Tag Archives: Songwriting

The genesis of genius

Published 12/14/2021

By Andrew Berthoff

When I was younger, so much younger than today, I grew up with the Beatles. I can thank my music-loving mother for that. Some of my first memories from the late ’60s are of sitting around the house colouring and listening to LPs like the Stones’ Aftermath, the Who’s Tommy (I remember wondering what “Tommy-The-Who” was, and if he was like the Nowhere Man), Blind Faith, Simon & Garfunkel, Cream, and, of course, the Fab Four.

I would have been about five when Let It Be came out. For my mom, a housewife at the time, I was her main daytime companion for a year, with my older brother and sister in full-time primary school.

She would take me to movies like Yellow SubmarineTrue Grit, Woody Allen’s Bananas, and I remember seeing Let It Be at our local Varsity cinema. My most vivid recollections were the shot of an older person scaling a roof ladder on Savile Row to get a better view of the band, and that I was a bit frightened by John and George. I was more a Paul and Ringo kid.

While the Beatles are baked into my brain, I wouldn’t consider myself an ardent fan, compared with others who’ve memorized every detail about the band. But I know their music up and down, and, without hesitation, I would say they’re the greatest band in history. Their writing, song for song, is rivalled only by Cole Porter.

I consumed Peter Jackson’s epic documentary Get Back voraciously. The nine hours flew by, and, even in our attention-deficit-disordered world, I can’t understand the post-release whining from some that it was too long.

Too long? Too long are the 50 years that we’ve gone with nary a new piece of footage or fact revealed about the group. Too long is the endless revisionist history about the band. Too long is the winding road of those who’ve since passed: Lennon, Harrison, Linda McCartney, George Martin…

Relative to five decades of nothing, nine hours of brilliant, unfettered, new footage is everything.

I can’t imagine a more fantastic view of the art and skill of professional songwriting than Get Back. What struck me most was the work these geniuses put into their craft. Anyone who believes that a four-minute song takes a minute to make will be quickly disabused of the notion. Each song is carefully massaged, manipulated, and mastered over intense working sessions for a solid month – many hard days’ nights working like a dog.

Despite being on top of the world, they sat down and WORKED

Get Back is nothing but good for professional music creators. I’m not a songwriter, but I’ve composed and published music, and too often, a life’s work is belittled as throwaway, and somehow “easy.” It’s tantamount to undermining a major league athlete as “getting paid millions to play a kids’ game,” discounting the thousands of hours of continual learning, practicing, and perfecting that got them there.

If there’s a scene in Get Back that resonated with me most, it’s when John, George, and Ringo are off to the left of the rehearsal space discussing some relatively mundane topic with the legendary producer Glyn Johns. Not in the shot, one can hear the first few chords of the song “Let It Be” being tested out by McCartney at the piano. The discussion group on the left doesn’t pay any attention to it. They don’t jolt upright, stop everything and shout, “What’s THAT, Paul?!” No, they continue talking because this is simply the everyday songwriting process.

While I see this moment as several of the genesis-type moments of creation (I picture outstretched fingers about to touch the Sistine Chapel roof), it’s one of many quiet but spellbinding incidents in Get Back. It’s profound; a spiritual, near-religious experience.

I’ve always thought that every time a songwriter humble-brags that their No. 1 hit took “20 minutes to write,” that they do themselves and their fellow music creators a disservice.

The essence of the song might well have been scribbled out in a few minutes, but it ignores the years of learning, practice, and preparation that took them to that point, and the hours, days, eight-day weeks, and months of tweaking, arranging, playing, recording, and mastering that made the song what it is.

Every member of the Beatles had no airs and graces that I could detect. Despite being on top of the world for the previous eight years, they sat down with their instruments and worked. They debated, cajoled, kidded, prodded, tweaked – in a word, collaborated. They didn’t come into the space with pre-conceptions of greatness, or even an indication that I could detect that they were about to create anything great.

Indeed, like the best of us, it was their creative humility that appeared to push them forward, without assumption until, in the end, creativity caved to commerce. The inklings of business interrupting their art creep in during the final part of Get Back. To me, it’s a moment as mournful as first chords of “Let It Be” are beautiful.

We can thank The Beatles for many things, and we can thank Get Back for putting the craft, and art, and hard work of songwriting into real context. It shows the genesis of genius.

About Andrew Berthoff

Closer to my heart

Published 01/16/2020

By Andrew Berthoff

This SOCAN blog post, written by SOCAN Chief Communications & Marketing Officer Andrew Berthoff, was uploaded to The Toronto Star website on Jan. 14, 2020, and printed in the newspaper the same day.

I was a 14-year-old in, of all places, the subdivisions of St. Louis when I learned about Rush.

My friend Bret alerted me to this weird Canadian trio. Bret knew about them because his cool older sister, between her apparent penchant for Zeppelin, Steely Dan, and the Moody Blues, got A Farewell to Kings.

Before I knew it, our small, socially awkward, intelligent band of friends were playing the grooves off of Hemispheres, mesmerized by the lyrics and percussion virtuosity of Rush drummer Neil Peart.

We had our own little clique. We were cool to be outcast. And it was mainly Peart who brought our hearts closer to Canada.

To put an even stronger nerd-factor into my musical tastes, I became a bagpiper, as engrossed in piping culture as I was in Peart’s mystic lyrics, Lifeson’s double-necked riffs, and Lee’s improbable bass-falsetto combination. Bagpipes and Rush: unlikely watchwords of my adolescence.

Those halcyon pre-Internet days made us wonder just what they were all about. Geddy? Romantic poetical references to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”? Cygnus? Where was this Lakeside Park and its fantastical willows in the breeze? And just how was “Peart” pronounced anyway? Pert? Pea-art? Or could a twist of satined-mustachioed-lyricist-cool make it rhyme with “heart” itself?

One thing was sure: the heart of Peart was art.

Soon I was discovering and enjoying more made-in-Canada music. April Wine. Max Webster. Neil. Joni. I’d wonder what the obscure reference to “Becker’s chocolate milk” meant on the credits on an album sleeve.

We saw two Rush concerts: December 1978 at the Checkerdome and February 1980 at Keil Auditorium. They played three sold-out nights at the latter, having somehow secured a fan base toehold in St. Louis, with the help of Bret, Keith, Rick, Matt, and me.

By that time, though, Rush’s Permanent Waves foreshadowed and countered new wave. As the ironic album title suggested, Rush would stay true to their craft, even though cool was now coming from the U.K. in the form of deliciously synth-y bands.

I went off to college in Minnesota. It was even less cool to love Rush. After detecting some slight musical and video compromise with The Big Money (more irony), I left them for local fare like Prince and The Time, while soaking in as much of The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, and REM as possible.

But my interest in Canada, spawned by Rush, continued. Through bagpiping, I discovered that Canada possessed the best pipers in North America, and a thriving scene that I wanted to be part of.

My father and I would journey to Ontario from St. Louis for me to compete in piping competitions in unlikely towns like Cambridge, Dutton, and Maxville. Hours of dad-driven 55 mph travel in our radio-less, ochre-coloured Dodge Aspen.

My heart would leap up driving across the 401 at the top of Toronto. In the distance, could it really be the same high-rise housing featured on the cover of A Farewell to Kings? Eyes cast up on the path of least resistance.

Canada would hold its cool. Within a year of completing university, I fulfilled my subconscious dream and somehow landed in Toronto for good. It was May 1988, and I’d even live in Alex and Geddy’s Willowdale ‘hood for several years. I became a Canadian citizen by 1995, and here I remain.

I would continue to learn and love music made in Canada, and eventually transfer that love, and my career in communications and marketing, to fulfil another subconscious dream: working on behalf of Canada’s songwriters, composers, and music publishers, fighting for their rights, promoting their success.

When I turn my pages of history, I can’t help but to give much of the credit to those days long ago in St. Louis. I thank this unusually compelling power trio for bringing me closer to their art, compelling me to Canada, through music and words.

Neil Peart’s words.

The many unpredictable steps that help a song succeed

Published 08/7/2019

By Patricia Conroy

It isn’t just a great song.

It’s getting that song to the perfect artist, who it was meant to be with.

Then there’s the magic that happens, once in awhile, in that studio, on that Friday afternoon, with a bunch of wonderful, inspired musicians who instantly “get” the song, and how it should sound.

And a producer who knew that would happen when he chose the players.

And the engineer is terrific, and the song sounds just like it should.

Then, by some stroke of luck, it’s the next single, and it gets played on a few radio stations.

And it gets heard by someone driving away from home for good… or someone about to walk into a motel room to meet someone they shouldn’t… or a single mom with nothing left to hold onto but this song.

And it gets to each of them in a different, strange, and powerful way, and next thing you know, it’s catching fire and climbing the charts.

And it becomes a hit.

Then you pick up your guitar and write another song.

Songwriting is a passion, and these days I’m all about creating something with soul.

But some days, the magic just isn’t there, and you can’t just manufacture magic.

Perhaps the key is consistently going to the well.

Listen to music that nurtures your passion.

Ideas can start from anything: A melody, a phrase, a movie, a billboard, a sticker on the pick-up truck in front of you at a red light…

Search for stories. Make one up. Keep looking and listening.

Ralph Murphy told me a story once about Harlan Howard. How almost daily, around happy hour, he’d sit at a local bar and just listen to people’s conversation. That’s where he got a lot of his great song ideas… from real life, real people.

It isn’t just a great song, but  that’s the best place to start. Good Luck, and have fun!

Digital revolution fosters more hurried, less skillful creative process

Published 10/12/2017

By Miranda Mulholland

Classically trained on violin and in voice, Miranda Mulholland is in high demand as a fiddler and singer covering a wide range of styles. She’s a member of the duo Harrow Fair, and the fiddle trio Belle Starr, and makes select appearances in the violin show Bowfire. She runs a music label, Roaring Girl Records; founded the new Sawdust City Music Festival in Gravenhurst, ON; is a member of the Board of Governors of Massey Hall/Roy Thomson Hall; and sits on the board of the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA).

I love looking at drafts of artwork. I love early versions of novels, songs and poems. I love sketches of paintings. I recently saw an early oil sketch of John Constable’s “The Haywain” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

You can see the skill, of course, but comparing it with the final version that hangs in the National Gallery, you can clearly see the thought, decision and composition that he worked through to arrive at the end result. I almost prefer the sketch.

There’s an art economist, David Galenson, who talks about the process of creation. He differentiates between the flash of lightning versus the arduous creative process. We hear a lot about the first type, what he calls “conceptual innovators”. The songwriters who wrote a song in minutes and it went to number one. The painters who sat at a canvas and with deft strokes completed a masterpiece. This idea goes back to ancient Greece, and the muse visiting with ideas of brilliance. But the notion that this is how it always transpires pays short shrift to the actual grueling and painstaking work and revisions that most artists’ work undergoes. These are the “experimental innovators”.

Leonard Cohen took six years to write “Hallelujah.” Bruce Springsteen took six months to work on the lyrics to “Born to Run.” Margaret Mitchell took 10 years to write Gone with the Wind and our own Alistair Macleod wrote his stunner No Great Mischief in 13 years.

Creating art is the use of skepticism for what’s come before, and the application of curiosity, which leads to the imagination arriving at something utterly new, through skill. In an increasingly hurried world, it’s important to use long-term thinking. Governments, funders, publishers and labels need to remember that most artists need time to develop, grow and realize their visions.

For instance, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, when asked about the pressure the publishing industry puts on writers to write quickly, said, “Quality work takes time. As a writer, my principal observation about why other writers fail is that they are in too much of a hurry. I don’t think the problem with writing in America right now is a failure of output. I think it’s a failure of quality.”
Our current social climate has been moving further away from time and skill. The notion that anyone can record an album in their bedroom and upload it for free is in theory a democratizing one, but it begs the question: Just because you can, should you? There’s a whole “amateurizing” movement which is exactly the same concept – a democratizing idea, but put into practice, what does it amount to and how does it translate to the consumer?

When I was in Grade 7, I was in a string quartet that would play for weddings. The cellist had put the group together and managed the bookings. She was the most inexperienced member of the quartet musically, and didn’t practice enough. For the last wedding I played with that quartet, the bride had requested Pachelbel’s Canon – which is right at the top of the Wedding “hits package”; I’m sure you’ve heard it many times. The cello part has eight notes in it – the same pattern, over and over. She didn’t ever get through the sequence without a mistake, and the piece came off as pretty amateur affair. I tried to be diplomatic after the wedding and suggested that perhaps “we,” as a quartet, should practice more before we accepted any further payment for our services.

Her response was that the bridal party seemed perfectly fine with it and didn’t notice the mistakes. But this is my problem with that: we were hired to notice. We were hired to be the experts, the arbiters of taste and skill. When this contract gets fuzzy, quality suffers. Trusted tastemakers have been eradicated by shrinking budgets and replaced with algorithms.

I’ve had some wildly sub-par service with Uber and Airbnb, and read some pretty poorly written “news stories” and blogs that just regurgitate press releases – or what’s known as “citizen journalism” – and I wonder when we got so afraid of skill and expertise.

True tastemakers are becoming endangered. There has been a vast and exponential growth in output and content in the last 20 years. While reviewers and consumers are drowning in choice, paid arbiters of taste are being laid off and replaced by amateurs.

One of the purported benefits of the digital revolution, that we’re all by now very aware of, is targeting. Because of the vast amount of data collected from all of us, we can target our exact audiences. We can be precise, allowing niche-market music to find its consumers.
The trouble is, niche isn’t easy. Because the streaming system is built on market share, the miniscule fraction of a cent you get per stream decreases wildly if your music isn’t in the mainstream. The less it’s streamed, the less it finds its way into the playlist algorithms, and then the less it’s ever played again. Niche becomes an ourobouros, a worm swallowing its own tail. Not only that, but because it’s financially such a small part of the market, it’s sometimes erased altogether.

But fostering niche is important. Why? When you look at language, there are words that are rarely used. They’re not mainstream words. They are able, however, to capture a sentiment absolutely and completely. Did you know that the word groak means staring silently at someone while they eat? That’s not a word you use on a regular basis, but I’m glad it exists.

When we limit and hinder access to these words we actually limit thought. Remember Winston Smith in 1984, a novel that gets more timely by the day. His job was to get rid of words from the dictionary to limit and control thought, creating “newspeak.” Things like spell check and text predictors are speeding up this process.

I believe algorithms threaten to limit and control as well. The calculations are based on decisions you, and those with similar taste profiles, have already made. This is limiting to imagination, and to those surprise discoveries, and against-type choices, that radically change thoughts. And changing thought patterns is one of the most powerful things about art.

So, what key piece are we missing here? We can find it in the artistic process. It’s the key to creativity: imagination. Imagination leads to skepticism, not in doubt but in curiosity. It allows us to not accept absolutes and givens, and to envision new perspectives, solutions and realities. We can employ the tools “skepticism” and “curiosity” to take ownership of our decisions, and unlock new and exciting thoughts, discoveries and inspiration.

News, music, book suggestions, products we might like popping up in our targeted ads is easy. But easy isn’t always good. We need to be more skeptical than ever, and reclaim the power of being our own tastemakers.

Drake: More than a rapper

Published 03/29/2017

By Howard Druckman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noble Work

Published 10/28/2016

By Andrew Berthoff

Since the Nobel people announced that the brilliant songwriter Bob Dylan is the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, not a few people have asked me what I think. Friends know my background in and love of literature as well as, of course, my professional life in communications and marketing in the music industry, so I guess it’s a logical question.

What do I think?

I think it’s great for the noble and honourable craft and art of songwriting and music creation. I love that it elevates SOCAN’s noble and honourable calling to fight for the rights of music creators and publishers. For that reason alone, I love it.

But, I suspect like Bob Dylan himself believes, the award is inappropriate – mainly because he likes to keep his craft and work simple. It is what it is. He insists “Blowin’ in the Wind” was written in 20 minutes. It flowed forth naturally, the muse striking with urgency and ease, as it miraculously, magically and rarely can.

Songwriting and music composition is almost always hard, hard work. There are the rare examples of instant classics, just as some Picasso masterpieces might have been made in minutes. But the vast majority of songs and compositions take figurative blood, sweat and tears – and measurable time.

Perhaps if Dylan took himself super-seriously and was precious about his work he might have a different opinion about receiving – never mind accepting – the Lit Nobel. That he’s so self-effacing and elusive about his art makes the honour that much more complicated.

I tend to think that giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to a songwriter is a brilliant and probably calculated PR stunt. It surprises and delights. It gets people talking. Like great art itself, it elicits a reaction, which doesn’t have to be positive in order to be successful. The controversy raises interest and awareness. By selecting the elusive and capricious Dylan, they must have anticipated that his response (or lack of one) would add intrigue and controversy to their choice.

But the stunt might come at a cost to the Nobel “brand.” There are not a few acknowledged literary masters who have taken umbrage, even more strident than what was seen following the debatable Peace Nobel awarded to Barack Obama after his relatively few years of work. In subjective prize-giving like this, inevitably it’s the list of who has not received the award that makes it questionable. The inference drawn is that Bob Dylan achieved more in literature than, say, Joyce, Proust or Nabokov.

While the credibility of the Nobel Prize might have taken a reputational hit that I don’t much like, I love the fact that the credibility of songwriting as an esteemed literary art-form has been elevated.

Just as they added a prize for Economic Sciences in 1969, perhaps a better solution might be for the 115-year-old Nobel organization to add a new category: Music. That makes sense, and would allow the prize to expand. As with novelists, playwrights and poets in contention for the Lit Nobel, all genres of music creation could be in line for the music prize.

And I would fully expect that future Nobel Prizes in Music will go to SOCAN members like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.