All posts for my Songwriting category

1 Comment

Song Competitions

Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.09.02 PM

 

Let me admit, right here at the beginning, that I have a certain amount of ambivalence where artistic competitions are concerned, so we can get that out of the way.  Nevertheless, there they are, and here I am, so I’m going to try and be as open-minded as I can.

Also, I’m going to limit myself to the songwriting competitions I have encountered or know by reputation, as opposed to all the contests out there. That should eliminate the ones that are simply scams for someone to use songwriters’ dreams against them. It may eliminate some perfectly honorable ones as well. If so, I apologize for the inconvenience.

We can start with the ones that are part of a music festival, just another activity on the weekend’s Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.44.45 PM agenda. Kerrville Folk Festival, here in Kerrville, TX, looms large among these, Founded by Rod Kennedy and currently presided over by Dalis Allen, NewFolk  is one of the oldest continuous contests. Also in Texas, in Richardson, is the Wildflower Festival which includes another song competition. Though not as old, it is much respected in its own right.  Telluride Troubador is another venerable competition, which along with the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival occur in Lyons, CO during the summer months. Tucson Folk Festival takes place in Tucson, AZ in May, Dave Carter Memorial Songwriting Contest at the  Sisters Folk Festival occurs each summer in Oregon, Woody Guthrie, Calgary Folk FestivalGreat River Folk FestivalCT Folk Grassy Hill Songwriting Competition, South Florida folk Festival, Susanne Milsaps Memorial Songwriter Showcase at the Inter-Mountain Acoustic Music Association Festival,  Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist Showcase, which is not technically a competition, but they do poll the audience to see whom they would like to return.

Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.52.53 PMOf the competitions that are not connected to a festival, but are still songwriting competitions, as opposed to Battles of the Bands, there are several. The BW Stevenson Contest at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas, The Rose Garden Cafe songwriting contest in Massachusetts, Susquehanna Folk Music Society in Maryland,  and Songwriters Serenade in central Texas to name a few.

There are lots of songwriters associations that run contests as well: Austin Songwriters Group, West Coast Songwriters Association, Mid-Atlantic Song Contest, and a host of others.

And then there are the giant national and even international competitions. John Lennon Song Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.42.21 PMContest, which is now so big it is run in stages, International Songwriting Competition, Billboard Song Contest, Great American Songwriting ContestNSAI Competition, USA Songwriting Competition, Unisong International Songwriting Competition, Eurovision Song Contest and the UK Songwriting Contest.

And finally, we have the contests that are part of the “Reality TV” world. American Idol,  America’s Got Talent (which has its counter-part in many other countries), The Voice.

Most of these contests cost between $25 – $35 to enter per song, or sometimes per 2 songs. Kerrville costs $25 for a two-song entry, John Lennon is $30 per song. A few of the contests are free to enter, but a caveat goes with the free-entry ones: Read the fine print before you sign. Most festivals require a performance component (which means the writers have to get themselves to the festival — though they usually get in free) in order to choose winners, but Songwriters groups usually don’t.

Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.41.49 PMWinning a song contest where you are performing can be life-changing, or have no effect whatever on your career. Exposure at a folk festival is no small thing.  It can make booking gigs a lot easier, if you do a good job onstage. The opposite is also true. If you are not up to the occasion, it can harm your standing in the community. I even went so far as to hire an acting coach before one competition, and it really did help. And , of course, practicing can never hurt you. If you are “In it to win it”, then of course, you want to bring your “A” game. just like you would to any gig (Right?). Dress and behave professionally, don’t drink and drive, and be friendly to your audience. Be careful with introductions, ie. not too long. For one thing, there is someone running things with a schedule in mind.

On the other hand, just being part of the contest can do the same, even if you don’t win the contest. You would have displayed your great songs in the best possible light, and there are so many people in the audience — and onstage with you doing the same — that will be interested in your music. I’ve lost count of the number of times when someone walked up afterwards to tell me how much they appreciated my songs, even when I didn’t win the contest. Be friendly when that happens. Fans are important, even if you’re disappointed in the outcome of the competition. And I have witnessed a group of songwriters who all participated in a song competition one year who are now friends for life.

For those contests where the writer doesn’t have to perform, the important thing is to give the Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.42.35 PMjudges a good recording of the song. Notice I didn’t say fully-produced or anything like it. The simpler, the better is what I’ve heard from many judges. But clear sound, and a short simple (instrumental) introduction, if any, are essential. So is leaving out the lengthy guitar solo. Again, put your best professional foot forward. This is also true for the big, national or international contests.

As for the TV contests, they have been, for the most part. about singing ability and “star quality” rather than about songwriting. Grammy winner,  Sam Smith has stated that he thinks they are actually bad for songwriters, though he himself has performed his own song on one of them. He says he wants to be judged on the basis of the song, not just on his voice. I myself have never been tempted by them, though I know two people who have. One described her experience as “demeaning”, and the other, I believe, was somewhat successful. She is, however, an excellent singer, and the show was The Voice.

There is a new show being promoted that would feature songs and songwriters. It would be titled “Songland”. Adam Levine, of Maroon5 and The Voice, and Dave Stewart, Grammy-winning songwriter, are involved, and here’s what the blog, Saving Country Music has to say about it:

The show wants to feature “everyday people” and their compelling back stories as they try to pitch songs that eventually could become huge hits. Also involved in the show would be big-time producers and artists as a song goes through the pitch process.

So perhaps this would be a better TV vehicle for songwriters interested in TV exposure.

Speaking of exposure, it’s time for a word about winning and losing. I’ve won a few prizes and I have also been totally ignored, so I know that they both carry an emotional impact. Winning can be a wonderful shot in the arm for a performer’s ability to book gigs in prestigious venues — though that does wear off. Losing can be a discouraging disappointment, no matter how many friends and fans you make in the process. A good thing to remember is that winning a contest is not the reason you wrote the song. Also,  judging songs, or any other art form, is a very subjective thing, affected by all sorts of extraneous factors. Don’t take it personally, and you’ll survive to write another day.

Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.01.56 PM

2 Comments

The three Rs: Re-writing , Re-mixing, Re-recording

Every songwriter, every storyteller, every painter, every choreographer, indeed every creator, knows the rush of well-being that comes from bringing their creation out into the world. Something from nothing. Often that creation has kept its parent up all night, tweaking the details until everything is just “so”. Only it doesn’t feel like it’s keeping its parent up all night, as the creator doesn’t feel sleepy or hungry or in need of anything but bringing that creation as close to perfection as is possible for humans.

Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 9.52.42 PMNothing compares with that feeling, the one Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “Flow” and describes it as “the secret to happiness”. (If you’d like to hear him talk about it, go here.)

Speaking, of course, from my role as songwriter, I know that there is another side to this. I go to bed, the song “completed”, and when I wake up in the morning, I’m excited. It’s time to learn to play and sing my new song, so that I can show it off to its best advantage. I begin to sing, and… Uh-oh…. There’s a part here that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t sing smoothly. Perhaps a few too many syllables, perhaps the word here is too harsh, not concrete enough. The song needs more “furniture” to make it a more sensory experience for the listener. Whatever.

 

Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 9.54.55 PMAt that point, I have a choice.

I can shrug my shoulders and say “Wow! I put in so much work on this already. No one is going to know about this little flaw I think I’ve found. Maybe it’s my imagination. No one is going to be a picky as that. If they’re focused that hard on the details, they’ve got the problem, not me. Well, maybe so. But every time I sing the song, I know it’s not quite right. And so, probably it’s time to knuckle down and re-write. (Ugh. Drudgery. I’d rather do housework.)

Not long ago, I discovered that seeking out just the right word, changing the phrase so that it fits snugly in the format, exploring metaphors until the exact right one is found, is also a flow experience. Plus, the added attraction of saying exactly what you meant, and OMG, it rhymes! I invite you to try it. You can get so involved in the investigation, and the hunt, and the performance of the necessary surgery (please pardon the mixed metaphor), that it begins to feel just like writing the song in the first place. Flow. Surprise!

Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 10.02.07 PMNow it’s time to record. And again, it feels great. The arranging, the inviting of other instrumentalists to contribute, their contribution (I try not to control that beyond a few suggestions to imply boundaries.), et voilà! The recording. Let’s put it on and listen. Oh dear. The flute’s a little too loud, isn’t it. And there’s a bad note in the bass. Not the end of the world, though. Because we can re-mix. (Ugh. Drudgery. I’d rather clean toilets).

And again, it turns out that the process of re-mixing is so absorbing that hours later, you had no idea that much time has passed, until someone calls to find out where you are, because you’re supposed to be somewhere else.

And, even if the recording needs to be done over, which it sometimes does (*sigh*), I’ll bet you’ll find that it’s not quite the chore you were expecting. You may even find some new, better way of treating the song that makes it a better song.

Oh …. and the housework? That can turn out to be a “flow” experience too. A lot depends on your

attitude.

Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 9.59.44 PM

 

 

 

No Comments

New Discovery: Yiddish Tango

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 10.47.21 PMThose who know me are aware that I have a show of Yiddish songs I learned growing up, which of course, I love and perform when and wherever I can. I stumbled across the Yiddish tango quite by accident, and wanted to share my delight.

Ultimately, you could argue that this is either Yiddish music being played with a tango beat, or else tangos being played by klezmer instruments. And you’d be more-or-less right. But it’s actually much more than that, and has a long and intricate history, some of it ugly, some shining.

We can start with the tango developing out of other dance forms in Buenos Aires in the early 1900s. Most of this was occurring at the brothels and such on the waterfront, attended by the less savory portion of the population. Originally, the dance was designed to portray a prostitute and her pimp, and so was not danced in polite company. But as time went on, the music became less raucous, and though the dance remained more or less the same, it became more acceptable as a result. This video was apparently made at a tango contest in the 1900, and the tango had already gained enough popularity to be competitive.

Just so you know, I make no claims upon the videos that follow, or the music in them.

TANGO (Old film from 1900)

I mostly included this next video because, even though it’s a computer simulation, it shows the setting most of the participants would be in for an evening of tango.

TANGO – Computer simulation of dance with 1920s tango

Over the years, the tango music began to acquire lyrics, resulting in singers achieving stardom and increasing the popularity of the music.

At the same time as this was developing, there was a heavy influx of immigrants from mid and eastern-Europe. A large proportion of the newcomers were Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Slavic Jews, who were seeking escape from the pogroms and other persecutions in the area.  Part of that population ended up in the United States, but many went to South America, and particularly to Argentina, which was calling for laborers at the time (large areas of land to be developed now that the native population had been slaughtered). The immigrants gravitated to the dancing and good times as a way of easing their distress at being uprooted and displaced into a new and foreign setting.

So, into this musical environment came the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe, invited by the Argentinian government to work the land.  Between 1910 and 1940, 250,000 Jews entered Argentina, making Buenos Aires the largest Jewish community after New York. In much the same way as the Jewish cultural heritage made its way into the general culture in New York, so it also did in Buenos Aires. Jewish musicians began to become prominent in the world of tango as performers, composers and lyricists.

And as the Yiddish Theater, which thrived in New York and Buenos Aires, continued on into the 30s and 40s, songwriters from the theater began to write tangos, both for theater pieces and as stand-alone songs, suitable for dancing. One of the most popular players from Yiddish theater was Molly Picon, who was Yenta in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof. She  wrote the lyrics for a lovely song called Oygn, set to a tango beat (also known as “milonga” with accents as follows 1-2-3-4-56-78)

Yiddish Tango – Friling

JACOB SANDLER Git mir ob main hartz tzurik

The tango became more and more popular, and it made its way back to Europe, in the tracks of American blues and Jazz (and later, rock and roll.) Soon you could find Yiddish-speaking musicians writing tangos for their own performances, especially in Eastern Europe, where there was still a strong Yiddish culture.

Old Polish tango in Polish and Hebrew: Graj skrzypku, graj!

By the time of World War II, Tango was the rage in Europe, in city and ghetto. But as the Nazis came to power, and began absorbing their neighbors, life became untenable for the Jewish population in general. Those musicians who did not escape, and ended up in the concentration camps, found themselves enlisted in Lagernkapellen orchestras by the Nazis.  They were required to play tango, in preference to jazz. This was because the Nazis saw jazz as more likely, and tango as less likely to inspire rebellion. And they were required to play tangos,  in particular the Tango of Death, as accompaniment to mass executions.

Jewish Music from Holocaust – Yiddish Tango

An example of El Tango de la Muerte:

El Tango de la Muerte

In the U.S., the Yiddish Theater continued to thrive, and tango was often the vehicle for the songs.  The Barry Sisters recorded this one:

Ikh hob dikh tsi fil lib

And today, in Buenos Aires, Yiddish tango is alive and well, in the form of the Yiddish Tango Club, founded by Gustavo Bulgach. Have a listen. You won’t be sorry:

Librescu Tango – Gustavo Bulgach KLEZMER JUICE

And if you’d like to hear a sampling of my Yiddish show, go here:

No Comments

On Getting Reviewed

Of course, if you never got a bad review, you won’t have the least idea of what this post is about. And how wonderful for you!

But most of those of an artistic bent who have ventured into the public arena, know perfectly well what a bad review feels like. Devastating, not to put too fine a point on it.

For example, early in my recording efforts, I read a review of one of my albums that began with “First of all, you should know that I hate this kind of music, but…..” and the reviewer went on to inadvertently reveal that he hadn’t listened to more than the first track. My music is very eclectic, a fact which marketers apparently hate, and my fans appear to love. So his detailed description applied only to the first track, and not to the rest, a clear sign that he’d based his review on one track. Be that as it may, it was still shocking and painful to read. Especially since it was my first foray into the public arena. (Fortunately, others liked the album better.)

More recently, a reviewer attacked the production on an album, describing it as “crying out” for more simple treatment. The word “tedious” came up. Ouch.

With any luck, after one recovers from that initial pained surprise, one learns from the legitimate points. Hopefully. And picks up the pen/brush/instrument and lives to write/paint/play another day. And it must be said that most reviewers try to publish well-thought-out, constructive criticism, not mean-spirited one-liners. But because of that, it can feel especially painful when their opinion of your work doesn’t include glowing praise.

OK. But how about when glowing praise is  included?  How about when the reviewer loves every word/stroke/note? How does one respond to that?

“Hah! I knew I was right!” doesn’t really seem appropriate, does it.

I know, of course, to post the good reviews where others can see them. After all, this is a business too, and I want to encourage people to take a chance on my music. But as far as what it does or doesn’t do for me as an artist, that’s kind of a mixed bag.

That being the case, I found a couple of quotes that I have hanging where I can see them easily in my work-space:

“Success is nothing more than going from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

and

“Think of yourself as a sieve when it comes to the opinions of others. You’re going to hear wonderful things about yourself. You’re going to hear horrible things. Because you are a sieve, they’re all going to pass through. Do not believe the positive any more than you believe the negative. All feedback falls through the sieve. The only opinion that should matter to you is your own. That is the only opinion that should be solid enough that it doesn’t pass through the sieve.” – (no attribution, I’m afraid. If you know who said this or wrote it, please comment below.)

Both of these quotes speak to the point of not letting “failure” or “horrible things” derail you from your artistic efforts, and that, I think, is a good point to take to heart. (I have a musician friend who is a perfect illustration of that idea. When he started out, people used to wince at his music and smile behind their hands. Now he is an international household name.) But I also believe there is another point to keep in your heart. Don’t let the “successes” and the “good things” derail you either. Smile. Say thank you. Move on. With undiminished enthusiasm.

PS:  Here is one of the reviews for my latest CD.

“Beautifully arranged and sober orchestrated self-penned songs are forming the basics of Jan Seides’ newest record ‘Siren Song’. Her soft and relaxing lovely voice is the so-called ‘cherry on the pie’. She should not keep us waiting for another six years to hear her compositions on a new album.” – www.rootstime.be

If you’d like to hear the music, please go to http://janseides.com/music. There, you’ll find samples and instructions for purchasing. 🙂

No Comments

About that absence of protest songs ….

Screen shot 2014-06-02 at 10.38.16 PMIn January, when Pete Seeger died, there were many tributes to him, in all forms of media. Most of them talked about his championing of various left-wing causes, his responses to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, his support of labor unions, and, of course, his music. Though not many mentioned it, his fostering of leftist causes was based solidly on his experience and love of folk music, and vice versa.

I have been seeing comments in the media since  the beginning of the millennium, and especially since Pete Seeger died,  about how there is a a noticeable absence of anti-war songs, based on the abundance produced during the Viet Nam War. While it’s true that if you turn on the radio, you hear very little music about social issues of any kind, far less even than in the 1990s, songs protesting war, among other things, both old and new songs, are far from absent.

If you go out on any night of the week in Austin, Texas, for example, and listen to those playing in “listening rooms”, you’ll hear plenty of songs about social issues. Good thought-provoking, rebel-rousing ones too. And I suspect Austin is not alone in this regard, given that there are listening rooms all over the country and in Europe.  That music is also being recorded, though those recordings not being produced and promoted by record labels, but by the artists/songwriters themselves – out of their own pockets or through crowd-funding mechanisms.

Those who bewail the absence of folk songs, or anti-war songs, or whatever they mean when they say there are no good protest songs anymore, have clearly not been paying attention. To start with there are Steve Earl, Neal Young, Utah Phillips, or they can listen among their local crop of songwriters (They’re everywhere!). Every major city, and quite a few of the smaller ones, boast venues where the subjects of pure food, Citizens United, climate change, domestic abuse, and, yes, war  (to name a few) come up in songs all the time. It’s not that there are none. It’s that one must be paying attention.

The truth is, there are lots of politically  and socially committed performers and songwriters. If that’s what you like to hear, get out and look for them, because you sure as heck won’t find them on the radio. But they are still out there. I hear them all the time. Seek and ye shall find, I promise.

Some folks in Austin, TX who are dwriting and singing songs about social justice:  The Therapy Sisters, Steve Brooks, Gina Chavez, Patrick Dodd, Mary Gautheir, Darden Smith, Eliza Gilkyson, to name a few. And that’s just one city.

If you woiuld like to hear some of my own songs go to http://www.janseidesmusic.com/siren-song/  While the songs are not specifically social protest, they touch on those subjects. Or check out the entire album at  http://janseides.com/music and click on “Behind Closed Doors” in particular.