Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Song Talk #3: “The Ballroom Is Empty”

In honour of my upcoming "Very Late Launch" concert on December 10th (see previous post), I am devoting this third "Song Talk" article to a song from my latest CD, The Devil's Day Off.

A few of my best songs have come out of a process (or tradition) called the Great Canadian Song-Along. This annual event, a celebration rather than a contest, has been run in Ottawa for many years by a collective called Writer’s Bloc. Songwriters sign up a few weeks in advance and undertake to create a new song for the event (or maybe two songs if they are lucky and determined), based on a handful of themes (“topics”) provided by the organizers each year. Over two evenings, the participants then perform their songs at a local venue.  (Originally the venue was the late lamented folk club and watering hole known as Rasputin’s, the incubation chamber for a lot of great music and storytelling over the years.) There is no judging and there are no prizes, just a lot of mutual appreciation. Participants range from seasoned guitar-picking geezers to fresh young faces performing an original song on stage for the first time. It’s a joyful celebration of the songwriter’s craft, and of the vibrant songwriting community of Ottawa. There is always something intriguing about the kaleidoscopic variations in the songwriters’ interpretation of the “topics”; in 2015 what they had to work with were these:

 * holding my breath
* inside out
* no love lost
* you can’t take it with you
* bad

 I think you’ll agree that these topics (a fairly typical crop) leave the songwriters a considerable amount of room to maneuver.  Some of us feel that imaginary points can be scored by working as many of the topics into one song as possible, but that’s really not necessary.  For some there is also a bit of songwriter machismo over whose song was written latest, with the winner (maybe David Keeble…)  just polishing up the final verse as he/she heads for the microphone to perform. But a last-minute approach is neither compulsory nor common; indeed, there are as many approaches and styles as there are participants.

What Song-Along is, above all, is an excuse to write and perform new songs. In my experience, the combination of a deadline and the prospect of performing focuses the mind wonderfully.  Preparing for one of these events (the 2010 Song-Along, I think), the topic that grabbed me was “ghosts.” Now I have written a couple of funny Halloween songs in my time, and I might easily have gone down that road. However, on this occasion what emerged was a vivid, melancholy story-song about memory, imagination, and long-lost love.   

"Phenakistoscope 3g07690d". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons -
A simple alternation of chords on the guitar got me thinking about a circular melody in waltz time. (I’m kind of a sucker for waltzes.) As sometimes happens, the first phrase came quickly and contained the seeds of the entire song:

the ballroom is empty
except for the moonlight
no one has danced here for years

So it’s already a song about loss; it is night, in a building that is literally abandoned, but holds the traces of vanished luxury and the memories of generations of dancers and musicians.

fragments and shards
of a crystal decanter
cast infinitesimal gleams

(It’s not often I get the chance to work in that wonderfully delicate word, “infinitesimal”; in fact I’m pretty sure this is the only time so far…)

So where are the ghosts? As so often happens, when the time and the place are suitable, they are summoned out of memory:

out of the silence
I conjure an orchestra
couples whirl out of thin air
pressure of palm
at the small of your back
and I’m holding you close
with my cheek in your hair

A solitary man in an abandoned building suddenly re-experiences, very vividly, sensations and emotions from a time long gone. What else is a haunting, really?

As a Song-Along creation, “The Ballroom Is Empty” had its first outings with only my modest solo guitar accompaniment, and it worked pretty well that way. On the new CD, however, it finally got the full ballroom treatment I had imagined, with Alex Vlamis capturing the feel (and the necessarily variable rhythm) perfectly on the grand piano.  James Stephens added the haunting strings, Brian Sanderson worked his horn magic, and Alise Marlane provided some ghostly feminine resonance.

Like many of my story songs, it’s a bit longer than the standard 120 seconds of a pop tune; still, I always feel a touch of regretful nostalgia when the dream (or the haunting) ends, and daylight banishes the sweet illusions:

unbroken cobwebs across every doorway,
with mildew and ruin possessing the hall 

A fellow participant in that year’s Song-Along, Jeremy Owen, had kind words for me when he heard the song for the second time:

“The highlight of this magnificent evening, for me, was Tom Lips whom I knew but didn’t know that I knew. Tom wrote and performed a song about ghosts for this year’s Song-Along that completely sunk my ghost song’s battleship and some small part of me has been singing it ever since. Happily, he played that song again this night and it was like seeing an old friend.”

Thanks, Jeremy.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Tickets Now On Sale for December 10 Concert!

I'm excited about this concert coming up at the National Arts Centre's 4th Stage. It's a great, intimate venue for a concert (cabaret-style), with excellent technical support and sound. Most of all, it's a rare opportunity for me to perform with three of the finest musicians I know: gifted fiddler and multi-instrumentalist James Stephens (who is also the brilliant producer of my 3 CDs), guitar genius Danny Artuso, and keyboard virtuoso Alex Vlamis.  These three gentlemen made stellar contributions to my latest CD, The Devil's Day Off, and together I think we can give you some of the feel of the CD, along with the unique joys of live, real-time music (but you should still buy the CD!).

It's about a year late to be calling this concert a CD launch, but really that's what it is. For various reasons, my plans for an earlier launch fell through, with the usual consequences, i.e. the CD has not really been on anyone's radar.  On the positive side, now I get to perform in my favourite Ottawa venue (which always has to be booked far in advance).  We've kept the ticket price modest, in the hope that people will have enough cash left to buy CDs (perhaps as Christmas presents for the music fans on your list...)

If you've read this far, thanks for your interest in my music, and I hope to see you on December 10th!