Saturday, August 27, 2011

EMBER SWIFT'S New Album "11:11"

I remember the very first time I met Ember Swift (and in case you're wondering, yes, that is her real name). If I remember correctly, it was in the fall of 1997 when I went to a little club in Toronto at the corner of Queen and Bathurst called Holy Joes with the intent of attracting her as a client. I was blown away with her talent as a singer and a musician and I can honestly say that I knew right away that there was something very special about this young woman. She was on a mission and I could tell that she had the drive and determination to do big things with her music career. And in hindsight, I'd say I was bang on.


She's released ten CDs with her eleventh just around the corner and sold almost 60,000 units independently. She's toured all around the world playing thousands of shows in numerous countries and has been running her own independent record label Few'll Ignite Sound all the while. The truth is, I'm barely scratching the surface here, believe me, I could go on and on about all she's done during the course of her career, but then this blog/interview would become a book.

Before we begin though, I'd like everyone in and around the Toronto area to know that she's going to be performing at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas Street West) in support of her new album on September 14, 2011. Come out and enjoy the show with me, it'll be a great one!

And now... on with the interview. :)


Dr Sean: You’ve been working really hard at your music career for almost two decades now. What is it about writing and performing music all over the world that keeps you going on your journey?

Ember: Well, I suppose in 2016, I’ll officially be at two decades ;-) I did start playing live as a teenager on the Ottawa scene in 1993, but didn’t release my first record until 1996. Still, I guess it’s been awhile, hasn’t it? Reading “almost two decades” made me sit back in my chair there for a second!

What keeps me going? I love writing songs. They’re the ultimate artistic riddle. It’s such a joyful challenge to bring melody and meter and rhythm and lyrics (etc.) together to create a unique concoction of sound that will hopefully move people when they hear it. I’ve always been passionate about the craft of songwriting and always want to improve. It’s a lifetime pursuit.

I also love performing. I love bringing songs and ideas into new geographies and I think I have the extensive travel throughout my life to thank for bringing me so much diversity of knowledge about the world. I feel really grateful for the opportunities music has given me. I also count many people I have met through touring as some of my best friends in the world.

So, what keeps me going? The joy of it all, really. There’s no other reason to do anything unless it brings joy, I say!

Dr Sean: When you set out to do this album, you sought financial assistance from your fans, peers and anyone else who was willing to contribute to its creation. Where did the donation idea come from and how did things go for you?

Ember: The industry has changed so dramatically over the past five years and now record sales are not really relevant to an artist’s ability or inability to survive in the industry. Without knowing that your album will be received by open ears, there’s no guarantees anymore that an artist will not suffer more doubt and wasted resources by creating a physical copy of their new songs in CD form. This kind of business risk is no longer a smart one for an independent artist like myself who is doing less touring but taking more international flights!

I decided that after ten albums and a solid following over the years that consists of really loyal and wonderful supporters, that I could ask them if they’d be willing to pre-purchase the new album. If they were, I could then rely on the community of supporters to bring the project to fruition and I could deliver it with a lighter financial burdern. It’s a new concept called “Fan-Funding” and many artists are turning to it these days. The response was overwhelming.

This fan-funded project, to me, is like community-supported agriculture. The supporters are supporting the art-maker (in this case, me) and then they reap the harvest of ‘song seeds’ that grow and bloom into a recording. In exchange, they get bonuses for their “Ambassador” status and it creates a sustainability model that keeps the artist (or song farmer!) alive.

Dr Sean: This is the 11th album of your career. Is there anything that you’d say is unique about this record compared to your previous releases?

Ember: It’s my 11th album that will be released in 2011. I feel it has a degree of auspiciousness about it, so the official release month is November. I have been making music for many years and there’s something about reaching the 11th project that feels like a pinnacle of sorts.

It’s also been a labour of language love. There are two linguistic releases: Mandarin (Chinese) and English. I’ve created a product that can be sold both separately and in the “box set” form, almost like old LPs had a side A and a side B. Most of the songs have their “twin” language versions with a few exceptions on each side. I’ve wanted to create and release this sort of project ever since I came to China and I feel really proud of finally accomplishing it!

Dr Sean: During the making of this album there were a couple unexpected challenges that came along the way. Can you tell us a little about that?

Ember: The project has taken a few turns with production crew. I imagined that my Montreal-based producer Tim Rideout, who was the producer on my 2009 release “Lentic”, would produce it. Tim, however, had to pull out of the project for personal reasons. I then turned to a production team here in Beijing. For mysterious (and culturally cloudly) reasons, they also pulled out. In the end, I went back to my roots in all ways (not just musically) and self-produced this record. After working with producers for my 2006 and my 2009 album, I had almost forgotten that I had the skills to self-produce a record. At this point, happy with the album results, I’m almost grateful for all of the production confusion! It restored a bit of self-confidence that I hadn’t realized I’d lost!

Dr Sean: For those who may not know, you're currently living in Beijing, China. How long have you been living there and how did it all come about?

Ember: Well, the shortened version is that I had always wanted to come to China and thought of it as my “dream destination.” I have a degree in East Asian Studies from UofT and assumed it would be my destination after my music career had fizzled out. In spring 2007, I was exhausted from touring at a hectic pace of @200 shows per year and I made the decision to “live the dream” rather than having it tucked away for “later.” I then booked a three-month journey to Beijing as a break, a vacation, and a retreat. My career hadn’t fizzled out, but I was afraid that I soon would if I didn’t do something for my spirit.

I wasn’t prepared for the love affair that I would fall into for China and Chinese culture, as a whole. I was so taken with the experience that I returned again for two months in late 2007, at which point I met my current partner who is also a musician here in China. When we fell in love, I knew that I had some sort of destiny to pursue in Beijing. I resolved to keep my heart open. After several more repeat visits, I moved here in late 2008 (part-time, that is, considering I still tour overseas). While I still retain my official status as a Canadian residet, living here has been a true adventure.

Dr Sean: How has this cultural shift affected your music and lyrics?

Ember: I’ve learned a lot about myself through this experience, on the whole, which has opened me up to a lot of different styles of music and artist expression. Learning a new language (Mandarin) has also influenced my ears and my tonal awareness. The instrumentation of China fascinates me, too, and I have enjoyed working with musicians who play traditional instruments here. All in all, immersing in a new culture is bound to have an impact on what we write about and how we express ourselves, musically and lyrically. I think I’ve only just begun to explore what those influences are.

Dr Sean: As I understand it, on this new album you've gone back to a more signature 'Ember Swift' sound whereas on your last release, “Lentic”, you experimented with some programming and synth sounds. What prompted you to experiment on “Lentic” and subsequently to come back to your roots with “11:11?”

Ember: “Lentic” was a departure record. I wanted to walk a new style path that was in-line with walking a new life path here in China. I really enjoyed the “folktronica” exploration that “Lentic” provided and it was a joy to write all the parts and build songs from just raw ideas into sonic landscapes, all with the help of a computer. I had always wanted to do this and I was thrilled to have the break from my touring career as well as the new surroundings of Beijing in which to explore in this way, musically.

That being said, sometimes departures lead us home.

“11:11” represents the founding of a new band (in Beijing) and the development of a sound in the way that I have always done it throughout my career—with great players and repeated live performance. I wrote and tested the songs on audiences and enjoyed the challenge of having to communicate in both languages (lyrically and through on-stage banter) depending on what side of the globe I was performing on. It became a lot like my pre-“Lentic” typical swirl of different styles and messages and humour.

In a way “11:11” is a homecoming, of sorts, where I have discovered that the core of what I am as a musician and a songwriter really hasn’t changed no matter how much my life and environment has.

Dr Sean: Tell us about the musicians who performed on this new record. Who are they and will they be touring with you as well?

Ember: The band won’t be touring with me in North America this time, sadly. They are Zac Courtney on drums (from Australia), Paplus Ntahombaye on bass (from Burundi, Africa) and Wang Ya Qi on erhu (from China). I’m on guitar and voice. Together, we represent four countries and we all live here in Beijing—a city that is incredibly diverse and home to people from all over the world.


Dr Sean: How many tour dates do have scheduled currently?

Ember: There are 24 dates in North America and there’s one big release show here in Beijing on the 2nd of September.

Dr Sean: Again, for those who may not already know, you're expecting your first baby very soon. How are you balancing this huge event with everything else that comes along with supporting a new release?

Ember: Yes, I’m so excited!! In a way, I’m expecting two babies this year: my new album and our new family member! I’m not sure how I’m balancing the two “projects” to tell you the truth, because pregnancy is truly a full-time project! But, I do know that I am ready to move into a new phase of Motherhood in my life and it is something that I have wanted for as long as I can remember. People often say, with almost a warning tone, “Your life is going to change forever, you know. After the baby, it will never be as it was.” My response is, “Bring it on! What makes you think I wanted it to stay the same?”

Dr Sean: I'm wishing you all the best with your new album, the tour and the newest addition to your family! Is there anything you'd like to say in closing?

Ember: Thank you so much, Sean.

I suppose the only thing that I might add is that I am returning to North America to spread these songs that represent a cross-cultural communication, a new global reality, a convergence with East and West (etc) and, in so doing, I am often confronted with the misconceptions that many Westerners have about what is truly happening in China. I know the media and political propaganda is to blame, for the most part, but as a result, I now continue to return to North America with even more fervor and conviction that music can make a difference in how people live their lives and see the world. I feel a sense of responsibility to deliver “witnessed truth,” or, shall we say, a less concocted perception through a glimpse into the realities that I have seen. I come with stories about people. Real lives. Real life.

As an activist and an artist—one who has combined my activism with my art for many years—I am often challenged by my fans as to how I can live in a country that has such a terrible human rights record, for instance, or live in a city that is struggling with such considerable air pollution. My response is that I am living in a place in progress, an imperfect world, in which there is so much in the way of cultural richness and pure humanity that I am convinced progress on all levels—not just in the building of highways, but in terms of quality of life and social infrastructure—will continue in China at a rate that no one can predict. Being a witness to a culture in high-speed transition and development, as an outsider, is a privileged place to be in. I’m an onlooker at a time of great historical change.

I’m returning with my new album “11:11” that contains songs about topics such as water conservation in urban settings, anarchy and youth, empowerment to women (and all those struggling for self-realization), cultural acceptance and diversity, and the greatest activist message of all: love. Because, after all, our capacity to love is the greatest power we have as human beings. Perhaps after coming to one of my concerts, people will walk away thinking differently about a country on the other side of the world, questioning the hype, and keeping their hearts open.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Album Productions I Love - Def Leppard's "HYSTERIA"

I thought it would be cool to talk about certain records that, in my opinion, have exceptional production quality. The first of this potential series is going to be about Def Leppard's "Hysteria."


Released in 1987, this album was such an important record for the band and it proved to live up to everyones' expectations and beyond. Since its release it has sold well over 20 million copies world wide and I'm sure that number is climbing every day seeing as it's such a classic album. Literally. You can check out the Classic Albums DVD for Hysteria here.

As a producer/engineer, this is the kind of record that I love to listen to, analyze and dissect to try and understand what exactly is so amazing about it. Ultimately, the songs are what it's all about and the songs on Hysteria are as strong as they come and I think it can be attributed to the magic and the chemistry between the band and the producer, Mutt Lange. As a team, they had a tremendous amount of success with their previous releases, particularly Pyromania which had mega hits like "Photograph", "Rock of Ages", and "Foolin", but with Hysteria, they really hit their stride. There was still a real hunger within the band because although they had sold over six million copies of Pyromania, they still hadn't really broken through in the U.K. which is Def Leppard's homeland.

Sonically, it's such a huge sounding album and I think the drums play an extremely important role to that end. After drummer Rick Allen's unfortunate car accident which left him without his left arm, they were forced to approach the drum tracks from a very different angle. The electronic drum sounds laid a very solid foundation from which to build on and it has become such a signature part of the band's overall sound.

I also love the brilliant layering of guitar parts which guitarists Steve Clark and Phil Collen were so good at writing together. This is also one of the key factors with regard to the album's BIG sound. All the guitar overdubs served to create such a lush tone and they work together with the vocal melodies to elevate the impact of the songs. Rick Savage's bass playing is simple, but extremely effective in terms of creating a solid groove with the drums for the rest of band to sit on top of.

Mutt Lange would always say that when you're laying your tracks in the studio, you always want to think in terms of playing parts that will translate in the context of an arena rock show. If a part is too complicated, it gets lost in that type of setting and, therefore, becomes much less effective if not totally pointless. This is precisely why songs like AC/DC's "Back In Black" and Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me" are such monster songs when it comes to live performance.

I'd say Joe Elliott is one of those really unique vocalists that doesn't sound like anyone else. Arguably one of rock's best voices. His performances are filled with energy and conviction on Hysteria and his sense of melody and hooks is unsurpassed. It goes without saying that a weak vocal performance will kill a song, but there's no worries here, Joe delivers.

This blog wouldn't be complete if I didn't take the time to shine a bright light on the absolute genius that producer Mutt Lange contributed to, not only this particular record, but the band's career as a whole. What would songs like "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Love Bites" (or any of the songs for that matter) be without those incredibly HUGE backing vocals? Not to mention his impact on the songwriting and the tireless hours of work he put into all the little details and ear candy you hear throughout the record. In the Classic Albums DVD for Hysteria, Mutt confesses that he spent approximately four months just mixing the album. That seems excessive, but when you look at the results, not only creatively, but monetarily as well, I'd say it was well worth it.

To end this one off, I thought I'd slip in a short video clip from the Classic Albums DVD for Hysteria. And if this record affected you in a similar way, please share your thoughts here. Cheers and enjoy the video!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Some Social Media Advice From ARIEL HYATT

Every now and again I like to rummage through youtube in search of video content that may be helpful to an artist and their career. Ariel Hyatt of Ariel Publicity is someone who has a lot of great advice to offer and I've posted below an interview she did in the not-too-distant past.


In this video she offers some tips on how to effectively use social media to get the word out on your music and your brand. Please take a few minutes to hear what she has to say and hopefully it will inspire some new ideas and actions to take.

I'd also love to hear from you on what you've been doing with your social media music marketing. What's been working and what hasn't been working. Any info you have to share is welcome.

Hope everyone's having an awesome week so far. Enjoy the video!

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I just read a compelling (and extremely short) blog by Seth Godin entitled, "A Definition of A Leader..." and here it is:

Leaders lead.

Is that too simple?

Writers write. If you want to be a writer, write. And be sure to have people read what you write.

And leaders? Leaders lead.

If you want to be a leader, go lead.

So simple. And I think it applies to all the bands and musicians out there who are trying to get noticed and utlimately 'make it.' If you want to be a good band, then just be good.

I think we all know deep down when we're putting forth a half-assed effort. Make a committment right now to be good.

I know Seth's blog gave me a kick in the ass and I hope it did for you too. Here's to our success!! *raises coffee mug*

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Real Scoop On Managers For Bands & Artists

Wouldn’t it be great to have a manager to look after all the tedious tasks necessary to sustain a career in the music business? Here’s a few things to consider before you dive into your search for the right manager.

Where Do I Begin?

First of all you can expect to come across managers who are at different levels in the biz. Here’s some examples of what you might find in your search:

A friend of the band:
This is a person you probably know pretty well and he has a lot of passion and a real genuine interest in what you’re doing musically and believes enough in the potential you have to make it big that he is willing to devote his time to helping you make it happen for very little (if anything) in the beginning. If you choose this option make sure you have a lot of patience because just as it takes time for a band to build up a good reputation it’ll also take a newbie manager a lot of time to do the same. Just make sure they understand how much work is involved and they’re committed to it or you may wind up with someone who’s just helping you drink the free beer in the dressing room at gigs. :)

A veteran musician with a lot of experience in the music business:
This can be a great option because you can benefit from all the knowledge he’s gained from making mistakes throughout his career and wind up saving yourself a lot of time and headache. A person like this will understand you better too and will probably have some sympathy for your plight.

A person who works or interns for a reputable manager:
The advantage in this situation is that he’ll be right in the thick of things as he’s working in a professional office and will be very aware of the realities of the biz. He will also have access to the expertise and advice of his boss and will have countless other great connections available that would be much harder to acquire from the outside. This person will likely be very hungry for success as well.

A mid-level manager:
This is someone who’s been through it all and has achieved a certain degree of success, but is still waiting for the big breakthrough in the form of a gold or platinum record. There’s still a lot of hunger here and a wealth of experience and resources to boot. Not a bad choice at all!

A big-time manager:
The benefits here are obvious. This is a manager who’s at the top of the ladder with several gold and platinum records to his credit. Even with a manager of this magnitude there are no guarantees of mega success but your chances at having a serious shot at the big-time would be greatly increased.

Are You Ready?

So now that you’ve determined what your options are, here comes the BIG question: Are you ready for a manager?? Before you begin soliciting managers you need to look at the reality of your current situation and determine what the answer is to this question. Are you doing everything you can to further your career? Here’s a little check list to go through and please be brutally honest with yourself.

  1. Do you have a professional press kit?

  2. Do you have an EPK (Electronic Press Kit)?

  3. Have you put a lot of effort into creating an image and a solid live show?

  4. Do you have a professional recording of your songs?

  5. Do you have a professional website?

  6. Are you taking advantage of Facebook, Twitter, BandCamp, Email, etc. to network and engage with your fans?

  7. Are you booking shows in your home town?

  8. Are you building a favourable reputation with club owners and booking agents?

  9. Are you getting press in print magazines and online?

  10. Do you have a street team?

  11. Do you have a promo video people can view online?

  12. Have you put together a tour to help expand your fan base and sell more CDs and merch?

  13. Have you and your band sat down together and come to a unanimous agreement regarding musical direction and career goals?

The last question is the most important one and should definitely be addressed first. You can’t bring a manager into the fold if your mission as a band is unclear. You’re manager is supposed to help you achieve your goals and dreams, so if you’re not clear on exactly what that is, you’re going to have some serious problems before you even begin. Do yourself a huge favour and sit down with your band mates and get this all worked out. It’s a much better alternative than wasting years of your precious time with someone who doesn’t share the same vision.

I’ve witnessed first-hand a very tragic ending to a great band that ignored this point. They wrote songs, recorded and played live for years and then finally they had a huge deal on the table with a major U.S. record company back in 2002. At the last minute the singer announced that going to university was more important than pursuing his music career with his band mates. Ouch! In a situation like that, you’re not just making a life decision for yourself, you’re making a life decision for the entire band, not to mention the time and money the label had invested into doing the deal up to that point.

We Are Ready!

Okay, so your whole band is on the same page and you’re doing absolutely everything you can at this point and you’ve determined that you do need a manager. You’ve searched high and low and you finally found the perfect manager for you band. Cool! Now you can relax and get back to just doing music, right? Wrong! Just because you have a manager doesn’t mean it’s going to be champagne and limo rides from now on. You’re going to have to do your part to keep things on track and unfortunately it won’t be all music related. This is also the reality even when you sign with a record label. With the extra resources and connections you’ll have with a manager on board, you’ll find there’s simply more work to do and it is absolutely in your best interest to be involved in that process. Please read the following sentence out loud: No one cares more about the success of my band than I do. Good, now repeat this to yourself everyday as a reminder.

Don’t forget, in many cases you’ll be one of several artists on your manager’s roster and if those other artists are generating more revenue from which he can pull a commission, then that’s where his efforts will be focused. Managers get a paid a percentage of your income, anywhere from 15%-30% or higher depending on many variables. Always remember that 15%-30% of nothing is nothing. I’m certainly not saying that you should do all the work and just cut your manager in for a piece of the pie because he’s a cool guy, but in order for everything to work in your favour you have to be pro-active and work as part of a team.

The End

A manager can be a very valuable addition to a band that has all its ducks in a row. You have to take what you’re doing seriously and show that you really believe in it. How people on the outside treat your band will be a reflection of how YOU treat your band. Running a band is kind of like running a big company and the company will only be as good as the CEO that’s running it. You’re the CEO and it all starts at the top.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Before You Worry About Anything, Worry About Being Good

There's no shortage of advice from every corner of the net on how to promote and market your music, use social media tools, set up a successful tour, create a professional press kit/EPK, distribute your music, and so on. And if you're looking in the right places, there's a great deal of relevant content to learn from; however, the most important element--and the one that seems to get the least amount of emphasis--is to make sure that you've really got something GOOD to offer. Something that people will really want.

Having all the infrastructure in place is great, but unfortunately it's all pretty useless if you're selling something that no one is really interested in. I understand that it's important to have artistic integrity, but it's also smart business to study the market you're selling to and make sure you've created something that will be well received if not by the masses, at least by a solid niche market.

In business, it makes very little sense to create a product and then search for a market after the fact. Your likelihood of success will be much higher if you determine where there's a need and then fill it. Lucky for you, people always need more good music and entertainment. Without it, life would be pretty blah, don't ya think?

And by 'good', I mean good in every area. Good musicianship, good songs, good live show, good image, good chemistry among band members, good work ethic, good organizational skills and a good attitude. Take a long, hard look at your band and your music in all the above mentioned areas and be honest with yourself about where you can improve, so you can get yourself to the required level of 'good.'

Maybe you're all very proficient players, but your songs are lacking. Or perhaps your image and branding are inconsistent. To figure all this out, sit down individually and as a band and brainstorm some ideas that will tighten things up for you. And don't be afraid to look outside of your band for help in some of these areas. Any band or artist that ever created anything good, didn't do it on their own. There's always a team of people contributing to the greater good. If you need lessons, seek out a good teacher. If your songwriting needs work, hook up with a good songwriter.

Keep this process positive too. It's important to keep the inner core of your band solid because there will always be plenty of people and circumstances on the outside that will present challenges for you. Cheer each other on and focus on your strengths as individuals and as a band unit. Assign tasks to each member that coincide with his or her talents and check in with each other on a regular basis to ensure things are getting done and to motivate each other. How you deal with your band mates throughout this process is of huge importance. Remember, getting upset and tearing a strip off one of your partners is not conducive to positive growth and productivity.

Once you're confident that you've really got something special to put out there, then you should plan your attack on the masses. You only get to make one first impression, so be sure that you're putting your best foot forward and leave everyone speechless. Always put a great deal of creativity, enthusiasm and care into every step of the process and you'll be sure to meet with success.