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Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Song Remains The Same

This Saturday I’m getting on a plane and flying 11 hours to a place that is the antithesis of everything I believe in. Last time I was in L.A. was nearly two years ago, right after my first ever trip to London. If only I had known that precious week would be my last serious dose of sunshine till now. As I type my mind is racing with images of cruising the 101 in a convertible, top pulled down and that radio on, brown skin shining in the sun. My love for you will still be strong. Thank God for Don Henley.

Why, you ask, would I take time to kick back and relax when my new single, ‘Love Again For The First Time’ is set for release in coming weeks? The sad truth is I’ll be spending very little time outside the soundproofed walls of studios. I’m flying to Los Angeles for 3 big time writing sessions in the hope of churning out another single for my debut record, The Planeteer. I’m insanely excited to be working with top-notch writers and producers Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Little Boots, The Bird & The Bee), The Matrix (Avril Lavigne, Liz Phair), and Beau Dozier, son of Motown writing legend Lamont Dozier. Accompanying me to the sessions is the man I wrote my new single with, Martin Brammer (James Morrison, Tina Turner). I consider myself incredibly lucky to spend seven days with these very talented people. I plan to suck them dry.
Some of you may be saying to yourself, “That’s madness. From what I’ve seen (in concert and on YouTube), JV is a certified hit machine. The man eats, sleeps, and breathes Pop. You could wake this guy up any time of night, put a Dictaphone to his lips, and record a number 1 smash in 9 countries. Why would someone who turns a tune effortlessly need to fly 5,000 miles to write a hit? Well my friends, justified as you may be in asking the question, the answer is simple: what makes a hit a hit has changed.

I was a strange child, as you may have guessed by now. While all my friends rocked out to Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails, I was grooving to Annie Lennox and Stevie Wonder. Yet all of these acts were innovators in their own right. Each had their own sound, their own unique sense of melody, harmony, rhythm that made them stand out. I don’t think you’ll find four songs more varied Heart-Shaped Box, Closer, Sweet Dreams, and Isn’t She Lovely. These days I turn on the Radio (I don’t own a Radio, but it’s a metaphor dang it!) and I hear the same songs sung by new people. Pop culture is eating itself. Listeners are no longer being challenged by Music. Instead, programmers cater to the lowest common dominator, conditioning people to hear most simple sounds with simple messages. Music has become subservient to the Brand, and songs have become the advertisements.

I’m not saying Pop music hasn’t always been plagued by the inane and obvious. It’s easy to remember greatness and let mediocrity slip into oblivion. Several acts from my youth instantly spring to mind, once ubiquitous, now a footnote: Hootie and The Blowfish, Candlebox, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Extreme, Color Me Badd, Sugar Ray, Goo Goo Dolls, Third Eye Blind, Jewel, and everyone’s favorite rapper-turned-movie star, Will Smith. But these days, the similarity between current hits and past hits is more and more alarming. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between a band’s singles. It was one thing when hip-hop was sampling tunes and turning them into hits twice over, giving credit where credit’s due, i.e. every one of Sean “Puffy” Combs’ hits. But we’re at a point where I don’t think artists are even aware of what they’re ripping off. Below is a list for your perusa of recent hits that I think sound dangerous close to existing songs. Cubic Zirconium followed by Diamonds.

That’s Not My Name by The Ting Tings – Mickey by Toni Basil
T-Shirt by Shontelle – With You by Chris Brown
Walking On A Dream by Empire Of The Sun – Dreams by Fleetwood Mac
6 of 1 Thing by Craig David – 1 Thing by Amerie
Fascination by Alphabeat – Modern Love by David Bowie
The Boy Does Nothing by Alicia Dixon – Mambo no.5 by Lou Bega
Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak album – Something In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins
Cry For You by September – Clocks by Coldplay

And here are some bands with two songs that sound almost identical:

The Script – The Man Who Can’t Be Moved and Breakeven
The Fray – Cable Car (Over My Head) and You Found Me
Take That – Rule The World and Greatest Day
Coldplay – Clocks and The Speed Of Sound
Basshunter – (I can’t believe I’m admitting to knowing Basshunter’s singles )
Angel In The Night, Now You’re Gone, and All I Ever Wanted

The grand prize goes to Nickelback for How You Remind Me and Someday. Both were proven to be nearly the exact same song by Mikey Smith, a 21-year-old college kid in Alberta. Check it out -

If I come off sounding slightly angry and embittered, it’s cause I am. Over the past decade, the music industry has made choices that have consistently decreased the value of its product. Between illegal downloading, reality TV-show stars, corporate monopoly of media outlets, and just plain pandering, recorded music is no longer a desired commodity. People don’t feel like they should pay for records, and I don’t blame them. Why buy it if it’s crap? 7 of the Top 10 best selling singles in the UK this century have been spawned by X-Factor, 5 of which are dreadful, forgettable ballads (Bob The Builder’s Can We Fix It is the lone independent stand out). The stars of today are not exceptional people like Kurt and Trent and Annie and Stevie, they’re your average guy, the girl next door. Pop Music no longer sends a message of individuality and originality, but rather conformity (the proof is in the pudding: The lyrics to Shontelle’s T-Shirt read as a list of designer clothing ranges that rhyme). More and more I long for the innocence of my youth, when Paul and Michael would sing side by side in the back of a truck full of hay. Heck, these days I’d be happy with another Thong Song. At least that had a cool melody.

Stepping away from all of this, I hope to come out of next week’s sessions with a some cracking tunes. I’m working with the best in the business, and writing good songs will be my giant musical middle finger in the face of all things mundane. Let me leave you with the immortal words Mark Althavan Andrews, known to us Sisqo: Dumps like a truck, thighs like what. All night long, let me see that thong.

Feel free to email any thoughts or comments to

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Dreaded Credit Crunch, A Musician's Perspective

I was recently asked by to write a brief piece on being a musician in this rough economy. Here's what I came up with. As always, email your thoughts to Hope you dig...

The Credit Crunch. I never heard the term before I moved to England. Now I hear it all the time, read it daily in the headlines, see it smattered across scattered pages of the latest London Lite on the tube. The BBC has a way with words. Poetic descriptions seem to float out the TV set every 15 minutes. Last week it was ‘Siberian Winds’ and ‘Flirting with Hypothermia’. But the dreaded ‘Credit Crunch’ has been their favorite phrase of the past six months. New programs pop up nightly on BBC 3 about how to save while shopping locally. Last week I watched Gordon Ramsay teach men with Moobs (that’s Man Boobs for Americans) to eat cheap and healthily, sandwiched between segments of him shouting expletives at McFly and running the London marathon. All this commotion caused by something that sounds a lot like my favorite sugary breakfast cereal. To be honest, I’m not too fussed. In fact, it’s the only time in my life I’m glad I’m a musician.

I’ve been playing music professionally for 10 years. It hasn’t been the easiest road. So many days I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and grab that curly haired 19-year old kid, shake his shoulders, smack him up and down and convince him to do something reasonable with his life, something where there’s a guaranteed check on Friday. I’ve had to work my fair share of jobs to make ends meet. Waited tables for years, bartended, even taught elementary school gym. By day I led vicious gangs of kindergarteners in jumping jacks and squat thrusts. By night I sang my songs in every hole in the wall club, hotel, bar and restaurant New York had to offer. Countless evenings I’d come home at 2 in the morning, lug my 45-pound, 88 key digital Piano up a 4 story walk-up, only to wake up at 7 AM and head off to 8 hours of pounding basketballs and twirling hula-hoops. I vividly recall frothing at the mouth while singing My Funny Valentine to a group of noisy investment bankers slurrping Beefeater Martinis in a midtown cabaret bar. They talked through the entire song, a brave, drunken few shouting that most sacrilegious of requests, Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

One thing a recession teaches you is there’s no such thing as a guaranteed check on Friday. This past fall I recall watching footage of ex-Morgan Stanley employees aimlessly idling at Canary Wharf, flocks blue-shirt oxford boys looking like deer in the headlights. These guys knew exactly what they were gonna do with their lives. They had a 10-year plan: work 100 hours a week till your 30, then sit back and watch the cash roll in, a steady stream of bonuses whether their clients make or lose money. And here was a generation of Gordon Geckos standing around like Footballers at halftime. Brilliant.

Being a musician offers something that few career paths do: purpose without money. Apart from a few notable, extremely talented exceptions who are typically self-absorbed (Sting, Chris Martin), self-righteous (Springsteen, Bono), pompous (McCartney), or bloated egomaniacs (Kanye West) who look at music as a path to fame (Beyonce) and use songs as marketing slogans (Jay-Z), most musicians make a modest living at best, and at worst live off credit cards and take-out menus for the bulk of their lives (that was me before my record deal, and may still be me in the future. Time will tell. I’m praying I get to become one of the self-absorbed, pompous, egomaniacal ones!) The one thing we are never want for is purpose. I find most musicians so wide-eyed and na├»ve that they actually believe quality will prevail, and their goal is to be a part of, or get as close to that quality as possible. Money is just an afterthought. I suspect that’s why the music business is full of sharks and opportunists. Musicians are a biggest bunch of suckers I know, myself included.

Sorry if I sound unsympathetic, but in the midst of a world-wide downturn, I find myself on the same path I’ve always been on: a slow, grinding gravel trail up the mountain, pushing my financial boulder as always, forever Sisyphus. Except now I see a lot more people alongside me, pushing even bigger boulders, trying to get back on top in this crumbling economy, when in the end, the boulder always rolls right back down to the bottom. I’m happy to sing songs for you guys while we push. Just don’t ask for any Billy Joel.