Inside A Songwriter’s Head

•April 25, 2011 • 1 Comment

Why do songwriters write? Why are songwriters so important? I remember having a talk about this with an old friend, Kjwan‘s Marc Abaya. We were standing on a balcony in Malaysia  in 2007 on the eve of what I still think was their greatest show and these were questions he wanted me to answer. In truth, I didn’t have a clue because I don’t feel the same way artists do.

I can’t write a song. I can’t draw or paint. I can’t play an instrument. But something in me understands it when music touches me. There is a scientific explanation for it, I am sure, as to what connects music with emotions but I have no idea what IT is.

I cannot imagine my life without music whether it be the inspiring songs of Gary Valenciano, the anthems of U2, the diversity of The Beatles, the musicality of Led Zeppelin, the depth, breadth, and beauty of Classical music, or the sweeping and tragic melodies of Opera. I love it all.

Music is a soundtrack to so many things. Can you imagine a movie without the music that sets a mood? What would “Gladiator” be like without the moving theme of Hans Zimmer and the haunting humming of Lisa Gerrard? Would “Raiders of the Lost Ark” be as exciting without that John Williams’ score that heralded our hero, Indiana Jones, coming to the rescue? Would every onscreen kiss be as romantic without the dramatic music in the background? Probably not.

As a person who works in music and lives for it, I am constantly motivated to learn more about how these little notes, these 8 octaves, these hundreds of instruments, these countless voices can all be combined and compressed in endless ways into an average of five minutes and through it all have an impact that lasts a lifetime.

So, when through 7101 Music Nation, we convened the 1st Elements National Songwriting Camp in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental in November of 2010, I saw it as an opportunity to experience and explore up close music in the making. With mentors like Ryan Cayabyab, Louie Ocampo, Jay Durias, Top Suzara, Jim Paredes, Noel Cabangon, Joey Ayala, Rico Blanco, Gabby Alipe (Urbandub), Gary Granada, Gary Valenciano, Chito Miranda (Parokya ni Edgar), Ebe Dancel, Yael Yuzon (Sponge Cola), Jungee Marcelo, and Trina Belamide, it was impossible not to learn something. More than the actual crafting of a song, it was the motivation behind it that I was keen to find out.

Did it really matter that the styles of music and genres they represented were as different and diverse as the elements of nature that surrounded us during those five days by the sea and in the mountains?

Talks focused on the creative process, the history of OPM, the writing of lyrics, the business of music, and the role of technology and film. But it all ended with the responsibility and role of a songwriter.

In his closing talk, Gary Valenciano gave his insight into that. Here is an excerpt of that:

Director Quark Henares must have mulled over the same question as Marc did for the documentary he came up  with also dealt with the same topic.

So many statements can be made through songs whether they be to reflect a individual’s state of mind or heart, a group’s set of beliefs, or at certain times, even a nation’s sentiment. Songs can entertain or enlighten, inspire or challenge, affirm and confirm, or simply, state a fact. That songs are able to capture moments in time is a gift to all who hear it.

Maybe I will never understand why songwriters’ minds and hearts think and feel the way they do. Maybe I will never understand why they get ME even though we may be centuries and worlds apart. For time and location have no bearing when the music at hand touches one’s soul.

Maybe their gift is that they are able to see and peel off the cumbersome layers of life and see or feel more of our humanity. Maybe they are simply more attuned. Their ability to create something that connects us all (for we all do not know each other) in a styling of sounds and even without words that we are all able to understand – THIS is what I think makes them so special.

So why do songwriters write songs? Why are they important?  Maybe it’s because they simply are our voice in a language that others more than ourselves can understand. And maybe our role is to be their ears so that we can understand ourselves and each other better.

So to answer my friend Marc, I do not really know. But let’s just sit back and listen.


Of Gary Valenciano and Coming “HOME”

•April 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment
I have often had this discussion with music friends about the reasons behind Gary Valenciano‘s longevity in this business. Some of them say it’s because he’s never compromised his craft and seeks to always strive for excellence. Others say it’s because he doesn’t seem to physically age and only seems to get better. I think they’re absolutely right.

For me, though, I believe it’s because he has never lost sight of his purpose as an Artist. It has always been, and will always be, about imparting a message that should resonate in someone’s life. And THAT is the key to staying relevant. That through his music and performances he does this so effectively is why he is still at the top of his game after 27 years.

A few years ago, Gary released an album, “Rebirth” under Universal Records. I remember having a chat with him then about what he thought which song I should check out. “HOME” was his answer. That night, I sat down and seriously listened to it. Since that time, it has become one of what I call the “quintessential inspirational Gary tunes” along with “Take Me Out of the Dark” and “Letting Go.”

If you want to know this man and his heart, just listen to these songs and you will know. They are peepholes into his soul. Even though “Home” was already beautifully written by someone else, a Fil-Am Christian by the name of Rex Versoza, Gary’s interpretation of it brings it to another level.

 It isn’t by chance that I am writing this piece about the song, “Home” on Good Friday, the day that is the crux of the Christian faith. It is today that all Christians celebrate the joy of a new life because it is the Father’s giving of His only Son and through Christ Jesus’ supreme sacrifice that we all have been saved. The death of Christ on the Cross paved the way for us to be able to go back Home to God.

The song’s lyrics are reminiscent of the story of the Prodigal Son. In truth, who hasn’t experienced a moment like that in their lives? Who hasn’t wandered off in fits of rebellion and longed to just go back home when it no longer makes sense to be out there? Who hasn’t longed for a fresh start and the consolation of constant acceptance and love?

In this current time of turbulence in the world, it is reassuring to know that there are songs like these that can still speak to us. THAT is what music should be: not just a reflection of how things are, but rather, a beacon, a reminder to all of how things CAN be. And with that brings hope regardless of whatever we may face. Because of that, songs can truly mark pivotal points in our lives.

For me, “Home” brings with it its own set of memories of a great and happy time in November 2010 when Gary sang it at the Graduation Ceremony of our 1st Elements National Songwriting Camp in Dumaguete. It was a simple affair, the culmination of eight months of hard and intense work that resulted in five days of music, laughter, and extraordinary bonding among musicians and friends. We were at the Luce Auditorium in Silliman University, Dumaguete, Negros Oriental. Maestro Ryan Cayabyab was on the piano and Gary was delivering his inspirational talk, the last activity of the Camp.

Gary sings “Home” at the Luce Auditorium

His was a message to inspire the aspiring songwriters. In it, he emphasized the importance of every song, of every songwriter, and of each one’s responsibility, urging them to write with a purpose.

In his own words:

“Music itself may never be perfect but if it is from God, it is from a perfect God. And it will play its role in someone’s life, at some point in time, if maybe not now then maybe later on. There are seasons to everything and I think that whatever Music Nation did in this 1st Elements Camp, I think they planted good seed on good soil. Because it is good seed on good soil, in time, it will bear good fruit. It cannot bear anything else but that.”

 He recounted a statement his brother-in-law made to him as they watched an event on television in which he said, “You know, the good thing about you stars, you get brighter as the night gets darker so people can see the stars shine.”

 However, Gary went on further to add, “Personally, what I saw in this event, I saw so many stars, especially last night. But stars are not only meant to shine. When you go back in time and you look at the history of man, as explorers travelled and tried to navigate their way throughout the world, they also looked at the stars to guide them home.

 “There are many people out there with stories that you will never hear, stories that you can have in your head but you can never imagine yourself being there. However, there are countless other people who ARE there.

 “There are others out there who are going through other things, like being heartbroken. It is a reality. What may hit me hard may not hit somebody else as hard as it has hit me. And you songwriters are the reflections, the mirror images of what many out there are going through.

 “There are many lost souls out there. And yet, I listen to the songs of Rico Blanco, for example, especially after the storm Ondoy, and his song guided people home. It guided people to an area where they realized they could do something for a struggling nation and it triggered off so many activities all over the world. We don’t see how far the impact of these songs go but they go far. Very far.

 “You light one soul, that’s good enough. It is written in the Word that when one person comes to know the Lord, the angels in heaven rejoice. When ONE person comes to the Lord, that knowledge causes a celebration.

 So, as stars who are here, when you write a song, it is meant to guide someone. And I hope and I pray that somehow, it guides them HOME, to the Father. Regardless of what the song may say, it will play its part in moving people toward that direction.

 “So here is a song written by Rex Versoza which he wrote for me and I’d like to sing it for you because I also find myself in moments when I also need people just like YOU to guide me back home.”

 He went on to sing “Home” with such sincerity and purity. The arrangement was simple with just Gary’s voice and Ryan’s piano but the performance was so powerful and moving that not a dry eye was left in the theatre after. Proof that a song with a message that holds true for all is a potent weapon indeed. And when it resonates, this one, just like Gary, will last and remain relevant for a long time.

 So as Good Friday comes to a close and the long night sets in, regardless of what beliefs you may subscribe to, I am confident that this song will also play its part in YOUR life.

 Here is the link for the official music video for “HOME”, courtesy of GV Productions, Inc., produced by Spot On Productions. Watch it and listen. May it speak to you as well.

 God Bless You. Happy Easter to everyone.


The song, “Home” can be found on Gary Valenciano’s albums, “Rebirth” and “Replay” released by Universal Records Philippines.


Of Bob Geldof and Bucking the System

•April 23, 2011 • 1 Comment

As the lead singer of The Boomtown Rats, he only had one hit, “I Don’t Like Mondays, ” a story of a girl who shoots her classmates at school. He had other minor hits but it was in 1985 that the world sat up and noticed Bob Geldof. That’s now, SIR Bob Geldof, mind you.

It was in 1985 that he rounded up friends from the music industry to participate in a single to raise funds and awareness for the thousands dying of starvation in Ethiopia. The effort was called Band Aid and the song was entitled, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Big 80’s artists were present like Paul Young, Sting, Duran Duran, Bananarama, Paul Weller, Phil Collins, Boy George, George Michael, and even a not-quite-so-big-yet Bono was there, among others. That effort spawned also the most successful single of all time, USA for Africa’s “We Are The World” written by the late Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

He organized two of the biggest events in music history, Live Aid and Live 8, the latter held in 10 cities around the world that included even greater legends like Sir Paul McCartney, a reunited Pink Floyd, Robbie Williams, Madonna, and new stars like The Killers, Placebo, and Coldplay.

Live Aid and Live 8

He is certainly more successful as an activist than as a musician but what makes Bob Geldof so inspiring is the fact that he has tirelessly utilized the power of music to create significant change in the world. Alongside partners like Bono and their they have been able to drop the debt for some of the world’s poorest countries, no small feat when the figure is past the $500 Million mark.

Bono and Bob Geldof

I have chosen to also walk down this music-for-advocacy path and so I was thrilled when I found out that Bob Geldof would be the keynote speaker at SXSW.

Bob Geldof at SXSW

Needless to say, I was impressed. I was also challenged. Not only by the force of his passion but by the clarity of his thoughts and deep knowledge of the facts. I didn’t hear a preacher but a serious and concerned advocate of music who was mourning the demise of America’s great cultural contribution to the world: Rock n’ Roll Music.

Bob Geldof talked about how discovering rock music tuned him into the world, something he took a step further by not just being aware, but aware and active. He said rock music was dying because America had gone soft. Connecting music to social issues, he cited an example where each cow was given a $2 allocation for food daily when, in fact, a third of the country’s population was living off food stamps. He spoke harshly about how complacency has become the norm. How the conformity in music reflected the way people looked at issues, no longer challenged to effect change, resigned to the reality of certain facts.

In his own words:

“Rock ‘n’ roll needs to be against something. It can’t just BE. It always needs a function in which to function. Of course there are great songs. There will always be great songs that don’t suggest anything other than being a great song. But … where are our Ramones or our [Sex] Pistols today? Do we need them? Yes is the answer. Will they be found? Maybe not.”

“What’s music got to say? … I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it. I don’t hear the disgust in the music; it doesn’t have to be literal, it can be suggested. Can you imagine the ’60s without the bands interpreting the fast-moving agenda of the times? Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives the illusion of talent. Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say.”

“People talk about the demise of the industry, and people in the industry are worried, but the industry is only a function of the music. And the music is only successful when it’s relevant. The industry will not exist on the caterwauling of divas or pretty boys with lovely mouths. This thing we call content is actually about this conversation society has with itself. Rock music provided that: It is intensely powerful, this little minor art form we occupy ourselves with. And when politics is unconvincing even as entertainment, then entertainment might be the politics of our time.”

It was an in-your-face talk, one which I wish most current “leaders” in the music industry had heard. I was reminded so much of “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. “People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening, People writing songs that no one ever shared because no one dared disturb the sound of silence.”

In my mind, there is music around but does it really uplift and inspire whether it be in the language and form of rock, pop, or rap? I wouldn’t make sweeping generalizations because there are still quite a number of artists who care and make every effort to impart something truthful and meaningful.

But I couldn’t have agreed with Sir Bob more. People HAVE gone soft. When the main topic in mind is how to sell or how much to sell, then it ceases to be about the craft. Bring on the bean counters and naysayers. The so-called “demise” of the music industry is really only true when it’s all about form and function. Music should exist as an extension and reflection of people’s hearts and souls and when it becomes about sales and not substance then that’s it. Yes, a hit can be made in a flash but it may never become a classic, one that will live on as a soundtrack to someone’s life.

What was great about SXSW was that people were, in essence, still music fans, concerned about the music, eager to let the musicians succeed. And that, in itself, is inspiring. I wish there were more Bob Geldof’s around who challenge and still light fires under people’s chairs. So, let’s bring back the music. To paraphrase The Who, let’s not get fooled again.

Check out Bob Geldof’s entire talk here:

Discovering SXSW

•April 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I must say attending South by Southwest, better known as SXSW, was one of the most enlightening experiences ever. What started out as a small music festival 25 years ago in the not-on-the-music-map city of Austin, Texas has become the biggest and most credible music gathering in the world. (They even give free beer!)

After what seemed like 30 hours from Manila, our 7101 Music Nation Artistic Director, Maestro Ryan Cayabyab, and I finally landed in Austin. The words “exciting” and dynamic” are not normal adjectives used to describe a conference…but in this case, they were spot on.

Ryan and I at SXSW

Three fields were all being celebrated in ten days: Music, Film, and Interactive. I heard that almost 40,000 people were in attendance.

What was interesting for me, having come from the “traditional” side of the music business, was seeing how none of the perceived “leaders” of the music industry were present. There were no major labels in attendance. If they were there, it was for the publishing talks where legal issues were tackled – and that’s a different business unit altogether. In fact, everything was dominated by the independents. What was so refreshing was that no one was ringing the “doom and gloom” bell. Everything was about new solutions and ways to not only survive but to THRIVE in this new music landscape. in fact, these new ideas were all over the place – on pillars, booths, walls, everywhere!

Some of the most interesting talks were the ones led by Alex Ljung and Dave Haynes of Sound Cloud, Chris Poole of 4chan, Matthew Ogle of Echo Nest, as well as the ones from online music review site Pitchfork Media, and internet radio stations, and Pandora.

For me, I was there to explore, learn, network, and to basically be inspired. Keynote talks by Blake Mycoskie of TOMS Shoes, Sir Bob Geldof and Yoko Ono were a thrill for a fan like me. (I will go into greater detail about Sir Bob’s fantastic tirade in another piece.)

Bob Geldof

Yoko Ono

But the great learning, the huge head-turning talk that was also a belly-aching laugh trip was by Martin Atkins, once drummer of Public Image, Ltd. (PiL) and The Killing Joke. It was a sight to see a fifty-something rebel still on fire, still shocking people, and still passionate about bucking the mainstream. The title of his talk was “Welcome to the Music Business, You’re F*cked!” Need I say more? Certainly not a “Sad Punk.”

Martin Atkins

I  learned lots of things and whilst they may be old news to some folks, it was all quite new and shiny to me: how to really use QR Codes to promote shows, venues, and artists, what it means to “Curate” or “Scrobble”, the beauty of API’s, the importance of hashtags, and also how to use social location sites like Foursquare.

Ryan and I also took the time out to watch “Hit So Hard”, the documentary featuring the life of Patty Schemel of Hole which was excellent and which I hope we get to show locally. Her story of addiction and recovery is something that must be seen and shared. I am a fan.

Parry Schemel of HOLE
We also queued up to witness R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe curate their new album, “Collapse Into Now” which featured two music videos directed by James Franco. Yes, THAT James Franco of Spiderman, Milk, and 127 Hours fame. It was R.E.M. sounding like its old self and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Michael Stipe of R.E.M.

One of the talks I really had to see was the Duran Duran interview which was so interesting because it was, again, a story that trumpeted the joys of being independent. After almost 30 years, they’re still going strong. Hats off to the boys who also played a tight and crazy set the night before. I felt like I was 15 again!

Duran Duran (L-R) Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes,

Roger Taylor, and John Taylor

Amidst all the talks, I really enjoyed meeting some of my musical idols. Here I am with Aerosmith’s Joey Kramer who confirmed that sadly, NO, Aerosmith is not coming to Manila this year.

Joey Kramer of Aerosmith

Now this guy is a real hero to me. Jonathan Poneman is the guy behind Sub-Pop Records, the original label of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney. Without Sub-Pop, would the world know Grunge and all that it became and stood for? Probably not. Another tip of my hat for the independents who still stand by artists and invest in them – no matter how long it takes.

Jonathan Poneman

There was so much that went on and I will break it down slowly but for now, this was the last shot I took of the conference. Though they did give free beer, it was a feast for all of my other senses and I hope to be able to replicate something like this here in the Philippines through Music Nation at some point in time. I will certainly be back next year. I can’t wait.