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SAC Challenge 2015 Week 1

It’s February again, and that means it’s time for the Songwriter’s Association of Canada Challenge 2015. This year, the SAC Challenge is all about giving writers a chance to feel some of the pressure and time demands of the real world of professional songwriting and includes an opportunity to pitch songs to an established Canadian artist, Matt Dusk.

Industry veterans are on hand in the form of two songwriting coaches, Debra Alexander and James Linderman, whom we have access to as and when we need them. To provide a brand new challenge each week, a different industry veteran will give us a brief to follow.

The first challenge is a little different from the others, in that it is the only week in which we do NOT need to complete and deliver a song in recorded form. The reason is simple – we will have six weeks to do so, so our song written for this first challenge will be due by late March, as a suitably produced demo recording. The other challenges will require 7-day turnarounds, but for this one, being an actual real-world pitch, we have been given rather longer, to give us the best shot at successfully placing a song.

The SAC will forward those songs that seem appropriate for the pitch brief given by Matt Dusk, and if it works out, somebody from the SAC group will end up with a song on Matt’s next album, which will be promoted globally. A great opportunity, and as ‘real world’ as it’s possible to get.

Matt Dusk is a stylish and accomplished performer with a really great voice. He is hoping to add to his fanbase, like all artists, but would like to include a younger demographic than he is currently marketed to. He is looking for something with a powerful groove, and something with style and punch, and a cool, edgy charm.

Upon watching the short video brief for the pitch which Matt provided, I could see the reasoning behind it, and agree with his thinking 100% as it is an eminently sensible move given his audience and given the current vogue for strong vocals over a sort of retro cool soul swagger backing, epitomised by the likes of Adele and Foster the People and Amy Winehouse and Rock Mafia. He is also open to slower paced music along the lines of John Legend’s “All Of Me” and the 50’s faded Hollywood noir glamour of artists like Lana del Ray.

This all suggests style and passion delivered with a brash youthfulness beset with powerful and memorable hooks. I thought long and hard about where to go with this, and looked through my notebook of title ideas (my “hook book”) for suitable inspiration. Should I co-write? Should I fly solo? Well, in the end, I have done both.

I live in Vancouver BC, and teamed up with two other writers from the Eastern side of Canada, one male, one female, in search of a good team-effort idea, and things are bubbling along there, though we definitely have plenty of work to do still before we have a pitchable song.  I have worked with Kathryn Berry-Sauvageau before but never with Robert Campbell, my two co-writers on this project.  We will get something completed shortly, but for now we are using Skype and Facebook messaging to communicate and brainstorm, and will spend a while yet on that. We are getting to know each other better, and time will tell how that works out on the songwriting front, but we have certainly enjoyed the networking aspect and the exercise our songwriting muscles are getting.

Simultaneously working alone on another idea, since I had already got well under way when I joined in the team, I have developed a pair of verses and a chorus that I think will be a good fit for Matt’s vision. My title is “I Forget To Breathe”, and music is not worked out completely, just partially. The lyric too is still in development, but here is the chorus as it stands at the moment…

I’m about to drown
Everything starts to spin
As I’m going down
And I’m out of air
What a spell she weaves
The moment her eyes meet mine

Musically, I see it as a thoroughly modern marriage between Besame Mucho, Livin’ La Vida Loca and The Big Bang, with a spanish minor key flavour spiced with soul horns and powerhouse drum groove and all-important hooks. I’m hoping I can dramatically reinforce the emotional impact the title describes in the musical backing, and get feet tapping along to a serious groove and a melodic earworm.

A nice blue vintage drum set with a few extra cymbals thrown in

A nice blue vintage drum set with a few extra cymbals thrown in

It seems to me that much of the excitement of the songs Matt Dusk referenced as examples of his vision’s ballpark came from the real drums employed, and so I set up my drums in my home studio and recorded some grooves that can be used as writing loops to explore production approaches, but I’m pretty confident of the direction needed. Whether the song’s lyric will ever reach the potential in my mind’s eye (ear?) is another question entirely, but I have no worries about generating a recording of this sort of thing, as I have done a great deal of recording, as the rest of the posts in this blog website will show.

I sincerely hope that somebody from the SAC Challenge 2015 succeeds in getting a song placed on Matt’s new album, but regardless of that, the journey is the thing. Lifelong learning comes with the turf when you are a songwriter, and rejection is the normal state of affairs for all but a few of us when we work on songs and then present them to the real world of the music business. If we are enjoying our work, and we love our songs and our fellow songwriters, and support each other on this amazing journey, then we are winning and laughing. It’s about improving what we do as much as we can.

There is nothing I would like more than to write something that can stand up against the finest works of writers like Sammy Cahn and James van Heusen or Richard Rodgers or Lorenz Hart, writers whose many-decades-old work has resonated with new force and passion in the hands of a skilled singer like Matt.  I sing these very same songs myself at senior centres every three or four days for seniors, often the victims of Alzheimers Disease at various stages, and I find the therapy is fantastic, for them and for me, and I have the utmost respect for the craftsmanship required to create such a masterpiece.  To follow a song like “My Funny Valentine” (Rodgers/Hart) – which Matt recorded quite recently in homage to the wonderfully gifted but sadly dysfunctional Chet Baker  – is a tall, tall order, and to add the constraints of pop production to the challenge is yet another layer of complexity for us that did not arise in Sammy and Jim’s time to the extent that it does now.  Into the fray!  It’s like Sinatra meets Mark Ronson, in the noise of my imagination.

I will be working constantly for the next few weeks to meet the ongoing challenges as they come up, whilst striving to perfect production on a pitch for Matt Dusk, not only alone with my half-finished song “I Forget To Breathe”, but also together with my fellow writers who have kindly agreed to work with me on alternative possibilities.

Songwriting is the most fun you can have, and the most rewarding thing in the known universe when it is going well. We will encounter challenges and obstacles, but we have each other to provide fresh eyes and ears and inspiration.

Whatever we come up with, we are better for the effort. When I need to refresh my sense of quality in songwriting, I simply re-read the Jimmy Webb book “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting”, and I am suitably chastened. Sing high, aim higher! Good luck everyone, and it’s been great to become more acquainted with you and your songs. Thanks, SAC!

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