Songwriting 101: A Conversation with Poet, Songwriter, Teacher, Artist Meet Robert Priest
Submitted by Michael Williams
MW: How hard is it to be a poet/ songwriter in Canada?
RP: There are definitely downsides to it. The economics of poetry are almost nonexistent other than government grants or getting a teaching position. If you don't have a hit song it's the same thing if you're anything but a top-selling Canadian songwriter. So there's going to be ups and downs in your sense of stability and if you're at all a panicky person as a lot of artists can be you go through some pain. Plus there's the recognition factor especially in poetry—there such a small amount of people who care about poetry but at least 75% of them are poets and they're all after the same small audience/prizes/grants. But really, in terms of what artists have gone through in the ages and even now in less rich countries I feel inordinately blessed to have been able to work at my art all these years and never go hungry and never have to fear that if my children are sick I can't afford a doctor. So I take care to thank the citizens of Canada and the vision of the ancestors who got us things like minimum standards of living and socialized healthcare. I think compared to many other countries it's actually a lot easier here to be an artist. And I hope we can maintain that.
MW: How and why you did become a poet?
RP: I was always very interested in stories and writing as a child. My mother used to make up stories, usually scary stories, to tell us and she also wrote rhyming British style poetry. So the whole notion of writing/poetry being something that actual people did was pretty clear to me and I was always interested in it. When they asked me what I wanted to be as a kid I would always answer some kind of writer. When I was nineteen I had just finished my first semester of mathematics at University of Waterloo and I was on a four-month work program—straight back to Scarborough where I grew up–and I moved into a house that was a hippie hangout and the writing just took me over. I never returned to school. I just had too much writing to do. There wasn't even a conscious choice, I just didn't go back. At that time I was writing stories, a novel, poems and lyrics. The rightness of it was without question for me. That it was my calling and my destiny just seemed as clear and unquestionable as my own existence.
MW: Were you going for music and discovered words along the way without music or with?
RP: I wrote my first poem when I was eight. I didn't write my first song until I was twelve. That was when the Beatles came out. The fact that they wrote songs inspired me to try one. I was in love with a hefty girl named Oriel Wallace and while walking behind her on the way to school I composed a little rock 'n roll ditty called My Baby Has a Belly like a Barrel. That just seemed to come with words and music. After that I wrote some lyrics in high school that a school friend put to music. When I was twenty I started to seek and find musical hooks in my head. Sometimes they would have words with them and sometimes not. It was a very different process for me to write a poem meant to be in a book. I had to work a lot harder to write a song. Usually with a song I got the hook phrase and had to compose verses to fit into it. I didn't start playing guitar until I was about twenty but I never learned timing for years so I was very difficult to accompany.
MW: What artists have covered your songs?
RP: The Jitters, Gwen Swick, Only Human, Colleen Petersen, The Pukka Orchestra, Staggered Crossing. I've also written songs with Colin Linden, Alanis Morissette, Tom Cochran, Micah Barnes but they haven't shown up on record yet. I have a bunch of new ones coming with Julian Taylor, plus I've written songs for Sesame Street.
MW: How did you land the cover by Alannah Myles?
RP: I used to write a lot of songs with Nancy Simmonds and when I was making my unreleased pop album in the 80s. Nancy came in to do some background vocals and brought along her friend Alannah. This was just as Alannah was in the chute to make the album that would be the Black Velvet album. Alannah and I hit it off in a necessarily wacky kind of way that we maintain to this day. Then she got super famous very quickly and I didn't see much of her except on TV for about a year. Then one day I get a call from some hoser sounding lady I'm thinking is from a cabbage farm in New Brunswick maybe but it turns out to be Alannah doing a funny voice and she and Nancy had gone down to Barbados to write some songs for her follow-up album. Nancy was kind enough in the process to bring out a lyric I had sent her and Alannah connected with it big time. She was just then on the grievous side of her relationship with Robert Plant and I guess the lyric helped express what she was feeling. Apparently Nancy took out the guitar and the two of them put it together on the spot. Later Dave Tyson wrote the fantastic arrangement. Alannah and I have maintained our friendship. As have I and Nancy Simmonds.
MW: Was there much action on your songs after Alannah Myles covered one of yours?
RP: Yes, there was a lot of interest especially just before and just after the song came out. I was offered a lot of money for a publishing deal. But I hung in and did the math and believed enough in the penetration of the song that I didn't take any of the deals and just got the CMRRA to collect my mechanicals for me. This turned out to be wise over the years and I've probably made twice as much now and it's come in smaller amounts per year making it less taxable. The song was a big hit in Canada and still gets loads of airplay all round the world but initially when it didn't go to number one in the United States all that interest died out.
MW: What keeps you going in the scheme of things? As a singer, poet, songwriter and teacher?
RP: Well I have love and sustenance and health and that can't be taken for granted or overlooked. As I said I feel very blessed in that way. And it would be churlish not to acknowledge it. Beyond that I've had a 'holy' drive ever since I was a little kid to do what I'm doing. It just gives me the biggest kick and for all those people who suffer from not knowing what they're supposed to do in life I've never really had any of that so my mental health quotient while not spectacular, has at least got that going for it. I love creating. I love singing. I get up in the morning and I sing and I'm rarely so present in my body and in the moment as I am when I do that. I just feel plugged right into the universe. It's a form of mindfulness for me. Or maybe soulfulness. I touch a bit of timelessness. And it seems to give some pleasure to others too. I remember I used to live in an apartment in a house with another apartment over top of me and in order not to feel self-conscious I would go down to the basement to sing thinking my neighbours couldn't hear me. When they finally moved out one of them took me aside and said “you know what I'm going to miss—I'm going to miss hearing your singing. I used to sit atop the stairs and listen whenever I could.” Man that almost made me cry.
I've also got a lot of support around me. My wife loves what I do and has always been 100% behind it. I have some great “quality fans” too. People who really love what I do and tell me about it. Plus, even though I'm a secular guy, I have always felt like I'm on a mission. It's probably been the strongest most compelling force in my life other than the sex drive. Plus I'm lousy at most other stuff and when I've worked in industry I've had nasty injuries to my hands. I always took that stuff to mean— get back to poetry and don’t mess with big machines except of course the big nasty metaphorical ones. Yourself.
Robert Priest “Feeling the Pinch”
His latest CD; an outstanding song collection currently getting airplay and love from College radio.
Country and Alternative radio cannot be far behind. “My Favorite tracks are “Turn Table Heart”, The classic ,”The Common Stink”, Feeling the Pinch”, ”Song instead of a Kiss”, “To You”, the shortest 1:42,and “Bonne Chance Marie”.
I am digging it, reminds me a lot of a strange Blue Rodeo record that brings the fun along with it!