An acoustic adventure

Published on FAME Canada: Sept. 16, 2014

When Conor Gains was invited to join the Iridium Jazz Club stage by the late Les Paul, little did he know he was on the road to becoming one of Canada’s rising bluegrass artists.

The Cambridge, Ont. native first picked up his father’s acoustic guitar when he was eight, and since then has developed an attachment to the instrument. He has excited audiences in Memphis, Nashville, Cleveland, Montreal, Toronto and all across southern Ontario.

Cambridge native Conor Gains has graced numerous stages throughout Canada.

One day, Conor decided to rummage through his father’s music collection and discovered who he wanted to be like in the world of entertainment.

“I immersed myself in the music of guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, Alvin Lee, Steve Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix,” he said. “I was so inspired by their raw talents, and I always asked myself, ‘What else should I listen to?’”

Conor began performing live at blues jams in Cambridge when he was 12. Seasoned musicians around the area encouraged him and allowed him make guest appearances at their shows. After a while, he gained enough confidence to cultivate his craft and reach his maximum potential and form his own band.

“When I was in junior high, I met Joel Goodman, a really competent drummer,” said Conor. “We formed a partnership and we were joined by various bass players. We’ve been playing live shows around Ontario ever since.”

Calling themselves The Conor Gains Band, the group played the 2007 Escarpment Blues Festival in Milton, where Conor was honoured to have Leo Lyons, bass player for British blues legends “Ten Years After” wish him a happy 14th birthday during their headline performance.

“That was just the beginning of my inspiration,” he said. “Meeting other performers such as Savoy Brown’s Kim Simmonds and blues guitarist Walter Trout is what really got me going.”

During the fall that same year, Conor and his journalist father embarked on a “father and son rock & roll trip,” where he played at the B.B. King’s Blues Clubs in Nashville and Memphis as well as Wet Willie’s on Memphis’s famed Beale Street. He played two nights to record crowds at the latter venue as a guest of the Victor Wainwright Blues Band.

In January 2008, The Conor Gains Band played at Toronto’s legendary music venue, the Horseshoe Tavern. Talent buyer Craig Liskey said that “Conor was absolutely amazing, and that everyone was raving about him and his band.”

Since then, the band has sold out three straight shows at Cambridge’s Café 13 where he started jamming as a 12-year-old.

Conor Gains is now at the tender age of 21, and 2014 has been a year of great accomplishments for him and his band.

This past July, the band won the 2014 Toronto Blues Society “Talent Search” competition and set out on a nationwide tour. They will also be given a showcase slot at the 2015 Toronto Blues Summit (a biannual gathering of the Canadian blues scene), a spot at the Aurora Winter Blues Festival, rehearsal time at Cherry Jam Rehearsal Studio in Toronto and consideration to represent the Toronto Blues Society at the 2015 International Blues Challenge in Memphis.

The Conor Gains Band’s latest album, “Run Away with the Night” is available right now on iTunes and Amazon, and is distributed by CD Baby.

Each song was written or co-written by Conor, with the band including Mack Jordan on guitar and vocals, Aaron Hernandez on drums and vocals and Mikey Vukovich on bass. Special guests include Jerome Godboo, a 2014 International Blues Challenge harmonica player winner, the 24th Street Wailers and Matt Weidlinger.

A talent discovered from the comfort of home

Published on FAME Canada: Sept. 16, 2014

Just playing a song at a gig doesn’t cut it for Jordan McIntosh. He wants to make sure he feels emotionally connected with his music, and that his audience does as well.

Jordan McIntosh

“My favourite songs are the ones I relate to the most, so I tend to sing about things I’ve experienced personally,” the Carleton Place, Ontario-based country artist said. “Music is the best form of therapy for me.”

This has had a major impact on the songs Jordan has recorded to date, namely “That Girl,” the first single from his 2014 début record, which will be released by IROC Music and distributed by Big Star and Universal Music Canada.

“Last year, something happened in my life that was really difficult to deal with,” said Jordan. “So I sat down and wrote out my feelings, called up some other writers and asked for their take on it. It’s the most personal song I’ve ever written.”

Jordan found out he could sing after watching his older sister perform. After his family discovered his soulful voice, they encouraged him to take every opportunity to get up on stage. He won his first vocal competition in elementary school and performed at local talent contests around Ontario and the United States, including Walt Disney World’s “American Idol” Experience.

A YouTube video of his winning performance of “Amazed” by Lonestar at a local Kiwanis Idol competition attracted the attention of Neville Paul and Ryan O’Connor of IROC Music and NPMG Management.

“They called my parents out of the blue and said, ‘We believe in your son and think he would make a career out of this and we’d like to help,’” said Jordan. “The decision to meet with them was the best my family and I have ever made.”

Paul and O’Connor have helped Jordan develop his skills as a singer, performer and songwriter.  This has led him to undertaking a national promotional tour, playing at the Ottawa Bluesfest and the Emerging Artist Showcase at the Boots and Hearts Music Festival, and singing the national anthem at an Ottawa Senators game.

In 2013, Jordan released a music video for “Grew Up in a Country Song,” which earned him the title of Fresh Face Feature Artison CMT Canada in November and a holiday single entitled “Christmas Time.” He also appeared in the CMT video “Home for Christmas” alongside George Canyon.

During his rise to stardom, Jordan has participated in a number of charitable events, including the Almonte General Hospital Fundraising Ceremony and the Relay of Life, which raised over $117,000 for the fight against cancer.

Keep in mind that Jordan is only turning 19-years-old at the end of December, and has a voice and depth of emotional range beyond his years.

His talents are as evident on his 2012 début single, “Walk Away” as they are on his countrified version of Lil’ Wayne’s “How To Love,” which has garnered over 251,000 views on YouTube. He shows confidence that artists with far more years on stage behind him would find enviable.

“I’ll admit there have been sacrifices along the way, but they’ve been worth it,” said Jordan. “It’s difficult to balance school, friends and life, but this is my passion and a dream that’s started to become a reality over the past year. There’s nothing else I’m focusing on. All my attention is going into this.”

It’s time to research Canadian television viewers

It’s unfair that Canada always gets excluded from televised talent scouting. No matter what, every attempt at displaying fresh Canadian talent has fallen flat on our faces.

Let’s take a trip back to the Canadian Idol days. The first five seasons were ratings juggernauts, yet the sixth (and ultimately final) season took a nosedive in viewership. Idol routinely drew in over 2 million viewers per episode in the early years, and only 1.3 to 1.6 million people tuned into the competition during summer 2008. Producers noticed the ratings dip, and recruited R&B singer-songwriter Jully Black as a mentor, critic and vocal coach. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to rekindle the show’s magic.

Canadian Idol host Ben Mulroney.

So You Think You Can Dance, Canada! suffered a similar fate. Although over 1 million people followed the show’s final season in summer 2011, CTV cancelled it, citing viewership and the economic climate as deciding factors. Numbers for the finale that year were down almost 30 per cent from the previous year.

Canada’s Got Talent is the most recent talent competition to get the axe, and the only one to not progress past its freshman year. CityTV noted that high production costs and low ratings (its finale didn’t even cress 1 million viewers) were the reasons for its cancellation, but the network expressed interest in reviving the series in the future.

(From left to right) Canada’s Got Talent host Dina Pugliese, Stephan Moccio, Measha Brueggergosman and Martin Short.

After examining each show, I find the issue isn’t talent itself, but a lack of viewer interest.

We could banter all day as to why this is the case and still be totally off. The only way we’ll know is by conducting solid market research. Of course, we can’t just target Canadian television viewers in general, as that wouldn’t yield accurate results. Each market is entertained differently, whether it’s through satirical news broadcasts, reality shows, or sitcoms.

The median viewer age for Canadian Idol was 33 in 2007, and 45 in 2008, while So You Think You Can Dance, Canada! attracted younger viewers (aged 18-34 roughly).

In this case, Canadians aged 21-50 (who watch television for more than two hours a week) could be surveyed. This would determine why they gradually lose interest in Canadian talent competitions, and what would persuade them to follow one.

Who knows? Lighting or audio issues could be detracting Canadians from tuning into Idol, Dance or Got Talent. We won’t know unless we find out for ourselves. Without solid viewership and interest, a television show is meaningless.

The Olympics of entertainment

Simon Cowell has teased a global “Got Talent” for four years. Plans to actually make this show a reality have been halted constantly, because Simon believes it would hamper with his commitments with Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor.

A&R executive and producer Simon Cowell.

The “World’s Got Talent” came to light again two weeks ago, when it was reported that the show would be held in India, under the title of Got Talent World Stage LIVE. It would take place sometime in December of this year, and be hosted by Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan.

Simon has made no official announcement regarding this event. As it stands, it’s only a rumour, but I really hope it sees the light of day.

Considering the Got Talent franchise set a world record earlier this year, there’s so much that could be explored. If done carefully, a global Got Talent show could be one of the most-watched events on television this decade.

I’ve created a list of what I believe could make Got Talent World Stage LIVE a success.

1. Abandon the “contest” format.

Cast your minds back to 2003’s World Idol. 11 Idol winners around the world went through another competition to vie for the title of “World Idol.” The premise seemed brilliant at first glance, but there were many issues with its execution.

For one thing, the show featured judges from Idol series around the world (one from each participating country), offering little to no constructive feedback. As Simon Cowell put it after the one-off series ended, it “turned Idol winners into losers.” It was also panned by critics worldwide, despite favourable ratings (approximately 1.9 million Canadian viewers tuned in to the special).

Formatting a global Got Talent event as a competition would be counter-intuitive, because performers have already poured enough blood, sweat and tears into competing. They’ve gone as far as they could in their respective Got Talent show, so a competition would create unnecessary pressure.

2. Hold the event in a similar fashion to the Olympics.

This shouldn’t just be a one-off event, nor should it be held annually. I know this would depend on how well the programme does in ratings (and whether it can sustain reasonable production costs), but for arguments sake, let’s suppose this event became a hit.

Got Talent World Stage LIVE should be held every two years, each time in a different country. That way, performers could gain more exposure in different parts of the world.

3. Grant performance slots to “Got Talent” winners.

When news of Got Talent World Stage LIVE came to light, it was hinted that dance duo Paddy & Nico and Canadian magician Darcy Oake (both of whom competed on Britain’s Got Talent) would represent Great Britain.

The thing is, neither contestant won this series, so I don’t think they should be taking a spot on the world stage. Instead, the show should borrow the same concept World Idol had, in which all performers were winners of their respective shows. This could also give Got Talent competitors more of a “push” to win the top prize, which would then be a chance at global domination (not really, but it’d still be a chance at the rest of the world seeing a person’s abilities).

I have high hopes for this potential event, it could become the Olympics of entertainment if the right steps are taken. A part of me will be disappointed if the supposed plans for Got Talent World Stage LIVE fall through, because it’s an opportunity to showcase various cultures on a global platform.

America’s Got Talent: Cool it on the “joke” acts

I’ve watched America’s Got Talent for five seasons, and it seems like “joke acts” are put through every year on purpose.

From 2010 to 2013, we’ve seen Mary Ellen, Those Funny Little People, Big Barry and Tone the Chiefrocca take a spot in the quarterfinals, while truly talented performers get shafted. This season, Juan Carlos, a man on rollerblades, will be performing at Radio City Music Hall.

(From left to right) America’s Got Talent host Nick Cannon, and judges Heidi Klum, Howard Stern, Mel B, and Howie Mandel.

By advancing bad acts that should have been sent home in the auditions (or at least during Judgement Week), it makes the judges seem like they’re not serious about finding true talent. Their jobs are to weed through performers that aren’t worth the top prize, and advance those that could not only win the contest, but find a place in American culture.

If this were a Saturday night variety show, a few joke acts would be acceptable. However, this is America’s Got Talent, a competition with a $1,000,000 prize and a headlining show in Las Vegas.

Some people might tell you to have a laugh by watching a joke act, but I just don’t see the humour in it. Watching a performer who’s purposely bad at Radio City Music Hall is unacceptable, especially when I know someone with a genuine gift is on the outside looking in.

America’s Got Talent is the only show of its kind, auditioning comedians, magicians, and variety acts along with singers and dancers. If truly talented folks get the boot, where else can they go?

It also seems hypocritical when an act gets ostracized for making a single mistake, yet a purposely bad performer is sent through for “entertainment.” The judges are unknowingly making themselves look implausible, like they’re not seeking out raw talent.

If this unfairness continues in future seasons, viewers might get fed up and stop watching the show. After all, no other reality talent competition (ex. American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, The Voice) has joke acts in their semifinals stage, so why should America’s Got Talent get away with it?

Taking a stand against schoolyard bullying

Published on FAME Canada: June 16, 2014

Country singer-songwriter Ryan Laird wants to use his music to end bullying once and for all. But he knows that won’t be an easy feat. To get the word out there that bullying is not cool, Ryan has toured several elementary schools since October 2013.  He has visited over 70 schools across Eastern Canadian provinces and Alberta. As part of this campaign, Ryan teamed up with hit songwriter Steve Bogard to pen an anti-bullying song called “Hey Ashley.”

Canadian country singer/songwriter Ryan Laird.

“This song is based on an experience I had back in grade seven,” said Ryan. “It has become the theme song of the anti-bullying education concerts. The kids are really connecting to the positive message in the song.”

Ryan believes music is a great way to influence people, especially youth, because it brings out emotions and memories. He also wants his campaign to intermingle with the anti-bullying movement going on in Canadian schools today.

“No child should ever have to complain about not wanting to go to school because of a bully,” he said. “I’m hoping to motivate as many kids as I can to never stop chasing their dreams and never let a bully stand in the way of happiness.”

Ryan Laird first garnered media attention across North America in December 2008 after putting up a billboard on Nashville’s famed music row asking Taylor Swift to produce his album. The billboard displayed Ryan standing in a classroom holding a note reading, “Hey Taylor – I LOVE your music. Will you produce my album?”

Once Taylor Swift got word of this, she said she “listened to one of his songs and absolutely fell in love with it” and would like to meet him.

Ryan was blown away by this and broke down when he got wind of this.

“I was just ecstatic, tears came to my eyes,” he said.

At age 10, Ryan toured England and Wales as part of the Cambridge Kiwanis Boys Choir. He sang in the group for three years, starting out as a soprano and leaving as a tenor.

He then began performing around his home town of Fergus, singing at karaoke contests, festivals, fairs, and also started writing songs.

Ryan’s great grandmother influences his early singing. When he was a year old, she would hold him in a rocking chair and sing “Jesus Loves Me” to him, while he hummed the melody back. Although she was a professional opera singer, his tastes always ran more toward country and pop music.

He credits the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, Keith Urban and Taylor Swift for demonstrating how much impact can be made by “stretching boundaries.”

At 18-years-old, Ryan made his first trip to Nashville and fell in love with it. That year, he wrote 200 songs which led to meetings with publishers on music row. From there, he went on to sign his first publishing deal with Cherry Lane Music Publishing.

Over the past few years, Ryan has co-written many songs with artists such as Nick Carter, Aaron Carter, Alli Sims, Intern Adam, Eric Silver, and Jason McCoy.

Most recently, he released a new single entitled “Love’s Long Gone,” which will appear on his sophomore album Light Me Up, due for release in the third quarter of 2014.

The opportunity to grow in a new country

Published on FAME Canada: June 16, 2014

Celia Palli has accomplished quite a lot from the time she moved to Canada in 2003.  She’s been Nelly Furtado’s back-up vocalist at many of her shows, has performed at many large venues around Canada (most recently in Montreal, Quebec), and even organized a successful crowdfunding campaign to benefit the Canadian Cancer Society.

Singer-songwriter Celia Palli.

“I moved to Canada because I wanted to study music and become known in the industry,” said Celia. “I told myself right from the beginning that if I wanted to make it, I had to become involved in every possible project in the province.” And so she did.

For the first few years she joined numerous independent bands and performed as much as she could, and in 2009, was offered the opportunity of possibly performing with Nelly Furtado.

“A good friend of mine from university saw how quickly I went from an amateur to a professional singer and performer,” said Celia. “A friend of his from Miami was looking for a bilingual singer and when the time came, I got asked to go audition for Nelly Furtado.”

“As you can imagine, I dropped everything to be there and over prepared myself. These kinds of opportunities come once in a lifetime and just “being prepared” doesn’t cut it.”

Celia believes that being the best at what you do is what gets you noticed, especially in a competitive industry such as music.

Her most powerful learning experience was watching her mother battle cancer.

“She showed me what courage and determination is all about,” she said. “Her strength and positivism always astounded people, even before the disease. Even though she wasn’t a musician, her advice has been some of the best I’ve ever gotten, ‘Focus on writing songs. That’s what will make you stand out.’”

Celia’s mother passed away in 2008, and in 2013, she started a crowdfunding campaign in her honour. She wanted to benefit the Canadian Cancer Society and support her then-upcoming album. “Mamma,” a single from the album, was written in memory of her mother.

“Crowdfunding campaigns have the advantage of getting your project funded quickly and debt free,” said Celia. “This means the dream album you’ve been saving for becomes a reality. A disadvantage would be that even if there are a lot of followers, it takes a lot for people to go online and contribute.”

One of Celia’s greatest challenges has been getting noticed by important people in the Canadian music industry. However, she thanks Nelly Furtado for her break in music.

“She was the first influential person to believe in me and give me a huge opportunity without thinking about it twice,” she said. “She gave me the chance to open for her during 2013 European tour and doors have been opening ever since.”

Celia’s advice to aspiring musicians is to remember that even though what you may offer is good, it’s difficult to get the attention of high-profile industry professionals. Music is a very difficult industry to break into, and some people wait years just to have their voices heard.

She’s been planning out what type of artist she wants to be, and how she wants people to remember. In 10 years’ time, she wants to have released a few albums and played at many concerts around Canada.

“I love making music and transferring my emotion to a crowd,” said Celia. “Having an audience sing back your song is an incredible feeling.”