Feeling the Music: Writing from the Cusp of the Scene

Portrait of the author as a young man.

Portrait of the author as a young man.

I don’t get to write about music nearly as often as I used to — or nearly as much as I would like.  Really, its always been a small part of my output/income as a writer.  But whenever I’ve been brought on to do promotional writing for an artist/band, it’s always been an absolute pleasure.  As a songwriter who long ago stepped away from the stage, I know that my work describing sounds is the only way I’ll ever hit the audiences that I once longed to play for myself.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be associated with some great local projects.  The first bio that I was ever asked to write was for The Silver Hearts — sometime back in their early days when they were just planning their first major touring forays.  It was right before the Hearts established themselves as a Peterborough (and Canadian) institution.  I’ve long since lost that piece — and would love to take a peek if someone ever does unearth it — but do find that some of the verbiage that has followed The Hearts around for years reads as stylistically familiar.

The Silver Hearts (a much smaller version of the band than in their early 2000's heyday). Photo by Dave Gillespie.

The Silver Hearts (a much smaller version of the band than in their early 2000’s heyday). Photo by Dave Gillespie.

A Facebook post from earlier today tells me that my most recent one-sheet was used to promote what is now the #1 Canadian College “International” album: The People Hold the Power by Dub Trinity.  The one before that was for Rick Fines‘ stellar Driving Home.  Rick, a Juno-nominated, Handy-nominated, Maple Blues Award-winning artist, scaled the independent charts and topped the Canadian satellite/digital blues radio charts with that one.

When projects like these drop onto your lap, you take the utmost care in writing about them.

And you savour the process.

driving-home-coverMy process for writing promo pieces begins with a deep dive into the music.  I usually start off by hiding away in my office or some other dark corner — headphones on, cold beer at the ready.  I then take a serious listen to the artist/band/album that I’m writing about.  No rewinding, no fast-forwarding, no note-taking, no nothing.  Eyes closed.  Fully attentive.

I then take a second trip through the recording, this time jotting down impressions.  By my third listen, I’m fully into writing mode.  There’s usually no need for a fourth.

My first notes usually tend to capture the overall sound, rather than the details.  I pride myself in inventing new genres — new ways to interpret an artists’ style.  My favourite example of this is from Rick’s bio, where I describe his music as a “unique blend of warm-hearted blues, juke joint folk, and dockside soul.”

When I asked Fines what “juke joint folk” made him think of, he immediately responded with “The Band.”

Which meant I was on the exact right track.  There were elements of his performance that conjured up memories of Roberston, Helm, Danko et al., and it was definitely them I was thinking of when I coined the term.

My third listen finds me searching for a combination of fine details and for what the music is trying to say.  For Dub Trinity’s The People Hold the Power, my first notes were about the band embracing sounds from outside of their musical wheelhouse of reggae and ska.  So while I eventually noted their use of “Stax-style soul, 60’s-influenced rock, and experimental alternative,” it was what I wrote down in the third listen that kicked off my description of the disc:  “activist funk” and “revolutionary R&B.”  With Dub Trinity, you see, their message rings as loudly as their instruments.

After repeatedly listening to a project all they way through, I start to jump to individual tracks and drill down more deeply into the lyrics and arrangements.  It is then that I start stringing sentences together.

The-People-Hold-The-Power-CD-cover_536px-400x400Dub Trinity: “”Run For Cover kicks things off with a sound that blends modern alternative with driving Detroit soul before exploding skyward into pure anthemic rock. Socialize harnesses plastic soul to driving horn-section funk in a call to political and economic revolution. The reggae and ska feel of the band are more pronounced on several other tracks – but even then, with some stylistic shifts. The sway of Gone Clear features snaking guitars and keyboards; the Kevlar Clad Jamaican rhythms erupt into a tower of power chords; while the Land of Look Behind takes on a head-bopping storytelling vibe.”

Rick Fines: ““Buttermilk Falls” kicks things off with a sunny goodtime vibe, while “Driving Home,” with its distorted lead and weeping lap steel, conjures memories of a 70’s Neil Young. Where “Why Do We Treat Love Like That,” a duet with Grainne Ryan, blends 60’s pop with thick-stringed country guitar, “When the Rain Ends” is a folk gem that threatens to chase the blues away altogether. An album standout, “The Winds of Time” is lyrically poignant, with solos that search for, and eventually reach, the sky.”

Once I’ve written the entire piece, I let it breathe.  I put it aside for a week or two and continue to listen to the music in the meantime — I let the music grow on me before taking another shot at the writing.  It’s funny how different music can sound after repeated listens and a bit of time.

After that, it’s a matter of presenting it to the artists and making any changes they request — which, if I’ve done a good job, aren’t too many.

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My working relationship with Trent University has me has also allowed me to dedicate a bit more time to promoting the local scene.  As managing editor of TRENT Magazine and host of the #TrentVoices radio show and podcast, I go out of my way to share a healthy dose of Peterborough and Trent music (see my editoral from 2010 here).

This is what has allowed me to really get to know Canadian folk icon, Ian Tamblyn.  Ian, who has released close to 40 albums, is also an accomplished playwright and Canadian explorer.  My first interview with him was over tea in my music room back in 2010.  We chatted for a couple of hours, which led to this article.

A couple of years later, I sat down with Ian again, this time for radio.  The result was a 2-part show that Trent Radio general manager, John Muir, calls “the definitive Ian Tamblyn interview.”

The success of radio/podcast interviews stems from some of the same processes as writing bios for artists — you start by doing some serious listening.  And then you do some heavy research.

That research is essential — and noticed.  Broadcast journalists such as Christopher Ward and Jack Roe have remarked on-air about my interview prep (or the prep work of my assistant producer, Jenna Pilgrim, for those particular pieces).  Musicians take particular notice when you are able to talk knowledgeably about their music.  The result is a more free-flowing conversation and a markedly better interview. And that is the part your listeners will notice.

I then craft questions.  I may not use all of the questions — and may stray away from my original plans in order to capture what my guest is excited to talk about — but interview structure is needed in order to hit the topics that are most relevant to any given show.

I’ll be doing a post on radio/podcast interviews in the near future but, in the meantime, here are a smattering of local music interviews that I’ve done over the past couple of years (with descriptions from the podcast feed).   What you may (but shouldn’t unless your looking for it) notice is how I allow the guest to go off on their own tangents before nudging them subtly back to the direction I’m trying to make the interview take.

Nick Ferrio

“We explore his collaborations with The Weather Station, Evening Hymns, Julie Doiron, Gavin Bradley Gardiner (from The Wooden Sky); his upcoming gigs with The Lonely Parade; our mutual musical crushes on Dave Tough, the Silverhearts, and the Trent and Peterborough music scenes in general; the impact of Trent University academia on his songwriting; and his grizzly near death in the Trent Nature Areas.”

Dave Tough

“From More Nasty Reds to the Weak Knees to The Silver Hearts to his own impeccable solo work, Dave Tough has been a fixture on the Trent/Peterborough Music scenes. We catch up with Dave and chat the present, past, and future. Plus we spin one of his earliest recordings as well as his latest.”

Christopher Ward

“With tales that take us through an awkward Much Music debut with Bon Jovi to a strange encounter with Diana Ross’ hair to a Robert Plant dinner that takes a turn to the strange, Christopher Ward offers an hour of entertaining talk.

Ward has written songs for Diana Ross, Hilary Duff, Wynonna Judd, The Backstreet Boys, Meredith Brooks, Tina Arena, Amanda Marshall, Roch Voisine and many others. His best-known song is the worldwide # 1 hit for Alannah Myles, ‘Black Velvet’.

Previously, Ward was a member of the ‘Second City Touring Company’, based in Toronto. In 1984, as Canada’s first ‘VJ’, he helped launch MuchMusic, where he interviewed artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Tina Turner.”

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Which isn’t to say I don’t pick up the guitar to perform anymore.  I do.  I still write plenty of songs (even if most of them remain in the “demo” stage) and I try to perform at least one or two gigs a year (even if these are, primarily, for kids).  I also stick my nose into studios now and then to record — such as this children’s’ song I recorded with Peterborough aces Beau Dixon, Curtis Driedger, and Glen Caradus a few years ago:

That particular recording hit Peterborough gold — being used by (I believe) every school in the area as part of a school board-wide transportation program.  It was also the theme for a touring environmental music/comedy/education production, The Cool Captain Climate Show and a radio jingle.  I’m told its still in heavy rotation for local kids.

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Alas, music and performance aren’t my calling in life.  And while a part of me wistfully wishes I had made some efforts to establish myself as a songwriter earlier in life, I’m still mostly OK helping push other artists to greater recognition.

Which means that I’ll continue to take on the odd promo project for local artists, continue to interview local musicians, and continue to create on the cusp of the scene.

But I also have other plans.  I’m early in the process of designing a music podcast that will be national in both scope and (hopefully) reach.  Because I currently have a whole lot on my plate, I’m taking my time with the project.  I really don’t anticipate launching it for at least a couple of years — that’s how slowly I’m taking it.

It will, however, keep me writing about and talking to musicians that I admire.  And it will ensure that I remain a creative part of the musical process.  Even if I’m not the one writing the tunes.

2 thoughts on “Feeling the Music: Writing from the Cusp of the Scene

  1. Rob Wilkes says:

    This seems as good a time as any to thank you for writing the bio for Dub Trinity Donald. You captured the essence of our sound and ethic really well. Like most musicians not named Kanye we find it hard to talk up the virtues of the band, or even state succinctly what it is we are trying to do musically. You did that and more for us. Thank you.

  2. Donald Fraser says:

    Hey, Rob. It was my pleasure. That is one incredible album — and a joy to write about!

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