Listen to this track by St. Catharines Ontario-born singer-songwriter and teller of tales Ron Sexsmith. It’s “The Idiot Boy”, a deep cut as taken from his 1999 album Whereabouts, his third record. The song traces the history of humankind itself through a distinctly Biblical lens, tongue firmly in cheek. In it, the titular central character is not so much a hero in his own story, but more like his own stumbling block. This is very much in keeping with the whole record.
Whereabouts is a pretty overcast album, full of self-doubt and struggle. On it, Sexsmith seems to live up to his (not ultimately accurate) reputation as a perpetually glum songwriter, with his rainy-day voice not entirely helping to dissuade the casual listener any differently. It was therefore hard for that same casual listener to see the humour in the lyrics, an angle that has also been a part of Sexsmith’s approach. There’s more to this song than what first might be perceived.
Even while “The Idiot Boy” reflects his views on human history, it’s also perhaps a reflection of the songwriter’s own state of being. Read more
Listen to this track by Bermuda-born, London-based singer-songwriter Heather Nova. It’s “London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)”, a single as taken from her third album, 1998’s Siren. Even though the song is a paean to being home in London, it did much better in the US, possibly due to its inclusion in the soundtrack to an episode of nineties drama Dawson’s Creek.
Emerging in the early nineties, Heather Nova’s music fit into a certain paradigm of women singer-songwriters that proliferated at the time, underscoring the wealth of talent that existed under the still very male-centric music industry. Nova had a unique background from which she pulled her music and her approach to a career in a tough industry. As a child, she lived on a forty-foot boat with her family including a brother and sister plus her two parents, sailing the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea for most of the 1970s and into the 1980s, all the while making music for herself.
It was in this setting that she grew her love for music and for storytelling. But I think too that background may cast light on what makes this specific song such a vital example of what makes Heather Nova unique, along with how much it mirrors a pretty common thread in most people’s lives; a sense of home. Read more
Life is a mystery, as the poet once said.
This is true even in its most sublime moments, which is a big part of why it’s so precious. There are no guarantees and no promise that all the threads in a single life will be neatly tied up at the end of it, or indeed anywhere along its length. The history of songwriting has certainly plumbed the depths of this aspect of our existence, helping us to be aware of it and to come to a closer understanding of it in our own lives.
But in the lives of some songwriters, this concept of mystery goes one, and sometimes several, steps further. The murky, the undefined, the undisclosed, the unsolved may or may not be a part of their work in an overt way. But in their own lives, it’s a different story completely, with unexpected, discontinuous, and undetermined elements to their lives and careers that either have been mysteries to the listening public, or remain to be so today.
With that in mind, here are 10 songwriters who’s lives, myths, personas, are connected with the unpredictable and mysterious nature of life itself. Some are tragic. Some hold the quality of triumph, too. Some have since stepped from the shadows. Some remain lost in the void. Some you’ve heard about. Some you haven’t. Either way, these ten songwriters embody the various mysteries that are as compelling or even more so than the songs they left behind.
Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-satirist with a highly developed social conscience matched by a sense of humour, Jill Sobule. It’s “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”, a single as taken from her involvement in the recent My Song Is My Weapon project, and its accompanying album Monster Protest Jams, Vol. 1. The album is a compilation of new protest songs that includes the work of artists like Tom Morello, Todd Rundgren, Amanda Palmer, Wayne Kramer, Wendy & Lisa, and many others.
The project, co-founded by Sobule, is based around the idea that the grand tradition of artistic protest in America needs an online forum. Through Pledge Music, we can help make that a reality particularly during a time when it is very difficult to tell satirical headlines from the actual news. More to the point, it’s a time when also-ran politicians and would-be world leaders seem to deal mostly in ambiguity and emotional button pushing instead of real data, specifically around the nebulous concept of the good ol’ days when America Was Great. No one can quite remember this era in exact detail, but many feel as though they need to replicate it in our modern age by electing repressive and out and out dangerous demagogues.
So, what is the role of the protest song in a socio-political environment such as ours? Does is have the same effect as it once did in the idealistic sixties or even in the jaded seventies? In this age of technological networks, maybe the answer is less about the song, and more about the listeners. Read more
Listen to this track by politically minded singer-songwriter with an eye for the ironic Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call Me Rose”, the second song as taken from his 2011 album Small Source Of Comfort. Being known mainly for a song about reflecting on what would happen to sons of bitches should Cockburn ever procure a rocket launcher, he’s not generally known for writing songs with a sense of levity. Yet, even that is a misconception. This is the guy who covered Eric Idle’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” remember, arguably in reaction to his (unearned) reputation for being a bit too earnest. An opening line like “My name was Richard Nixon, only now I’m a girl” might be a bit jarring for many in any case.
On this song, Cockburn really hasn’t strayed from his main songwriting patch which has been about commenting on socio-economic inequity in the world. On this song though, there is a unique shift in perspective that has Cockburn voicing a character, rather than a usual narrative in his own voice. Instead of tales of Nicaraguan villagers making the best of things during a period of political upheaval, or ones about fleeing Guatemalan refugees at the mercy of machine gunners in helicopters (the sons of bitches referred to earlier), we meet a mother called Rose with two little kids living in the projects. The twist is that in a previous life, she had been the aforementioned former President of the United States. How’s that for socio-economic inequity?
But what is Cockburn trying to say here, other than “karma’s a bitch”? Well, I think it has to do with how we as a culture view the idea of power and how it relates to empathy. Read more
Listen to this track by soft-spoken singer-songwriter from Louisiana and then Memphis, Tennessee who made Montréal his home for many years, Jesse Winchester. It’s “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding”, a track taken off of his latter day album Love Filling Station in 2009.
The reasons for his stay in Canada from 1967 onward were less than ideal. The Vietnam war was ramping up, and Winchester was a pacifist. This meant taking refuge in Canada to avoid the draft like so many of his generation. But what it also meant was meeting with The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who would produce his self-titled first album in 1970, complete with the sepia-toned cover shot that made Winchester look like an outlaw on the lam, which in some respects I guess he actually was before President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1977, along with all other American conscientious objectors, after which he could finally tour the States. He stayed in Canada anyway until 2002.
Since that period, he recorded his own albums and penned songs for other artists as well. By 2009, he was not exactly a household name, and his output had slowed considerably. But this tune demonstrates the depths of his talent that remained undiminished, and reveals something about the passage of time and the ways we perceive things as we get older. Read more
Listen to this track by former Royal Academy of Music student and jazz/pop/Latin mixologist Joe Jackson. It’s “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)”, a smash hit single as taken from the 1984 album Body and Soul.
That album was the follow up to 1982’s Night & Day, a record on which Joe Jackson scored a number of hits along with critical acclaim as he was getting himself off of the new wave merry-go-round. But if that previous record was a cellar club date played by a small group of pop-oriented jazzheads with Latin percussion leanings, then Body and Soul is the Broadway show of the same kind of sound.
The crucial thing that made this song notable is just how up and positive it is, even if Jackson was known up until this point for his sardonic tone. That theme of empowerment runs right through the record, almost like it’s a soundtrack to a musical that was never produced. As the years have gone by and with all of that sparkly optimism found in this tune even now, I’ve wondered about who this song was really directed towards; us the audience, or Jackson himself? Read more
Listen to this track by Iron & Wine lead Sam Beam and experimental pop singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop. It’s “Valley Clouds”, a track as taken off of their joint album Love Letter For Fire. That album was released just this past April, making many a music fan’s eyes widen by the possibilities initially, and by now how well Beam and Hoop’s voices intertwine to create something new out of a well-traveled approach to the making of pop music of a certain vintage and spirit.
The intent of the album was to take an established form, the duet, and to import a modern take on it as well as create a songwriting partnership out of that process. This album was the result, with this song being a lead single to establish its tone, which is a sort of quietly intense atmosphere of a campfire singalong.
As one might expect, this record of duets centers around the subject of love. But, what it also explores something that this established form has always intended, and that is how writing songs for two voices expands thematic possibilities, creates tension, and adds a sophisticated emotional dynamic that can only exist when two points of view are expressed in the same song.
Listen to this track by Scottish folk-rock proponent and former Stealers Wheel frontman Gerry Rafferty. It’s “Baker Street”, a huge international hit and probably his most recognized song as taken from his second solo album, 1978’s City To City.
The song and the album off of which it came was something of a comeback for Rafferty, who had been hampered from releasing any new work until the legal barbed wire he was wrapped up in with the dissolution of Stealers Wheel was concluded. In order to see to resolving this, he found himself making frequent trips by train between his home in Glasgow and his lawyer’s offices in London; city to city indeed, then. While in London, he stayed at a friend’s flat on the titular Baker Street. As such, this song captures the atmosphere and sets of feelings associated with a tempestuous period for Rafferty, ending well enough to allow him to record his next record, with this song being the biggest of three singles taken from it.
The song is probably best known for its distinct saxophone riff, one that launched a thousand sax parts well into the 1980s. But it’s the song underneath the riff that’s always stood out for me, and certainly a vivid portrait of an artist who walked a razor’s edge between pursuing a creative life, and having to face the pressures of the music industry. Read more
Listen to this track by three-cornered supergroup with the accountancy firm-style name, case/lang/veirs. It’s “Atomic Number”, the first single from the upcoming self-titled album by three magnificantly talented singers and songwriters Neko Case, k.d lang, and Laura Veirs. The album is due out on June 17 from Anti-Records.
The formation of this band came initially from Lang as she sought to challenge herself within a band format. She contacted both Neko Case and Laura Veirs, both of whom reflexively said “yes!” at the prospect of working with her. Wouldn’t you? Well, maybe you wouldn’t given the calibre of talent that Lang represents by herself. She’s done duets with Roy Orbison and Tony Bennett, and held her own and then some. But, Neko Case is also a titan in the vocal department too, not to mention her capacity as a songwriter both as a solo artist and with The New Pornographers. Laura Veirs is the lesser known of the three, arguably. But, she’s been able to have a very maneuverable career, following her muse down various avenues just the same with results that make her one of the best in her field.
The question with a collaborative project like this is always the same, and that is this. Will the music survive the egos involved? After all, the word “supergroup” has been used, and rightly so. Luckily, it seems like this issue wasn’t exactly lost on the three principles. And the proof is in the pudding. So, what kind of dish are we looking at, exactly? Read more