Singers of songs
Here they are, the winners of the RN&R’s first ever Biggest Little Songwriting Contest
This contest was a learning experience for us here at the RN&R. We learned all about the difficult logistics and tedious minutia of putting a contest like this together, but we also learned a lot about the diversity of local songwriting talent. The rules were simple: That the songwriter live within at least 50 miles of our office, 708 N. Center St.; that the song not be previously published; that the song be no more than five minutes; and a few other rules. Some of those rules had to be modified because of a certain lack of precision. In other words, our rules were too unclear for the majority of songwriters.
After the final submission day in late August, we ended up with 60-odd eligible songs. We then posted the songs for a month or so of public voting—a popularity contest akin to our Biggest Little Best of Northern Nevada readers’ poll. Like the results of any such poll, the winners were determined by a combination of two interconnected factors: merit and marketing.
The next step in the official judging was that the four full-time RN&R editors, dedicated music lovers all, spent about a week listening to all the songs over and over, winnowing down our favorite tracks. It was an eye-opening, blood-curdling, pulse-pounding, brain-hurting, heartbreaking experience. In other words, it was confusing. Occasional exclamations of, “I can’t believe how good this song is!” would ring out, only to be followed a few minutes later by a declaration of disgust and contempt from another corner of the office (possibly even inspired by the same song).
We were pleasantly surprised by the diversity of submissions. We had a lot of the sort of lyric-driven, guy-or-girl-alone-with-a-guitar singer-songwriting that you might expect a songwriting contest to attract. There was also some teeth-rattling rock ’n’ roll, tears-in-your-beer honky tonk tunes, heart-on-your-sleeve R&B, upbeat dance pop, out-of-left-field electronica and more. The one genre largely underrepresented: hip hop.
After choosing our favorite songs, we editors narrowed the selections down to a single disc’s worth of finalists. We have an age range that runs from 20-something to 60-something and manages to hit 30-something and 40-something on the way. We all have different backgrounds and different tastes. There was some eye-rolling and head-shaking at some of our colleagues’ choices, but the 15 tracks we eventually ended up with reflected a strong cross section—the purplest pieces of a four-part Venn Diagram.
The finalists were then passed on to our panel of judges: Willy Vlautin, Kevin Cadogan and Thomas Eddie Shaw. Reno native Vlautin is a novelist and the guitarist-singer-songwriter for the alternative country band Richmond Fontaine. Cadagan is a Bay Area-based guitarist best known for his work with the rock band Third Eye Blind. (His wife is from Dayton.) He won a California Music Award for outstanding songwriting in 2000. Carson City resident Shaw was the bassist and a co-writer for the Monks, a proto-punk 1960s band that’s a cult favorite among garage rock aficionados.
The three judges’ scores were then combined to determine the winners. The top three judges’ picks—four actually, because of a third place tie—as well as the top three readers’ picks and some of the other top finalists will appear on a forthcoming CD to benefit the Holland Project, a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting art and music by and for local teens.
1. “Anyway,” David Berry
This song is about waiting for a sunrise that never comes. With chiming and haunting Dobro playing and a few touches of electric guitar, it creates a definite mood: an eerie, alone- in-the-desert-at-nighttime feeling. The narrator is weary, ready for the night to be over, but the sun refuses to rise, so he finally concludes, “I don’t need no sunlight anyway.”
It may surprise some readers that such a somber song was written by David Berry, currently better known for his work in the uptempo, good-times outfit Jelly Bread. He wrote the song when he was going through a rough patch—a divorce and a potential music deal gone sour.
“It’s that feeling of, I don’t know what else the hell to do,” says Berry. “This is all I do, this is all I can do, and so regardless—anyway. I do it anyway.”
Of the dark, trance-like feeling created by the song, Berry says, “I’ve never done heroin, but if I did, I assume that’s the state of mind it’d put me in.”
For more information, visit www.myspace.com/jellybreadlove.
2. “A Story about Love,” James Cavanaugh & The Charm Of Hugo
“I had this experience in junior high,” says James Cavanaugh. “I went to one of the school dances. … I was trying to swing dance with this girl—I was kind of a city boy, and she was kind of a country girl—so I was trying to swing like West Coast swing, and she was trying to swing country swing, and she ended up on the ground. … I was always a little disappointed because we just kind of gave up, and I always wish we’d kept going because she was pretty cute. That memory was kind of the basis for the song, and I think one of the fun things about songwriting is that you can mix fact with fiction.”
The only thing to add is that “A Story about Love” has perhaps the single best rhyming couplet of any song submitted:
“So we went outside, and sat on a curb near the corner,
“And we smoked a joint, and talked about how we’re not club joiners.”
For more information, visit www.jamescavanaugh.com.
3. [tie] “I Got Time,” Royal Noble
“It’s mostly about being bored,” says Royal Noble frontman Justin Craperi, “Being bored and being fed up with being bored.” Is there a purer impetus for writing a rock song? Guitarist-vocalist Craperi wrote it, with arrangement help from Royal Noble band mate Josh Hageman, who also produced the stomping, popping recording of the song the group submitted for the contest. It’s a primal slice of rock ’n’ roll that appeals to the baser instincts of anyone who’s ever played air guitar.
“For a pop song,” says Craperi, “if it’s under three minutes, and it has a basic simplicity about it—nothing too complicated, nothing too crazy—when you write a song like that, it’s something that everybody can relate to.”
For more information, visit www.myspace.com/iamroyalnoble.
3. [tie] “Out of Anger,” David Wrenn & Georgina Arze-Wrenn
One challenge of judging a songwriting contest is overcoming production bias. Sometimes the most pristinely recorded and ornately arranged songs are just polished turds, and sometimes a sub par recording hides a gem. The latter is the case with “Out of Anger,” a funny and tragic narrative about living with somebody with an anger management problem. It was written by husband-and-wife David Wrenn and Georgina Arze-Wrenn, and performed by the duo Chord Soup, Arze-Wrenn on vocals with guitarist Paul Rudolf.
“When I’m singing it, I have to think of that kind of anger,” says Arze-Wrenn. “You do all these things, and I’ve had as much as I can take.”
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1. “American Blues,” Gil Gaus
“It was inspired by the Bush era more than anything else,” says Gil Gaus, of his song “American Blues.” It’s a folk song straight out of the Woody Guthrie tradition, full of vivid detail and populist politics, and he quotes Marvin Gaye on the bridge. The song features some lovely banjo playing by Gaus—on a 1930s banjo he acquired just before recording the song.
“I wanted to let my imagination—what little of it I have—just let it run a little bit and see what comes out,” says Gaus. “I didn’t have a real intent when I started, it just sort of happened on its own, and you’re just there taking it down when it emerges … It’s not really driven by you and your thoughts, it’s something just drifting around that wants to get out, and you’re the conduit for it.”
Gaus moved to Lake Tahoe 20 years ago. He’s a graphic designer by day and currently plays in the duo Soul Radio.
For more information, visit www.reverbnation.com/soulradio.
2. “Master Baiter,” Canyon White
“I wrote it in my sleep,” says Carson City native Canyon White of her song “Master Baiter.” “It just came to me in the space of three or four minutes, and it reminded me that God has a sense of humor. I have probably 250 songs, beautiful love songs that will bring a tear to your eye, but this is the one that people remember. I figure this will be my one-hit-wonder song, and I will sell 147 billion copies of it. For six months, like the “Macarena,” all you’ll hear is “Master Baiter,” and you’ll hear it on rock radio, blues radio, talk radio, sports radio, Latino radio—that’s all you’ll hear, and then you’ll never hear from me again.”
For more information, visit www.canyonwhiterocks.com.
3. “Butterflies,” Erika Davidson & Eric Stangeland
Erika Davidson, a 16-year-old junior at McQueen High School, was inspired to write “Butterflies” after a life-changing experience.
“I had just seen the movie Twilight for the first time,” she says. “I came home after the movie, and I was in a romantic mood, and it popped into my head—getting the butterflies when you’re around somebody you like.”
She wrote the lyrics and vocal melody for the song and then Eric Stangeland, the winner of “Best Music Teacher” in this year’s Biggest Little Best of Northern Nevada, helped her write the perfect accompanying chord progression.
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