Sweatpant Sessions #3–Brighter Than Sunshine

Session number three is dedicated to Chet. I sang this one last August at a cabaret/hand-fasting ceremony hosted by my parents before our wedding a week later. I prefaced it by telling the story of a road trip we had taken together, before getting engaged, where Chet informed me that he had added a schmaltzy piece to our road trip playlist. The following is that song.

Before we get to the song, though, I should mention that playlists have always been a point of contention between the two of us. Our musical interests only intersect slightly, and only with particular artists and eras. I love stuff from the 80s; weird alt-pop (some of those choices were mentioned in the previous Sweatpant Sessions post); musical theatre; modern singer-songwriters, especially along the folk-pop divide; and anything fun and boppy. Chet likes… pretty much none of that. “Fun and boppy”? Nu-uh. Weird alt-pop? No thank you. Musical theatre? Occasionally. 80s? No frickin’ way. Chet likes a strong rhythm section; pop punk; classic rock (no, 80s rock doesn’t generally count); and the 90s (but not the fun girl and boy band 90s–the grunge 90s). At least there are some areas where our musical interests are copacetic–it helps that I’m fairly easy going about music, and can put up with mostly anything so long as it doesn’t make my ears bleed. This song is one that works for both of us–decent melody, lyrics, and vocals for me, all the 90s/early 00s vibes for Chet.

So here’s Aqualung’s “Brighter Than Sunshine.”

Sweatpant Sessions #2–Wuthering Heights

Kate Bush is one of my all-time favourite artists. I remember listening to her “The Whole Story” album on family road trips, which my parents had bought in a bout of nostalgia. 

It was also the mixed influence of Kate Bush and my dad that introduced me to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. It was while listening to Kate Bush’s song of the same title that my dad announced the novel was one of his favourites, and being a big ol’ daddy’s girl, I immediately had to get my hands on this book. Which I ended up loving, reading multiple times throughout the years, and writing a one-woman show about.

Beyond that, Kate Bush has had an influence on me as an artist of originality and theatricality. I love the “weirdness” of her work, including the strange movie she made in the ‘90s and the amazing three-disc concert album of her “Before the Dawn” concerts a few years ago. She is one of a group of female artists who I adore for the theatrical nature of their music and the generous use of head voice (thank goodness!). Other artists in this company include Regina Spektor, Laura Nyro, and Joni Mitchell. It’s the intersection of musical theatre and pop/folk/indie songwriting that I love. It feels like music that I can really sing.

So here’s the song that started it all; Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.”

Sweatpant Sessions #1–Nightswimming

Welcome to [the Official] Part 1 of my “Sweatpant Sessions”! This one goes out to my brother, Nathan (Natey), and to my cousins on mom’s side of the family. Hopefully no one finds this story too embarrassing…

Back when we were all energetic, innocent kids, the whole troupe of us decided to go skinny-dipping one night when our extended family was camping at Kootenay Lake. It started with a game of poker, which we jokingly called “strip poker,” but of course none of us actually wanted to take any clothes off when we lost a hand. Instead, we decided the compromise would be that the loser had to go for a naked swim after dark. 

One of the younger cousins ended up losing, and for the sake of moral support, we decided we couldn’t send him off alone, so it became a group cousin skinny-dipping session. After the sun had set, and adults were starting to settle in for the night in campers or in front of campfires, the six of us snuck out onto the rocks, leaving our bathing suits behind and slipping into the cold nighttime water. The youngest of my cousins (at least, the youngest of the group involved) was afraid to be in the water at night, so he was nominated to stay up on one of the rocks shining a flashlight down at us. The point of this was to create safe passage up and down the rocks, but of course he caught plenty of nude scrambling up and down in his spotlight, and would giggle and shine it at those of us in the water doing dolphin dives–sticking bare bums into the air in the glow of the flashlight and making jokes about the “full moon.”

Nowadays, when people mention skinny-dipping with a suggestive wink or eyebrow raise, I just think of this happy innocent time in my childhood. Cousin bonding in the waters of Kootenay Lake. As I said before, hopefully the innocence and joyfulness of the story keeps it from being too embarrassing for any of those involved.

This song, Nightswimming, by R.E.M. was introduced to me by Natey who-knows-how-many years ago. R.E.M. is one of his favourite groups, but it wasn’t their version that first got me into the song. It was a cover that Ingrid Michaelson did where she looped all of the background parts–all done vocally, completely acapella. I’m afraid I don’t have the technology or skill to imitate her cover, but here’s one of my own:

Sweatpant Sessions–War and Peace Day!

I just finished reading Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”–yes, the 1300-page Russian epic! It took me 16 days to finish… thank you, isolation life.

This book has been on my “To Read” list for a long time, but it took a much higher place on the list after I became aware of Dave Malloy’s musical, “Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812,” which is based on a section from Book 2 of the novel. Over the course of this past week, as I’ve been nearing the end of the book, I’ve been singing through much of “The Great Comet,” and here we have a few selections from the show. 

“Dust and Ashes” is Pierre’s big song early on in Act 1; Pierre is one of the main characters in “War and Peace.” A philosopher and a bit of a drunk stuck in an unhappy marriage that he found himself sort of suckered into, he spends much of the novel searching for some sort of meaning and happiness in life. Many times he thinks he’s found it, only to be disappointed by the solution later on. The song reflects some of his early journey on this road. (You’ll have to ignore my trash page-turning near the end–my book was being uncooperative and I was far too lazy to do a second take).

“No One Else” is sung by the character Natasha, who has recently become engaged to Prince Andrei, a soldier, who says they must wait a year before they can get married, as his first wife has just died in childbirth. He goes off on a trip (sort of a “I have to find myself” kind of thing, honestly), and Natasha pines and mopes about the house for his return. Spoiler alert, though, events transpire in the musical and the wedding doesn’t end up taking place. Regardless, here is Natasha singing about her love.

The final selection I’ve done from this show is “Sonya Alone.” Sonya, Natasha’s friend and cousin, is worried because of Natasha’s relationship with the bad boy Anatole (brother of Pierre’s wife, Helene), and vows to keep her friend from making the mistake of running off with him, ruining her relationship with Andrei and possibly staining her reputation for life. I dedicate this one to all of the people who I feel the need to protect… I doubt many of them know who they are, but the dedication stands.

*This post is the unofficial first in my “Sweatpant Sessions” series. The reasoning for the title should be obvious–these were all recorded at home in my den while I am sporting my quarantine uniform… except I’ve put a shirt on for all of the recordings.

How to Learn Music

It is an essential but often underdeveloped skill to be able to learn a piece of music from the page, rather than from a recording.

Of course listening and imitating is generally easier and comes more naturally to most people (and honestly, I can’t judge a person for that), but limiting yourself to that method of learning music comes with a couple issues: one, you are risking copying everything another singer does, and so will have a harder time developing your own flavour and style; and two, you are doing your future self a serious disservice if you ever have to learn a new work, in which case you won’t have a reference track to listen to.

Some people may suggest a much more drawn-out learning process than what I’m going to suggest below; the following tips are a sort of middle-ground process for music learning, where the essential steps are there, but it shouldn’t take too long to learn a new piece (though of course the more time you put into a song, the better it’ll be, generally speaking). Each of the following steps can be done for as long or short a time as you need to let them sink in.

Steps to learning a piece of music without a cast recording/track:

  1. learn the rhythms; feel free to speak it out with the words in places, but switch to just tapping it out in tricky spots–isolate the rhythm, without letting words get in the way
  2. learn the melody; hum/lip trill/sing it through on vowels–be precise in figuring out not just the musical line itself, but how it fits in your voice*
  3. start putting everything together; sing/hum through the piece, paying attention to proper pitch and rhythm, and slowly start adding the words into it. Stop and go over any tricky bits for musical accuracy or vocal challenges
  4. as you go forward with step 3 and get more comfortable with the song as a whole, pay attention to the lyrics; what’s the story? what words can you play with? where does your character change/discover something? (Even in a non-musical theatre song you should play with character.) There are thousands of exercises and tricks that you can use to improve the performance aspects of a song
  5. PLAY! Experiment with style; pay attention to dynamics; invest in the character and story; and keep challenging yourself to master any difficult passages

As with anything musical (as with anything, period, I guess), it takes practice to figure out the music learning process. Fortunately, it’s something that’s relatively easy to pick up and start practising for yourself–just find a piece of music that you aren’t too familiar with (bonus points if you pick up sheet music for a song you’ve never heard before), and start going through the steps, seeking assistance where necessary (see the footnote addendum to steps 1 and 2). Eventually, learning and reading music starts to come more naturally; it may be cliche to call music a language, but it really does start to feel that way as you learn to speak it.

Need any help understanding or executing these steps? I’m here as a resource! Feel free to email me or leave a message on this post and I’ll try my best to help you out. Happy singing!

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*for steps 1 and 2, if you don’t play an instrument and/or don’t have the experience or theory to go through rhythms and music on your own, phone a friend! Find someone who can play through your vocal line on a piano, and make a recording–then follow steps 1 and 2 with the recording for reference. It would be savvy of you to offer to pay for this service; although friends don’t always want to charge you, they would be offering their services as a professional and should be compensated. At the very least, buy them a coffee/pint.