Canadian musicians swapped songs and stories at the annual SOCAN Songwriter’s Circle, co-hosted by Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle and CBC personality Tom Power.
Held the afternoon of the JUNO Awards in London, Ontario, the MusiCounts fundraiser featured a rotating line-up of JUNO nominees and winners for an afternoon of music and intimate conversation.
Doyle opened the show with his buoyant solo single “Come Out With Me,” a Celtic rocker that uses the tale of a disembarking sailor as a “thinly disguised” metaphor for life on the road. “It’s all about me when the tour bus rolls into town,” he explained.
Next in the rotation, Pop Album of the Year nominee Tyler Shaw sat down at the piano to play “The Man Who Let Her Go.” Shaw said the song was inspired by a friend who wrote a letter to her ex, thanking him for teaching her what she didn’t want in a boyfriend. His friend’s letter reminded Shaw of his own wife, and of how grateful he was that her previous boyfriend hadn’t been The One.
(“Oh, the glowing optimism of youth,” Doyle cracked.)
Shaw switched to guitar for his second piece, “With You,” a Buble-esque love song written for his wife. (His earnestness was an amusing contrast to four-times divorced mega-producer David Foster, who joked about how his ex-wives now own all of his songs.)
Foster’s segments showed off his biting sense of humour, in addition to a deep musical catalogue.
“I sing like shit,” he admitted, playing a series of snippets from his most famous compositions. Among his selections was “After the Love Has Gone,” which he wrote for Earth, Wind & Fire to spite one of his band members, an EWF fan who disliked him.
“Let it be an inspiration for you,” he said; “if someone doesn’t like what you’re doing, use it as a weapon.”
Foster also showcased several songs written with Chicago’s Peter Cetera, including “You’re The Inspiration;” he revealed that the song was written for and rejected by Kenny Rogers, who said it didn’t sound like a hit. (Chicago’s version hit #3 on the Billboard Charts).
Indigenous Album of the Year nominee Elisapie diverged from the format with a cover song, honouring Inuit musician Willie Thrasher with a rendition of his “Wolves Don’t Live By the Rules.”
She prefaced the song by providing context about Thrasher’s experience in the Canadian residential school system. “No wonder they are so good at numbing themselves,” she reflected, noting that such a coping method is contrary to the “very expressive” nature of Inuit culture.
Her bittersweet performance of the song had the audience clapping and singing along.
“I was hoping the three of you wouldn’t be that good,” Doyle said as his turn came around again.
Doyle sang an acapella version of “Dream of Home,” a poignant song that had its own brush with rejection. “I wrote this song for a scene in a movie, and then the scene in the movie got switched, and they didn’t use the song,” he explained, joking, “Kenny Rogers was the star of that movie.”
Foster, of course, has his own grievances with Hollywood; namely, his three losses at the Academy Awards.
“This is the song that pissed me off the most,” he said of his Karate Kid II composition “The Glory of Love” – or perhaps he was talking about the song that beat it out, “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun, which he feels won off the star power of its film. “They didn’t even finish the lyrics!” he ranted.
Acknowledging in advance that his rendition would not measure up to the original, Foster also played a bit of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” which he co-wrote with Linda Thompson for the film The Bodyguard. (He later invited Elisapie to sing the Houston part after Powers caught her singing along; she did admirably despite being fuzzy on the lyrics, earning a standing ovation from the crowd).
Elisapie showed off her strong voice again on a feminist anthem from her album The Ballad of the Runaway Girl. The song, which she called “a little more rockin’” was a statement about the underrated strength and resiliency of women.
The final song of the first circle was an auditorium-wide sing-along of Doyle’s sea shanty “Bully Boys,” which the Celtic rocker felt was an appropriate St. Patty’s Day tune.
Doyle opened the second set with a new song, “I Gotta Go,” which he said was written about “the greatest dilemma in every touring musician’s life” – the requirement to be on the road, away from their loved ones for long periods of time.
The song boasted a clever chorus of “Twenty songs if they love me, only eighteen if they don’t,” which Doyle said was inspired by conversations with his wife during his early days as a pub musician.
Joining Doyle for round two was jazz musician Laila Biali and folk singer Dan Mangan, both from Vancouver, as well as Bowmanville-based country singer Meghan Patrick.
Laila Biali, who’d been awarded Vocal Jazz Album of the Year the night before, stunned the crowd with her dramatic piano composition “Refugee.” She said the piece was inspired by hearing the screams of a five-year-old victim of the Syrian conflict in the background of a news report – while her own five-year-old was in the room with her.
You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium as she played (actually, what you would have heard was Doyle blurting out “Awesome.”)
Biali invited her fellow musicians to back her up on her next song, a blissful but complex piece called “Satellite.” No one took her up on it.
“I’m flattered by the estimation that I could play along with any of that,” laughed Doyle, impressed.
Patrick chimed in: “She knows grown-up chords; I [only] know country chords.”
“She knows chords with hashtags,” Doyle added.
Dan Mangan, nominated in the JUNOs Adult Alternative category, played a pair of folk-influenced tunes that reflected his desire to get more personal with his song-writing, after a long time of working with metaphors.
Thus, “Hey Stephen” took the form of an email exchange with an overseas friend (who Mangan described as one of those people who are “kindred spirits even when you’re not immediately around them”) and “No Show” was about the not-unpleasant dwindling of his social life after becoming a parent.
The latter track, he revealed, almost benefited from a little help from Paul McCartney. Mangan showed the former Beatle a very rough cut of the track during a chance encounter at a recording studio. Later on, McCartney approached Mangan with some suggestions for the arrangement, saying “I’ve been doing some thinking about your song…”
Mangan was stunned, having done a lot of thinking about Paul McCartney’s songs as well. Nonetheless, the band ended up scrapping the whole song and starting from scratch, ignoring McCartney’s input altogether – to the horror of Mangan’s mother, who thought he should have accepted the advice and given him a co-writing credit.
Country Album of the Year nominee Meghan Patrick said that her songs explore darker territory than you often find in the party-ready realm of mainstream country music.
The hard-edged “Walls Come Down,” for instance, was written after her parents’ late-in-life divorce. The experience prompted a series of frank discussions with her co-writers about the burden of family secrets, inspiring a song that references infidelity, drug addiction, and other “heavy subject matter which country music has gotten away from in recent years.”
Patrick confessed that she was unsure if the song would find a home on country radio; nonetheless, she said, “I was happy to carry the torch and do something a little different and realer.” The track ended up hitting number one on the country charts.
Her second song, “Praying Right,” was even more devastating. Inspired by a time in Patrick’s life when she sought spiritual solace after leaving an abusive relationship, the song is written from the perspective of a would-be Christian who fears being judged by the church community.
“I wouldn’t be the country singer onstage if I didn’t talk about Jesus and make you wanna cry a bit,” she said.
Doyle closed the show with a crowd-pleasing rendition of his Great Big Sea hit “Ordinary Day,” pausing midway through to tell the real story behind the second verse.
“I wanted to have a character in the second verse,” he explained, adding that he found the perfect protagonist from a news report about a Calgary musician who was mugged while busking in Vancouver. “When she was finished at the police station, she turned back and went right back busking on the side of the street,” Doyle recalls.
“I call her Janie in the song, because I was too embarrassed she might find out at the time,” he confessed; “Her real name is Jann Arden.”
Line-up: Alan Doyle / Tyler Shaw / David Foster / Elisapie / Laila Biali / Dan Mangan / Meghan Patrick
Venue: Centennial Hall, London Ontario
Date: Sunday, March 17/2019