Monday, June 29, 2015


I woke up this morning to a city shrouded in smoke from northern forest fires. Maybe the campfire smell drifted in to me as I slept, because I dreamed of Barkerville early this morning. 
I wrote about it- the fires and the dreams- on Facebook this morning, and a Barkerville friend commented, saying "you are missed here" and when I went to reply I felt my eyes fill. 

My summer job this year is a lot of fun. It has built my confidence, showed me where I need to improve, given me new contacts in a new city. All valuable things. I love Saskatoon, where we are rehearsing, and I think I'll love Rosthern, where we will move in a week's time to open the show and perform for four weeks. The converted train station where the show will run is beautiful; the town itself could be found in the dictionary under Small Towns, (Prairie version). The show itself is a fun little crowd-pleaser with some pretty music and the cast is delightful. Our director is an ambitious, talented guy from Vancouver; another great contact and a good person to work with. I have been happily aware, ever since I started here, that the stomach-churning self-doubt and fear that used to haunt me before and during rehearsals is largely gone now. I am working on a very pleasant, very professional show, and I have no regrets about saying no to another summer in my gold rush town, except that I miss all the people who took me into their hearts while I was there, and are so dear to me. 

Every performer should have a life-altering gig or two on their resume, and Barkerville was mine.  

I biked down canyons, walked up mountains, ran along the lake with a weather eye peeled for bears. I heard music, wrote music, played it alone and with friends. I felt the adrenaline rush of love and the aching sadness of losing it. I took direction, took bows, missed cues, painted the stage floor, washed dishes, created dialogue, learned music and lines. I survived drama; I created drama. I broke rules, I bitched, I said "if only such-and-such was different"; I said "never again" and then I went back year after year to do it again because I couldn't imagine doing anything else. The intensity of living and working with the same people in an isolated environment for five months was a kind of geology: a slow intense grinding pressure and heat that created gold. Like rock, I cracked open- painfully- time and again, and like rock I re-formed. I will never be the same. I wouldn't want to be. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Little Show on the Prairie.

Oak trees and old houses, flat wide streets and hot dry air, even after the rain.
The day I landed here I walked and walked, trying to take it all in. I've been walking ever since. (Mostly because it's sunny and why wouldn't I, but also because I haven't bothered to figure out the bus system yet.) Yesterday the stage manager and I walked to work together and a street vendor was giving away (!) waffles with bacon cooked right into them as a promotion and we agreed that that was pretty much the best walk ever.
The North Saskatchewan River.
This city has a sturdy devotion to baked goods- in particular ones filled with Saskatoon Berries- and like most of Canada except BC, they are masters of the mighty Butter Tart. It's a good thing I'm walking lots.
There's a lot about Saskatoon that reminds me of Toronto, or maybe it's just that it's more like Toronto than Vancouver. Less fir trees. Older houses. No mountains. Obviously Saskatoon doesn't have the mega-city thing going on though. It's actually pretty small; way smaller than Vancouver.
Work is rewarding and fun; sometimes I feel wise, sometimes I feel like a fool. Often on the same day. The thing is, it doesn't bother me anymore. I've accepted that there are things that I'm good at and things that I could improve upon but I don't question why I'm here, or think that I can't do the work. I am comfortable in my own skin, and this makes me happy. It's been a long time coming, this confidence, and I am all the more grateful for it because of that.
Plus I get to live with this guy. Life is good. 
The Sturdy Stone Centre. WTF? Don't look at the giant circle too long or it will hypnotize you. 
I love old building ads.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Cherry Blossoms vs. Wine: a (semi-serious) study in branding

Consider, for a minute, the humble cherry blossom. No, not the flowering tree. This:
In all its retro glory. 
I noticed them tonight at the corner store, where I was buying cherry Coke to go with my take-out pizza and mini Haagen Das ice cream. (Yes, it was a banner night for healthy eating in my world.) The packaging hasn't changed in forever: it's an unappetizing yellow. The picture looks like some kind of alien ooze escaping from a cave of... poo? (Let's not even get started on the taste, which takes 3 of my favourite things- cherries, peanuts and chocolate- and turns them into something utterly vile.) Does ANYBODY buy these things? I've never seen anyone consume one, or admit to buying one, or heard anyone say anything nice about them. And yet they exist, year after year, mocking us all with their permanently uncool retro box and disgusting taste. How, in a world where cult hits like "Arrested Development", "Carnivale" and "Ryan the A&W Trainee" are canned, can this little freak keep existing? 

My sweetie and I have been known to enjoy a drink or two, so I am fairly familiar with the inside of the local liquor store. In the last ten, maybe? years, wineries and craft breweries have gone crazy with re-branding, turning stodgy labels into tongue-in-cheek works of art. (Wine o'Clock or Pink Freud, anyone?) Now, I would imagine that liquor is a competitive business to be in... but so is candy. And yet, while wineries and craft beer-makers are tripping over themselves to be cool, the stolid little Cherry Blossom just keeps on truckin', and somewhere, someone must be buying 'em by the truckload. Like the Honey Badger, Cherry Blossom don't give a shit. 

I'm thinking a lot about all this stuff these days because I'm in two bands that are trying, in their modest ways, to build a following (not to mention my own solo career/accordion teaching empire/freelance writing sideline) and I'm negotiating the ins and outs of publicity/social media daily. I learned about writing press releases last week (it's fun!). I revived my band's Twitter account from the dead. I tweaked a website and tried to make it more SEO-friendly. It's all interesting, but is this stuff keeping me from the important stuff, like songwriting and practicing? (Two things, I'll admit, that I have a love-hate relationship with.) Is my bandmate Amelia on the right track by keeping a wary distance from social media? How can my friend Jimmy- a sought-after playwright and director- exist in today's world without a cel phone, a Facebook account, or even email? In the context of this piece, Jimmy and Amelia are the Cherry Blossom: they have something people want, and they are old-fashioned- some might say stubborn- in their approach to marketing themselves. And I am like the wineries: how can I make this product (me) eye-catching enough so that as many people as possible will see it?

I type this piece fresh from a band practice where we discussed various strategies: practice makes perfect vs. regular gigs for experience? Keep building the songlist vs. focus on 20 songs for a razor-sharp set? I type this piece fresh from a week of rehearsing and recording some delightful, energetic and challenging music that I truly believe people will love... if only we can find ways to reach them. But there are so many ways to reach people these days... and many of them are a huge waste of time. I belong to Reverbnation, a website that is supposed to help musicians build a following and gives you info on your "chart position", "fans", etc... make that used to belong to Reverbnation, because I just quit. I found it to be a timesuck and a scam, a so-called "free" site that wants to charge you for pretty much everything, with stats that don't have any real meaning whatsoever. I'll keep Tweeting and updating my websites, but when it comes to winning new fans I'll keep doing it the old-fashioned way: by playing live gigs and making sure as many people as possible not hear my music but pay to hear it as well. 

The humble Cherry Blossom sits on a low shelf, bypassed for flashier, larger chocolates. But somewhere out there are people who believe in it, and so it hunkers down and endures, knowing that some of those big candy bars have an awfully short shelf life.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Muggy and Musical

Yesterday was impossibly hot and muggy, and I walked around with a large accordion on my back for a large part of it, and felt that I should have a retinue, who would match my pace, fanning me all the way with palm leaves, and offering me sips of cold lemonade. This did not happen.

What DID happen was that my accordion and I spent much of the day inside Blue Light Studio, which is a pretty magical place to be. It's where I recently recorded my own song, "In The End", and I've done session work there for other musicians and I love spending time there.
Recording sessions are some of my favourite things. And this one was special, because it was for a friend, someone who doesn't think highly enough of his skills as a musician, but who is evolving into a really amazing songwriter. So it was fun to watch some of his songs take shape, coming off the pages and into our ears. I played accordion and piano and sang a bit. Andy the recording engineer put some mandolin down on a song. When I arrived in the morning there was delicious coffee and when I came back in the afternoon there was Maudite beer in a Mason jar .

In between, I trekked out to South Vancouver to play at a seniors home. My luck is holding, because I've still never had a bad show at one of those places, and yesterday's was my all-time favourite so far. I played my accordion in the lounge/lobby of the building, and by some lucky fluke the acoustics were heavenly. I didn't need a mic, and my voice cut through the room perfectly. By the second song there were little, high, perfect old-lady voices joining in with me, and by the end of the hour I had quite a chorus of backup singers. 

Then it was back to the studio, along Industrial Avenue, which is a perfectly interesting little dead-end street. There are railcars and tracks on either side, which makes it practically inaccessible. There are food trucks everywhere (I think they come here to clean, or to re-stock, or something.) There is garbage, and crows, and climbing gyms, and the odd piece of greenery: 

All in all, it was a delightful day, even with all the accordion-carrying. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015


The practice wall at my local tennis court is in full sunlight (unlike the rest of the court, which has somehow managed to be cool and shady). My guy is hard at work these days, so I play solo, in the heat, whacking the ball carefully against the wall. Has to be carefully- too low and I am under the "net"; too high and my tennis balls sail over the wall and into a basketball court packed with some kind of preschool playgroup. Selfishly, I am not so much wary of smoking some poor kid on the noggin as I am worried I'll lose my balls forever to a sea of acquisitive preschoolers. The first day I was there I really didn't have the hang of it, and my tennis balls kept flying over there. One was lost forever, because I was too embarrassed to run over immediately for it. One ended up in the clutches of a little terror, who gazed at me calmly when I asked for it back and said "But I using it right now." I could hardly tear it out of her hands so I slunk away, defeated. (Thank god preschoolers are as forgetful as goldfish; I got it back about 3 minutes later.)

Today I only have to run over there once. God knows what all this careful hitting will do for my game but it feels good to strengthen my arm and run around a bit. Until I get home, and see how tired around the eyes I look. Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. So, apparently, do foolhardy tennis players. The rest of the afternoon is a write-off: I am headache-y and tired and cannot settle down to work on anything. Eventually the junior cat and I sit on the back deck together and watch the world go by for a while.

Piano classes are okay tonight, but I feel my shortcomings as a disciplinarian of children. I like them, but I find it hard to muster up the right combination of no-nonsense bitchiness (and I mean that in the best possible way; I aspire to it but cannot achieve it yet) and friendly interest that kids respond to. I see another assistant lining up her charges before class and feel guilty that my own kids are sauntering down the hall towards class at their own whim.

Walking home I realize that I am feeling a bit bereft since my music video competition has come to an end, or rather is in a holding pattern until the winners are decided in a few days' time. The relentless social media marketing frenzy, not to mention my passionate belief in the project, was exciting and brought my and my guy closer together; now he is hard at work doing his juggling act with a lot of different projects, trying to bring in some money. I feel bad talking to him when I know he's working and I'm drifting around the house looking for things to do; more guilt. Guilt is not productive and moreover is silly, but I was born with an overactive guilty conscience and it flares up now and then. To make myself feel better I buy a bag of jelly beans and then I feel guilty about that too.

I read a friend's blog; she is engaged to Mr. Right, acting in a show, just bought a wonderful house... but her wedding dress doesn't currently fit anymore, her house needs expensive renovations and she is making the transition into "old-lady" roles... at the ripe old age of 45. Not that she's being whiny, just looking at the light and dark sides of her funny, marvellous, imperfect life. I try and do the same. Okay, maybe I can't write down a lot of things I am proud of today (I ate a whole sheet of lavash bread in 24 hours; I consumed jelly beans after vowing that this would be a sugar-free month; I avoided pretty much all the things I was supposed to do today), but I have been getting tons of exercise, I managed to do some laundry, I.... nope, that's pretty much it.

Last night I found an old video of me playing a Bulgarian tune on my accordion. I was struck by how different my face looked then and how much more I like it now: brighter, happier, more animated. I can endure the days that are kind of write-offs, knowing underneath that I am happier now than I have been in years. Perfect/imperfect, light and dark. I relax on my bed to watch some Danish tv series I've become hooked on, knowing that artists are insecure, life is unpredictable, and tomorrow, as Scarlett says, will be another day.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Long Weekend

"Heaven's a julep on the porch..."

I can't stop playing that song right now.  This is a song for these muggy, grey-clouded, warm spring days. I was walking to Trout Lake today and I realized This is the first time in over five years that I've been here at this time of year.  No wonder I'm revelling in it. It's May long weekend and it's also the first time in over five years that I haven't been onstage at Theatre Royal, in Barkerville. I think you only get sad for places you're not when you're not in the right place now. I'm not pining. It's strange not to be up north but I love being right here.

Today I rolled out of bed and walked straight to the farmers market. Also the first time I'd been here in the spring in (say it with me now) Over! Five! Years! It's kind of overwhelming. Bread. Coffee. Crepes. Green things. Every time I go I swear I'm gonna have a plan and every time I end up walking up and down the single wide aisle in a daze and suddenly all my money's gone and I am the proud but bewildered owner of a bag of luxury potato chips and a carrot. Really. But it's also lovely, even with all the smugly alternative parents and the man-buns and the kids everywhere. Today I clutched my cappuccino while I inhaled an almond croissant and watched serious little boys holding hands with their moms, dogs losing their minds at all the sights and smells, vendors peddling dark thin stalks of rhubarb. I walked away with a bag of expensive things I didn't really need and sat under the trees for a while, because it was cooler there. 
Tonight I'll make some music with my man and a friend of ours. We'll strum guitars and sing in harmony and drink Dark 'n Stormies until the sun goes down.  Making music amongst the rainclouds and warm air and the green, green leaves of Spring. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

How To Lose Friends & Piss People Off With Social Media!

A couple weeks ago I played an open mic at a local coffee bar. I like to do that every once in a while; it's a great incentive to write new songs, and performing alone or with one other person is a great way to stay sharp and hone my stage skills. That night I played several songs alone, and several more with my friend B, and the crowd loved it. The same night, a group of young men played an acoustic set at the cafe. They were energetic, fairly skilled, and their harmonies were pretty tight. After their set I asked one of them the name of their group and when he told me, I looked them up on Facebook, figuring I'd give them a "like" and stay up-to-date on what they were up to. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that these young men  had more than fifteen thousand "likes" on their Facebook page! (And now they had one more- nice work, Gentle Machine.)

It's something I've been thinking a LOT about lately, given that I'm competing in my 3rd contest in a row, and social media has played a large role in all of them. This is the new reality, folks: life IS a popularity contest, no matter what your mom told you. This winter I applied for a tour-guide job in which a large part of the application consisted in sending in a short video telling the company why you'd be perfect for the job. Well and good- making that video was fun. Posting it to Facebook and getting my friends to vote? Well, that went against the grain a bit, as my very quiet, English, don't-make-waves sensibilities came to the fore. But I posted, and people voted, and although I didn't get the job I was so happy with my friends' endorsements and votes.

Contest #2: CBC's Searchlight competition, with Lone Crow Jubilee. Emboldened by my first social media contest, I plugged this one more strenuously, and I know that several bandmates went all out (and more power to them) to secure us as many votes as possible. Sadly, we lost in the second round. This contest is entirely based on popularity, at least until you get a few echelons higher than we did. Now I'm not being sour-grapes about this. I know there were other reasons why I didn't get that tour guide job (not bilingual, wrong demographic), and why we didn't advance in the Searchlight contest (new band, lack of experience, need better recordings), but sometimes I feel trapped by the social media machine. How can I get better at manipulating it without letting it take over my life and alienating my friends?

May has been an exciting month. My guy and I finished our first collaboration and- at the stroke of midnight, give or take- submitted our entry in the Telus Storyhive music video contest. A month of writing, arguing, laughing, filming, drawing and recording was over... but the hard work was just beginning. Because for the last 2 weeks we've had to throw all our energies into the publicity machine, and the publicity gods are always hungry. Now I had the bit firmly in my teeth: I was shameless. I messaged people. I emailed friends, family, co-workers, ex-lovers... just about anyone I could think of. I have posted daily, on Twitter, Facebook (both on my artist page AND my homepage), Google+, LinkedIn...  We've honestly tried to make it interesting. We've started a production blog on Tumblr, so fans can check out our work-in-progress. We've shot short, funny videos about location scouting and costuming for the video. (How I wish I'd had the forethought to film last month, when I was recording my song... but I didn't.) We link to YouTube, where our videos live.

And still we languish in the bottom 50 percent of contestants. I know this, because I receive encouraging emails from Storyhive every few days, telling me so. So what did we do wrong/what did we do right? Sometimes they're one and the same...

  • Posted every day, sometimes more than once. I admit, I probably over-saturated my market. Like I said, I tried to keep it interesting... but I'm sure my friends are probably sick of the very existence of this contest by now. Seeing as we only had 20 days to get votes, we had to hit people hard and often, but it's a fine line, right?
  • Bad timing: It was the THIRD contest in a row for me! If my poor friends never see the word 'vote' on my pages again, it'll be too soon. Not much I could do about that... except give everyone a well-deserved break from any kind of online shilling for a good long time after this.
  • Had some fun: J and I shot some really fun videos yesterday: a location-scouting one, which I edited into a Bollywood-style 'movie' trailer (thanks, iMovie!), and one where we scoured a funky vintage store for the music video perfect costume... and found it, to boot. The vids are short, snappy, and funny. I've posted them on Youtube, linked to them on Twitter, FB and elsewhere, tagged and hashtagged the @#$% outta them... and still, they are little-viewed. Sigh. 
  • Small audience. Most of my "fans" are still also personal friends/coworkers at this point. I am so very grateful to them for everything they've done... but until I start getting other fans- and I mean people who don't know me personally- I will have a very small group of people getting bombarded with too much promotional material. I really want to keep my personal life and my professional life more separate; to post promotional stuff ONLY on my artist page/website/Twitter and keep the personal homepage simply for fun, but right now that's just not possible. 
  • Your allies are important: J and I are the project leads for this contest. I value his skills very highly... but he doesn't have a huge network either. I made a half-hearted attempt to find our team a social media strategist, but I didn't try hard enough. If I had the chance again I'd have hired someone before we even finished submitting our pitch- hell, I should really hire someone NOW...for next time. I'm a good writer, J is a wonderful artist, and we're both spending a LOT of time on the internet, plugging our project. But a social media strategist might have had links to newspapers, websites we didn't think of, a fan base we haven't uncovered.
  • Too late: Now was NOT the time to start building a fanbase/social media empire. The ideal time would have been a year ago... or more. But honestly, a year ago I didn't think I'd be competing in a music video contest, having my solo material professionally recorded, and reaching out to the music community in search of accordion students. You do what you can, WHEN you can. It's never too late. 
If you were to hold a gun to my head, I'd have to admit that I don't rate our chances of winning this contest very high, based on our popularity out there in the ether. 
The two of us have learned an incredible amount from all this. We learned that we could work together. We solidified our creative vision for this little song of mine, and shared it with as many people as we could. The "popularity contest" aspect of this competition has forced us to work harder than we otherwise would have... and I've had an amazing time learning about publicity, from hastagging to Reddit (okay, still figuring out Reddit. It confuses me).
I've spent time watching our pitch over again, and watching other artists' pitches for this contest, and you know what? We have a damn solid idea, and to be fair to Storyhive, they are judging all of us by other criteria, not just popularity. I see some great lyrics, a unique design concept, a realistic creative treatment and budget. I am honoured and delighted that the person I love wants to make art with me. 

If I pissed you off this spring with all my self-promotion, I'm sorry. These projects all meant a great deal to me, but that doesn't mean that they meant anything to you, and I get that, because I feel exactly the same way about your projects most of the time. When you want something from me and you reach out to me through social media, I promise to be more generous with my attention than I have been in the past, because I've learned the hard way that this stuff takes a lot of work. And I will try not to respond based solely on how YOU supported ME during this terrific, challenging, crazy, creative month. 

Well, I said I'll try. But I'm not making any promises.