Resting on stools and armed with acoustic guitars, a slate of Juno nominees swapped songs and stories at the annual SOCAN Songwriters’ Circle.
An annual feature of Juno Week, the Songwriters’ Circle brings together some of Canada’s finest songwriters for a revealing afternoon of music and storytelling. Divided into two sets, take turns performing and discussing the inspirations behind some of their favourite original songs.
Fittingly, the event raises money for CARAS music education charity MusiCounts.
Held at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on April 2, the 2017 Songwriters’ Circle was hosted by Canadian legend Bruce Cockburn and featured Juno nominees Colin Linden, Lisa LeBlanc, Wintersleep’s Paul Murphy, Chantal Kreviazuk, Daniel Caesar and Donovan Woods.
The afternoon revealed some surprising origin stories of well-known hits.
For instance, Cockburn’s 1979 hit “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” was inspired by a grim conversation with his cousin, who worked in “defense research” during the Cold War. Taken aback when his cousin suggested, “For all we know, we could wake up in the morning and it could be the end of the world,” Cockburn wrote the song after waking up the next day to find the world intact: “Sun’s up, mmhmm, looks okay / The world survives into another day.”
Similarly, Adult Contemporary Album of the Year nominee Kreviazuk recalled transforming her rejected “carpe diem” anthem “Today” into “Feel This Moment,” which became an international mega-hit for Pitbull and Christina Aguilera.
“If there’s a topic you love, you should just own it,” she said of the experience.
The event showcased a number of stellar performances and fascinating stories, helping shed light on the creative process.
After opening with his classic, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” Cockburn introduced frequent collaborator Colin Linden, an accomplished musician and producer noted for his work with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, as well as artists such as Bob Dylan and the country music television show Nashville.
Linden, who produced Cockburn’s 2011 album Small Source of Comfort, stated that “Some of my happiest times have been standing three feet away to Bruce Cockburn’s right.”
“We didn’t get married,” Cockburn cut in.
“Not yet,” added Linden.
Linden took the opportunity to pay tribute to his musical heroes. His first song was inspired by the death of Johnny Cash (which he only heard about when CBC contacted him for comment). He followed up with “Remedy,” a song he co-wrote for The Band, as a salute to the late Rick Danko and Levon Helm.
“For a few years, instead of having a left brain and a right brain, I had Rick and Levon,” he said.
The afternoon’s third performer was New Brunswick’s Lisa Leblanc, who played several raucous, blues-inflected tunes in both official languages.
The Acadian singer-songwriter discussed falling in love with Cajun music during a visit to Louisiana, which inspired her to write a Cajun-style song. The result was a bluesy tune that replaced the standard “Little girl, you stole my heart” refrain with “Dude, you stole my car.”
The multi-instrumentalist would later break out a banjo for “You Look Like Trouble (But I Guess I Do Too).”
Rounding out the first of two sets was Wintersleep vocalist Paul Murphy, who introduced himself as “a really bad storyteller.” Case in point: his single “Amerika” “started as a short story that was really bad.”
“It was terrible,” he emphasized.
After aborting the story, Murphy recounted, he re-purposed some of the more “lyrical” passages into “Amerika,” which become a number one hit on the Canadian rock and alternative charts.
Some of the best anecdotes of the night came from Songwriter of the Year nominee Donovan Woods, who recounted having his shoes mistakenly stolen while writing with prominent Nashville songwriter Tom Douglas.
Several of the participants also shared deeply personal moments. For instance Kreviazuk (known for her collaborations with artists ranging from Avril Lavigne to Kendrick Lamar), opened with her early single “Surrounded,” written about the suicide of a childhood friend.
“I get to memorialize and pay tribute to him all the time,” she said of the song, which she credits with establishing her musical career.
R&B/Soul Recording of the Year nominee Daniel Caesar also revealed some of his personal trials, performing a song he wrote in his senior year of high school, having returned after being “kicked out” the previous year.
“It was a tight year,” he said, during which he struggled to decide “whether to do what I’m told, or do what I want to do.” His girlfriend was a source of strength for him during this time, prompting him to write “Get You,” which he describes as a “song of appreciation.”
The artists also revealed unconventional sources of inspiration.
For instance, Caesar’s “Get You” takes lyrical inspiration from the Biblical “psalms and proverbs” his religious father would read aloud every morning.
And Woods’ acoustic “What Kind of Love is That” was inspired by a stray lyric from Drake’s “Views:” “They’ve been saying it’s love, but it isn’t love, is it?”
“That spoke to me,” Woods explained.
Meanwhile, Wintersleep’s moody track “Echolocation,” which features a vivid image of “beady-eyed, flesh-hungry bats,” was rendered hilariously literal by its origin story – Paul Murphy being startled by a colony of bats after a drunken night at a friend’s cottage.
These moments of levity and revelation are what make the Songwriters’ Circle a perennial highlight of Juno Week. By exploring how inspiration can be found in the everyday, these discussions reveal how music has such a powerful impact.