. Choosing. Learning.

The verse lyrics were actually written several years ago, after I was talking to a psychology student about the paradoxes that can exist in people’s internal thinking. As I decided to paint a few vignettes about different life scenarios, the use of haiku poetry seemed somehow fitting, as well an interesting lyrical and melodic challenge. My co-writer at the time wrote a chorus that departed from the abstract nature of the verses and became a catchy, melodic explanation of the song.

For my album release, I decided to scrap the original chorus and create another that encapsulated the essential feeling of the verses.

I also completely rewrote the music from the earlier version.  I looked once again to Trent Reznor for inspiration, in using a sparse, simple piano melody and various white and pink noise effects. The minimalist instrumentation also suggested I kept the chord structure quite simple, without too much movement.

Download the full album for free.

Bad touches feel good
Shame of pleasure brings silence
I am only five

Pity my poor life
Won’t someone take care of me
Help this adult child

Hurting. Choosing. Learning.

A slave to the high
Reduce my pain for me please
An addict less harm

Raise my family
Through my love and words and fists
Love this or leave it

Hurting. Choosing. Learning.

The Orange Purple Yellow Song

This is my latest song, about a guy and a girl, and another guy, with rather colourful names.  I wrote this song in one evening, music, melody and lyrics.  That hasn’t happened in a very long time.  Enjoy!

Download the full album for free.

Burn yellow train inside
Look blind and hide

Orange say you bite
French fry
Overnight if the sunrise

Purple mane on high
Red light
Orange with plight

Yellow ball of white
Stay dry
Tie the magenta kite right
Flip under weight and die
Tear sheet safe flight

Orange leave your sight
And sigh
Watercrest with the moonrise

Purple taking flight
They cry
Carpet stain pile

Yellow being like
They lied
Keep the hurricane mile high

Brand New Door

This is my latest original song, although it has been a long time coming. This song started as a piano part over 5 years ago, for which I fully intended to add lyrics, so I wrote it with a verse/chorus structure. I then wrote lyrics and a melody, but didn’t have anyone perform the vocal track for me.

So it sat for a few years until I presented it at a Songwriter’s Cafe meetup, with the melody played on a synth and me reading the lyrics to the group. The group feedback was fairly unanimous in that the reflective, introspective lyrics and the poppy, up-beat music didn’t really jive well together. Upon some reflection, I decided to tear the two apart, and write new lyrics for the music and new music for the lyrics.

I tackled the new lyrics first, and wrote a more straight-forward, positive lyric. The new lyrics made me want to include a new introduction that was darker, both lyrically and musically. I also wrote a new bridge.

I had a couple of people try to sing it with limited success. Finally my friend, singer-songwriter Sunny Zaman, took a crack at the vocals and did a fantastic job! So here is the final version. Enjoy and thanks Sunny!

I had wandered in the darkness
Drifted from the shores of self-assurance
Been beat into submission of my soul
But climbed my way back

I’ve hung up my hang ups
My shell’s been cracked
Re-imagined my image
And got my back back

I’ve scared off my fears
Showed off my show
Voiced my inner voice
Owned up to all I owe

It’s a new life
Like I had before
But this new life
Opens up a brand new door

Seen eleven fingers
from the front row
Looks like the pieces fit
Baby it’s a whole new show

I’m singin’ my new song
With some help from friends
Seeing my world get bigger
Got me a brand new lens

Looking back now
It’s all so clear
Listen to your heart
Even when your brain won’t hear

It’s a new life
Like I had before
But this new life
Opens up a brand new door