When songwriters put their creations out into the world, they typically do so as an act of faith, without a clear picture of just how their work will be exposed and received.

There’s no such mystery with the songs created by the BigDay Music team of Lee Baillie and Marc Rogers; they’re custom-written songs, aimed at a very small and completely targeted audience.

Toronto-based songwriter Baillie established BigDay, and she works closely with multi-instrumentalist and producer Rogers in crafting material to suit the wishes of their clients. The company name refers to the fact that their original compositions are designed to be played on a special occasion, most commonly a wedding, a milestone birthday or anniversary. Less orthodox commissions have been songs for a dog, and a law firm’s anniversary.

How the rights work for BigDay
Interestingly, all rights to BigDay recordings remain exclusively owned by BigDay Music, and cannot be monetized or resold at any time. Clients are granted a personal use license, in perpetuity, of their purchased recording. Performance royalties come into play if a BigDay song is played or performed at a venue Licensed To Play by SOCAN. For example, if a client plays their BigDay song during their wedding at a licensed venue, or a BigDay song ends up getting radio airplay, or is uploaded to YouTube. BigDay registers its songs with SOCAN to cover any of these types of situations, each of which would garner performance royalties.

The concept began organically. “I founded the company in 2014,” says Baillie. “Prior to that, as a labour of love, I was just writing songs for my family and friends, as gifts to celebrate their special occasions. These songs were shared, and as word spread, I was approached by others who wanted to commission songs for their loved ones, and the milestones in their lives. BigDay is the result.”

Baillie’s first customized song was for her brother. “He’s a great singer, and he sang that tune to his wife as a surprise at their wedding reception,” she says. “Shortly afterward, my grandmother Kitty was turning 95, and our extended family planned a huge birthday party at her seniors’ residence. I wrote two songs for her as a surprise, and she was elated.

“I think that moment made me realize just how meaningful personalized music is, for the family, as well as the person who’s the song subject.”

To have those “Kitty” songs professionally recorded and produced, Baillie tapped Marc Rogers, an A-list session bassist (Philosopher Kings, Holly Cole, Norah Jones) and producer. “I knew Marc through my roommate at the time, [noted singer-songwriter] Emma-Lee,” says Baillie. “I had a great experience, and I later decided to officially team up with Marc and launch BigDay.”

Rogers stresses that “Lee is the brainchild behind BigDay. She saw this as an unserved demand that no-one knew about, and it is such a good idea.”

Many early BigDay songs were co-produced by Rogers and his wife Karen Kosowski, an acclaimed songwriter/producer (Brett Kissel, Emma-Lee, Madeline Merlo). “Karen’s career has been exploding so she has zero available time to put into this now,” says Rogers.

“There’s a unique joy that comes from writing keepsake tribute songs that mean the world to a select few. It brings a whole new layer of meaning to the songwriting.” – Lee Baillie of BigDay Music

He’s happy to pick up the slack. “I really enjoy the work,” he says. “For instance, on a wedding song, I understand how important a part of one’s life that can be, as I’ve been married for 16 years. To be able to musically commemorate the inception of that journey is quite an opportunity.”

He also appreciates the chance to flex his musical muscles in a variety of genres. “As a session bassist, if you’re working for a pop artist, there’s an obsession with being up-to-date in the palettes and tones you use,” says Rogers. “In our custom songs, that’s not a concern.

“For instance, with one song, it was ‘they really like Spanish music,’ so I got to listen to old Paco De Lucia records and play nylon-string guitar. I haven’t done that since I was a teenager, so that was a fun challenge.”

The BigDay writing process begins with Baillie sending the client a detailed questionnaire, so she can get a sense of the personality of the song’s subject, as well as the preferred musical style.

“I’ve learned that people are much more poetic than they realize, when they candidly describe loved ones and share anecdotes, which makes my job as a songwriter much more inspired,” she says. “It’s a heartwarming experience to get a window into the loving way in which people view and celebrate one another.”

Baillie uses these notes “to pull out the gold nuggets of ideas and write the song with that information. I write and record it, adding vocals at my studio and laying down some piano chords. I send that to Marc, with the client notes on the genre, song references, or particular instrumentation they want. He does the full production, mixing and mastering, and always makes the track sound amazing.”

“My job is to dress the song up in such a way that it lives in the world that the client likes,” says Rogers.

“Instead of trying to make a piece you hope will appeal to the greatest number of people possible, you have the freedom to make a piece of music targeted at one very small, specific group of people to whom it’s going to be extremely meaningful, if you do your job right. There’s no other circumstance where you get that opportunity, and I love it.”

Baillie is equally enamoured of the concept. “While there’s a particular satisfaction in making music for the masses, there’s a unique joy that comes from writing keepsake tribute songs that mean the world to a select few,” she says. “It brings a whole new layer of meaning to the songwriting.”

Lindsay Ell is enjoying a rare day off at home in Nashville. “It feels like I’ve been on the road six out of seven days,” she says. But Ell’s not complaining. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter loves touring. Every morning, she rolls out of bed and follows her passion. “I’ve prayed of being this tired ever since I was a little girl! I get to live my dream and tour with acts I dreamed of playing with, growing up.”

1) Honesty is the key. “That is the No. 1 rule; it’s also a rule to never break. The more vulnerable you can be as a songwriter, the better the song usually is… The more real I can be, the better I believe the song is.”
2) Write every single day. “Whether it’s a title or just two lines. The voice memo app in my phone is embarrassing, but it’s filled with little tidbits, crazy ideas of me singing as I’m walking in an airport, or lying in bed half asleep… I try to write something every day and capture ideas as they come.”
3) There are no rules! “The minute I say, ‘It’s got to be done like this,’ tomorrow I’ll wake up and break my own rule!”

Those dream acts include Brad Paisley (with whom Ell is currently touring); Sugarland (who are re-uniting and taking her on the road this summer); and Keith Urban (Ell joins the four-time Grammy winner for the second leg of his Canadian Graffiti U World Tour in September 2018).

Since the release of The Project last August, the Calgary native, now based in Music City, has piled up the accolades. From the moment this debut dropped, it flew up the charts. The 12-song collection hit No.1 on the iTunes Country albums chart, No. 2 on the iTunes All Genres albums chart, and earned a No. 1 position on the Nielsen Soundscan Current Country Albums Chart in the U.S. High-profile U.S. TV appearances followed, including The Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live!

With the help of producer Kristian Bush (of Sugarland), Ell has found her sweet spot. As she writes in the liner notes, “I wanted to call this album The Project because that’s exactly what it was. I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m a different singer, different guitar player, and different artist. I’ve finally found my voice.”

When asked if she ever imagined such rapid success, Ell remains humble. “I wanted my fans to fall in love with the songs like I did,” she says. “But I had no idea it would debut at No. 1. It all still feels surreal.”

“Castle,” co-written with Abbey Cone and Josh Kerr, is one of many highlights on the critically acclaimed album. The song is a metaphor for Ell’s philosophy of staying grounded no matter what success comes her way. In the chorus, she sings, “And even if we had a house up on a hill/ I bet we’d want a castle.”

Before recording The Project, producer Kristian Bush gave Ell an assignment she couldn’t refuse. “So many people have influenced me, so I didn’t know where to begin, or go next, with my music,” says Ell. “In our first meeting, Kristian… asked me what my favourite record of all time was, and I told him: John Mayer’s Continuum. He said, ‘Perfect! I want you to go record the whole thing. These are the only rules: you have two weeks; you need to play all the instruments; and you need to do it at the studio.’ For 14 days, I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. trying to get this done… I learned so much about Mayer, and how he played guitar, and how I played guitar, and how I wanted my next record to sound. The gears just clicked.” After two weeks in the studio, she handed the assignment to Bush. “I told him, ‘I finally know how I want my record to sound!’” Ell has decided to release her version of Continuum, so her fans can hear her homework. It’ll be out later this year.

“It’s so easy, regardless of where we are in society, to think we never have enough, or we’re not cool enough, etc.,” says Ell. “We all get caught up in this cycle, but it’s not where our hearts and minds should be focused; it’s not reality. That song is about keeping things in perspective, and being grateful for what we have, and the lives we get to live everyday.”

Easy advice to take to heart, but how does the artist – as she stockpiles No.1 singles and her star rises – live this philosophy? “My fans,” she says. “I have such a close relationship to them and they keep my reality in check.” Ell is a self-confessed social media fanatic – spending an average of five hours a day on her various online accounts. “I talk to my fans, and see how my shows and songs influence their lives, and that keeps everything in check.”

All 12 tracks on The Project are either co-writes, or written by other artists. The album is a powerful collection of personal songs with simple, universal messages of love and hope. Before moving to Nashville eight years ago, Ell admits she’d never collaborated on writing a song. Now, co-writes are the norm. The first single, “Waiting on You,” was a Top 5 Canadian Country radio hit. The bluesy, country-rock song is the one that kick-started The Project sessions; it was a co-write with Adam Hambrick and Andrew DeRoberts. “Champagne,” a co-write with Walker Hayes, is another of Ell’s favourites, because it forced her to step outside her comfort zone.

“It was a great experience for me to have as a writer to learn there are no rules,” she says. “You can be fearless when you’re writing; there’s always an editing step later. I was with Walker and asked him: ‘Can we rhyme feel with Jessica Biel?’ and he said: ‘Of course you can!’ That was a good writing lesson.”

Ell’s music lessons – formal and informal – started young. By six she was playing the piano, and by eight she was learning guitar licks, honing her chops by following her father to country-bluegrass camps. These days, just like one of Ell’s early mentors sang, Ell is certainly takin’ care of business. Fifteen years ago, as a 13-year-old, she met Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Randy Bachman.

Says Ell, “Randy heard a demo I’d made of Jann Arden cover songs and Tommy Emmanuel guitar instrumentals, and said, ‘She sounds like a young female Chet Atkins; I need to meet her.’” A writing session between Bachman and Ell was arranged, and the Guess Who co-founder became the budding songwriter’s biggest fan. “He got me into blues, jazz, and rock, and that gave me a whole new vocabulary for my music that I hadn’t tapped into yet,” says Ell.

Today, the pair still keeps in touch. Bachman taught Ell one other important life lesson: never lose sight of why you chose this career. “Randy told me that this life I’ve chosen will be an emotional rollercoaster, and that I always need to remember why I love doing what I’m doing, and that will keep me grounded,” says Ell. “That’s great advice, that I still think about every day.”

As a musical genre, blues faces a hyper-competitive international market, and is under-heard at home, so the international progress of our local artists should be celebrated exploits.

Dawn Tyler Watson

Dawn Tyler Watson

“It’s not surprising,” says singer-songwriter Dawn Tyler Watson, who’s just returned from the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, where she rubbed elbows with Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal, to name just a couple of the headliners. “Our vision of blues in Québec is popular. The way we play it, the style, the authenticity, the repertoire. I’m asked to play regularly.”

Watson demonstrated her versatility in her former eclectic duo with guitarist and singer Paul Deslauriers; they gave concerts in Russia, Australia, Morocco, Brazil, and all over Europe. It shows, as well, in her current role as a big-band singer in Ben Racine’s group, which is perfect for her. Only three months after undergoing triple-bypass heart surgery, she won top honours at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis in 2017. She came out on top among 200 contestants. No wonder bookers and festivals are all over her since then.

“Artists who sing the blues in French can forget about developing their careers abroad,” says Brian Slack, a programmer, and Watson’s manager since 1997. “I have a hard time booking them even in Québec! International programmers are afraid of French blues. I’m very attuned to what others are doing,” he says, referring to festivals in Canada, the U.S. and overseas. “We need to create momentum, it’s super-important. Keep them in the loop continually. A blues artist, no matter where they’re from, has to release a well-produced album every other year. We pick the events. There are plenty of singers out there!”

The Montréal Blues Society’s role in the thriving career of many Québec artists shouldn’t be underestimated. Go-between, catalyst, source of information: this non-profit undertaking makes good use of social media, like everybody else. It’s they who send Québec artists to the IBC, as a pre-requisite for entry to the contest: all contestants must be sponsored by their local blues society.

Another can’t-miss event is the Canadian Blues Summit, held every other year in Toronto, serving as the Canadian Music Week or Bourse Rideau of the Canadian blues scene. It’s an undeniable career accelerator.

Steve Hill

Steve Hill

Steve Hill – Québec blues patriarch, winner of the 2015 Blues Album of the Year JUNO Award,  and a plethora of Maple Blues Awards – has been criss-crossing Europe for the past two years, both as a solo act, and with British legends Wishbone Ash, playing 1,000- to 2,000-seater venues. “Everything I make here, I re-invest in those European tours,” he says. “Tour expenses, my technician, etc. I lose money when I tour Europe, but blues is a business where you need to be seen. It’s an investment.”

His European press kit is to die for. Major British outlets like1 Classic Rock Magazine rave about the bluesman’s solo performances. Same goes in Germany, where rock and blues are highly appreciated: the press loves him. This summer, Hill will open for Joe Bonamassa on the German leg of his tour, and play in front of audiences of 10,000-plus.

Hill also took up another daunting challenge on Feb. 16, 2018: the Electric Candlelight Concerto, a 20-minute piece, in five movements, that he played alongside The Montréal Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Kent Nagano, during an atypical Concert in the Dark at Montréal’s Maison Symphonique. In doing so, Hill entered the hallowed halls of classical music, an exploit that would have been unimaginable 20, even 10 years ago. Could his development abroad also benefit from this type of visibility? “The next morning, I was having breakfast with maestro Nagano at the Ritz,” says Hill. “There are discussions about playing this piece elsewhere in the world with other symphonic orchestras.” Hill, who does three or four Canadian tours each year, for at least the last five years, also benefits from SODEC subsidies.

Montréaler Michael Jerome Browne is a traditional blues specialist. His records on the Borealis imprint are a delight for purists and delta blues aficionados. Alongside the renowned Eric Bibb, Browne has travelled to all corners of North America. He hasn’t had a manager for the past decade and yet, next April, he’s booked for a series of 15 concerts in the U.K.

Jordan Officer has three albums of refined guitar stylings, and his new one is due in June of 2018. Even though he was awarded with a CALQ creation subsidy in New York City in 2013, he prefers camper-van pilgrimages with his family to the American South as a way to create contacts. Plus, year in and year out, a French booker steadily books him for 10 gigs. “It’s possible to develop anywhere, even outside existing networks,” says Officer.

Angel Forrest has been active in Canada for 30 years, and she, too, will release a new album soon: the live recording Electric Love. Just as her Québec brethren, Forrest also hires a European booker. In a few days, English audiences in Sheffield, Bristol and Glasgow, to name but a few, will have their first contact with the raspy-voiced singer. Then, she’s headed to Omaha, Kansas City and Minneapolis, in August. “It’s word-of-mouth in action,” she says. “And that necessarily requires concerts.” Forrest stays away from re-visiting blues classics, and presents audiences with her own folk and rock-tinged songs. She was one of eight finalists at the IBC in January 2018. “I was surprised,” admits the Anglo-Quebecer, “because my music is quite outside the box, and less conventional.” She won Female Singer of the Year at the 2018 Maple Blues Awards, yet she admits that “winning trophies is nice, but they don’t bring anything concrete.”

Mike Goudreau

Mike Goudreau

Guitarist Paul Deslauriers just signer a deal with renowned blues booker Intrepid Artist. His agenda now includes several concerts in Florida, including the Daytona Blues Fest, Omaha, Las Vegas, and a long list of other shows. Winner of four Maple Blues Awards this year, The Paul Deslauriers Band is in great demand all over Canada. He and his bandmates finished in second place in Memphis in 2016, and the sailing has been smooth ever since. “We’re no longer just a band from Montréal, for American bookers,” says Deslauriers. “The only way to build your audience is to play in front of people as often as possible.”

Ironically, the Eastern Townships’ Mike Goudreau is probably the one artist who’s the most popular in the U.S. and worldwide, yet he hasn’t played a single show in those territories. With 19 albums in the bag, TV programs and films are crazy about his music. Since 2007, we’ve heard his blues guitar composition in more than 100 American productions, such as NCIS (CBS), Gotham (Fox), and Hung (HBO), to name just a few. Even the 2016 European leg of the Forever Gentlemen tour, and 40 shows in Eastern Europe accompanying Garou, have nothing on his American success – proof that Québec’s blues has a little je-ne-sais-quoi that audiences everywhere love, even in the birthplace of that music.

Clearly, to paraphrase Dawn Tyler Watson it’s all about the way we play it: the style, the authenticity, the repertoire, and – no doubt – simply because these artists are so talented.