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The Musician’s Survival Guide

Ohhhhh I'll never get it... never, never, never!

The Songwriters On Songwriting

Songwriting is an integral part of any musician’s career, whether they’re still in the garage or playing sold-out arenas, and it’s not always easy. From finding the right melody to inventive lyrics and everything in between, there’s a lot to consider, so Vue pulled together a panel of some of the city’s best to lend a hand with deciphering the magical, grueling, thrilling and often painful world of songwriting.

 

 

What makes a great song?

“One person’s opinion makes a song great, but another person’s opinion makes it terrible—it’s all subjective. The interesting thing about experiencing music is that you often don’t even know why you find a song so great. Your body just sort of tells you it likes it.” —Everett LaRoi, Manraygun

“A great song transcends a description that uses words. It leaves you with a sense of magic.” —Becky Anderson, F&M

“After 46 years I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s a moving target. I think Stephen King did the best job of putting his finger on it when he said it has to be fresh (different) while at the same time accessible (familiar).” —Rob Heath

“Skill, luck, practice, collaboration.” —James Stewart, Slates

“I think that when one writes something that is authentic and true to whatever spirit they are in at the time of writing, then that song will likely be a great song. I don’t believe in formulas or rules; I’m more about writing from an experience that inspires or moves me.” —Carrie Day

“A good hook or a killer riff, accompanied by lyrics that are truthful and heartfelt. A strong chorus that you can sing to. Don’t let anyone tell you people don’t listen to lyrics, because I sure as hell do. They’re at least one of the most important contents of any good song.” —Ted Wright, the Get Down

“Just pick up the past six F&M records and put them on repeat, take notes. But seriously a great song should make you fall in love, want to dance, bob your head, think, cry, laugh or inspire … It should affect you in someway.” —Ryan Anderson, F&M

“Truth and conviction. Doesn’t matter what genre.” —Paul Coutts, Free Judges

“For me personally the great songs that I return to time and time again are the ones that took me a while to warm up to; the ones that took a minimum of three listens before they reveal their secrets and layers before they start  to unfold.” —Robyn Bright, Cockatoo

“A clever lyrical hook is always great, as is a catchy melody, but when you’ve got both in one tune it’s the best. This is totally subjective, of course, but I tend to prefer the oddball poetry approach over heartfelt anthems.” —Lyle Bell, Shout Out Out Out Out, Whitey Houston, the Wet Secrets

 

 

How do you write one? How do you overcome writer’s block?

“Thinking about writing a song doesn’t really help me much, I have to dive in and start writing down words or start singing and playing. For me this is usually preceded by hearing some melody in my head that I don’t recognize, but I can’t shake, or hearing some combination of words in my day to day life that sounds like a good line for a song.” —Everett LaRoi, Manraygun

“Some days it is as easy as sitting down and a song works itself out. Other times I need to challenge myself. That’s one reason why I play a few instruments: each inspires and challenges in different ways. It’s one cure for writer’s block. I have also found reading, watching films, going out to live theatre, drawing or walking all fantastic ways to feel creative.” —Becky Anderson, F&M

“I think it involves a healthy measure of craft and a heaping helping of good fortune. The harder you work at it the luckier you get, and that goes for writer’s block too. We all have input stages in our lives and output stages. I believe writer’s block is just a way of life telling you that you need more input.” —Rob Heath

“You sit down and see what falls out of your brain. If nothing comes, do something else. Work on a bandmate’s song. Do the dishes. Hang out with the cat.” —James Stewart, Slates

“With regard to writing on my own, I don’t really feel that I have much control of that process. I can sort of feel a song coming on, and then I try to make the space for that to come through. I feel more like the conduit. It’s a really awesome feeling when a new song takes shape!” —Carrie Day

“Writer’s block is something I’m very familiar with, and all I can say about it is that if you keep practising and doing, it becomes less of an issue over time. Listen to some stuff that you love—what do you love about it? Why does it make you feel sad, or pissed off, or joyful? Take those feelings and take the best parts of them and start something, anything, because that song won’t write itself.” —Ted Wright, the Get Down

“I like to choose themes and motifs for writing, I approach records like novels, they tend to connect. I find these themes or periods I go through give me direction.” —Ryan Anderson, F&M

“Schubert said that we don’t make up music, we remember it; the best stuff you’ve heard will always return to you in fragments and start the thread for new song ideas.” —Paul Coutts, Free Judges

“If I am blocked, I listen to music I don’t usually listen to and then return to the music that made me want to play music. This contrast usually does the trick for me.  I also try to read a lot, to see films and get out dancing. These things seem to keep stagnation at bay for me. I see it in this way: if you are blocked it means you have to fill the creative well before you can drink of it.” —Robyn Bright, Cockatoo

“If I’m blocked, I switch instruments for a while. I’m naturally more creative/proficient on the bass guitar so switching to piano punches my creative brain in the balls. Even switching up the kind of synth I’m using will often do the trick, which is why I hoard synthesizers.” —Lyle Bell, Shout Out Out Out Out, Whitey Houston, the Wet Secrets

 

What should musicians avoid when writing songs?

“If you get an idea for a song at an inopportune moment, don’t presume you’ll be able to get to it later when it’s more convenient. Write it down, sing it into your answering machine or record it on your iPhone—even if it’s just you singing, ‘Na na na na’ … ” —Everett LaRoi, Manraygun

“What are some things for musicians to avoid when writing songs? A song should be authentic—meaning never force something you don’t feel. This does not mean that you should limit yourself to personal experience, rather just be sure that the story you are telling, the emotion you are making, the scene you are setting, authentically strikes something within you.” —Becky Anderson, F&M

“The most frequent mistake I see in new songwriters is not understanding the most common forms of song structure and rhyme schemes, all of which can be easily learned from any number of well-written books about the subject. My favourite is Tunesmith by Jimmy Webb.” —Rob Heath

“Try not to give a shit about the audience. Avoid cliches. Write what you know (which is a total cliche).” —James Stewart, Slates

“It’s hard to have objectivity and distance from our own work, but we have to try to be objective listeners anyway. I think it helps to not feel ownership to our creative output; to not feel too personally invested in the songs.” —Carrie Day

“Writing too close to your influences, and believe me, I’ve done it.  Too many parts, parts that sound like someone else’s riff, too few parts, not utilizing strong parts multiple times within a song.” —Ted Wright, the Get Down

“Don’t reinvent the wheel when writing. Do that in the recording, performance, instrumentation. And for goodness sake don’t be a genre chaser: what’s popular right now won’t be popular when it’s ready to be released.” —Ryan Anderson, F&M

“Crafting a song purely for monetary reasons.” —Paul Coutts, Free Judges

“Trying to write for an audience rather than from a self-directed space.  Also I find that learning the “rules” can make for pretty standard, therefore, to me, uninteresting music.” —Robyn Bright, Cockatoo

“Don’t over-emote and don’t over-sing. Also, avoid blues progressions unless you can make them better, which you can’t.” —Lyle Bell, Shout Out Out Out Out, Whitey Houston, the Wet Secrets

 

Cover songs: are they a good idea or a bad idea?

“Learning cover songs is a great way to learn about songwriting. It’s also liberating for a songwriter to play something that they didn’t have a hand in writing.” —Everett LaRoi, Manraygun

“F&M has done very few cover songs live but what we have done has gone over well. I think it’s because we do interpretations rather than a direct copy of the original.” —Becky Anderson, F&M

“If you do a shitty job, it’s a bad idea.” —James Stewart, Slates

“I love learning cover songs and I think it’s good to have a few worked into one’s repertoire. In my experience, audiences like to have something familiar sung to them.” —Carrie Day

“You’d better make goddamn sure that your songs are at least as good as the one you’re covering, because if everyone’s going apeshit for your Minor Threat cover and staring at their shoes the rest of the time, it’s time to hang up your piece-of-shit guitar.” —Ted Wright, the Get Down

“Use it to build your audience. It’s common. However, if you release it, it should be a rendition in your own style, a new slant on a classic song you love, not a photocopy.” —Ryan Anderson, F&M

“They’re good if you can realize the song in a different way and, if it has words, believe every word your singing; bad if you’re simply imitating the band that wrote the song.” —Paul Coutts, Free Judges

“A well-placed, well-heeled version of a rad song, at the right time, to the right crowd, can be a transcendental experience for the band and audience. But a lot of the time you are just showing a crowd how forgettable your songs are compared to that one exquisite Buzzcocks B-side your bass player demanded you play. From a band guy tip, though, playing other people’s music is fun shit and will make you a better human.” —Lyle Bell, Shout Out Out Out Out, Whitey Houston, the Wet Secrets

 

 

What should musicians keep in mind when choosing a cover song to record or perform?

“Don’t try to be cute or ironic.” —James Stewart, Slates

“When I choose a cover to perform, it is a song that fits well in my vocal range and has a lyric that I connect with and can sing with conviction. I love the song ‘Pumped Up Kicks.’ It has such a catchy melody and progression, and such a great ‘feel-good’ feel to it. However, the lyrical content is pretty disturbing, and because of this, I know that I wouldn’t be able to sing it convincingly.” —Carrie Day

“Is it good? Can you live with crowds yelling ‘Play (insert cover song here)!’ for the next 30 years? Did you make it sound like your sound? If you want it to be OK then make it your own.” —Ryan Anderson, F&M

“Honesty.” —Paul Coutts, Free Judges

“Just love it and commit fully to it.” —Robyn Bright, Cockatoo

“Has anyone else notable recently covered the same song? If so you will look like dipshits for five months.” —Lyle Bell, Shout Out Out Out Out, Whitey Houston, the Wet Secrets

 

 

How should musicians approach collaborative songwriting and working with different opinions and ideas?

“If a songwriter usually writes both words and music, it can be freeing to just focus on one or the other. Also, if you find yourself getting too precious about all that you write or start to get bored of your own songwriting clichés, working with someone else can help break your habits and potentiate your creativity.” —Everett LaRoi, Manraygun

“You have to work with people you honestly enjoy being around and can communicate honestly with. If it’s a real struggle than you may be working with the wrong people. Music is a social thing, relax and don’t take yourself too seriously.” —Becky Anderson, F&M

“With an open mind.” —James Stewart, Slates

“Sometimes it takes a long time for us to settle into a writing rhythm, and we are all pretty analytical and heavy thinkers at times, but when we get something good happening, we are unstoppable! I think that some of the best songs I’ve written to date have been the co-written ones.” —Carrie Day, on writing with Rob Heath and Marty Pawlina

“It comes down to what you think your talents are—do you have a singular vision that requires you be in control at all times?  If you do, it’s time for a solo career. Otherwise, someone’s gonna cry.” —Ted Wright, The Get Down

“Set boundaries; who’s doing what? What do we want from each other. It’s not always easy to collaborate, so learn how to effectively give feedback to each other. Yelling and shouting is for children and cocaine-fueled lawyers. Use your words.” —Ryan Anderson, F&M

“Like a call-response; serve the song, serve the moment. Do not project any kind of constraints on the situation.”  —Paul Coutts, Free Judges

“Be open, cool-headed if possible, and sit with things before you decide. I also try to bear in mind that while I may not like certain things, others may love them.” —Robyn Bright, Cockatoo

“Not getting too attached to an idea is key. That and learning to compromise gracefully.” —Lyle Bell, Shout Out Out Out Out, Whitey Houston, the Wet Secrets

 

Favourite and least favourite songs:

“The answers change frequently but my all-time favourite songwriter is Nick Cave. I often get ‘Mercy Seat’ stuck in my head. It’s so powerful and even though it’s a song about capital punishment it still makes me want to dance. I try not to focus on music I dislike. I would rather stay inspired. That said, I really dislike ‘Jingle Bells.'” —Ryan Anderson, F&M

“I love lyrics that can change the world. ‘Imagine’ and ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ are songs that I think have done that. My least favourite songs are songs I listen to once, and never listen to again. There are too many to mention.” —Rob Heath

“‘Move On Up’ by Curtis Mayfield is pretty much perfect. Least favourite? I don’t know, ‘Riverboat Fantasy’ by David Wilcox. Fuck that guy.” —James Stewart, Slates

“I’ll pick from the era in my life when I very first thought I might like to try my hand at songwriting (and that is a good many years before I had the courage to actually try!). At that time, in my mid-teens, almost any song off of Joni Mitchell’s Blue album could have been my favourite, with ‘Case of You’ and ‘Carey’ at a close tie for first.” —Carrie Day

“It’s hard to say, but ‘Born to Run’ is probably one of the most devastating pieces of music ever committed to tape, as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, Springsteen’s been mainstream forever, but he’s always had the goods and it still kills me every time they get to that insane descending parts with the horns. Least favourite? There’s so many, but the recent crop of new alternative radio rock is my least favourite.” —Ted Wright, the Get Down.

“I’m an absolute sucker for a great sad song that inspires. Not to be overly obscure to impress, but my favourite song is ‘The Adversary’ by Crime and The City Solution. My least favourite is ‘Margaritaville’ by Jimmy Buffett. Many people love it; many people are stupid.” —Ryan Anderson, F&M

“Every moment has a different favourite song, I like to think my favourite song is still to come, that’s why I keep listening. My least favourite songs are any manufactured by or for the entertainment industry.” —Paul Coutts, Free Judges

“‘Amen Yves’ by For Against is my top fave. Least faves would be anything by Queen which makes me a minority for sure.” —Robyn Bright, Cockatoo

“‘Day in The Life’ by the Beatles. I could name one million obscure awesome jams as well, but the Beatles wrote so many archetypal songs I’m going to pick them anyway. Even if you HAAATE the Beatles, you love bands that loved the Beatles. Also, how dare you hate the Beatles, you asshole! Least favourite song, ‘Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time’ by PMac. From the highest highs to the lowest lows.” —Lyle Bell, Shout Out Out Out Out, Whitey Houston, the Wet Secrets

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