Nearly thirty years ago, Jim Cuddy found himself standing on a New Zealand beach, watching a Blue Rodeo crew member write his wife’s name in the sand. “I thought that was worthy of a song,” Cuddy remembers. That song became “5 Days in May,” the opening track of Blue Rodeo’s landmark 1993 album Five Days in July.
This was one of the many memories shared at the 2018 Songwriters’ Circle, a Juno Week staple raising funds for music education charity MusiCounts. Sponsored by SOCAN, the event was held at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre on March 25th and brought together some of Canada’s best singer-songwriters to share songs and stories.
This year’s show featured Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy performing alongside up-and-coming R&B star Ruth B, as well as folk balladeer Rose Cousins, electronic artist Iskwé, and pop-rocker Scott Helman. The event was moderated by Jann Arden (the singer-songwriter behind CanCon classics like “Insensitive” and the show-closing “Good Mother”) and producer Bob Rock (known for his work with internationally acclaimed acts such as Metallica, Aerosmith, and The Tragically Hip, as well as his pioneering new wave group The Payolas).
The afternoon combined intimate performances with interesting anecdotes and reflections on how music is made.
It’s always incredible to learn how seemingly insignificant moments can inspire great songs. For Scott Helman, it was a Nyquil nightmare and an innocuous joke that blossomed into an unexpectantly poignant tune. Bored by his friend’s laborious description of the cold medicine-induced dream, Helman picked up his guitar and jokingly sang: “Twenty-one days ‘til the zombies come.”
His co-writer’s response: “That’s actually not a bad first line.”
The resulting song, “21 Days,” reflects the uncertainty and anxiety that many millennials feel amid tumultuous times. “For people my age, it feels like there’s a ticking clock, and there’s a lot we have to make better,” he explained. Despite the admittedly “nihilistic” premise, the song has an uplifting message of making the best of life, even when the future seems bleak.
“I don’t really know how to write a protest song,” he explained sheepishly.
This comment led Indigenous activist Iskwé to suggest a collaboration. “All I write are protest songs!” she declared. “I tried to write love songs recently and they turned into protest songs.”
The Winnipeg-born electronica experimenter, who has Cree, Dene, and Metis heritage, went acoustic for this show. Her opening song, “The Healers,” was a rallying cry for Indigenous peoples to “[find] strength” for future generations: “We’re not backing down / We stand strong in our homeland.” Her second choice, “Nobody Knows” was one of several songs she wrote after attending a vigil for Tina Fontaine, an Indigenous teenager from Winnipeg who was murdered in 2014.
During a brief intermission, Arden talked about how grief inspires her as an artist. “I don’t write well when I’m happy,” she said, opining that happiness breeds complacency in both art and life. “Sadness is underestimated.”
Halifax-based pianist Rose Cousins frequently uses music to explore the ways in which people struggle to get through life. “I spend a lot of my writing time in the shadowy corners of human experience,” she noted.
These explorations manifest in empathetic and subtly empowering odes to the human spirit. Her first song of the night, the gorgeous ballad “Grace,” meditates on how people use grace (divine or otherwise) to stay afloat. The second, “Chosen,” explores “the discrepancy between how we feel about ourselves and how we present ourselves.”
Even the most lighthearted songs can sometimes come from dark places, such as Scott Helman’s carefree love song “Bungalow.” Overwhelmed after getting his first record deal and missing the support system of his high school friends, Helman found himself fantasizing about starting a new life with a pretty stranger on a bus.
Cuddy’s recent music explores a different type of regret. “I’m coming to the stage of my life where I’m starting to say a lot of goodbyes – some expected, some unexpected,” he reflected, introducing the elegiac “You Be the Leaver.”
“It’s those great lines,” Arden marvelled, echoing the song’s chorus: “You’ll be the leaver, I’ll be the left behind.”
“You’re always happy when you find them,” Cuddy replied.
Edmonton vocalist Ruth B is perhaps the purest example of this. The 22-year-old singer-songwriter got her start posting six-second snippets posted to Vine, and will often write a full song around a single phrase or idea. For instance, the first line of the chorus to “Lost Boy” – the first song she ever wrote, and her first single – came to her while she was watching the TV series Once Upon a Time, and was quickly jotted down in her phone. “I almost considered deleting it because it was cheesy,” she recalled. “But because it was catchy I decided to post it.” The rest of the song was built around that fragment:
“I am a lost boy / In Neverland / Always hanging out with / Peter Pan.”
Her most recent song, the unreleased “Someone Else,” was written based off a line that had been in the back of her mind since she was fourteen: “There’s nothing like watching the one you love, love someone else.” It wasn’t until this year that the line became relevant enough to her own life to spawn a full song. “I didn’t really feel that when I was fourteen; I thought I did.”
(The lengthy gestation period was worth it. With soulful vocals and elegant yet emotionally raw lyrics, this gorgeous piano ballad is sure to be a hit when she releases it).
Although there were some commonalities, each artist featured had their own distinct song-writing process.
For her latest album, the free-spirited Arden had to adapt her stream-of-consciousness lyric-creation to co-writer Bob Rock’s more methodical production style. The most jarring experience was recording the hastily-written feminist anthem “Not Your Little Girl.” That day, Rock arrived with a pre-written backing track and gave Arden just a few minutes to brainstorm lyrics, before handing her the microphone and telling her to sing whatever she had. That first take made it onto the record. “[The song] was written and recorded at the exact same time,” Arden declared, slightly awed.
Rock, of course, is no stranger to writing under pressure. Capitalizing on the burgeoning punk scene, his first band The Payolas received a record deal on the strength of their 1979 single “China Boys.”
“The problem was, we had no other songs,” he recalled. “We had to learn how to write songs fairly fast.”
The only songsmith on the stage who was not a lyricist, Rock provided a unique perspective. “I think there’s a song in every guitar,” he said. “So, I have a lot of guitars.” He admitted that his habit of “buying guitars just to buy them” may seem strange to an outsider, and explained that each instrument has its “own voice” that he draws inspiration from.
He also reflected on forming The Payolas with fellow English music aficionado Paul Hyde, who Rock was mildly frightened of when they first met: “He looked terrifying!” One of the highlights of the afternoon was Rock’s rendition of The Payolas’ “Where is this Love,” with Jann Arden taking over vocals.
Arden, known for her downbeat songs, was an engaging co-host, injecting wry humour into the proceedings. She had an especially good rapport with Cuddy, who ribbed her repeatedly. “You did that joke in the first half,” he chided her at one point. “Two halves, two jokes, that’s all we ask.”
Cuddy also put Bob Rock and Ruth B on the spot by announcing that they’d be accompanying him on “5 Days in May” – to their apparent surprise. (They both rose to the challenge).
The funniest moment of the night, however, came courtesy of Iskwé, who had quite a revelation for Bob Rock. “It turns out we’re related,” she announced, cultivating an awkward pause before blurting out, “Hi, Dad!” (As it turns out, the two are actually distant relatives by marriage – she once rode in Rock’s limo during a family reunion in Calgary).
It’s safe to say the Songwriters’ Circle was Juno Week’s best jam session.