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O Canada! We pen great songs   Print

by Greg Quill
Toronto Star
January 28, 2007

We are a nation of songwriters.

More than any other art form, the song has for generations been the thing Canadians make best.

It could even be argued that the simple song provides the common language that binds and illuminates the nation more richly and completely than any other of our cultural endeavours in literature, film, drama, symphonic music, opera and even the visual arts.

Songs are everywhere in this country, in every nook and cranny. Pop songs, traditional songs, art songs, rock and country songs  everything from Ian and Sylvia to the Arcade Fire  have, since the great surge of cultural nationalism in the 1960s, been our most popular and passionate form of self-expression.

So it's no surprise that the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame annual event has, in four short years, become the focus of national pride. The brainchild of veteran music publisher Frank Davies, the gala induction ceremony in Toronto  this year's honoree, Joni Mitchell, will be feted tonight at the John Bassett Theatre with performances by James Taylor and Chaka Khan and a presentation by famed U.S. composer Herbie Hancock  now looms so large on the musical calendar that it threatens to overshadow the industry's more established horse race, the Junos.

The absence of a business agenda and political manoeuverings elevate the Songwriters gala to the status of a generous and benign national celebration of song craft and the Canadian identity. There are no losers, only winners, and lots of great music to enjoy  much of it being repatriated for the first time and lacking a lasting place on commercial radio playlists.

Canadians know about hitmakers like Paul Anka and Neil Young. But there were countless Canadian songwriters from decades earlier  the creators of still-instantly-recognizable songs like "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" to "Ain't We Got Fun" to "What A Friend We Have in Jesus"  whose names have faded from memory. As long as there has been popular music, Canadians have been writing it and writing it well.

Of course, for many contemporary songwriters, the benchmarks were set during the golden age of the 1960s and '70s, when Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Young, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Bruce Cockburn and countless others reached the world music market with songs that were distinctly and unself-consciously Canadian.

"A disproportionate number of Canadian songwriters have touched the world," says Toronto composer John Capek, an Australian expat whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Rod Stewart, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Cher, Olivia Newton-John, Heart, and Manhattan Transfer.

"Canada has produced hit songwriters going back 100 years. But before the folk era and the emergence of Canadian story songs, they had to go to the States to get work and recognition."

Our songwriters owe a lot to Yorkville, Toronto's music crucible in the 1960s and '70s, says Vancouver-based roots/pop composer Joel Kroeker.

"What made Canadian songwriters different after that  for me, at least  was the quality of their stories. They looked into their own psyches to find universal feelings and ideas that others shared.

"It's too easy to go with the first rhyme that pops into your head. There's nothing superficial about Leonard's lyrics, or Joni's. They often went into very dark places in their souls to find a poetic view of life. That's the standard I hold myself to."

Acclaimed songwriter Ron Hynes, based in St. John's, says, "It's almost second nature for us to document ourselves in song. We've been doing it for hundreds of years, long before there was a music industry. Songs were written  still are, as far as I'm concerned  to document who and where people were and what happened to them. In Canada, if you scratch a lawyer, a doctor or an Indian chief, they'll tell you, `I wrote a song once.'

"Some songs become so entrenched that they simply move like the air from generation to generation. `Four Strong Winds' (written by Ian Tyson in 30 minutes in his manager's New York apartment in the early 1960s) defines the Canadian West. And the beautiful thing is, like so many great Canadian songs, it defies the conventions ... the chorus has the same melody as the verses, there's no bridge, no artificial construction. It's the native approach ..."

Respect for the traditions in Canadian song craft is paramount for her, says Juno-winning roots/country songwriter Jenny Whiteley, of the prolific musical clan.

"The writers who first amazed me  particularly Willie P. Bennett and Robbie Robertson, and my dad  all tapped into the older idioms, whether rural American music, southern ballads, blues and jazz, that embodied storytelling. They could tell a whole story, create a life or a character in a three-minute song."

Whiteley believes Canadian songwriters are motivated by factors beyond fame and wealth.

"If you look at the work of Barney Bentall, Tom Cochrane, Jim Cuddy, Stephen Fearing, Gord Downie and so many others, you can see it's not just the hit song they're going for, it's something bigger, something nearer the truth. Their bullshit detectors are all working. That may have something to do with peer respect, or an awareness of the work already out there."

Toronto songwriter Ron Sexsmith, on the phone from his tour bus in Colorado, says this high standard of songwriting is "a tradition I'm always trying to uphold. So many of the most influential songwriters in the history of popular music are Canadian. I'm constantly reminded of that. It's a matter of national pride."

Raised in St. Catharines, Ont., Sexsmith  whose songs are openly adored by fellow pros ranging from Steve Earle to Coldplay's Chris Martin  started out wanting to be a pop star in a rock band. He remembers being unimpressed by the famous 1960s National Film Board documentary on Cohen when it was screened at school, dismissing the Montreal troubadour as "a poet who couldn't sing."

But a few years later, when he was exposed to full-blown Cohen-mania during a stint in Quebec, he listened again and the experience changed him forever.

"It made me want to be a songwriter, not just another musician," says Sexsmith.

"It's the standards set by those guys  and Joni Mitchell, and k.d. lang  that I try to reach. Everything they write has such a distinctive personal stamp. They're not writing for the marketplace.

"Those are the standards every songwriter I know in Canada tries to live up to. You hear that respect in the work of (Toronto composers) Bob Snider, Kyp Harness and Sam Larkin, writers who have their own way of saying what they need to."

Nova Scotia rocker Joel Plaskett, who seems poised to crack the international music market in the near future, believes migration and isolation have a lot to do with the unique quality of Canadian songs.

"Immigrants brought their music from Scotland and Ireland and Europe," he says. "And those origins are reflected in the melodies and song forms of each region of the country. They've stayed with us, partly because they connect people to their past. But also, I think, because our songs give us both a real sense of place and time and some kind of collective sensibility.

"The first time I played in Glasgow (Scotland), I felt as if I'd gone home. Everything was so familiar to me  the people even looked like Nova Scotians, and songs gave us a common language. We understood each other through songs.

"You could make an argument that climate and distance make a difference as well. The sense of aloneness, the need to connect can be pretty acute in most small Canadian communities. So details are important in a lot of Canadian songs, as personal points of reference. We also have a lot of time indoors during the winter. We read, we make music, we think a lot about ourselves and our circumstances."

Big landscapes, long winters and endless roads are consistent elements in the songs of Alberta roustabout Corb Lund, who will sing the late Wilf Carter into the Songwriters Hall of Fame tonight with a performance of the 1940s country star's signature song, "There's a Love Knot in My Lariat."

"Climate and distance are things we deal with in a lot in our songs," Lund says. "Canadians are generally more artistically inclined when writing songs, I guess because we're so far from the centres of the commercial music business in America. We don't necessarily think about writing hit songs ... more about writing songs that communicate.

"Communication is what motivates me. I'm a natural introvert, so songs give me a platform and instant feedback when I play them."

The focus shifts slightly when it comes to writing pop songs, says Carl Newman of Vancouver's New Pornographers, on the phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"What makes Canadian bands great is they go about their work quietly. Arcade Fire is one of the best bands in the world, but they're humble people with good heads. You could say that about Blue Rodeo, the Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies."

In pop, motivation often comes down to keeping up with the Joneses, Newman says, "the way the Stones did with the Beatles, and the Beatles with Brian Wilson.

"But for me it's always the song that comes first. I'll hand over a song to (vocalist) Neko (Case) if she can make it better.

"That's not a decision most performers would make. And it makes me a Canadian songwriter, I guess ..."

 

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