Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a moody rock song.
For all of the feel-good music I listen to (and as I try to hurry spring into existence, there’s a lot of it), so many of the songs that actually make me feel the best are the ones that make commiseration easy. Commiserative songs are the ones that invite you in – the ones that make it easy to slip headphones on and enter into a sort of camaraderie with the music, the ones where everything isn’t perfect but at least everyone is along for the ride.
Simeon Ross’ “Arise” is, I think, that kind of song.
Take a look at the beautiful aesthetics of the music video, for one thing. Ross is in acting school, and while I’m not sure how much acting translates into musical performance, there’s no doubt he knows how to put on a good show. Shot in stark black and white, the video is 3:52 of isolated, bittersweet emotion, with Ross’ only companions onstage his mic and guitar, the backdrop an aching void of nothing and nobody else.
It’s lonely, definitely.
But it’s intimate, too, in its honesty. And intimacy is always inviting.
Sonically, the beat is firm and driving, the guitar is crunched and steady, and the vocals are delivered unflinchingly, with pure commitment and confidence. Overall, it’s a satisfying production that invites steady head nods, foot taps, and, yeah – commiseration.
In a good way.
Again, it’s not a feel-good song. But it’s the kind of moody, honest song that feels good to sink into.
So go, give it a listen (and to get the full effect, definitely watch the music video). When you’re done, come back here, and dive into Simeon’s songwriting process to uncover how he writes sullen, relatable rock music – and get the full story behind “Arise”.
And check out his website, here.
When did you start writing songs? How’d you get into it?
Ross: When I was fourteen years old, I moved to Calgary to live with my grandparents. At my new high school, I quickly became friends with a gang of goth musicians who were looking for a singer for their non-existent band. I said yes, and we began practicing in our guitar player’s parent’s basement that week.
The missing link was a drummer, so we held auditions. The girlfriend of the guitar player mentioned her best friend played drums. To this day, I still play music with Gail Thompson. She basically descended into a coven – a crew of pimple faced goth teens sitting in a dark basement. She was wearing a bright pink sweater, a huge sunflower hat, and was always smiling! Then she sat behind the kit and could hold down a solid 4/4 beat.
She was immediately asked to join the band.
We sounded a lot like The Cure and Joy Division, only a terrible version. I loved the movie Sing Street because it reminded me of those days as young teenagers – learning how to play our instruments, the excitement of being in a band, having huge dreams for the future, and playing live on stage for the first time! Those were fun days.
Do you think songwriting is more selfish or unselfish?
I think it leans more toward being selfish. The idea of creating lyrics based on your own experiences, writing and recording the song, then releasing it so people can pay you to hear it and see you sing it live seems sort of selfish.
The thing is we all need others to deliver just that! Without other people’s art we would be empty shells.
At the same time, the process of writing has nothing to do with other people or how they’ll react. It’s an extremely personal experience. Nothing beats those few short moments when a song comes to life and the excitement rises inside of you!
I love those nights at my rehearsal space when a new song appears and I’m ecstatic – then the next morning I listen to the demo and think, “Oh… it’s actually not that great!” Haha!
Even when a song is worth recording I find that the initial excitement can’t be matched. Maybe the first time you start recording in the studio, or hear the master perhaps. Either way, it has nothing to do with being selfish. It has everything to do with digging out a truth buried deep inside of you.
I guess it’s a mix of both.
How did you find your current style?
When I was twelve, I heard U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire”. It was the first time I heard music that matched exactly how I felt in life. The wave of bands (Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, Joy Division, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, The Cure etc.) I discovered as a kid define my style today.
I’m pretty stuck in the 80’s, you might say.
Who are your influences?
I love Interpol, Blonde RedHead, Phantogram, Doves, The War On Drugs, Alvvays, and a huge list of other bands. A favourite part of my day is making a cup of tea while pajammin and checking out music blogs trying to find a new single or band that I love.
It’s harder to keep track of all the new releases coming out everyday (now that I’m in school full time), but finding that
song that gets me excited to pick up a guitar is a real high for me! I like keeping in tune with new bands and new music. That definitely influences me.
On a more personal level watching people close to me who have strong work ethic has an affect. The Fast Romantics are one of the hardest working bands around and inspire me to work harder. Secret Broadcast are another band who work tirelessly. Morrissey guitarist Boz Boorer is a huge influence. He’s written some of my favorite songs, plays in one of my favorite bands, and is such a pleasant, hilarious, cool, and inspiring person to work with in the studio. I’m excited to work with him again.
What’s your favorite song of all time, and why?
I have two favorite songs of all time: U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire’ and Morrissey’s “Jack The Ripper”.
Both songs capture exactly how I feel as a human. Both in sadness and joy.
What do you think makes music or a song good?
For me personally, a song that makes you want to cry and dance at the same time is a good track. There’s honesty in that. Few things beat the excitement of hearing a new song on the radio or on a music blog and having your mind blown! Lyrics have always taken a backseat to me compared to the actual dynamic of the music.
Some of my friends are the opposite, of course.
What advice would you give other songwriters?
Put the work in.
For two years, I committed to being at my rehearsal space for 40 hours a week. I ended up spending more like 60-70 hours/ 6 days a week. For the first few months, I sucked. In every weather imaginable, I forced my way on public transit to travel cross the city to get to my space. I’d play and record for 8 hours. Suck the whole time. Head back home. Get up and start all over again.
Then suddenly, one night I found what had been missing. The spark came back.
After that night, I wrote and recorded 60 new demos, became a better musician, and a better singer. I learned that for anything to actually happen musically, one has to actually work at it.
Sometimes it’s easier to pretend to be a musician than to actually be one. So rehearse. Write. Record. Figure out social media. Work hard. Make videos.
What part of a song do you usually write first?
The music always comes first, usually on an acoustic guitar or as a piano line in Pro Tools. The lyrics always come last!
Often I know what a song is about, but find it difficult to translate to words. Since I joined the full-time acting program at Toronto Film School, I’ve been exposed to massive amounts of text, screenplays, scripts, and books. Being re-introduced to a lot of reading has made writing lyrics a lot easier.
Do you usually carve out intentional time to write, or do song ideas come to you spontaneously?
I force myself to be at the rehearsal space in order to write. This is not always successful, but even if I’m there tired, sitting on a chair staring at a wall, looking at Instagram, or wasting a few hours in the space, I still consider it productive. At least I’m there. The songs come randomly.
Sometimes I’ll write the same type of song ten times and will be packing up when a melody hits.
It’s always different. The most important part is being around the instruments and picking them up.
How do you write a melody?
Generally, the melodies comes from playing the guitar for hours, trying out different ideas. I enjoy finding melodies on the piano and adding drum loops to them. I walk a lot – sometimes 20 kilometers a day. The melodies come from just walking beside the lake shore sometimes – then, when they do, I’m racing to get home so I can lay down some tracks immediately.
Thank god for iPhones! Quite a few songs would have been lost forever if I hadn’t pressed record on the voice memos app!
How do you write lyrics?
Often my lyrics don’t seem to match what the theme of the song is about. A love song sounds angry, or a tribute song to a relative might seem mean, for example.
I try to write lyrics that aren’t literal. Sometimes a notebook does the trick. Other times, I’ll go line by line in Pro Tools, trying to find out how to say the words properly.
Do you put more emphasis on lyrics or sound? And which would you consider more important?
I’ve always put more emphasis on sound over lyrics, but that’s starting to level out more as I get older. Even with bands like The Smiths, the lyrics have always taken a backseat to the music for me, personally. This is changing now, though. The words are becoming more important these days. Or at least I’m more aware of and in tune with them.
What emotions, thoughts, or feelings do you want your music to inspire?
When I hear a band like The War On Drugs or Cigarettes After Sex, it makes me want to pick up a guitar. I would hope my music inspires people to create, whatever it is that they do.
I hope a track like “Arise” makes at least one person in the world hear it and think “All right, I want to pick up my camera and start shooting,” for example. It doesn’t even have to be that dramatic or artsy.
I hope my music inspires people to want to do simple things like see friends, go out, do stuff! Be inspired.
What role does production play in your writing?
Over the last few years, I’ve started writing more and more in Pro Tools. I’ve been working on soundscape and electronic music for fun, and that has inspired me as far as recording the more straightforward tracks. I’m a solo artist, but most of the songs I release are more band-orientated. I always have my co-producer, Michael ‘Mez’ Dilauro, and his studio in Toronto’s east end, South River Sound, in mind when I’m writing and recording demos.
I should actually try to record some simple acoustic tracks. Filing that away for a rainy day.
Do you tend to start with the main idea and write to that, or ad lib and shape the main idea long the way?
The verses tend to come first to me. From there, I write no less than five different chorus ideas to see which direction the song will go in.
It always starts with the main verse, though. Many times a song will see five different versions before I can figure it out.
Let’s talk about “Arise”, now, specifically. What was the first part of the song to be written? Was it lyrics, melody, a riff?
I was writing and recording a lot of slower songs, which were all starting to sound similar. I purposely started pounding on my poor Taylor acoustic in frustration, trying to play some faster chords with more aggression. The verse for “Arise” came out of this moment, where I was jumping around my space, trying to play fast chords for once!
The melody came from that.
Is “Arise” about a specific situation or relationship? Would you be willing to share?
“Arise” is about picking yourself up from the ashes of a defunct relationship and a time of personal laziness and unrest in your life – the moment when you decide to shake it off, and become the person you know you can be, to fulfill the dreams you have. Commit to the work.
The song is about coming to terms with your own shortcomings, admitting you were wrong, and moving forward by not making the same mistakes or following the same patterns.
The second theme and core of the song is about a personal tragedy, and finding a way to move past it so it doesn’t consume you entirely in sadness. That the idea, of letting go, is the only way to heal – but that letting go doesn’t demean the importance of the tragedy.
What that tragedy was specifically will remain between myself and this song.
Sonically, the song feels driving – steady drums, chugging baseline. How does that relate to the meaning?
The song is driving on purpose. The words guide the song.
To move forward. To create movement. To pick up speed and not be able to stop. “Arise” is about rebirth and starting over. Getting back in motion.
There’s a moment (around 2:20) where the lyrics ‘All that’s left is you // Only you” coincide with a minor chord that slinks in on the guitar. I feel like, from there out, the tone of the song changes. Is that intentional? And how did that happen?
It was completely intentional. The first half of the song is basically about one specific theme/idea.
I wanted the words
All that’s left is you
to create the bridge between the two parts of the song that are directly related to each other. I thought a long, silent, running drum track would create a change of mood and feeling, which we ended up doing in the studio.
It separates the song into two different feels almost. Two different songs combined into one.
Did you write “Arise” for yourself, for another person, or for an audience of people?
I wrote this entirely for myself. Self therapy.
How did the idea for the music video come together?
I’ve been working with Toronto musician and filmmaker Ricardo Temporao (aka Brutus Begins) and cinematographer and musician Aaron Bird on many music video and short film projects over the years. I’m lucky enough to have some serious talented friends to help me out in my time of need!
Alongside my sister and father, I’ve started a new production company called Green Boat Productions. I literally pitched my own family on producing the “Arise” video to get the company off the ground. We have several films in development, which will be coming out in 2018, and more music videos in the pipeline.
We worked together to make the video happen. I wanted the full band to be present for a live shoot, but budget and time restricted what we could shoot in one day. I’ll be featuring the musicians I play with in videos coming up this spring and summer.
When did you know the song was finished, in terms of writing?
I knew it was finished during the demo stage. I walked across the city after recording all night. I listened to the track on headphones, and knew instantly the rest would be window dressing on the already-existing song.
Funny. That demo sounds so weak compared the the final mastered studio version.
What was the process of recording and production like?
I happen to work with producers who have the patience of saints. Both Michael and Boz are inspiring and lovely fellows to be around as human beings, let alone producers. I would say learning how to use Pro Tools helped me immensely in communicating what I wanted in the studio. Instead of saying, “Can you make that guitar more purple?”, I could technically communicate my idea. Haha!
I love pre-production. It makes the actual studio time so much less stressful!
What’s next for you in terms of upcoming music and shows?
I’m releasing a new single every couple of months with new music videos. Focusing mostly on music videos.
Currently, I’m organizing the logistics of recording the full LP with Boz Boorer as producer.
I’m also starting to play live shows again, although full band shows won’t happen until the fall. I’m playing Weona Lodge on March 23rd, and the Burdock on April 19th, acousticly.
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