There aren’t many things in life more satisfying for a musician than making a positive connection with an audience – especially if that connection is in response to their own original song or composition. But a piece that will net them that most satisfying of responses takes time to craft, massage, re-write, massage again, over and over, until it’s just what they want it to be.
And before anyone gets to hear it, the musician has to be comfortable with putting it out into the world, taking a huge risk that maybe – just maybe – it’s actually not any good.
Local musician Kenneth Cooper knows that struggle, so he’s formed a support group of sorts to provide encouragement, constructive criticism and friendly ears.
After all, a musician’s struggles are best understood by other musicians.
“Why does anybody create art?” Cooper asks, obviously rhetorically, because he doesn’t pause long enough for an answer. “Because they want to express something that’s within themselves. But why would you, you know, take your lambs down the road, so to speak? It’s that eternal question of, ‘Am I okay?’ It’s part of the human condition that we all want to feel that we’re okay and that we belong.”
Well it just so happens that the Songwriters Association of Canada, of which Cooper has been a member since 2003, encourages the development of what they call Regional Writers Groups, so he decided to look into forming one right here in Campbell River. It’s now one of only two such groups in the province – the other being in Vancouver.
He thought it would fit the bill for filling a service gap he saw in the local music scene. While he’s genuinely impressed with the number of local places musicians have to perform at open mic and jam nights these days – especially compared to what there used to be, not too long ago – there was no venue or group he could find that was focused on the craft of songwriting itself.
“We needed a gathering – a coming together. We needed that encouragement of each other as songwriters, lyricists and composers, and that’s just what we ended up with,” Cooper says.
He says “eight or so” people showed up at the first meeting last November, all with different strengths, musical influences and backgrounds.
Most importantly, he says, they all came the same vision he had for the group – that it be a place of encouragement and support, not criticism and ego.
“This group is different to other ‘songwriter’s circles’ that I have attended in the past in that it really is about improving in the craft of songwriting,” says group member – and somewhat of a fixture in the Campbell River music scene – Roy Ashdown, who, since the group’s inception, has taken on a co-coordinator role. “It isn’t just a place to come and play your latest song to everyone and get a pat on the back.”
For Ashdown, the greatest part of the group is the “eye-opening” that happens when musicians get to talking about their music.
“It is really quite eye-opening to hear what your peers honestly feel about your work, and offer their take on where you might improve on it,” Ashdown says.
“Of course, this requires one to be open to this, so quite a bit of maturity and humility is necessary on the part of all to both listen and offer positive critiques. This group has those qualities in spades. I’m not sure if that is due to the format, or is simply a reflection character of the individuals involved.
“Whatever the case, it works, and I come away from each meeting encouraged, enlightened and motivated to do better.”
The first few meetings have mainly been a kind of workshopping group, Cooper says, where people come with songs they’ve written, perform them for the group, and receive feedback and advice. Recently, however, they’ve started setting challenges for themselves to encourage their creative juices to get flowing, as well.
“Last meeting we said you’ve gotta bring a song that isn’t something you’ve been working on for a while. It’s gotta be something brand new that you’ve written the February meeting and bring it to the March meeting,” Cooper says.
You see, part of the “encouragement” aspect being provided by the group, Cooper says, needed to move beyond positive feedback and constructive criticism and into the realm of, “stimulating you to get off your rear end and get back to your writing,” he says with a chuckle.
The idea is not a complicated one. It’s just about helping people move past the self doubt that can creep in during any creative endeavour.
“I use the word ‘encourage’ a lot,” Cooper says, “because that word means ‘to fill with courage,’ and that’s really what we’re trying to do.
“Everybody’s art is as important as everybody else’s art, and it’s important to realize – and to help others realize – that you don’t need to be the guy who sells a million CDs or has a YouTube channel with a million viewers to be ‘successful.’ Success is whatever you want it to mean.”
The group meets on the third Thursday of every month, and both membership and meetings are free.
“The emphasis here is that it’s a group for the members. It’s about the group, it’s not about any of the individuals, and that frees us up to be encouraging and leave egos at the door, as cliché as that is.”
And it could very well become a mode for some of these songwriters to spread their wings even further afield.
“Something we’re talking about – maybe down the road when we’ve had a few more meetings and we’re all feeling a bit more confident – we’ll look at having a performance,” Cooper says.
“But we’ll have to let that happen organically, based on what the group wants, if it even happens at all.
“I’m certainly not going to just make a decision like that.”
Contact Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or look up “Campbell River Regional Writers Group” on Facebook to join.