john pippus

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stories about songwriting and recording

Songwriter Camp, Day Three, Thursday Nov. 29th, 2012

9:30AM I arrive with a dozen bagels and cream cheese from Siegel's Bakery. Best bagels you can get, this side of Montreal. It's the third and final day of SAC's three-day songwriter camp. I'm tired but looking forward to see if we can make musical magic one more time. I'm assigned to write with Kate Morgan and David Gaudet. Kate is a 19 year-old writer, with a talent that belies her age. She's spending a lot of time in Los Angeles these days working with well-known producer Brian Howes. Dave, our producer du jour is a skilled writer, guitarist, and singer, and knows his way around the recording gear. While we wait to get started, Kate plays me a song on her iPhone by Bruno Mars. She would like to try writing something along similar lines. His name is only vaguely familiar to me, but I like what I hear. Acoustic R 'n B is the vibe I get with some pop ear candy. Right up my alley. And Dave's too, as it turns out.

10:00AM By now it's a familiar routine. We play around with a few chord sequences and within a few tries, we come up with something that we all like. The chorded riff evoke a sad or wistful mood, and Kate suggests a theme of knowing when it's time to let go. Nothing stays the same. Kate and Dave get on a roll, I feel more like a third wheel for much of the writing process today. I come up with a few lines here and there, but they seem to have a flow going between them. I mostly play the riff over and over while they tease out the words, first for the chorus and then the verses. That's OK with me. The ego has to be kept in check, the song is king. In other sessions, I'll contribute more than my share, so it all comes out even in the end.

11:00AM We settle on a tempo, record a simple piano motif, and build the song from the chorus out. Dave lays down the acoustic guitar part. The tune slowly grows and we all like the direction it's going in. While Dave loops and layers the sounds, I fill out my song camp evaluation questionnaire. Full marks from this happy camper.

1:00PM Pizza for lunch. Everyone is either bleary-eyed or giddy from lack of sleep and three days of intense creative work. We pose for a group picture. By now, we know the broad strokes of each others' personalities and quirks. There is a lot of laughing and goofing around.

3:00PM Kate records her vocals. She has a warm, engaging voice. Dave adds some low harmonies. Then it's time to build up the tracks with keyboards, drum sounds, hand claps, and a backwards guitar whoosh to kick off the first verse.

5:00PM Kate has to leave early, so Dave and I spend the last hour or so fine tuning what we have. The song is called "Ashes and Dust". Vince comes in and has a listen and declares it '"great". Music to my ears.

6:45PM SongWorks IV is over. It's been a genuine thrill and an honour to be here with all these talented people. I'm exhausted but feeling satisfied. I've helped give birth to three songs, all solid, all in different genres, over three long days. Not only did we write them from start to finish but we recorded them too. Each demo still has a few things that need doing - a guitar solo here, additional harmonies there, some extra whooshes and swirls to lift a chorus or make a breakdown more interesting. But they are, basically, done. And like any good song, they don't need the extra bits to make them complete, it's just nice to have. It's exciting to know we've got songs that are going to see some serious pitch time!

My final entry will wrap up what I've learned, who inspired me, highlights and challenges. Also what's in store for our demo'd songs.

Songwriter Camp, Day Two, Wednesday Nov. 21st 2012

9:30AM Arrived on time. Bagel and coffee and a bit of chit chat then off I go with my assigned three-person team to write another song. How could there be a better way to spend a late November day? Today I was matched with Mario Vaira and Rachel Suter. Mario is a nice guy. Tall, soft spoken and thoughtful. He's been nominated twice for a Juno award and writes music for movies, TV, and video games, among other projects. Rachel, more than half my age, knows the urban/pop scene, and divides her time between Los Angeles and Vancouver. She hit songwriter pay dirt recently, getting a song cut by Victoria Duffield and Cody Simpson. The big budget video for "They Don't Know About Us" has racked up over 120,000 plays on YouTube in less than two weeks.

10:30AM We settle on a simple but catchy finger-picked four-chord sequence that I brought along with me. Double drop D, partial capo on the 5th fret. Mario says he'll spend the next hour building an intricate beat pattern around it. Rachel is used to this way of writing. For me, it's all new. She mentions the top line will come later. "What's that?" I ask. She tells me it's the melody and words. L.A. talk. Urban beats. I'm way out of my zone. And loving it.

12:30PM The four-chord pattern, processed so that it no longer resembles my recorded guitar part forms the chorus. We still don't have words, or even a concept. Rachel doesn't seem concerned. But around this time she looks up from her computer and says she's inspired by Omar, one of our fellow writers. He's high energy and has been cracking us up with his spontaneous dance moves. Rachel says, "how about 'we don't need no dance floor' for an idea"? Mario and I blink once, and say let's go for it. Mario suggests we take a five-minute writing break and get down ideas around our theme. The music pattern plays over and over as we separately write random ideas around Rachel's concept. I fill a page with lines like,"move with me on the street", "the lights of the city sparkle and shine" and "move cuz you feel it". Rachel is singing under her breath, "we don't need no dance floor" and "feels so good tonight".

1:30PM Lunch. I'm excited with what we've come up with so far. I plow through a serious portion of prawn vindaloo with naan bread and rice. The group gossips about Carly Rae Jepson's latest developments. Omar does a rendition of Jesus Christ doing a cover of "Call Me Maybe". Rachel gets it on her camera. I hope it shows up on YouTube. Soon we're back at work. We write verse lyrics, mostly I stay out of it, suggesting a line here and there but Rachel and Mario know their way around rap rhymes and rhythms and there's not much I'm throwing in to the mix at this point that they pick up on. Meanwhile, I'm pushing for my two chord pre-chorus and simple melody to stay in, Rachel is resisting, she's worried the tune will lose energy if we go with what I'm suggesting. Mario is considering all the options. In the end we compromise and we're all happy.

4:00PM Rachel records her vocal, starting with the chorus, then the pre-chorus and finally the first verse. She's got a clear, sweet voice. Mario gets her to double her part and add harmonies. So far, we don't have a second verse written. The music for the verse and the chorus are based on our same four-chord pattern but the "top line" is different. The other writers come in and listen to what we have and I know from their body language and their attentiveness, even before they say anything, that this song rocks.

5:30PM Mario is fading. He's had two long days. A song like this, with all the intricate beats and layering of sounds, really calls on all a producer's skills. We don't have a second verse written yet. I suggest we call it a day and plan to get together to finish the tune after the three-day songwriting marathon is over. Mario likes this idea. But then Vince, our leader, taskmaster, lunch and snacks provider, and head cheerleader comes in and says 'let's hear what you got". We tell him we don't have the second verse written and he says with a grin, " get writing, you've got an hour left". So we shrug, and do what we're told. And miraculously, we get the verse written within twenty minutes. Funny how it goes sometimes.

6:45PM We're done. We check out what the other two songwriting groups have come up with. We're getting to know each other better, the happy and sad stories we've all arrived with. And our experiences in the music business, both good and bad. Beer cans are popped. Soon, we say our goodbyes, we hug and fist bump. We make plans for tomorrow - I'm picking up the bagels and I know just the place . I drop Mario at his house in North Van and head across the Lion's Gate Bridge, those four familiar chords in my head as I sing 'we don't need no dance floor'.

Songwriter Camp, Day One, Tuesday Nov. 20th 2012

I had trouble sleeping last night. Anxious dreams of going to summer camp were interspersed with lying awake thinking of random words and melodies that I could bring to the writing session. And as a result I ended up sleeping in! Packed up the guitar, notebook, and tuner, and flew out the door wearing my lucky socks with sparkly treble clefs on 'em.

9:30AM Got there just in time to schmooze with the other eight writers, a few straggling in after me, to my relief. Bagels and coffee, a quick orientation and pep talk from Vince Degiorgio, our fearless leader and then we were divided off into three groups of three. I was tagged to spend the next nine hours with Jeff Dawson (producer of Daniel Powter's worldwide hit, "Bad Day") and Kaylee Johnston (a young pop singer who I've met before on the Vancouver music scene).

10:00AM Down to business. We've all done this before, co-writing, but the pressure to write and record a tune in one day made us not want to waste any time. A brief go round to see where we were at, and who had what, and then we settled on a style (pop) and a first line suggested by Kaylee ("I called you up to let you down"). And off we went. Ideas, lines, and rhymes were offered, some accepted, some rejected. The melody suggested chords, and chords suggested where the melody could go next. A few blind alleys, some low points where we were all out of ideas, followed by a word or a melodic phrase that got us fired up again.

1:OOPM As lunch was called we were feeling pretty good. We had two verses, a pre-chorus and the almighty chorus mapped out. Thai food was on the menu. We reconvened with the others in the crowded office/reception area at Deep Cove Music where our three day writing marathon was being held. Outside the rain poured down. Soon Vince called out "five more minutes" and that was lunch. We headed back to our cramped production studio with the control board, couch, chairs, keyboard and a couple of guitars filling the space. The break had rejuvenated us. In no time, we had a third verse written and the chords for the bridge locked in. We agreed we would find some bridge words as we were building the tracks so we moved on to laying down the beds and finding a drum beat.

4:00PM Jeff's skill with ProTools had us in good shape. Kaylee laid down a scratch vocal and I recorded the acoustic guitar. We decided to celebrate with a bottle of Malbec from the beer and wine store next door.

5:00PM Following a donut break (and I have to say these donuts were amazing) we listened to "Unbreakable", the song the trio of writers next door to us had come up with. And what a song! Kelly Clarkson if you're listening, this one has your name all over it.

5:30PM Technical glitch. Just as were recording Kaylee's harmonies, the computer crashed! We lost 40 minutes trying to get the system up and running again. About the time the wine ran out, and after a couple of re-boots, we were back to where we needed to be to land our newly hatched epic, proudly titled "Let's Fall Apart".

6:50PM No time to add bass, or even harmonies (see technical glitch above). The day was wrapping up and rides were leaving. The day had flown by. Reflection would have to wait. There was just enough time for quick goodbyes, before dashing out into the rain. Tomorrow comes early. I wonder who I'll be writing with, and what sort of song will emerge?

In the Studio (Part 6), April 5, 2010

Anybody got a good name for my new CD? That always seems to be the hardest part. We're at the final mixing stage for the ten tunes that have made the cut. We've got Alysha Brillinger helping out on vocals on a track or two. She's a young singer/songwriter from Toronto and a good friend of Adam's.

I've just sent out the 9th edition of my Pippus newsletter. I've got more details on the recording, upcoming shows, etc. To get your copy delivered straight to your inbox, sign up on my mailing list page (over there on the right).

In the Studio (Part 5), March 28, 2010

I went over to my friend and fellow singer/songwriter Blake Havard's place this morning and he videotaped five songs for me, including this one:

"Where I Come From" was the first song producer Adam Bailie and I recorded for the CD-in-progress. Adam is adding some African-style drumming to the track along with our harmonies in appropriate places. By the way, the other four songs Blake and I taped today include a Steve Earle cover, and three more originals including a voice and harmonica blues tune called "Leaving On Your Mind".

In the Studio (Part 4), March 24, 2010

Rented a nylon string guitar and a solid body, cherry red Gibson SG (that I have fallen in love with) for recording some lead guitar parts on the new album. Spent five hours in the studio with Adam yesterday doing that, talking about the songs and music in general, a name for the CD, and so on.

We've got ten tracks now, including a co-write that Adam brought to the table called "It's Only Music". Very funky with looping, auto tuning, and spoken word. It's about how music doesn't have to be all about hype, costumes, glitzy show biz, and "making it". It can be as simple as breathing; in some societies everybody participates. A more inclusive, natural approach to having/making music in our lives. Our pre-packaged, consumer-based culture tends to prefer having music done TO us by socially designated "stars". It's one way, but it's not the only way. Music is universal, if you want it to be. Everybody has a voice. A rhythm. I don't mean to downplay and celebrate super-talented people, or conversely, prop up bad art. But if make room for other ways of looking at how we make music, as a society, it will lead to a healthier (certainly a more fun) place to be.

Played Last Night, In the Studio (Part 3), and Hugh Fisher's New CD, March 20, 2010

I had a 'no show' at Trees last night. (I manage Music Nights at Trees Organic Coffee House, 450 Granville St.) so I played some tunes from my new CD as well as Steve Earle's "Goodbye". That song really got the crowd listening to every word. One of Earle's best songs, and my cold-induced raspy voice helped get the confessional quality across.

In the afternoon, I managed to lay down a few vocal bits and pieces over at Adam Bailie's for the new CD. I can't wait for you to hear what he's bringing to the tunes. We'll record three more basic tracks on Tuesday. All uptempo blues-based tunes, at least one of which will feature Adam on didgeridoo! And finally, Hugh Fisher dropped by this week. He gave me an advance copy of his about-to-be-released CD that he's been busy making over in Victoria. It's called "Kite" and it's playing right in fact. Highly recommended. Shades of James Taylor. Also some beautiful acoustic guitar instrumentals.

In the Studio (Part Two), March 5, 2010

Spent five hours in the studio with Adam Bailie yesterday. He's producing my new album. This is a joint project with me doing the songwriting and singing, and Adam placing his producing stamp on every track.

It was a good day. We got the voice and basic guitar track recorded on four songs, and voice and harmonica on another. Actually, with the 'cut-and-paste-and-slide-and-tweak' methods available with current technology, it's not as impressive as it sounds. For example, when I muff a couple of notes here or there, Adam can go in and edit later to make it work. So it's not like the analog days when what you recorded, pretty much, was what you got. Sure, there are limitations to what you can expect the equipment to do, but on this collection of songs, I'm fine with having less of a 'live off the floor' feel. Want to pre-order a copy? Drop me a line, and let me know - your expression of interest and support will go a long way at this point - and you'll be the first to get a copy the day it arrives from the duplication plant. I'll email you a couple of tracks 'in progress' too. And welcome your feedback on lyrics and/or arrangement while it's still a work-in-progress.

I haven't decided the street price yet (or the album title for that matter) but the pre-order price is $10. Like I say, get in touch if you want a copy.

In the Studio, February 25, 2010

I'm in the studio recording a new song called "Where I Come From". Adam Bailie is producing. He's young and has a lot of original ideas. We're taking a 'world' approach to this one. Adam plays with the duo "Watasun".

I've played this song song live enough times to know it has something going for it. The chorus/refrain is: "Where I come from / We believe in what we say". The line came more from the fact that the syllables fit the picking style, rather than it was something I was dying to say. So in that sense, how I got to those words was arbitrary. I built the rest of the lyric around that initial idea. Sometimes, it's all about the groove.

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