You say you want a revolution

English comedian Russell Brand stirred the pot last week with an interview he did on BBC Newsnight. He was being interviewed because he had been guest editor at The New Statesman and wrote a political essay in which he said that he has never voted. When questioned about that, Brand took off on a diatribe about voting, the current corrupt political system, and the need for a revolution, which by the end of the interview he said was inevitable.

I don't need to post a link. Either you've seen the video already, or you've read about it, or you don't care and are not reading this anyway.

Brand was articulate, if not always coherent or consistent. For instance, he noted that the current system is causing the destruction of the ecosystem, but during the interview he sipped from a plastic bottle. He seemed not to have started with a plan, and told the interviewer that he couldn't come up with a new paradigm (a frequently repeated word) on the spot, but by the end he was calling for a socialist system with massive redistribution of wealth.

It's anyone's guess at this point whether Brand was being serious, comedic, or both. He was certainly being provocative. What is more important is how many people posted the video with favourable comments.

Do those people really want a socialist system with massive redistribution of wealth? It's not that it couldn't be accomplished. It's only that the track record for such things is quite poor. In the past, socialist systems have resulted in everyone being equally poor, except for those at the top. Also except for those on the black market. When individual enterprise is stifled or discouraged, black markets flourish. That's because with some exception, people are not socialists by nature. They are creators and sellers and traders and buyers. Free enterprise is as old as humanity.

When Brand made sense, he made a lot of sense. Maybe those are the parts that people are responding to. The current system has certainly reached a level of corruption that is threatening us all. Especially in the US, but probably in the UK as well, and certainly in other countries, including Canada, the gap between rich and poor is still growing. And even though everyone who counts (or can count) understands that human activity is contributing to climate change, governments are pretty well united in doing little or nothing.

When things get really bad, as in many ways is true now, there is always a temptation to want to wipe the slate clean. Incremental change is slow and often does not fix fundamental problems. But as tempting as it may be, the "year one" approach also has a poor track record. The first years of the French Revolution were hell for many people, not just aristocrats, and it took a long time for real democracy to establish itself in France. Pretty much every year of the Khmers Rouge was bad. People eventually realize that muddling through and making small changes, however unsatisfying that might be, is preferable to a scorched earth policy.

And the trouble with saying that voting legitimizes the current system is that the current system is not a result of too much voting but rather too little, and too little political engagement. In any democracy, the people who are in public office were put there by the few who bothered to vote. In Canada, imagine if the groundswell of enthusiasm among young people during the last federal election had translated into enthusiastic voting. Do you think Stephen Harper would be prime minister if enough people, especially young people, voted in elections? And the turnout gets progressively worse at the provincial level and then at the local level. We get the leaders we vote for and don't vote for.

If the system were squeaky clean after this putative socialist revolution, would Russell Brand vote then? Because unless the socialist utopia is a dictatorship (which they all seem to have been so far), there need to be elections. It's hard to get someone who has never voted to vote. Voting and feeling that voting matters are the habits of a lifetime.

It's also easy to call for revolution and proclaim that it's inevitable. It's quite another to make it happen. That takes even more engagement, more planning, and more energy than any amount of involvement with electoral politics.

I totally agree that inequality is reaching extreme levels. I agree that none of us, governments included, are doing nearly enough to stop destroying the earth. And I submit that there are far too many men (usually men) who hold massive power that has nothing to do with being elected, and our elected leaders are doing nothing about it because of the corruption of money in the electoral system. It's no wonder someone like Brand feels it has all become a bad joke. But the answer is not to disengage and say a revolution has to happen. The answer is to engage more, to demand campaign finance reform, to demand reform and regulation of the financial system, to demand meaningful action on climate change and to participate in that action.

Words are cheap. It's easy to imagine change. It's easy to march or demonstrate for change. It's a lot harder to make it happen. And we are the only ones who can do so.


Hotter song 6: If I Have Not Love

I started mentally producing Hotter long before we went into the studio. I figured out not just an idea of how each song would sound but the order of songs and how they would flow into each other. Ideally, after having released Love Hz, a four-song EP, I wanted six songs on this one. I had five. And I didn't have what I wanted to close the record.

So I wrote a song to order, which is something I had never done before. I knew which key I wanted it in. I knew what general feel I wanted. I felt that it should bookend "We Have Only Begun" in some way. And as with that song, I worked out the chords and phrasing but had no lyrics. The deadline was self-imposed, but I really wanted to meet it. I knew I had to finish something to give the band enough time to learn and rehearse it. But I was stuck.

Then Sweetie and I discovered a film that was profoundly affecting. It didn't so much change my life as affirm the path I have been discovering for years. It's always a thrill to recognize when someone thinks the way you do. The film was Cloud Atlas. Sweetie had read the book. I had not but I had read about the film. We rented it on our cable system's video-on-demand service.

It was magnificent! Sweetie helped me through some of the more confusing parts, but overall I didn't find it that difficult to figure out. I didn't love each of the six stories equally, but I did love them all. The one about Sonmi-451 especially. Lots of people can't stand the film, but we loved it so much that we watched it again the next night, before the video-on-demand had expired. If anything, I loved it even more. I didn't have to work as hard to figure out what was going on, so I understood things that I had not the first time.

I wrote the first verse as a take-off on Sonmi's story. The second verse became a more generalized comment, less about the film than about the present world.

I can't remember if I had written the chorus before or after I saw the film. At any rate, that part did not come from the film. It comes from the Christian Bible, the first letter of Paul to the believers in Corinth. It's a famous passage that often is read at weddings. I'm not a Christian, but that passage on love speaks to me. I can't change the world if I don't first change myself.

As sometimes is the case, the song I thought I was writing turned into something else with the band. I love interacting with other musicians! Sometimes I have a very solid idea of how a song should go, but when I don't, I really appreciate input from my band mates. The song began as yet another Cure-wannabe song, a straight ahead post punk rocker. But during the verses and the first chorus, I got T to cut the beat in half on the drums while C continued to play straight time on the bass. It broke out for the instrumental break, backed off again for the bridge, and finally galloped through the final choruses and outro. The original key of E minor was too low for G to sing comfortably, so we bumped it up to F# minor (and I used a capo on the guitar for the second time).

That outline was in place when we went into the studio, but little more. We had barely rehearsed the song, even instrumentally, and even less so all together. It was the most difficult bed track to get. We had saved it for the end of the first day, and we weren't happy with what we had. So we tackled it first thing the next day, before any of us was really awake. Somehow, that worked.

The rest of that day was for lead vocals and second guitar. As with the bed track, we saved this vocal for last, since we were not entirely sure we would have time to finish the song. G had been having some difficulty with what I had written for the chorus, and she said that she didn't think she could get the power we needed with those notes. I was in a bit of a panic at that point, late on the second day in a row of recording. But I didn't want to give up on the song. I asked her something completely unreasonable: if she could rewrite the difficult parts of make it work for her voice and then do the vocal. Amazingly, she didn't say no. She did the rewrite.

When she started doing vocal takes, I could hear in her voice how tired she was. I don't remember what I said, or what Jesse said, but somehow she worked up a final burst of energy. Or maybe it was another shot of bourbon! At any rate, she blasted through that vocal, which she had just rewritten, as though she'd been rehearsing it for weeks. She covered an octave plus two and hit the high A not once but four times, a note she says she can hit only when singing karaoke while drunk. I was blown away. For the second time, I cried.

I'm glad G did such a good job with the vocal, because I'm not nearly as happy with the guitar break. I hadn't really rehearsed it. I had some ideas of what to do, but mostly I was winging it. I played it too safe. Considering all that, I guess I should be happy it came out as well as it did. Some parts I actually like quite a lot, like the final run.

I love all the songs on Hotter, but "If I Have Not Love" has a special place in my heart. It was the difficult child. It needed extra help and extra care. I wasn't sure if it was going to turn out. It took a village, or at least a band, to make it happen. And in the end, it surprised and delighted me. For me, it's the perfect end to the record.


Hotter song 5: Under the Midnight Moon

I already wrote about "Hotcakes Army" when it went out as a preview, so I'll skip over that.

I have learned a lot about songwriting in the last few years. Some of it should have been obvious to me, especially that songwriting is like any writing. You sit down and work on it, same as if you were writing a novel or an essay. Or poetry, which it's somewhat more akin to. But at any rate, even though the Muse does strike from time to time, you can't just wait for that to happen as if by magic. You might get the rare song out of that non-process, but you won't get much.

Sometimes, however, songs seem to have a mysterious origin. It almost feels as though there really is a Muse of some sort sending inspiration. That was the case with "Under the Midnight Moon." I started writing the first verse, thinking it was about a failed relationship. Nothing so unusual. I had been thinking about Game of Thrones and the line in Melissandra's prayer, oft repeated: "For the night is dark and full of terrors." And I had thought, no, it's not. The night is full of wonder, and darkness is nothing to fear.

I reached the chorus, about the protagonist finding relief from her crappy relationship under the night sky, comforted by darkness. Inside is where things suck, outside she is free. I was thinking of her being embraced by the night surrounding her. I also needed a rhyme for "close." Suddenly, the ghost appeared. I don't know why I went for the word "ghost," a near-rhyme. I don't normally think about ghosts. I'm not a believer in ghosts. I've never met one! But that lonely ghost pushed his way into the song. And suddenly the song was quite different.

Instead of the protagonist being comforted by the darkness, she was being comforted by a ghost. An incubus. And before I knew it, death was all through the song. Her true liberation lay with being with the ghost, and there's only one way that could happen.

I couldn't believe what I'd done. I wept when I realized what the story was saying.

I wrote the first three verses, the chorus, and that final bit. I thought the song was finished. I also didn't think it was a Hotcakes song, but I played it for the others anyway. And they really liked it, G especially. She wanted to sing it. So I thought that somehow we could make it work, even though it's very different from other material we do. She and I worked on it mostly just between ourselves with an acoustic guitar.

There was one problem: the story was confusing. It was clear in my mind, but I realized that maybe I'd left too much in my mind and not put enough into the lyrics. My brain filled in the rest when I played the song, but others couldn't do that. When I had a songwriting lesson with Leah Abramson of the Abramson Singers, my reward for having contributed to her Indiegogo campaign to raise money to press vinyl, "Under the Midnight Moon" was one of the songs I brought. She agreed that the story might need a bit more, that it wasn't clear what was going on. She gave some suggestions on how to approach fixing it (and lots of great suggestions on general—she teaches songwriting at UBC and writes beautiful songs).

The song wasn't too long, so I came up with the fourth verse. I hadn't put the protagonist outside in a verse, but now I did, and made it clearer what was only hinted at in the chorus and the final section. And in the process, I got to be a bit naughty, which G liked. The fourth verse provided the missing link between how bad things were inside and how beautiful things were outside, under the moon.

I wanted to record the song, but I wasn't sure we would have enough time. We had already decided that T would sit out, leaving just guitar, bass, and vocals. The lead instrument is really the bass. We did the bed track with guitar, bass, and click track (to keep time). Usually we did at least two takes for basics, but I'm not sure we did for this one. On vocal day, G was very warmed up. I love her voice on this one. I added one more guitar to get a little jangle. I did background vocal only on the final section. I wanted the first part to sound kind of like a distant echo, and then to do the full harmony on the second part. I thought about adding some kind of percussion, but we never did. In the end, the simplicity of the production is probably for the best. It lets G's voice shine through.


Hotter song 3: Bullet

Unlike "Because I Care," I know exactly where and how "Bullet" came from. It started with two things. One was something I read about the shootings at the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, about how some boyfriends/husbands sacrificed themselves to protect their girlfriends/wives. I thought, courage and self-sacrifice aren't gendered things. I would do the same for my partner, even a close friend, and I know many others who would as well. The other thing was my usual theme of how important love and friendship are to me. I really would rather be taken than to lose someone I love.

The words and music both pretty much flew out. I wrote "Bullet" on my acoustic guitar. Originally, it was in the key of A, but it felt better in B. However, the first position of B major is not an easy chord to play, and certainly is difficult when you want the guitar to ring. So I used a capo to change the key to B. And I bought a capo to use with my electric guitar for the first time ever.

I wrote the two-line refrain first. I think it was one of those things that I scribbled on a piece of paper in the car while I was stopped at a red light. Or maybe I kept singing it to myself until I got home. After that, the verses almost wrote themselves.

The words to the verses are purposely simple, just a 1960s-ish pop song about love. I grew up listening to a lot of those. But then comes the refrain, and suddenly the sweet pop song is about death. I was pretty happy with that.

Even though I was singing the song just by myself while I was working it out, I always intended for it to be a duet. Think Everly Brothers, a sound that was later imitated by the Beatles. I taught G the melody line that I had come up with, and then I sang the other part. We're not sisters, but I think we managed to work out a pretty close sound.

As usual, the bridge posed some difficulty. I knew the song needed a bridge. Unlike the rest of the song, I laboured over those two lines. When I hit upon the new chord on the second line, I knew I had something good. I could already hear that two-part harmony in my head, and G and I made it happen. It is totally supposed to evoke the '60s.

It was G who suggested not starting the duet until the second verse, which I think works to great effect and makes each verse more distinct. T came up with the idea that the drums would drop only to the kick drum in the chorus. And C added that distinctive slide down an octave after the word "to" in the first line.

The song came fairly quickly in the studio. It was one of the oldest of the set, so we had rehearsed it a lot and played it at shows more than once. I used my Mustang with the capo for the basic guitar track. Because I really wanted a full sound, I added a second rhythm guitar part with the Stratocaster, playing the same chords in different positions than the first. I did the lead part separately, also with the Strat, using my antique (seriously, it's 30 years old) Boss flanger for that swirly effect. I knew what I wanted to play. I didn't quite nail it, but close (should have done one more take—hoping you won't notice). G nailed her vocal part pretty quickly, and later I added my harmony part. The last thing I added was the tambourine.

Jesse did his usual brilliant job in quickly getting a decent mix. He made the guitars even more swirly. But I had some specific requirements, such as to get a real duet balance in the vocals. I wanted more tambourine, but Jesse thought the level was good. I think I should have fought for that one! I got a little tambourine back during mastering. Overall I'm very happy with how this one came out. Hope you all sing along with the morbid refrain!


Hotter song 2: Because I Care

I can't remember the details of how I wrote "Because I Care." I know it wasn't originally as much of a power pop tune as it turned out. Given the chords at the end of each verse, I think this was a Cure-wannabe song that ended up quite different (which is probably a good thing—don't want to be ripping off "Just Like Heaven" too obviously). The lyrics tell a story. It's not a story that actually happened, but it could have happened. As with "We Have Only Begun," I was playing with word combinations, and through that a story took shape.

I came up with the chorus somewhat separately from the verses, and I worried that it sounded too different. Too calypso or something. That changed when the other Hotcakes got hold of it. Somehow, they made it work in a way that I couldn't in my head or playing by myself. I also got used to the idea of the chorus feeling lighter, musically, than the verses, and I really love how the band brought back the heavier part at the end of the chorus.

The song is a bit long, I know. If I could have told the story with one less verse, I would have, but it seems to need all the verses. And despite the length, I felt the song needed a bridge as well. It started out feeling obligatory and uncertain, as bridges sometimes do. I thought maybe that B minor chord was just an attempt to make it different. But over time the bridge solidified, and now it's one of my favourites. I think it works well. And I think the B minor is essential.

In the studio, the bed track wasn't too difficult to get right. We had rehearsed this song a lot and played it out several times. My only concern was making sure the tempo was steady. And T nailed it. Still, I think I replaced the rhythm guitar, removing a relentless one and replacing it with something a bit more subtle, especially in the bridge. I kept the second guitar quite simple. I almost nailed the solo and like the overall feel of it.

Gisele sang this one fairly early in the session on vocal day, but I like how the vocal came out. I adore that slight trill she does in the final chorus on the word "stay" just before the repeated refrain. She gets total credit for that, because I can't sing it, at least not well. The harmony vocal was pretty easy for me, even though it's high, and I thought we had a good mesh on those parts, especially at the end of the bridge and on the refrain on the last chorus.

And then there's the cowbell. I knew I wanted a cowbell in there. The others were dubious, but I was in charge of percussion. I didn't want to overdo it, but it was the sound I wanted. I even played up the calypso feel! We had been dropping down to guitar and vocals only for that part, but now we're considering dropping to vocals and percussion only, if we can make it work. I love how the band comes back in for that second chorus. This song makes me chair dance! I hope it works that way for others.


Hotter song 1: We Have Only Begun

I wrote "We Have Only Begun" as a set opener, something simple and not too fast. For several reasons, it felt right to be the opener for Hotter as well.

When I wrote it, I was in the midst of one of the worst depressions I've experienced in recent years. It was bad enough that I sought help rather than trying to tough it out on my own. Being depressed is not a good time for creativity, and I was very stuck trying to write anything new.

To try to break through, I decided to go very basic. I came up with the chords, the melody, and the phrasing. But I couldn't figure out any actual lyrics! I didn't know what I wanted to say. I kept singing the melody and phrasing to myself to try to find something that would fit in. I made several false starts. With the phrasing so fixed in my mind, I started to try out words and lines without much regard for whether they made sense or not. And finally the song began to take shape. I wrote the verses out of order and rearranged them. I tweaked the vocabulary more than I have often done to fit cooler words into the phrasing. I didn't just want to fall back on my usual pathetic vocabulary.

It's curious that such a hopeful song would come out of such a depressive period and also such a struggle to create. I guess it was part of my fighting back. I got help, but I also had to be active in my own healing.

The song wasn't an easy sell with the other Hotcakes. They weren't sure about it at first, but it grew on them.

In the studio, it was not a difficult song for which to get a good bed track. I think I kept the live rhythm guitar. Nothing complex about it! T stayed nice and steady on the drums, with those little rolls on the bridge, and C did simple but tasty licks on the bass. G did the vocal somewhere in the middle of vocal day, so she was fairly well warmed up. She was deliberate in singing all but the refrain of the first two verses in her head voice, even the third line, which goes lower. And then on the third line of the third verse, she switched to a very strong chest voice. On the last time through the repeating refrain at the end, she went up on the note on the second syllable of "reason," something I don't think she had done before. I think it's brilliant. But I had to adjust my harmony line!

I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the second guitar. I cranked the Marshall up louder than for any other song. I wanted to keep the sound on the edge of feeding back without getting out of control, so I moved toward or away from the amp as required. And I played that sucker from the heart. I put everything I had into that. I messed up that one harmonic in the third verse (it goes "clunk" instead of ringing), but I left it. I'm pretty sure I was crying at the end of the take because it was such a release. I know I cried when I heard the playback for the first time. That song had come out of a great deal of pain, and now it was recorded.

During the remix, I noticed that the song was sounding too nice, not jagged enough. "Needs more Lou Reed," I said to Jesse Gander, our engineer and co-producer. Amazingly he knew what I meant. We kicked up the rhythm guitar, and I liked the result much better. That guitar is supposed to feel relentless. Jesse is brilliant.


The sum of its parts

In these days of digital downloads, people can buy individual songs, and often do (if they even buy). They don't necessarily buy and listen to an entire album. And yet musicians and producers continue to create albums, works that comprise individual songs but are designed as a whole. Listening to an album in sequence is an experience unlike listening to the individual songs. Songs are like snapshots from a journey; the album is the entire journey. And when an album is well conceived, every piece feels like it's exactly where it ought to be.

Being an alterkacher (old fart), I still listen to albums, and I appreciate when people create albums purposefully. The songs go together. They fit with one another. They might tell a story or convey a theme. The key of one song flows into the key of the next. Tempos vary in a way that feels right. At the very least, an album captures a particular time in the creative process--the time of writing the songs, developing the songs, and recording them in a studio. A lot can go into that process: joy, pain, difficulty, personal breakthroughs. Does a listener ever perceive that? Perhaps. Recording artists always hope so.

Hotter, the new EP from my band Lisa's Hotcakes, is not a song cycle. It does not tell a single story. The songs are individual stories. I wrote most of them separately over a span of time, and they were unrelated to each other. Or so I thought, until I realized that as usual there was a theme to the songs I wanted to include on the record. Love Hz, the previous EP, was a quick snapshot of a band that was still quite new. Hotter shows where we've gone in a year. The selection of songs and the order in which they are presented are purposeful, both lyrically and musically. Indeed, the last song, "If I Have Not Love," was written specifically to be the closer of the record and as a kind of bookend to the opener, "We Have Only Begun."

There's a lot about love in Hotter. I don't think I write "silly love songs" like Macca, but love is a major theme in my life, so of course I write about it. Love of humanity, love in friendship, romantic love, love overcoming pain and loss. Love that has to start with me, that has to transform me, before I can hope to make any positive change in the world.

Hope is kind of a new theme for me. I'm no Polyanna. I can see all the things that are going to shit. And maybe those are going to prevail. But I don't think so. We tend to see stories about when things go wrong. It's not often we see stories about things getting better, but they happen. Human beings have got this far. We've been stupid and shortsighted enough that maybe we've destroyed our only home, but maybe we are also smart enough to fix the damage we've done. And maybe we will continue to muddle through as we so often do.

Thank you for any listening and buying you do! But if you wouldn't mind, listen to the songs in order. I'm very happy with the individual songs and how they each came out, but we really did create a six-song whole. I hope you get to experience that and maybe, just maybe, feel some of what we put into it.