You leave me wordless
Raising worn out phrases like broken bowls
From the well within
Poor riven fragments, dripping and empty
From a place purer—deeper in me
Than anything I’ve known
Even to look at you
Sometimes is too much
And the water rises and overflows
Silent and bright
From the corners of my eyes
There is a place
Older than words
Wiser than thought
Longer than life
Deeper than waking
Quieter than silence
Closer than skin
You touch me there
I have notebooks everywhere. There is one I carry in my bag as I am out doing my errands. Another sits on my work desk. Still others lurk on the shelves of another room, and there is one beside my bed.
Why all this paper in the digital age?
It’s partly habit. I kept a diary for years. Something about the pen moving across paper, kept in a beautiful binding, was very attractive to me. I don’t do much diary writing these days, but after spending years in university, I had developed the habit of taking notes on important ideas, information, and details.
I still do this. Some of my notebooks are for music related projects. I jot down ideas for music videos, song arrangements, and the details of meetings with people I might work with to make these ideas into reality. Often there are lists of things I need to do to get a particular project started or finished.
I am always writing myself “To Do” lists actually, which is one reason why carrying a notebook around when I am out is so useful. But there is another reason I need them. It’s because you never know when inspiration will strike. I’ll be walking along, minding my business, and then a few words will begin to suggest themselves in my mind. Sometimes it’s an image that I have to find words to develop. Just as often, the words come with a melody, at which point I grab my phone and record a few seconds of me singing it, so I can remember it later.
I’ve learned from experience that these little sparks have to be captured when they happen. Otherwise they disappear. One of my favorite songs happened this way.
It was late one winter evening and I had been listening to some jug band music. Something about the sound of it made me think of summer, and I curled up in bed with it echoing in my head. I was drifting off toward sleep when a few words presented themselves. There’s a summer day in Georgia, I’ll wait for you there...
I realized that I had to write this down, or the idea would vanish forever. It was nearly midnight, but I grabbed my notebook and went out to the kitchen where I turned on the light and began writing. Two whole verses, full of sound and smell and sense of place tumbled out onto paper very quickly. The lilacs are spilling their scent on the air….Somebody’s barbecue flavours the breeze. The chorus came then too.
I stopped my frantic writing, and smiled. The entire concept of the song and its details were all there on the page. I went to bed content, and the next morning, after reviewing my notes, I wrote a third verse.
The result was “Back Country Blues”, which always feels a bit like a lullaby to me. It has that sense of traveling to a place in your mind, and is about an experience brought on by longing. It’s one of my favorite songs, and will be on my upcoming album “Borderless Sky”.
Meanwhile, I’m always adding things to my notebooks. You’ll probably see more of the results soon.
I just released the music video for my song “Voodoo Magic Man”, and I can’t quite believe we pulled it off. Getting to the finished product was a long series of twists, uncertainties and last minute crises. Somehow it all came together and everything found its place. You could say it was luck …or maybe a bit of magic.
It all started about a month ago when I had coffee with my friend and filming genius Ed. I had an idea for a new music video and wanted to hash out the details and see if he would be interested in working on it. Over excellent coffee, tea, and chocolate at Thierry’s Patisserie, we came up with a plan. I left with a list of things to procure: location, people, props, wardrobe, and equipment.
The next three weeks were a frantic rush of details. We needed extras to pose as patrons in a jazz bar, so I posted a casting call. We needed a convincing male lead to provide the compelling seduction of the Voodoo Magic Man. That was a tall order… and by tall I mean more than 6’2”, since I am not a small woman. More casting call announcements.
The other tricky thing was finding a location. I had already done a fair amount of research on possible filming locations, but one stood out luminously in my imagination. A bar called Prohibition, at the five- star Hotel Georgia. I had only seen pictures of it online. Convinced it was probably impossible, I decided to do a solo reconnaissance mission. I went down to that bar, bought myself a martini, and quizzed the bartender about whom I needed to convince to let me film there. He eventually put me in touch with the right person.
Still, it took nearly three weeks of daily back and forth emails and phone calls to Prohibition. I knew filming there was a very long shot, and had a back-up list of locations ready to go. Getting a final “yes” or “no” took longer than expected, and I was under pressure to finalise the location and the shoot date. I was at the point where I knew I would have to go ahead and book another location that day, when I got an email from them with permission to film. I was ecstatic! It was a huge win.
The second piece of the puzzle was getting a leading man. A friend of mine heard about my problem and put me in touch with a fabulous actor who was not local, but happened to be in town. He was perfect—and he agreed to take on the role. With a list of extras complete, a leading man, and a trio of musicians, I was all set to film. Or so I thought.
In the days leading up to the shoot I obsessed about every detail. Did the drummer know he needed to bring his drum kit? When I contacted him to make sure, I found out he didn’t have one. Quickly, I asked the pianist (also a drummer elsewhere) to bring his kit, as well as his keyboard. And then I bought some drumsticks.
05:50 am. I woke up to my alarm, ready for the big day. The first thing I saw on my phone was a message from the pianist. He was sick and not coming. Neither were the keyboard and drum kit he was supposed to bring. I was down a band, and the day had just started.
I threw on my clothes and packed my car with all the gear, wardrobe and food we needed on set. Hitting the road at 6:15, my mind was whirling. What was I going to do if I had only an upright bass player? I sent a quick text to Ed. “We may have to get very creative on set today. We are missing a band.” I spent the next two hours sitting in the make-up chair, getting face and hair prepped for filming.
8:15 am. Another friend, who was helping with the shoot called me. “How is it going?” she asked innocently. “Well actually,” I said, “we have a situation.” My friend Ruth is incredible. In a few short questions she absorbed the situation and began working on a solution. “I’m on it,” she said. Mission instant band had begun. Who were we going to get before 10:30 on a Sunday morning?
I spent the rest of the session sending messages and fielding calls while my somewhat exasperated make-up artist (my sister Edina) tried to do her job. “You can’t be on your phone all the time”, she said.
9:45 am. We were leaving for the set and I had a pianist.
10:45 am When Ruth arrived on set she informed me we had a drummer on the way. Incredible. I enlisted the original drummer, who was very well dressed, as the bartender, while my new drummer set up his kit on stage. “I don’t have drumsticks” he said. “Well as it happens, I do” I replied. Standing in the gorgeous interior of the bar I began to think this was going to work after all.
I pulled out the haze machine that Ed had suggested we rent for this shoot. “Did you get them to show you how to use that thing?” he asked. Uh oh. “No”, I said. “Good luck!” he replied. Having come this far, I was NOT going to be thwarted by a machine. How hard could it be? I plugged it in and pushed all the promising buttons. Nothing seemed to be happening. More buttons, more switches. No sign of life. Sighing, I walked away to attend to more urgent matters. People were asking me where they needed to be. When I returned to the haze machine I decided to pick it up and move it closer to the stage, on the off chance that it was still warming up. When I put it down on the ground– rather heavily– a plume of hazy fumes came gushing out the front. “It lives!” I shouted, fists raised in victory.
11:15 am We were ready to go. With a crew of friends, friends of friends, and people who were fast becoming friends, we started to shoot.
I had a vision for the look and feel of this video, and somehow, despite many bumps in the road, it was becoming reality in front of me. It felt like being in a waking dream. Strange, unpredictable, and a bit magical.
Some projects you plan, and others just creep up and attack from behind. You never can tell what is going to work.
If you are familiar with my music at all, you’ll know that I’m primarily a jazz singer. There are some other influences coming in my second album, but rock, pop, and synthesized sounds are about as far away from my signature sound as you can get. Yet, my most popular music video to date is a cover of the Eurythmics hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. So what happened?
It all started on Soundcloud. A guy known as Moon Dust had been a big supporter of my music on that platform, and one day suggested that we collaborate on something. He lives in Finland, so this project was entirely due to the magic of the internet.
He sent me a selection of tracks, all of which were in need of vocals. When I heard his version of “Sweet Dreams” I was immediately drawn to it. It had a dark, hypnotic quality, and it sounded like the melody lines had been submerged. I could barely trace them, but they were there—just under the surface.
It was a challenge to work out the vocals. I realised the bridge from the original (“Hold your head up, moving on…”) was missing. Singing just the verses didn’t seem adequate. The music demanded more, so I came up with the non-verbal singing parts. This was a completely new thing for me. We scat in jazz, but there are still syllables. I sang the way the music made me feel, and practiced obsessively to refine it.
The next step was to record the vocals and mix them with Moon Dust’s arrangement. I went to see Michael Dewey of Dewey Tunes in Vancouver. The plan was just to put down vocals and release it on Souncloud, but after we started, Michael asked my permission to video record it. “Sure” I said. The next day he sent me what we had done, and a 60 second video clip, which you can see here.
I was so knocked out by the sound and some of the shots in the clip that I knew we had to shoot a full video for the song. A couple of weeks later, I met up with Michael and my sister Edina to shoot. Edina and I had a Blade Runner theme in mind, so we went for a night shoot and she used the film to inspire my wardrobe and make-up.
Once we started filming, we just went with ideas and shots that occurred to us. The cherry blossom sequence was created when we happened to walk by a beautiful blossom laden tree and scooped up some of the fallen petals. We didn’t plan the fountains either. It was something we saw while walking around and decided to play with.
The final layer on the project was Michael’s work on the song. He added drums and guitar to sharpen the sound, creating a compelling sonic structure. Then he mixed it all together and edited the video. The final result was bigger and more complex than any of us expected.
So there you have it. A music video I never intended to make. A project that took on a life of its own. I hope you enjoy the result.
One of my favorite songs is Nat King Cole’s version of “Smile”. I first heard it as a little girl, and it made a big impression. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about the singer’s life. The poor son of a butcher turned Baptist minister, his musical career was set against the racism of mid century America as the black civil rights movement was taking off.
Of course, Nat wasn’t the only black musician making beautiful music over the pain of his life. Billie Holiday sang the horrifying testimony to racism “Strange Fruit” (which incidentally was written by a Jewish teacher named Abel Meeropol).
Louie Armstrong grew up a fatherless child in a desperately poor part of New Orleans. A boy from as far on the wrong side of the tracks as one could be, he left school in 5th grade to start working, and ended up in a group home for a while. His musical success was something of a miracle.
Not that success eased everything for him: like other black musicians, he was not welcome to sleep in many of the expensive hotels he was hired to play. After the show was over, he was expected to leave for a black hotel on the poor side of town. He also adopted and took care of a brain damaged child. Yet his voice made the song “Wonderful World” iconic.
I once heard an interview with famous Fado singer Mariza. Fado is a traditional kind of music, native to Portugal, which always sounds a bit melancholy. I really like it. She was talking about the origin of the songs, and said that in Portugal, Fado was music people sang when they were sad. The act of singing somehow lightened the burden and let some light in.
Perhaps this is like the blues…. I can’t think of too many blues songs about happy subjects, but somehow singing and playing them is cathartic. Music does that. It has the power to change the colour of a mood, the tone of a moment, or even your perspective on life.
There is a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language and its effect on the brain and behaviour. We all know that our internal moods affect our external gestures and attitudes. It’s less obvious that the reverse can also be true. So maybe this is why singing or playing music can lift a case of the blahs or the blues.
Next time you’re feeling low, try to put a smile on your face. Listen to your favorite tune. Or better yet, sing it!
I grew up listening to classic jazz. It was really all my grandfather’s fault. He had an infectious love of this music, and when he put those vinyl records on he never just sat and listened. He was always up on his feet, snapping his fingers, singing along, and invariably, dancing. (I got into swing dancing too, but that’s another story.) I just remember this music, especially when he would look at me and start singing, out in the park or at the breakfast table.
Perhaps the song I remember best is Louis Armstrong’s version of “When You’re Smiling”. Grandpa would look at his five year old granddaughter and begin to sing this — even doing his best Satchmo impersonation. This was quite a feat, considering he had a strong Hungarian accent! He liked the Rat Pack too, particularly Dean Martin’s rendition of “That’s Amore”.
As I got older, I began to explore jazz on my own. There are so many types and styles under this umbrella now that there is always something new to uncover. It’s constantly evolving, and full of cross cultural influences.
I recently discovered electro swing for example, in a fantastic track by called “In the Mood for Trouble” by Marcella Puppini which incorporates influences from Klezmer to Django Reinhardt.
Still, there is something about the old school jazz of my grandfather that retains a special charm. I think it’s the pace. Somehow there’s something slow, warm, and romantic about it.
Maybe it’s because it comes from the era before auto tune and all the special effects we’ve become so used to in studios now…
Maybe I’ve watched too many movies set in the 1940s…
Still, whenever I hear this music play, something in me begins to unwind, and a smile slides over my face. Try listening to Louis and Ella sing “They can’t take that away from me” and see if you feel any different.
Maybe the pace comes from a slower time. A time when people sat on porches and chatted with their neighbours, or sat down together for Sunday dinner. There is a sense of place in a lot of these lyrics too, which I don’t hear often in more contemporary music. “Tenderly”, “April in Paris” and “Summertime” are full of the trees, the light, the fields and streets which inspired them.
We spend so much time absorbing the world through screens —now more than ever— that perhaps we don’t notice these things as much anymore.
So here’s to music that reminds you to slow down and enjoy the texture of the moment. “Songs for a Ladies Man” is an album inspired by my grandpa’s vinyl, and the effect that old school jazz still has on me. If it gives you that same feeling, then it has succeeded.