SOUND ADVICE: STEVE WAXMAN’S MUSIC CAREER GUIDANCE

photo: Heather Pollock

After Steve Waxman graduated from NYU in 1982, with a screenwriting and acting degree, he stumbled into the music business. It was the tail end of the recession. Waxman took a Madison Avenue gig as an errand boy for Aucoin Management (KISS, Billy Idol). Two hours into his first day on the job, he knew he belonged in this business.

Nearly four decades later (the last 27 in publicity, promotion and marketing at Warner Music Canada) Waxman uses his talents and experiences today to help artists discover their story with his recently launched business: I.M. Steve Waxman. Just like landing that first job with Aucoin, finding this new calling at 60 was a “happy accident.” The epiphany came after many coffee conversations. He stresses his service is not a consultancy; rather, he offers entertainment career guidance.

“You need to define the narrative first”

Waxman is a storyteller with a curious mind, and a conversation with him is a lesson in listening. He rambles from one anecdote to another. Each sentence starts with, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” From stories of dressing up in KISS’ outfits in Aucoin’s warehouse along the Hudson River to launching Scott Helman’s career, what emerges is this: Waxman knows his narrative. The value of an authentic story, well told, pairs with the most important lesson Bill Aucoin taught him: we’re all facilitators.

“If the artist has a vision, it’s our job to make sure they succeed at their vision, but so many artists don’t even know who they are,” Waxman explains. “They want to put themselves in the hands of the ‘experts’ and let the ‘experts’ guide them. Bill taught me to do it a different way. You need to sit together and figure out how we can get out of you what your vision is, but you need to define the narrative first. Sometimes you just need an unbiased third party to ask all the right questions until you figure it out, but it has to come from you.”

Once an artist has a clear vision and a compelling story, Waxman works with them to determine what steps to take next, and what actions make the most sense at that particular stage in their career, by asking the right questions. Do they need a manager? What about a publicist? Just because you made a record or uploaded some songs to Spotify, Waxman says, this alone is not a story. You need something that defines you or your band, and makes you stand out.

“My goal is to help as many artists as I can get into a position where they can successfully take the next step, whatever that is,” he says. “From getting out onstage to finding a manager or agent. Your best friends are always going to be wowed by what you do. You need an unbiased truthsayer if you’re going to take your career seriously.”

Connect with Steve to learn more about how he can help you navigate your career and define your narrative: https://www.imstevewaxman.com/

Steve’s Top Five Tips

  1. Set goals. A lot of times people don’t set goals, or they set goals that are too big, like ‘We want to fill an arena one day.’ That’s a big goal that’s hard to get to, unless you have a whole bunch of smaller goals you can achieve first.”
  2. “Ask questions like, ‘What makes you special?’ Define your narrative and start to create your unique story. Then, figure out how to get this story out to the world.”
  3. Be original. Chasing what’s on the radio, or someone else’s sound, is pointless.”
  4. Develop your live experience. People often don’t think about that enough. What are you doing to entertain your fans? Envision what your greatest performance looks like, then scale it back to what you can afford. Keep that vision in your head, so when people see you perform, it always looks bigger.”
  5. Get social. Create content online that’s consistent, and matches your narrative and vision. Many artists fear social media; they think you have to be everything to everybody, all the time. Instead, you need to strategize and plan.”

“It’s like Disneyland for Canadian music!” — The Northern Pikes on recording at Studio Bell

Calgary, Alberta: a premiere place to record a record? Come again. The home of the world’s most famous Stampede is not the first place one thinks of when recalling locales where great albums were made. With the opening of Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre (NMC), that perception is changing fast. Artists ranging from Luke Doucet and Randy Bachman to Boston alt-rock band Guster and The Northern Pikes have all recorded projects recently at this one-of-a-kind facility.

“Sure, it’s strange to have a world-class recording facility in Calgary of all places, but the word is getting out,” says Jason Tawkin, Manager, Building Audio, Studio Bell. “The facility, and the collection housed within the facility, is world class … it’s a pretty unique place.”
Unique is an understatement. It’s a curio shop of wonder. Something new and unexpected waits around every corner. Where else can you see artifacts like k.d. lang’s stage clothing, Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” sunglasses and Neil Peart’s hockey-themed drum kit during recording breaks? “It’s like Disneyland for Canadian music!” says Northern Pikes’ drummer Don Schmid.

This past summer, the four members of The Pikes (Schmid, Jay Semko, Bryan Potvin, and Kevin Kane) gathered in downtown Calgary with only their band ethos – “art before ego” – as their guide. The group arrived at Studio Bell with only a couple song sketches prepared. As Semko says: “it was an experiment and an adventure.” Over the course of just 16 days and two separate sessions (10 days in February 2018 and another six days in July) they collaboratively built the 10 songs from the ground up – tracking seven at the first session in the spring and the remaining three when they returned to Studio Bell mid summer. Working with engineer Graham Lessard (The Barr Brothers, Basia Bulat, Kevin Drew) and NMC Audio Technician Eric Cinnamon, the foursome recorded these songs one by one live off the floor using a Trident A-Range analog console — only one of 13 built and sonically superior to anything available these days. Due out in 2019, the record (the band’s first studio effort in 16 years) remains untitled. The result is an eclectic disc unlike any the Northern Pikes have captured in the studio before.

It is marked by some fairly heavy songs, a little bit of social/political commentary, some power-pop, and some acoustically-inclined numbers.

“Even though we were using modern technology with multi-track recording, we were going through a lot of vintage gear, which warms up the sound and creates a cool vibe,” explains Semko.

“It definitely sounds different,” Schmid adds. “It sounds gritty and real. Listen to how quiet everything is in the digital age … there is no hiss. At some point maybe music should have some other idiosyncrasies.”

World class, unique, and idiosyncratic are exactly how each band member described the Studio Bell setting — ranking the facility on par with historic haunts where they’ve made records in the past including Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY and London’s Abbey Road. The NMC studios include: three control rooms, three live rooms, three isolation booths and a plethora of historic gear to use.

“It’s possibly my favourite studio that I’ve ever recorded in,” says Kevin Kane, guitarist for The Grapes of Wrath, and the Pikes’ newest member, who joined the band for the Big Blue Sky 30th anniversary tour in 2017. “With the demise of the record industry, well, it’s not dead, but it is but a shadow of its former glory, there are fewer and fewer big studios.”

The National Music Centre living musical instrument collection includes more than 300 musical instruments (in working order) spanning 450 years of music technology: everything from a 1591 harpsichord to the legendary monster synth TONTO (a.k.a. The Original New Timbral Orchestra) that was a big part of Stevie Wonder’s sound, a grand piano that once belonged to David Foster, and a rare Novachord of which only six remain in the world. Artists record using one of three historic analog consoles in any combination of adjoining live rooms; each live room is designed to have its own sound and has a selection of historic musical instruments suited for the uniquely designed spaces. One of those rooms is the Rolling Stones Mobile recording truck where iconic songs were cut, such as: “Stairway to Heaven,” “Smoke on the Water,” and “No Woman No Cry (live).”

“Unique to our living musical instrument philosophy is that we are not collecting just for prosperity sake,” Tawkin explains. “We feel those objects are better appreciated when they are actually used as they were intended such as the Rolling Stones Mobile recording truck. It would be a shame if another record were never made with that truck.

“A great deal of inspiration comes from working with such historic pieces,” he adds. “That positive energy and that creative spirit of working with such important pieces of music technology translates into amazing things.”

One of the most recent donations to the NMC collection, which The Pikes took advantage of, was a 1958 Fender Pro Amp, owned and used by Neil Young. Bryan Potvin had not recorded through an amp in the last 15 years, but he and Kane both plugged into this vintage amplifier during the second session for the record. The Pike’s guitarist christened it “Old Nasty!”

“Imagine what this amplifier sounded like to break that 15-year streak!” says Tawkin.
One of Kane’s favourite memories from the NMC sessions occurred when the band had only one day left in the studio and they felt they were still short one song.

“That night Bryan [Potvin] presented an idea he had for a verse with a few lyrics,” he concludes. “The four of us sat around the hotel room and, as I listened to Bryan and Jay talk about the song conceptually and play around with some melodies and chords, I scribbled down a few lyrics based on what they were saying. The next morning, Don sent us all a text with the final lines of the song and we had ‘Don’t You Give Up’ completed by the time we walked into the NMC.”

Learn more about recording at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, here.

New “Old Direction” for Dennis Ellsworth

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (Les Guêpes, 1849)

This above oft-quoted epigram from the 19th Century French critic and novelist is usually translated as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The phrase refers to how a large-scale change may appear monumental on the surface, but on closer inspection, the fundamentals remain.

Catching up with Dennis Ellsworth to chat about Things Change (his fifth solo album), we find the 41-year-old in the midst of a domestic existence. Ellsworth has just returned from Home Depot, where he was picking out kitchen cabinets and paint samples. Karr’s well-worn phrase sums up the songwriter’s current state; it’s also an apropos tagline to describe his new record.

Ellsworth quit drinking more than a year ago; he and his wife bought a house near where he grew up in the suburb of Stratford, PEI (on the other side of the Hillsboro River from Charlottetown); and he’s set to become a first-time father. Upon an initial spin, Things Change sounds like a departure for the songwriter. Gone is the alt-country sound that’s served as his wheelhouse. Replacing the roots vibe is a radio-friendly wall of sound, with a sprinkle of pop. Listen deeper, and you’ll still hear the poetic lyrics, and Ellsworth’s ability to make a song speak to us all – confirming Karr’s words. The building blocks of this songwriter’s art remain the same.

“I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do.”
Pursuing Publishing PlacementsImagine turning on the TV and hearing your song played while watching a well-loved Canadian CBC drama. That’s one of the feathers Dennis Ellsworth can now add to his songwriting cap. His song “Hazy Sunshine,” from the 2013 record of the same name, appeared on Heartland last season.

Vince Degiorgio, President and founder of Chapter Two Productions (which includes Cymba Publishing) first met Ellsworth at a song camp a few years ago. Immediately, he was struck by the artist’s abilities, and a year later signed him to a publishing deal.

Another recent publishing credit is a song in the Canadian rom-com The New Romantic, which made its world premiere this past March at SXSW. “Vince sent me a message asking if I had any songs that sounded like ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver,” says Ellsworth. “I said, ‘I don’t,’ but I’d just written a song that was close enough, so I sent him a demo. Vince called back immediately and asked, ‘How soon can you get in the studio?’”

Ellsworth cut the song, sent it to Degiorgio, who forwarded the track to Instinct Entertainment — the Toronto-based music supervision and licensing company representing The New Romantic. Then the publisher went to Japan for more than a month, so the songwriter didn’t hear anything. “I figured they weren’t interested,” says Ellsworth. “Then, one day after Vince got home, Instinct got in touch with him and said the song was going to be in the movie!”

“It’s not so much that I took my songwriting in a new direction, it’s more like I went back in time to an ‘old direction,’” says Ellsworth explains. “I’m a child of the late 1970s. When I first started collecting records, what I chose to listen to was late-‘80s and early-‘90s stuff. The early ‘90s were marked by alternative music that featured heavy guitars, and that music inspired me a lot in my formative years.

“When I started writing songs for this record, and I got a feel for where I was going, I intentionally listened to artists like Matthew Sweet, The Lemonheads, and The Jesus & Mary Chain,” he continues. “I used their music as my inspiration.”

Once the song bones took shape, it was “the icing on the cake” to hire fellow East Coaster Joel Plaskett to produce the record. The pair convened at the JUNO Award-winner’s New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth, NS. “With Thrush Hermit, he lived in that alternative rock and Sub Pop [Records] world back in the ‘90s,” says Ellsworth.

Adding to the throwback vibe, Plaskett recruited The Super Friendz’ rhythm section (Dave Marsh and Charles Austin) to join them in the studio. “Recording this made us all feel like we were in our 20s again,” says Ellsworth. “As I get older, nostalgia plays a bigger role in my life. I’ve chosen music as the way that I write and express myself. Six months on, I feel Things Change is the best record I’ve ever made.”

While not a concept album, several of the songs on the record (“Absent Mind,” “Caught in the Waves,” and “From the Bottom”) describe Ellsworth’s feelings of career ennui, and the personal transformation he experienced in the last 365 days – especially his decision to put the plug in the jug.

“I wasn’t an abusive drinker,” he admits. “I was a constant social drinker. I didn’t want to quit because I like the taste of beer, scotch, and red wine, but I realized I needed to pull myself together a bit more, on a personal level, to strengthen my chances of survival. The benefits far outweigh the losses.”

Two decades into his artistic career, Ellsworth’s music keeps getting stronger. With this maturity, he’s also re-prioritizing where best to invest his energy. That means more time in the studio, recording demos, writing and co-writing songs every week, and less time away from home in the grind of touring. Signing a publishing deal three years ago with Cymba Music Publishing (see sidebar) was the main driver for this switch.

“I’m less of a performer and more of a songwriter, anyway,” Ellsworth concludes. “I just changed the parameters and structure of what I believed in. I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do. I still want to make music, write songs, and make records, but if I can switch my focus to songwriting more than performing, that’s a transition I want to make.”

SIDEBAR: Pursuing Publishing Placements

Imagine turning on the TV and hearing your song played while watching a well-loved Canadian CBC drama. That’s one of the feathers Dennis Ellsworth can now add to his songwriting cap. His song “Hazy Sunshine,” from the 2013 record of the same name, appeared on Heartland last season.

Vince Degiorgio, President and founder of Chapter Two Productions (which includes Cymba Publishing) first met Ellsworth at a song camp a few years ago. Immediately, he was struck by the artist’s abilities, and a year later signed him to a publishing deal.

Another recent publishing credit is a song in the Canadian rom-com The New Romantic, which made its world premiere this past March at SXSW. “Vince sent me a message asking if I had any songs that sounded like ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver,” says Ellsworth. “I said, ‘I don’t,’ but I’d just written a song that was close enough, so I sent him a demo. Vince called back immediately and asked, ‘How soon can you get in the studio?’”

Ellsworth cut the song, sent it to Degiorgio, who forwarded the track to Instinct Entertainment — the Toronto-based music supervision and licensing company representing The New Romantic. Then the publisher went to Japan for more than a month, so the songwriter didn’t hear anything. “I figured they weren’t interested,” says Ellsworth. “Then, one day after Vince got home, Instinct got in touch with him and said the song was going to be in the movie!”

MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Live music’s last hurrah?

Toronto’s booming real estate market has led to escalating property assessments and rents in commercial buildings. Clubs that once staged local favourites and stars alike are closing.

It’s a Thursday night here on Queen Street West. Inside The Cameron House, Corin Raymond and The Sundowners are on stage. It’s standing room only for 100 music lovers who cram the narrow bar’s front room to hear Mr. Raymond’s weekly pay-what-you-can gig – one of the longest running artist residencies in Toronto, at 13 years and counting. Above the bar, a sign says: “This is Paradise.”

The Cameron House may indeed be a Utopia for musicians and fans alike but, along with the nearby Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, which turned 70 this year, it’s one of the few left in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood that once had handfuls of places where live music could be heard on a nightly basis.

Leave The Cameron and head north on Spadina Avenue. Eventually, after a few blocks, on the west side, you’ll stumble upon The Silver Dollar Room, which opened in 1958. The venue, where Bob Dylan, Levon Helm (The Band), Barenaked Ladies and Blue Rodeo once played, closed this past May; a high-rise student-housing complex is set to take its place.

Other notable recent venue casualties in Toronto include The Hideout, Soybomb, The Hoxton, The Central, Holy Oak, Harlem, and Seven44. They followed the earlier exit of the The Colonial Tavern, Albert’s Hall, The Gasworks, The Edge, The Diamond, and The Bamboo. As Toronto arts weekly Now Magazine noted last March, seven music clubs alone closed in the first three months of 2017.

They’re falling in succession amid a perfect storm of economic factors that threatens them and other small businesses: As core real estate soars in value, property assessments and taxes rise in concert. Landlords then either find wealthier tenants who can afford escalating rents or sell to developers eager for their coveted properties.

“Progress is inevitable,” says Erin Benjamin, executive director at Music Canada Live, the voice of Canada’s live music industry. “Real estate will continue to rise.”

The net effect for musicians, particularly the younger ones learning their craft and not yet ready for the city’s bigger halls and arenas, is troubling – fewer small venues means fewer opportunities to play. Fans lose out, too.

Toronto isn’t alone, either. Other major cities with robust real estate markets are experiencing the same trend.

Despite what many call a crisis, it’s not all doom and gloom, though. Amid these countless closings, some Toronto venues have reopened (Hugh’s Room) or are set to reopen (El Mocambo) with new looks and new business models. Additionally, Massey Hall, part of the non-profit charitable corporation that also operates Roy Thomson Hall, is entering the second phase of a massive revitalization project that will include two new performance spaces.

The other good news: City councils, not just in Toronto, but other metropolitan areas such as Hamilton and London, Ont., are taking notice, adding “music offices” inside their local governments as liaisons with the music industry. “The news of venues closing is always a concern,” says Toronto councillor Josh Colle, who is a member of the Toronto Music Advisory Council (TMAC). “It alerts us to how important these venues are.”

Mr. Colle says TMAC is working on dozens of reviews related to live music venues: everything from bylaw changes to conversations between developers, planners and landlords. He acknowledges that taxes and rising real estate affects more than just music clubs. “We are losing bookstores, green grocers, shoe stores, etc.,” he adds. “The way MPAC [the provincial Municipal Property Assessment Corp.] assesses properties based on their highest and best use is a threat to every local business.”

Fellow councillor Mike Layton, who previously served on TMAC, adds: “There’s no doubt rent is playing a significant role in many of these closings. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do in limiting commercial establishments and the taxes they pay; that’s not within our powers but it is adding significant pressure. In municipal planning, we don’t zone for people, or for the tenants, we zone for the use.”

The cost of real estate makes it prohibitive for certain kinds of businesses such as live music venues to thrive in certain neighbourhoods. Besides trendy Queen Street West, take Yonge Street. This is an issue close to Mark Garner’s heart. Following the recent closure of Hard Rock Cafe on Yonge after its lease expired and the owner was asking for $2-million a year in rent, plus taxes and other expenses, the chief executive officer of Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area is now working to help protect more of these legacy venues.

“We do a great job in Toronto of protecting the facades of our buildings, but we don’t protect the interiors,” Mr. Garner explains. “Taxation increases are really what is decimating these businesses – especially in our patch of the city. What happens on Yonge will eventually happen on Ossington [Avenue] and other neighbourhoods.

“We did an analysis of buildings on Yonge, from Queen Street to Bloor, and found buildings appraised in 2012 for $2.6-million are now valued at $12.2-million,” Mr. Garner continues. “How do you phase in that kind of tax increase?”

More than 100 people recently attended a live music town hall at Lula Lounge on Dundas Street West in Toronto. Present were Mike Tanner of Toronto’s music office and Jeff Cohen, the majority owner The Horseshoe and Lee’s Palace. Other venue owners, music industry stakeholders, journalists, artists and patrons of live music also attended. Issues discussed and debated ranged from loading zones outside venues and noise bylaws to what everyone agreed was the elephant in the room – rising real estate prices in the metropolitan areas across Canada and the ensuing rise in commercial property taxes.

Most club owners lease space from a landlord. When that lease expires, there is often no barrier to how much that rent can increase. While rent control exists for many residential properties, that’s not the case when it comes to commercial buildings.

Sam Grosso, owner of Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West, is one of the lucky operators who also owns the building. Still, it’s a struggle. And, that’s one of the main reasons the small-business owner recently decided to put the building up for sale.

“I pay my mortgage every month, not rent to a greedy landlord who keeps jacking up my rent until my lease expires,” Mr. Grosso explains. “It’s a double-edged sword. I bought the property for a good price years ago, but I’m still struggling to make the business happen and get people in the door.

“Meanwhile, I’m sitting on all this property that is worth a lot of money. You are beating yourself against the wall, and sometimes I ask myself: What am I doing?”

At the end of the day, Ms. Benjamin at Music Canada Live says all discussions about live music venues and real estate need to be long-term; there is no short-term solution.

“It’s important for TMAC and for other cities to pay attention and prioritize live music spaces in that big picture,” she says. “Once they are gone, it’s hard to bring them back.”

This article was published in The Globe & Mail December 18, 2017.

Meet Tebey: Professional Country Songwriter has his own EP To Do

Depression digs deep. It hides. It waits. Often, it seeps in slowly, and materializes when you least expect the darkness. That’s exactly what happened to hit Canadian country singer-songwriter Tebey (a.k.a. Tebey Ottoh). Though he’s battled anxiety and depression ever since he can recall, one of those unexpected episodes came on strong a couple of years ago, and didn’t let go.

“I was getting overwhelmed by the music business,” Tebey says. “It’s a tough business, and it wears on you. The BS I have to deal with every day is tremendous. As I get older, I don’t have the tolerance sometimes for it. I just hit a wall. I wasn’t feeling very creative, and didn’t want to do music anymore.”

Tebey opened up earlier this year about these struggles with mental illness – penning a letter for Bell as part of its Let’s Talk Day campaign. “I wanted to be honest with people,” he says.

Sometimes writing songs helps artists heal. Not this time. Not for Tebey, at least initially. The support of his wife, and a sabbatical with his family, travelling throughout Asia (South Korea, Thailand, and Tokyo) provided the respite the songwriter needed to get in the right frame of mind to let the muse back in. He also admits that he was afforded the luxury to take some extra time off, without immediate financial worries, after “Somebody Else Will,” which he co-wrote for American country artist Justin Moore, was a Billboard No.1 in 2017; it was Tebey’s first No.1 single South of the border, as a songwriter.

We catch up with Tebey in Toronto on the release date for his new six-song EP Love a Girl — a collective effort between Tebey and Danick Dupelle (Emerson Drive), his co-producer and “co-captain,” who helped him push the envelope and take the songs in a new direction. It’s Tebey’s fourth recording, following a period of producing records for others, and writing, or co-writing, hit songs for a diverse range of artists, from pop to country stars – including One Direction, Cher, Fifth Harmony, and Big & Rich.

His own first single from Love a Girl, “Denim on Denim” – co-written with fellow SOCAN member Kelly Archer and American songwriter Nathan Spicer – is an infectious, country-leaning song that’s already climbing the charts at interview time. The rest of the five cuts fuse Tebey’s pop sensibilities with his love of mainstream country. “We took some chances with this record,” he says. “I think we succeeded.”

Take the title cut, “Love a Girl.” Lyrically, it’s definitely a country song, but production-wise, it’s something else entirely. “I believe that song is as far to the pop side of things as we’ve ever been,” says Tebey. “The lines today are blurred, especially with country music fans. They’re listening to Chris Stapleton one minute, and five minutes later they’re kicking the new Drake! I wander around the campgrounds at festivals like Boots and Hearts, and I hear their playlists.”

“Who’s Gonna Love You,” written for Tebey’s wife, is another song that, at interview time, was expected to garner a lot of airplay. Lyrics like the following are ones likely to resonate with listeners:

I’ve been known to steal a couple of curly fries from her side of the table on a date
I’ve been known to flip the finger to the guy driving slow over in the fast lane
And when I steal the covers on the bed, or lose a twenty on a stupid bet
She shakes her head, smiles at me and says, who’s gonna love you if I don’t?

“I talk about all the stupid things I do daily that drives her mental,” says Tebey. “I’m sure people will smile when they hear those lines and say, ‘That’s me!’”

When it comes to writing lines that linger long with listeners, he believes a memorable melody is still the key to a great song. “That’s one thing that will never change,” says Tebey. “Production, and what’s hot at the moment, will always change, but classic melodies won’t… They’ll be around forever. Think about a song like, ‘I Want it that Way’ by Backstreet Boys, or classic songs by Journey. Those are melodies that’ll never go out of style. Using the latest sounds and the hottest production is fine, and keeps things current, but melody is still king.”

Tebey admits he’s a melodic songwriter. Melodies come naturally to him, but they also come very meticulously. “Often, I have to grind them out to find them,” he says. “I also don’t settle. I need to explore every option with that melody before I can say, ‘This is the best it can be.’ It’s one of the things younger songwriters don’t do. They settle, and don’t even know they’re doing it. There is a big difference between a good melody and an undeniable melody.”

When asked if there are any undeniable melodies on the new EP, Tebey laughs, then says, “You don’t swing and knock it out of the park every time!”

Tebey’s Top Three Tips on Co-Writing

“Write with people that don’t write the same style/genre that you do; the variety is good.”
“Collaborate with people you enjoy working with, and write with people that challenge you. That’s a big one. I love working with people who are better and bigger songwriters than me. You can always learn. I’m learning constantly.”

“Every session is different. The more you write with people, the more you understand their process. Still, there’s no magic formula. You need to continue to work at it, and be 10 per cent better than everyone else all the time… that’s what I strive for.”

When it comes to the craft, Nashville-based Ashley Gorley is one of his songwriting heroes, but Max Martin is Tebey’s touchstone; someone who hits more home runs than most. “To me, he’s the greatest pop songwriter of all time.” [Martin is a Swedish songwriter who’s won the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year Award a record 10 times, and has the third-most No.1 singles on the Billboard charts, behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon. He’s written or co-written songs with the likes of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Pink, to name a few.]

Hit singles and sales aside, for Tebey, a song’s success lies more in how deeply it resonates with listeners. “When people spend their hard-earned money to download your song, that’s when you know you’ve connected with them,” he says. “No. 1 songs may not necessarily connect with fans, even if they’re big radio hits. I want to write songs that connect with people. It’s a crapshoot, though. You never really know what’s going to hit. There’s no secret formula. You just write your best songs and use your gut instinct.”

Another key is honesty. “You can’t chase stuff,” he says. “That’s what’s important. As a writer, or for upcoming songwriters who might read this, my best advice is, it’s important to be yourself. You can’t be someone else: all the best bands, artists, songwriters, etc., do what they do best, not what someone else does best.”

Besides writing melodic songs, what Tebey also does best is help others face their demons. Born in Peterborough, and now based in Nashville, at interview time the country star was going to return home at the end of the month for an annual golf charity event he started last year, expected to raise about $25,000 for mental health projects through the Greater Peterborough Health Services, Your Family Health Team Foundation. “It’s a cause that is so close to my heart,” he says.

Lindsay Ell Living the Dream

Lindsay Ell is enjoying a rare day off at home in Nashville. “It feels like I’ve been on the road six out of seven days,” she says. But Ell’s not complaining. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter loves touring. Every morning, she rolls out of bed and follows her passion. “I’ve prayed of being this tired ever since I was a little girl! I get to live my dream and tour with acts I dreamed of playing with, growing up.”

Since the release of The Project last August, the Calgary native, now based in Music City, has piled up the accolades. From the moment this debut dropped, it flew up the charts. The 12-song collection hit No.1 on the iTunes Country albums chart, No. 2 on the iTunes All Genres albums chart, and earned a No. 1 position on the Nielsen Soundscan Current Country Albums Chart in the U.S. High-profile U.S. TV appearances followed, including The Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live!

With the help of producer Kristian Bush (of Sugarland), Ell has found her sweet spot. As she writes in the liner notes, “I wanted to call this album The Project because that’s exactly what it was. I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m a different singer, different guitar player, and different artist. I’ve finally found my voice.”

When asked if she ever imagined such rapid success, Ell remains humble. “I wanted my fans to fall in love with the songs like I did,” she says. “But I had no idea it would debut at No. 1. It all still feels surreal.”

“Castle,” co-written with Abbey Cone and Josh Kerr, is one of many highlights on the critically acclaimed album. The song is a metaphor for Ell’s philosophy of staying grounded no matter what success comes her way. In the chorus, she sings, “And even if we had a house up on a hill/ I bet we’d want a castle.”

“It’s so easy, regardless of where we are in society, to think we never have enough, or we’re not cool enough, etc.,” says Ell. “We all get caught up in this cycle, but it’s not where our hearts and minds should be focused; it’s not reality. That song is about keeping things in perspective, and being grateful for what we have, and the lives we get to live everyday.”

Easy advice to take to heart, but how does the artist – as she stockpiles No.1 singles and her star rises – live this philosophy? “My fans,” she says. “I have such a close relationship to them and they keep my reality in check.” Ell is a self-confessed social media fanatic – spending an average of five hours a day on her various online accounts. “I talk to my fans, and see how my shows and songs influence their lives, and that keeps everything in check.”

All 12 tracks on The Project are either co-writes, or written by other artists. The album is a powerful collection of personal songs with simple, universal messages of love and hope. Before moving to Nashville eight years ago, Ell admits she’d never collaborated on writing a song. Now, co-writes are the norm. The first single, “Waiting on You,” was a Top 5 Canadian Country radio hit. The bluesy, country-rock song is the one that kick-started The Project sessions; it was a co-write with Adam Hambrick and Andrew DeRoberts. “Champagne,” a co-write with Walker Hayes, is another of Ell’s favourites, because it forced her to step outside her comfort zone.

“It was a great experience for me to have as a writer to learn there are no rules,” she says. “You can be fearless when you’re writing; there’s always an editing step later. I was with Walker and asked him: ‘Can we rhyme feel with Jessica Biel?’ and he said: ‘Of course you can!’ That was a good writing lesson.”

Ell’s music lessons – formal and informal – started young. By six she was playing the piano, and by eight she was learning guitar licks, honing her chops by following her father to country-bluegrass camps. These days, just like one of Ell’s early mentors sang, Ell is certainly takin’ care of business. Fifteen years ago, as a 13-year-old, she met Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Randy Bachman.

Says Ell, “Randy heard a demo I’d made of Jann Arden cover songs and Tommy Emmanuel guitar instrumentals, and said, ‘She sounds like a young female Chet Atkins; I need to meet her.’” A writing session between Bachman and Ell was arranged, and the Guess Who co-founder became the budding songwriter’s biggest fan. “He got me into blues, jazz, and rock, and that gave me a whole new vocabulary for my music that I hadn’t tapped into yet,” says Ell.

Today, the pair still keeps in touch. Bachman taught Ell one other important life lesson: never lose sight of why you chose this career. “Randy told me that this life I’ve chosen will be an emotional rollercoaster, and that I always need to remember why I love doing what I’m doing, and that will keep me grounded,” says Ell. “That’s great advice, that I still think about every day.”

ELL’S TOP SONGWRITING TIPS
1) Honesty is the key. “That is the No. 1 rule; it’s also a rule to never break. The more vulnerable you can be as a songwriter, the better the song usually is… The more real I can be, the better I believe the song is.”
2) Write every single day. “Whether it’s a title or just two lines. The voice memo app in my phone is embarrassing, but it’s filled with little tidbits, crazy ideas of me singing as I’m walking in an airport, or lying in bed half asleep… I try to write something every day and capture ideas as they come.”
3) There are no rules! “The minute I say, ‘It’s got to be done like this,’ tomorrow I’ll wake up and break my own rule!”
Those dream acts include Brad Paisley (with whom Ell is currently touring); Sugarland (who are re-uniting and taking her on the road this summer); and Keith Urban (Ell joins the four-time Grammy winner for the second leg of his Canadian Graffiti U World Tour in September 2018).

RE-RECORDING HER FAVOURITE ALBUM
Before recording The Project, producer Kristian Bush gave Ell an assignment she couldn’t refuse. “So many people have influenced me, so I didn’t know where to begin, or go next, with my music,” says Ell. “In our first meeting, Kristian… asked me what my favourite record of all time was, and I told him: John Mayer’s Continuum. He said, ‘Perfect! I want you to go record the whole thing. These are the only rules: you have two weeks; you need to play all the instruments; and you need to do it at the studio.’ For 14 days, I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. trying to get this done… I learned so much about Mayer, and how he played guitar, and how I played guitar, and how I wanted my next record to sound. The gears just clicked.” After two weeks in the studio, she handed the assignment to Bush. “I told him, ‘I finally know how I want my record to sound!’” Ell has decided to release her version of Continuum, so her fans can hear her homework. It’ll be out later this year.

The Tao According to Lukas Nelson

Lukas Nelson is an old soul. Mojo seeps from his veins. Witness this every time he straps on his trusty 1956 Les Paul Junior with his band Promise of the Real (POTR). The tones that emanate from this vintage guitar are otherworldly. Thanks to his famous father—and the company Willie keeps—the 29-year-old musician has seen more of the world than most. On the road now for more than a decade with POTR, he’s already shared the stage with a long list of legends. This does not mean he takes his bloodline for granted. The opposite is true. Lukas is filled with buckets of passion and a desire to learn. He constantly seeks knowledge and guidance from the masters of their craft he is fortunate to call compadres such as: Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, and Bob Weir.

“I have a similar energy that my father does,” says Nelson when we chatted earlier this summer in between festivals. “We see the world the same way; dad really raised a good family. There was always great music and musicians around. I studied and absorbed all of that energy, then transformed it, put it through my conduit, and added my interpretation.”

Listen to Lukas sing for the first time and you might hear faint echoes of his dad’s distinctive timbre, but that’s where any comparisons end. Part cosmic country – the love child of Gram Parsons and Janis Joplin – blended with a heavy serving of blues and a pinch of a rock ‘n’ roll je ne sais quoi.

I witnessed Lukas’ for the first time at Farm Aid last September in Pennsylvania and saw him again during a SXSW showcase this past March in his hometown of Austin. I was blown away by his chops and the tones he gets from his Gibson and how he makes it sing. His voice carries an echo of his padre’s timbre, but it is a unique instrument. Songs such as “Forget About Georgia,” — a rumination of a past girlfriend and the pain of this failed relationship that he has to relive on stage each night when he sings the Ray Charles classic: “Georgia on My Mind” with his Willie’s family band. Other standouts from Lukas’ self-titled debut, which he performed at both shows, include: “Set Me Down On a Cloud,” “Find Yourself,” and the love letter to his hometown: “Just Outside of Austin.”

Lukas’ journey started in Austin, Texas. Born as the son of Annie D’Angelo (Willie’s fourth and current wife) he grew up mostly in Maui, Hawaii. An “island boy,” Lukas dabbled in everything: from swimming and soccer to skateboarding and surfing. With instruments always lying around the house and spending time on the road with his dad, younger brother Micah, and the rest of the Nelson extended family, it was inevitable music would eventually replace these pastimes.

Lukas wrote his first song at 11. After trading in his surfboard for a guitar, he would play 10 hours a day, honing his craft one note at a time. A disciple of the Delta blues, Nelson studied legends like: Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Howlin’ Wolf. As a teen, Lukas obsessed over their followers: guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. Songwriting came naturally.

“A great song needs a clever turn-of-phrase and a good melody,” Lukas explains. “With the right rhythms and harmonies you can create something magical that connects with people, but that takes dedication and passion.

“From the moment I picked up a guitar I started to practice every day and I’ve never let up,” he adds. “Now, I believe I’m good enough to have my own comparisons made. There is no need to compare me to my dad anymore … there is plenty more to talk about.”

Lukas gave himself the that freedom to set his own path, drifting ever further from his dad’s shadown, by practicing his craft. “I love to learn about music,” he says. “I can always play guitar better, control my voice better, and write better songs. You never stop learning … it’s always a journey upwards.”

Ever since forming back in Los Angeles in 2008, the journey for Nelson and his band of musical brothers has been on the up and up. The current POTR six-piece lineup includes: longtime members Tato Melgar (percussion), Anthony LoGerfo (drums) and Corey McCormick (bass, vocals) along with new mates Jesse Siebenberg (steel guitars, Farfisa organ, vocals) and Alberto Bof (piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3).

Here are just a few of the recent accolades for Nelson: a critically-acclaimed self-titled debut record (Lukas Nelson & The Promise of the Real) released in August, 2017 via Fantasy Records; touring and making records with Neil Young as the 21st century version of Crazy Horse (This is apropos since the band’s name is a reference to the following line from Young’s 1973 song “Walk On”: “sooner or later it all gets real.”). One wonders what Lukas has learned from Old Man Neil?

“He taught me to take a much deeper appreciation of detail that is required in music,” Nelson says. “That’s an important thing. The more you pay attention to the subtleties of what you are doing, the more rendering you realize.”

Away from the studio and the stage, Nelson found time to act. He starred in Paradox – a movie that premiered at SXSW this past March that was directed by Neil’s girlfriend Darryl Hannah. A friendship with Lady Gaga (who sang on his debut record) and Actor/Director Bradley Cooper, led to his newest gig: co-writing eight songs with Lady Gaga and acting as a musical consultant for Cooper’s forthcoming flick – a remake of the Hollywood classic A Star is Born, set for a theatrical release October 5. “That was such a cool experience,” says Nelson.

This summer, Lukas has been on the road again and again with POTR – playing the fesitval circuit in North America and Europe: from the Festival d’été de Québec earlier this month to a series of gigs in Amsterdam and the UK. These shows have given the guys an opportunity to test out some of their new songs before the next album is released. This past March, the band cut 20 new songs, laying down these tracks at the famed Shangri-La Studio in Malibu, California – the one-time rock ‘n’ roll castle where the likes of Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and The Band partied and created seminal records during the 1970s, which is now owned by Rick Rubin. Of the new songs Lukas had this to say: “We’ve cut 20 and have a total of 35 tracks. By 2019, we should have the next album complete and something new to give people.”

This fall sees the band continuing to chalk up the miles; POTR join Lukas’ dad’s family band, along with the likes of Van Morrison, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile, Nathaniel Raitlieff and the Night Sweats, and Particle Kid (his kid brother Micah’s band) for a string of dates on the Outlaw Music Festival. As our chat comes to a close, Lukas leaves readers with a key piece of Willie’s wisdom that guides his everyday journey.

“You see who my dad is,” Nelson concludes. “He is a guy that is always in the present. He’s been through a lot, but gone through it all with good humor. Those are some good life lessons I’ve picked up.”

Farm Aid 2017: A Priceless Pilgrimage

More than 1,200 miles following the white line from Waterloo, Ontario, to Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, and back again in a 36-hour span; 1,600 pics snapped in the photo pit; many more musical memories made over an 11-hour span on a summerlike September day – including seeing Neil Young wail on Old Black (his 1953 vintage Gibson Goldtop Les Paul guitar) and Willie Nelson pluck away on Trigger (his faithful acoustic, which though battered and scratched, still resonates with a sound all the Texas songwriter’s own) – all for a great cause, raising awareness and funds for family farmers at Farm Aid 32 = priceless.

While the miles I logged might seem a lot, gazing at the license plates in the parking lot showed I was not alone in my journey to support this cause; people came to Pennsylvannia from as far away as Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Virginia, Maryland, and Tennessee.

With Mother Nature wreaking havoc in recent weeks as people (including many farmers) from Florida to Texas tried to reason with hurricane season, this installment of Farm Aid proved the event is as important and as relevant today as it was when Willie Nelson founded the nonprofit organization back in 1985. Its mission to help and support family farmers trying to eke out a living, growing good food and competing with corporate giants and factory farms, remains the same.

As always, the ornery and unpredictable Young – never shy to share an option – had one of the strongest statements in the morning press conference. Shakey said: “I’m here to tell you America is already great! We don’t need to apologize and feel bad about who we are. Stop watching TV because it makes you feel bad.”

More than three decades on, the Farm Aid concert is a live music event that certainly makes one feel good about not just the Americas, but life in general. All the artists donate their time and play for free. And the 23,000 strong who attended this year’s all-day festival showed their support by sporting T-shirts that read “Stop Factory Farms” and “Fuck Monsanto” and buying posters, pullovers, and other Farm Aid merchandise throughout the day. Since 1985, Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million to help family farmers thrive all over the country while inspiring millions to take part in the Good Food Movement.

The day began shortly after 12:30 p.m. with Farm Aid founder Nelson singing an a capella version of the Lord’s Prayer. Appropriately, the original country outlaw closed the show nearly 11 hours later with his family band and many of the amazing artists who played throughout the day.

Willie’s son Lukas Nelson logged the most miles on the Farm Aid stage on this Saturday. And for good reason. He played a tight set early in the day with his band The Promise of the Real (POTR); later, he joined many of the other musicians, such as Jack Johnson and Sheryl Crow, before backing up Neil Young in his late-evening scorching set – channeling the ghosts of Crazy Horse 40 years gone – playing riffs on his Gibson and letting it wail and take him on a meandering journey. The 28-year-old’s voice echoes a young Willie Nelson, but he’s got a sound all his own.

Other highlights are too numerous, but I’ve captured a few. What the fundraiser was marked by – more than any of the other five Farm Aids I’ve attended over the past 15 years – were the artist collaborations. Jamey Johnson invited Nelson and POTR to join him for a rousing rendition of The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.” Next up, Margo Price performed the appropriate song: “I Want to Buy Back the Farm.”

The day really kicked into gear around 4 p.m. with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. Their big hit “S.O.B.” got the cowboys and cowgirls in the crowd stompin’ their feet and clapping their hands trying to keep up the beat with the band’s raucous rhythms and pulsating percussion. The Avett Brothers kept the kitchen party going, playing an energetic and sweaty set marked by songs new and old.

Later, Jack Johnson set the tone for encouraging collaborations. The highlight came mid-set when he invited Rateliff and his band, Jamey Johnson, and Sheryl Crow to join him on a memorable, soulful rendition of Bob Dylan’s classic “I Shall Be Released.” Crow’s set that followed featured many of her radio-friendly hits, including “My Favorite Mistake,” and “All I Wanna Do.”

The pinnacle was when Crow invited Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Jack Johnson, and Margo Price to join her on a blistering version of The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” in a nod to the late great Gregg Allman.

As night descended, and predictable but enjoyable sets by Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds and John Mellencamp had passed, it was finally “Neil time.” After the roadies worked feverishly to get all his gear set up and his guitars ready, Young strutted out shortly after 9:35 p.m. with POTR and wasted no time, picking up Old Black and launching into “Fuckin’ Up.”

Finally, as the concert drew to its close, the grandfather and founder of this incredible day, 84-year-old Nelson, ended the show with nearly 60 minutes of all his hits. Nelson was backed by his longtime family band and, for the last few songs, nearly every one of the artists who had played that day joined him for a final curtain call.

While waiting for more than an hour to get out of the parking lot, I reminisced about the day, the cause, and just how lucky I was to be one of the 23,000 fans who witnessed Farm Aid 2017 in Pennsylvania – a concert I’ll not soon forget.

No time like now for Steve Strongman

Blues (noun): Melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a 12-bar sequence. It developed in the rural southern U.S. toward the end of the 19th Century, finding a wider audience in the 1940s as blacks migrated to the cities. This urban blues gave rise to rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

Blues is an omnipresent genre, but it’s rarely in the spotlight. While it’s always acknowledged this “melancholic music” birthed rock ‘n’ roll, modern mainstream rock listeners tend to shun traditional blues. That’s fine with Steve Strongman. As a purveyor and champion of a genre that boasts a legendary line of guitar-slingers – like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Otis Rush – the blues course through Strongman’s veins and flow from his fingers every time he picks up his Gibson electric guitar. The singer-songwriter believes it’s his role to help keep the genre alive, and to educate the masses of what blues really means in the 21st Century.

“We have to continue to push the parameters of what people think blues means, because everything sounds like the blues,” says Strongman, a 2013 JUNO Award winner in the Blues Recording of the Year category (for A Natural Fact). “Even heavy rock stuff is blues-based.”

Strongman’s earned three Maple Blues Awards, and has toured with the legendary likes of B.B. King, Johnny Winter, and Buddy Guy. While Colin James recently returned to his blues roots (Blue Highways), as did The Rolling Stones (Blue & Lonesome), Strongman has always stayed true to his roots – as with his next (and sixth) album, No Time Like Now, which drops March 10, 2017. The songwriter spoke with us in January 2017 at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Toronto’s Liberty Village the day the album’s first single, “No Time Like Now,” was released.

“I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything.”

All Strongman needed to feed his muse, inspire him, and seize the day, was a sense of urgency. He recorded the 10 songs of No Time Like Now with longtime friend, former bandmate and frequent producer Rob Szabo, mostly at Beulah Sound Studio in Hamilton, where the singer-songwriter hangs his hat these days.

“We wanted it to be a very exciting, guitar-driven record,” he says. “It’s still steeped in the blues – because anything I do is steeped in the blues – but there are a lot of other elements to this record that previously we hadn’t really focused on.”

While James and The Stones each pay homage to the genre’s legends with 100-percent-covers albums, Strongman offers nine original songs steeped in the blues, but that also rock out, and boast layers of soul. The only cover is a swampy take on Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” – an intriguing choice for a blues album.

“Rob and I opened for Randy [Bachman] a long time ago, and later I ended up playing with Randy’s son Tal,” says Strongman. “We’ve always kept in touch. When I was rehearsing with Tal, one time I stayed at Randy’s house in White Rock. He’s always been a huge supporter of my music and often plays me on his CBC Radio show. When Rob and I decided we were going to do a cover on this album, Randy’s songs came to mind. ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ just leapt out at me. We didn’t want to do that cover the way Randy did it because to me it’s a fantastic, massive hit. I tried to put my own spin on it.”

When Strongman sent an MP3 demo of the classic-rock anthem to Bachman, asking for his opinion (and his blessing), the Canadian Music Hall of Famer loved it, and even agreed to lend his guitar work to the finished track.

While musicians like Bachman, James, and The Stones discovered the blues early – listening to, and learning licks from, the likes of Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin – Strongman’s attraction came via a more circuitous route.

“I arrived at the blues via classic-rock bands, because that was what I was into,” he explains. “I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything. Growing up around Kitchener-Waterloo, having [blues club] Pop the Gator [that hosted the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert Collins and Mel Brown] right there, you also got to see these amazing, world-class blues artists come through town, and that really resonated with me.

“I always think of myself as a guitar player first,” he adds. “Everything I do is steeped in the blues, but centered on guitar playing. I hear blues in everything, even in pop. Blues itself… people have an idea when they say the word. This record is just a continuation of what I’ve been working on.”

When it comes to crafting songs, does Strongman experience chills, like some other writers, when he knows he’s on to something good?

“That’s exactly the way it works,” he says. “I know when I hear something, and get a bit of a chill vibe, that it just feels right. You might spend eight hours one day and not get one word, and then the next day you get up and in 10 minutes you have two verses, and a chorus you love. You always try to strive for that ‘Aha!’ moment, where you say, ‘That’s it!’”

Gear Talk with Strongman.

SERENA RYDER: SEARCHING FOR UTOPIA

After four rigorous years on the road that included a broken heart, singer-songwriter and pop star Serena Ryder was burnt out, physically and mentally. So in 2014, she moved to Los Angeles, with no plans other than to take a break from music. The then-31-year-old, who has openly and publically battled depression before, checked out for a while – taking time to rest, rejuvenate, and just hang out at the beach.

“I was going through a break-up and winter was coming,” says Ryder. “I just wanted to feel warmth and sunshine on my face, and in my heart.”

The ocean had always called her name, so L.A. was the perfect place for Ryder to seek refuge. It took almost a year just to “get my shit together,” she says. Only after Ryder started feeling like she was back to her old self did the desire to write return. As she combined the inspiration of living on the West Coast with a host of new co-writers, it wasn’t long before song sketches started to fill in the blank canvas for the follow-up to the JUNO Award-winning Harmony (2012). Utopia is set for release in November 2016, and while its final track list isn’t yet set at press time, Ryder has recorded more than 50 songs.

Sir Thomas More coined the word “Utopia” for his 1516 book of the same name; it describes a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean, and has come to mean an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. For Ryder, Utopia means something different. “The title came from the First Nations story of The Two Wolves,” she says. “It’s an old parable of the battle that’s going on inside every human. Two wolves, a dark wolf and a light wolf, represent this battle. An elder tells this story to their grand-daughter, who asks: ‘If there’s a battle going on between the dark and the light wolf, which wolf wins?’ The elder replies: ‘The one you feed.’

“For this record, I decided it’s important to feed both your wolves. If you feed both your wolves, then, in essence you will acquire utopia… that’s the dream. Everyone wants balance. For me, utopia means balance.”

Ryder credits her long-time management, Pandyamonium, and her record company, Universal, for allowing the six-time JUNO Award winner and two-time SOCAN Award honouree to achieve this balance; neither of them pressured the musician to deliver a new batch of songs within a set period of time. Not having a schedule worked to her artistic advantage; it allowed the songs on Utopia to come together organically, in their own time.

“I was blessed to have that,” she says, “because a lot of artists finish one record and they feel this pressure to put out another one right away. It’s like you have a baby, and it’s two years old, and you’re told, ‘Now go have another baby!’ I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to do some living in between. There’s definitely more of a variety, storyline, breadth and depth of emotion in the songs because I had that time.”

Did Ryder’s break-up play a role in this new batch of songs?

“Everything I experience in my life plays into my music,” she says. “I didn’t consciously write about my break-up. I was writing about my relationship with myself… That’s the one that ends up affecting all the other relationships you have.”

“Got Your Number,” the first single from Utopia, is an infectious, upbeat song that originated during one of those L.A. afternoons. Ryder was just chilling, hanging at her place with a couple of friends. She set up a drum kit in the living room and started to groove. “I always strive to write a song that makes people want to move and feel the beat,” she says. “I was playing on the drum kit, looking for the right vibe. I had this New Orleans scene in my head of people street dancing, and playing drums and horns, and I just started rapping.”

While Ryder usually starts writing songs with a melody in mind, on this occasion it was the drumbeat that fuelled her muse. “I just started spewing out lyrics,” she says. “It all happened organically. My two friends, [songwriters] Derek [Furnham] and Todd [Clark] were there, just writing stuff down as I said it. I like being the monkey in the middle: throwing the lyrics and the melody out for them to record. It was a really inspiring writing session; I believe that energy transferred onto the song.”

Utopia was also about finding new songwriting partners, including fellow SOCAN member and multiple award-winning professional songwriter Simon Wilcox, who’s become one of Ryder’s “best friends on the entire planet.” The pair, first introduced by Ryder’s keyboard player Hill Kourkoutis, write a lot together, but mostly they just hang out and do yoga. More than half the songs on the new disc are co-writes with Wilcox and another highly celebrated pro songwriter and SOCAN member, Tawgs Salter.

“I love that other people mirror stuff back at you,” says Ryder. “People end up working better when they work together. That’s just my experience. Some people work really well alone. Maybe my next record I’ll write by myself. I have no idea why, but for this record, community was really important.

“I like working with people who are opposites of me,” she says. “Tawgs knows music theory and how to use a computer and track songs, so that’s what happened on this record. I wrote most of the lyrics and the melodies and then I had a producer or writer do the tracking and add in the musical theory.”

While 50 per cent of the songs on Utopia were written during Ryder’s sojourn in L.A., the rest of them were written in various locales around the globe, including Nashville; London, England; Australia; and Toronto. One new songwriting partner Ryder discovered in the U.K. was John Grant. “I wrote ‘Killing Time’ with him,” she says. “I fell in love with working with John, and I flew him to Toronto a couple of weeks later and we wrote another song called ‘Back to Me.’” Another was Colin MacDonald of The Trews, who ended up becoming her fiancé.

No matter where she writes, one wonders if Ryder follows a set songwriting formula. We ask whether, like recent U.S. Songwriting Hall of Fame inductee Chip Taylor, she gets chills when she knows a song is a keeper.

“It all depends,” she says. “Songwriting is so ethereal to me. I write on real intuition and feeling. When Chip talks about those chills, sometimes that happens to me… sometimes I get melodies in my head, and sometimes someone will say something that sparks a whole other idea.”

Ryder compares that moment before an idea arrives to an artist staring at a blank canvas. “When you have a blank canvas, you have an open invitation to take a color you like and put it on there,” she says. “For me, I play around with melody like it’s one of my favourite colors… I think about how this note tastes on my tongue, what word makes that sound happen and then I’ll write down that word and ask what it means to me… In that moment I’m just like a pre-school kid sitting and playing with their favourite colours.”