Songwriter's Summit Portland Recap
This year’s Songwriters Summit, hosted by the Recording Academy’s Pacific Northwest Chapter at Portland’s uber-cool—and hangar-sized—venue Holocene, was an inspired and diverse evening, complete with both storytelling and music. Guests included Northwest luminaries and pop music icons alike.
After an introduction by Executive Director of the PNW Chapter, Michael Compton, the night’s first guests made their way onto stage. The angular walls of Holocene, and its suspended white speakers, look like something from the set of a Star Wars film. Lit in the purple and pink house lights were Fabi Reyna, the Editor in Chief of She Shreds magazine, and the singer-songwriter Edna Vazquez—dressed sharply as always, tonight in a suit with bright red boots and a red bow-tie.
When Reyna asked Vazquez about her early impressions of music and songwriting, Vazquez remembered falling in love with music at eight years old, she says, when she discovered a song about “the backwards world.”
“It talked about a good witch and a bad prince,” she recalls. “It was all backwards, and it caught my attention, like ‘woah, what if what we’re living is all backwards?’ That was my first impression of lyrics.”
Vazquez—who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teen—recalled learning to play guitar in order to perform for her grandmother, as a birthday present. Later she’d later write her own songs for solo performances and for shows with her mariachi band. Vazquez likened solo performance to “just swimming through the song,” as opposed to the more communal experience of playing with a full band.
Vazquez said that as she was starting out as a young musician, she would write music “whenever it popped,” including writing songs while driving a flower delivery van with no heater. “I was so miserable that I just started writing this song. It’s a song about how we’re miserable in certain situations, and we have to stand up in order to move on. We have to take a step, but taking that step is painful.”
That song, the tender and forlorn “Corriente,” was a showstopper on all fronts (including a simply unreal whistle solo). Vazquez insisted that she was getting over a cold, but no one at Holocene could tell.
Next up was BMI’s Tracie Verlinde, interviewed by Maggie Vail of Portland’s CASH Music. With Vail leading the conversation, Verlinde gave a walkthrough of how BMI, ASCAP and SESAC—the three Performing Rights Organizations available to U.S. songwriters—operate.
Topics discussed included how to register with a P.R.O., changes to performance reporting that benefit independent artists, and the differences between the various organizations. “I always tell writers, just pick one,” Verlinde said. “If there’s anything I can leave you guys with, just pick one and make sure your songs are registered—because if you don’t pick one and you don’t register, you don’t get paid!”
When asked about pending changes to laws around intellectual property and licensing, Vail said “There’s a lot going on in terms of licensing, and we need to be paying pretty close attention to it. I’ve been happy to see BMI stand up for artists.” Verlinde chimed in: “We’re here to represent songwriters. We want you guys to make as much money as possible. You’ve earned it, that’s your livelihood. Sometimes we have to educate people that there are songwriters behind these huge artists they know who are touring and getting 30 million dollar endorsements. Sometimes there are writers behind those songs who may not be able to pay their rent if [laws and restrictions] keep taking away their income.”
Next up was an interview between Fabi Reyna and Portland R&B/electronic/dance project Chanti Darling’s founder, Chanticleer Trü, an artist who Reyna described as “someone who is creating some of the most exciting music in Portland right now.”
Trü described his band Chanti Darling as “my favorite project that I’ve done to date. It encompasses a lot of things I really love. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life as a nightlife promoter, and I’ve had a healthy obsession with R&B and disco and funk, so I promoted those kind of events. This was kind of an ethereal bubbling up, where if you just do one thing and then do another thing, you have the opportunity to do it.”
The dissolution of Trü’s previous band, Magic Mouth—which found him a lot of regional success—provided an opportunity to go in a new direction, and while he learned a lot from that band, Chanti Darling gives him “the freedom to create all of it, and to push to the far-reaches any idea I might have. That, for me, is very very natural… it’s a lot simpler.”
“What comes first, the vision and image, or the sound of a song?” Reyna asked. “How do you view that relationship?”
“It’s a variable thing. Sometimes it’s literally a phrase. I like levity in my music. I think things have gotten dark in recent years, and I use a lot of humor and levity in my songwriting. I want to bring that back, it’s kind of a personal mission of mine.” Sometimes a song comes out in its final form, Trü said, and sometimes “it snowballs. It’s funny how that impromptu kinetic energy can develop, and you might want to keep some of that. So it varies.”
After a compelling discussion of music and community, Trü admitted a central mission of his music: “My thing is getting people to let go. Then he got up behind a tabletop of electronic instruments (including a keytar!) to play Chanti Darling’s cascading and electric song, “Stars.” In the solo setting, there was a vulnerability and directness to the tune that one might not always hear in a full-band performance with Chanti Darling (which includes not just instrumentalists and singers, but also multiple dancers).
To cap off the evening, the Portland audience was treated to a presentation from British music legend Thomas Dolby. Dolby traced his career’s trajectory to a fascination with nascent technology, and evangelized the power of making art while working under limitations—a challenge that might not affect contemporary musicians with powerful music programs and recording software on their computers as much as it did a generation or two ago.
In front of images of Edison and Tesla, Dolby drove home the connection between scarce resources and ingenuity, relating it to his own career, which began with a hand-built synthesizer in his bedroom. “I was at my most creative when my resources were the most limited,” he told the audience, playing them a quirky early demo called “Pedestrian Roadway.”
As he entertained the audience with stories of working on a Foreigner album, performing with David Bowie, and relocating to the Silicon Valley (where he’d play a role in developing the first generation of cell phone ringtones), Dolby also showed the audience how he created his mega-hit, “She Blinded Me With Science,” including the story of how he came to hire actual scientist Magnus Pyke to embellish the song with his now-famous spoken word additions.
Then Dolby thrilled the crowd by performing “She Blinded Me With Science” in its entirety, while recreating the music video on the fly behind him. The song received a long ovation from the shocked crowd, but eventually Dolby was able to return to his talk. After his time in Silicon Valley, he’d move back to his boyhood home in rural England, where he built a music studio in a land-locked boat in his backyard, and recorded his first new album in 20 years in 2011. That album, Map of the Floating City, came coupled with an inventive videogame that found its own following.
“I’d sort of come full circle. I was almost back to the 19-year-old sitting in his bedroom in the South London, dreaming of doing this stuff,” he said. “The dream, in the interim, has possibly become real. You can be sitting there in your pajamas recording something for YouTube one evening and wake up a superstar.”
“It occurred to me at that point that the students of the day have a very different set of challenges than the one that I had,” Dolby continued. “Most of my career, I was facing situations where technology wasn’t really able to do what I was dreaming of. Such new technologies as there were, I had to sort of doctor and reuse them. It was that reuse, it was hitting those roadblocks and circumventing, that were really making me creative. It was forcing me to find my own solutions.”
Now, as a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Dolby said he likes to challenge his students to find creative solutions to their creative problems without the help of all the latest technology. He’s written about that, and about his life in music, in his book The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology.
To close out the evening, Dolby constructed an electric new song from samples live in front of the audience, and was gracious in thanking the Recording Academy for his appearance.
Strange Babes, a trifecta of DJs who hold down a fantastic weekly radio show on Portland’s Xray.fm radio station, closed out the evening with feel-good vinyl cuts from yesteryear, and the members and guests talked, drank and danced into the night. It was an enlightening and fun evening; one that set a high bar for the Academy’s next Songwriter Summit.
For additional photos from Ivy Augusta please check out our Songwriter's Summit Portland slideshow