OWS Ink LLC
By Readers, For Readers
Kate MacLean is an uprooted Maritime singer-songwriter, now living in Toronto, Ontario. She released her first album, ‘North/East/South/West’ in 2015. When not performing her own material, she can be found working as a music teacher and as a sideman for several other artists in the city. Kate’s love of songwriting is matched only by her love of salt and vinegar chips, sour candy, baseball, and other things that will surely destroy her teeth before age 30. Her debut album can be heard here: https://katemaclean.bandcamp.
Click play and listen while you read: https://katemaclean.
I’ve probably only been writing songs for the last 10 years. I remember an especially melancholic day when I was maybe 15 or so, and I took some sad-sack rhymes and minor chords, put ’em together and ended up feeling a lot better after the fact. I think that’s when the songwriting started! In terms of just general creative writing, my first ‘masterpiece’ was written when I was in grade two – it was a sprawling, 45 page epic entitled ‘Help! I’m trapped in Final Fantasy VIII!’. I had written my entire class into it by the end of the story, and my writing has been influenced by people around me ever since!
Primarily songwriting and poetry, but every now and then I like to dip my toe into the world of prose. I participated in National Novel Writing Month back in 2014, and I have a comedic novella I hack away at every now and then for kicks!
I was surrounded by music when I was growing up – my father is a piano player, and my mom sings and plays bass. Songwriting felt like a very natural way for me to express things, or to tell a story. I love songwriting because it offers so many opportunities for connection. Even if someone isn’t listening to the lyrics, there can still be something in the melody, the singer’s voice or the chord progression that can resonate with them somehow.
Oh, everything! Is that a cop-out answer? All the usual stuff: love, loss, hopes, dreams, events, anxieties, a good story, feelings, etc… but also the UNusual stuff! I’m currently working on a song about baseball, and another one about Junior Mints. I was once inspired by a short story that my buddy Tyler wrote about a potato that appeared to have a face. His name was Peaburt, the outlaw potato! (The silly song that came from that can be found here: http://www.omichinski.com/
I alluded to my musical upbringing earlier, and part of that involved being surrounded by really, really good songs. I remember my dad coming home late at night and sitting down to play some tunes (much to the chagrin of my very patient mother, who had to get up for work in a few hours), things like ‘Desperado’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. I still have those melodies attached to memories in my head, and that’s a pretty powerful thing!
Songwriting will often happen when I’m supposed to be doing something else…I’m lucky to have a pretty good musical memory, which means that when I come up with stray one-liners while riding my bike, or stumble upon a cool chord progression when learning songs for a gig, they’ll usually stick in the ol’ cranium for a while. Setting aside writing time, however, is a challenge. Like most creatives, I work 7 days a week, trying to pay the bills and keeping my head above water what with teaching, gigging, recording, and, more often than I’d like to admit, dedicated writing time gets pushed aside. During the summer months, I try to write at least a little something (a hook, a stanza, anything really!) every morning.
It depends on the type of song, and whether or not it is a commissioned piece. For commissioned pieces, the subject material usually comes from the client, and I’ll manufacture inspiration from there! For my own singer-songwriter stuff, I’ll come up with lyrics, as I previously mentioned, based on just about anything. I was a pretty intense bookworm as a kid (and to a certain extent, still am!), so I think narrative and story is very important to me. One of my favourite tunes on the N/E/S/W record is called ‘Beekeepers’, and I came up with those lyrics after imagining a character torn between her dream job at an apiary, and her unfortunately anaphylactic lover. (Beekeepers can be heard here: https://katemaclean.bandcamp.
Oh, you know – a series of increasingly poor choices? I’m just kidding. When I was 18, I moved from the very small town of Alma, Nova Scotia to the biggest city in Canada – Toronto! Talk about some culture shock. I got my degree in Contemporary Music Performance from Humber College, and then stuck around in the city because I already had a job and some steady gigs coming in.
Right now I’m finishing up the school year with my teaching job, and getting geared up for festival season with a couple of artists. In addition to that, I’m working away at the follow-up to my 2015 album, the dreaded ‘sophomore album’, which I’ll be calling ‘Feelings, etc.’. I’m also working on a fun passion project covering the songs of local songwriters from Toronto and some from back home in Nova Scotia.
Hoo boy! Blood, sweat, tears and self-publication. In order to press an album as an independent artist, there’s a few steps. 1. Write the songs. This is the easy part! 2. Record the songs. Call in a bunch of favours from instrumentalists you trust, and spend endless hours overanalyzing vocal takes in your basement. 3. Mix and Master the album – this is arguably the most important step, as good/bad mixing can make or break a record. 4. Commission artwork, find a graphic designer, pick fonts and layout. Then, finally, you 5. Press the darn thing! Find a printing company you can work with/afford. Choose the option you want, be it physical or digital copies, and then 6. Hope you can sell enough to break even. In addition to this, we have a really great organization in Canada called SOCAN which helps out with royalties. So at some point you have to become a SOCAN member as well!
What a fantastic question! I’m going to have to say CONSISTENCY. Consistency, being prolific, and trying to silence my inner editor. I am so envious of the people who can sit down every day and end up writing song after song. I find I can barely make it through a couple of lines before the inner editor pipes up with doubts and criticisms. The ‘write now, edit later’ concept is very hard for me, and it’s a skill I’m still working on.
That moment when you can find the perfect, simple line that still conveys so much. I love that. I also really enjoy hearing that other people get out of my writing – somethings their interpretations are totally different than what I intended, and that can be both enlightening and entertaining. My favourite work… hmm, that changes from day to day, but if I had to choose one, probably this song called ‘West’. (https://katemaclean.bandcamp.
I think there’s this perception that to be a good songwriter, you have to be a real tortured soul, you know? Sure, it helps – but I don’t think it’s necessarily true. I’m much more productive when I’m on a peak, even if I’m writing about a valley. Another perception is that touring is a huge party! A non-stop bender, if you will! Though the occasional bender is pretty unavoidable, if you’re on a longer haul, you need to preserve some energy and keep it together. I find that 85% of time spent on tours consists of either a) driving or b) waiting around!
Remember that process I described earlier, where I listed the steps for making an album? Every single artist will go through that to craft a song that most of their audience will end up streaming for free, or basically pennies. It’s a lot of hard work, and if you like an artist, try to support them by going out to a show, or paying for their merchandise. It’s nice to know people care!
Oh, wonderful! I love this question. Start by listening to EVERYTHING. Explore the structure and composition of song – listen, and learn about the parts of a piece: chorus, verse, prechorus, bridge, intros, outros, etc. If you’re not proficient on an instrument, but want to be a songwriter, I would suggest trying to get some basic skills down (piano/guitar tend to be the most common instruments, but heck, if writing on a harp is your thing, do that!), or find someone who IS proficient to write with. Go to local shows. Talk to singers/instrumentalists and songwriters. Decide what you think makes a good song, but be willing to listen to what other people think makes a good song! Take a couple lessons. Most importantly, just write. Be open to whatever comes to you, and enjoy it! It’s definitely not all Eureka moments, but it’s a really great way to express yourself.
Honestly, I don’t promote my writing enough. My skills lie in the creative zone, and like a lot of creatives I get really shy when it comes to business or promotion. The best way to promote your songs, is, of course, to play gigs. This definitely adds to my writing, as getting a chance to road test tunes and get feedback from a crowd is very valuable.
Jessica Grant, who wrote ‘Come, Thou Tortoise’ (my favourite novel!) did a great job with the unreliable narrator concept. In a way, I think all my songs are told by an unreliable narrator…it’s me! And I am, of course, completely biased. Barbara Kingsolver – the way she writes is so beautiful. I liked ‘Prodigal Summer’ so much that I wrote a song about it! (Can be heard here: https://katemaclean.bandcamp.
The self-deprecating (depre-Kate-ing? Just a little pun there for levity, folks) artist in me wants to say ‘Nothing! I’m just another gal, singing about her feelings…’ And though that’s true, I like to believe there’s something charming, or at least candid, about my writing. I write songs that are undeniably person, but have a familiar feeling behind them that other can relate to. I want someone to hear one of my songs and find something to chuckle at in it, but also hear the tune and go ‘Yeah! I’ve been there! I’ve felt that!’.
I just finished reading ‘How we are Hungry’, a collection of short stories by Dave Eggers. Good read!
Hmm! I may be the wrong person to ask about that as I have never read an e-book, still use a paper calendar and write longhand. I think the future is bright – different, for sure, but bright. A fantastic Canadian songwriter named Hawksley Workman says ‘We will still need a song’, and I think the same can be said about stories. I think there’s always going to be a universal need for stories, so we’ll always need reading/writing in some way, shape or form.
Thank you for you time and answering our questions! Congratulations on your music!