Songwriter Kate MacLean
Our Write Side meets authors from all flavors of life. Today, meet Kate MacLean, a songwriter and poet from Canada.
Click play and listen while you read: https://katemaclean.bandcamp.com/track/east
Name: Kate MacLean
Latest Release: North/East/South/West, June 2015
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.com/album/north-east-south-west, and you can keep up with her whereabouts & general ramblings here: http://katemaclean.tumblr.com/
- How long have you been writing?
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!
- What kind(s) of writing do you do?
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!
- Why did you choose that particular field or genre?
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.
- What inspires you?
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/blog-1/2015/6/30/peaburt, along with the original story, here: http://www.omichinski.com/blog-1/2015/6/30/the-ballad-of-peaburt-potato!)
- Where did your love of songwriting come from?
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!
- How do you find or make time to write?
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.
- How do you come up with your song lyrics? Is there a particular source of inspiration that works for you?
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.com/track/beekeepers)
- How did you get to be where you are in your life today?
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.
- What projects are you working on at the moment?
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.
- What process did you go through to get your work published?
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 is the hardest part of writing for you?
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.
- What do you enjoy most about writing? Share your favorite work.
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.com/track/west) I had one of those ‘A-ha!’ moments with this one, where everything I wanted to express was coming out eloquently, but simple. A line that I find myself repeating from that tune sometimes is ‘That’s the thing about endings, they let you be free’ – I felt I was able to sum up a lot in that one sentence, reflecting the sentiments of the song, and moreover, the album!
- What is the biggest thing people THINK they know about songwriting, that isn’t true?
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!
- What is the most important thing that people DON’T know about songwriting, that they should?
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!
- For those interested in exploring songwriting where should they start?
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.
- What are some ways in which you promote your writing? Do you find that these add or detract from your writing time?
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.
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- Who are some of your favorite authors? What impact have they had on your writing?
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.com/track/prodigal-summer) Michael Odaatje, Dave Eggers, Terry Fallis and of course, Bill Watterson.
- What makes your writing stand out from the crowd?
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!’.
- What are you currently reading?
I just finished reading ‘How we are Hungry’, a collection of short stories by Dave Eggers. Good read!
- What do you think is the future of reading/writing?
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!