Tag Archives: Canadian Songwriters

A Crisis, Not A Career-Ender

Published 05/30/2017

By Unison Benevolent Fund

In 2009, The Unison Benevolent Fund was an idea scribbled on the back of napkin. Inspired by a catastrophic accident that had left a brilliant musician in dire straits, music industry veterans Jodie Ferneyhough and Catharine Saxberg saw the incredible compassion and generosity that poured out of the Canadian music community – but knew more could be done to provide members of the industry with a safety net in such situations. Eight years later, Unison has developed into a truly robust resource for Canadian music industry professionals in times of crisis.

All of Unison’s services – counselling, wellness support and emergency financial assistance­are provided for free, and with the utmost discretion. That’s why Unison is so grateful when someone chooses to come forward with their experience, and publicly acknowledges its role in their life. One of the artists to have done so recently is Kaleb Hikel, the composer and musician behind The Sun Harmonic. Below, you’ll find his reflections on what brought him to Unison.

How did you discover The Unison Benevolent Fund, and why were you looking?
I found Unison by recommendation, through a friend of mine in the music business. We were talking at lunch about my recent discovery of the pain in my wrists while working at my day job and music simultaneously. At that point, I was unaware of what it meant, and where it was headed. I would be diagnosed with tendinopathy in my left wrist in August 2015, and in my right wrist two months later. I would need some sort of support to quit my work and transition into a long-term recovery period. If I had to let go of my day job as well as playing, writing, and recording music, I knew I couldn’t do it alone.

What support was most valuable to you?
I spent my downtime in a focused recovery from the repetitive strain injury that was persistent in both of my wrists. I was going to a clinic in Toronto weekly, while paying my basic expenses at home with the support of Unison. Without Unison’s support at that point, the only other option would have been dismantling my home studio and abandoning entire recording projects. It was a confusing time.

What resources do you think the Canadian music community could have provided to support people who find themselves in situations similar to yours?
I think it’s taboo to talk of injury, and mental or physical sacrifice, in the career of a working musician. The scene is all about inspiration, perspiration, and determination, but all of these come at a cost to your body and your mind. I think there could be more resources available to the music community to prevent injury from happening at its root! More presence at conferences, festivals, online, anywhere that they can reach active musicians who haven’t yet been injured.

How has your life as a music industry professional changed, or evolved, since you first contacted Unison?|
Life has regressed, re-invented itself, and maybe even re-invigorated itself since I first reached out to Unison. I went from releasing my own indie projects, and touring across the country, to not being able to play my instruments at all for three months straight. My songwriting was heavily affected – but ironically, inspired (writing lyrics only, very little playing). I still haven’t performed an official show – no more than three songs on any stage – since August 2015, when I played on the beach in Grand Bend. I hope to get shows back up and running this year, to share all the emotions and songs that I’ve written in my long, yet creative, recovery.

Would you have words of advice or encouragement for someone reaching out to Unison, or programs like it?
The hardest part for me was to be able to take it very seriously so quickly. Struggles are constant in the field of live performance, and in the lives of independent musicians, but the injury came on too fast for proper planning. I had to take a hard look at myself and say, “This could be the end of your music,” and then convince myself that a break from it all was better than a finale. I would encourage everyone who’s on the verge of an injury, or in recovery, to keep their eyes on their art. And continue creating –  without furthering your injury, of course. It has been one of my most creative times, and that’s a considerable positive to arise from an unwelcome negative in my life.

To find out more about Unison’s free, confidential programs for Canadian music professionals, or to make a donation, please visit unisonfund.ca.

Drake: More than a rapper

Published 03/29/2017

By Howard Druckman

After the 2017 Grammy Awards, where “Hotline Bling” won for Best Rap/Sung Performance, and Best Rap Song, Drake said, “I am referred to as a black artist, like last night at [the Grammys], I’m a black artist… I’m apparently a rapper, even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song,” during an interview on Apple Music’s OVO Sound radio. He said he finds himself pigeonholed in categories like rap, even if “Hotline Bling” is arguably a pop song.

Truth is, Drake is remarkably eclectic in his musical tastes. On his new “playlist” (but really, it’s an album) More Life, he samples Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “Devotion,” South African DJ Black Coffee’s “Superman,” Australian artist Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Building a Ladder,” and even a snippet from the Sonic the Hedgehog video-game theme. He’s exploring genres like afrobeat, grime, even Arabic music, and more of the dancehall, trap and other Caribbean roots he first explored (and took worldwide) on VIEWS.

But Drake is a keen listener to, and promoter of, all kinds of music. For example, when he curated the musical accompaniment for a Sotheby’s S|2 gallery exhibit of work by African-American artists from the last 70 years, among his choices was seminal 1930s acoustic blues originator Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues.” Even more astonishing than the choice was that Drake said he listens to the song before every show, because “that’s how I get set.”

In another example, the basis of “Hotline Bling” was a sample of the 1972 Timmy Thomas one-hit-wonder, slow-jam plea for peace, “Why Can’t We Live Together?” It’s music Drake reportedly fell in love with after his right-hand-man producer Noah “40” Shebib played it for him. In an interview with Nardwuar, who played him a personal message of thanks from Thomas, Drake responded with, “I just want to thank him for making incredible music in the time that he was making music. And just for doing something that’s timeless, because it’s really difficult – not only for something to resonate with you years later, but be good enough to actually take a piece of it, and be able to make something else from it. That takes a really special creation.”

Perhaps the most remarkable example was a short-lived online leak of Drake singing a verse of the Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico’s 1973 version of singer-songwriter Jackson Browne’s sadly beautiful ballad “These Days,” which he penned for her in 1967. Drake teamed up with Barf Troop’s Babeo Baggins to do it, for a covers EP. “Basically ‘These Days’ is my favorite song,” Baggins told Fader. “I just shared it with my friend, he had never heard it before. He connected with it too, he thought it was a really great song.” Drake’s unlicensed version has long since been removed from the internet, and hasn’t been released by Baggins, but you can hear Nico’s version here.

Maybe it’s because he was listening to his dad’s record collection as he grew up. Maybe he’s just musically open-minded. Maybe he’s easily bored and needs to explore. Maybe all three. But whatever the reason, Drake connects with all kinds of music, which only makes his own that much stronger.

Why are Canadian songwriters the best?

Published 12/1/2014

By David McPherson

There’s a line from a songwriter friend of mine that goes, “Most of my friends have all moved on/Dollar bills have replaced their songs.” When I think of Canadian songwriters, this line resonates because most, on the contrary, don’t give up. Sure, many take another job (or two) to supplement their income, but the majority continue to toil on the unpredictable road of a professional singer-songwriter, ditches and all. Why? As another songwriter told me recently, “There’s nothing else I know how to do.” And Canadians’ lives are much richer for the gifts they give via their words and music.

We’re familiar with the greats, all SOCAN members: Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Luc Plamondon, Gordon Lightfoot, Serge Fiori, Joni Mitchell, Robert Charlebois, Gord Downie, Bachman & Cummings, Ian & Sylvia, Cuddy & Keelor and more recently, City & Colour, Tegan & Sara, Louis-Jean Cormier, Drake, Julien Mineau, Serena Ryder, Shad and deadmau5, among others. And that’s just a handful of the songwriting talent that exists in our country. Many have won JUNOs, ADISQ and SOCAN Awards, some have been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, some have even earned the Order of Canada. And for every one, there are hundreds more writing great songs. Small wonder SOCAN has more than 120,000 members.

What makes their songs so good? The pride and passion they bring to their craft. Their ability to tell our country’s story, dissect our nation’s history, or tackle the eternal mysteries of the Canadian heart and soul. I see today’s song-crafting men and women playing at various Toronto venues every night of the week, testing their work on anyone who’ll listen. A good song can give strength in times of trouble, joy in times of despair, make you linger long on the lyrics and want to sing along. There are many such quintessentially Canadian anthems: Consider Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire,” Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” Robert Charlebois’ “Un Gars Ben Ordinaire,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon Pays,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” to name a mere few.

It’s a cliché that Canadian songwriters are attuned to nature because of the wide open spaces of our nation, but the seed of that idea is true. Those spaces, our cities, and our harsh winters and hot summers all affect the national character, making for the kind of memorable metaphors that so many Canadians can relate to. Think of Joni Mitchell’s line, “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” from “River,” the vastness of the country portrayed in Ian & Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds,” or the snow falling on the deep silent water of Lake Ontario in Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” Has anybody captured the essence of the frozen North better than Stan Rogers in “Northwest Passage”? Or the pleasures of life in a Canadian factory town better than Stompin’ Tom Connors in “Sudbury Saturday Night”? Or the vagaries of the road back from the big city to the small hometown than The Guess Who’s “Running Back to Saskatoon”?

Canadian songwriters don’t shy away from political and protest songs, either. The examples are endless. Buffy Sainte Marie’s anti-war song “Universal Soldier,” a hit for British singer-songwriter Donovan in the ‘60s; Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” which captures some of the helplessness of political action; The Tragically Hip’s “Wheat Kings,” which tells the story of David Milgaard, falsely accused of rape and murder, then freed after 20 years in prison; and K’NAAN’s “Wavin’ Flag,” an anthem of hope and inspiration for oppressed peoples.

Artists from around the globe have recorded songs penned by our talented songwriters. For example, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of the most covered songs in history, having been recorded more than 300 times. Lightfoot’s songs – which have won 15 SOCAN Classics Awards, among countless other accomplishments – have been covered by Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Sarah McLachlan and Bob Dylan, who’s called Lightfoot one of his favourite songwriters. Homegrown songwriters have placed innumerable songs in countless popular TV shows and movies, too.

Canada’s songwriters have also written or co-written smash hits for others, in a wide variety of genres, and our songwriters’ success on the world stage continues to grow. Take Rod Stewart’s “Rhythm of My Heart,” co-written by Marc Jordan and John Capek, chosen to open the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland; Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” co-written by Thomas “Tawgs” Salter; Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl,” co-written by Chantal Kreviazuk, who also co-wrote – along with fellow SOCAN members Adam Messinger, and Nasri Atweh of MAGIC! – “Feel This  Moment,” a worldwide dance smash by Pitbull featuring Christina Aguilera. Proud SOCAN member Stephan Moccio co-wrote one of the most successful worldwide hit songs ever, Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.”

Judging by the collective of writers I’ve come to know – and sometimes interview as a freelance writer for various publications, including SOCAN’s Words + Music – there’s no reason to believe our influence will wane in the years to come. On the contrary, the number of SOCAN-member songwriters and composers who received royalties from outside of Canada doubled from 2007 to 2012.

Still need proof that Canadian songwriters are the best in the world? Go to your local live music venue tonight and hear one of them perform. Listen to the music. Absorb the words. And feel lucky that we live in a country brimming with the best songwriting talent in the world.