Archive for March 9th, 2010
Posted March 9, 2010on:
Words and Music by Jill Léger
Piano Track prepared by:
(Sheet music transpositions/piano rehearsal tracks)
My dear friend Jill Léger wrote a wonderful song “The Sparrow” and sang it to me last summer while sitting on a park bench in downtown Washington, DC. She kindly shared the music with me and even illustrated a book so that I could share the song at my “Sing Books with Emily” gatherings. For my blog’s first interview, I sent a few questions to Jill to ask hear about her songwriting and about “The Sparrow.”
Please tell us a little bit about yourself!
I grew up in Northern California and spent a lifetime in the States before moving to Canada in 2008 after a Canadian gentleman charmed me into marrying him. I now live in Toronto, which is kind of a combination of all the places I’ve ever lived.
My passion is writing music, but I also love shooting and editing video, which is a similar discipline, only visual. Every day, I try to practice piano (you’re never too old to learn!), practice singing, and go for a run. If I can do those three things, it’s a good day. I also love cooking, just about anything on Turner Classic Movies, trains, Porter Airlines, Dumbarton Oaks (winter, spring, summer and fall), star- and planet-gazing, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte’s Web (the original book), iced coffee, Little Lulu, and Paddington the Bear.
How did you start writing songs?
I have always been a very musical person, having grown up in a family that introduced me to all sorts of music at a young age. When I was 9, my best friend and I decided to take up violin, which I continued into college and still pick up now and then.
Aside from “Louisiana!” a musical salute to the Bayou State, which I wrote to amuse my parents on a road trip when I was 10, I’d never written music before 2004, when the strangest thing happened. At the time, I was fascinated by the story of silent-film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The more I learned about the pain he went through after being unjustly accused of a crime, the more I wanted to create a piece of work to publicize the fact that this man was innocent. Because he was a consummate vaudevillian, I couldn’t disassociate music from his story. I started “hearing” melodies—even dreaming them. Before I knew it, I was composing music on my violin.
Do you have a song writing process? If so, could you tell us about it?
Jill: It all starts with an idea for a song, which I try to accompany with a strong musical “hook” in my head. For example, Roscoe Arbuckle met his first wife, Minta, on a streetcar, and streetcars in L.A. at the time were known as the “Big Red Cars.” The hook for my song “Big Red Car” was “I met you on the Big Red Car,” which lent itself well to a jaunty musical phrase that was easy to build a song around.
I make a list of the ideas I’d like to include in the song, making sure each idea links to the song’s overall theme. These ideas can often help me generate a basic melody. At this point, I must ALWAYS keep my handy mini tape-recorder nearby so I can sing into it when inspiration hits. Though I used to dream melodies, that seldom happens anymore. But I find if I open my spirit up to the idea of the song and what I want it to accomplish, I can somehow connect with the way it should sound and how it should go.
When I have a first draft of a tune, I tackle the lyrics, which is usually the fun part. I consider myself a lyricist first and foremost. A good set of lyrics is like poetry—you want as few words as possible to say the most. And you also need them to scan and rhyme. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the wrong word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. I live for the lightning.
Then I painstakingly notate it all into a software program called Finale, which generates a “lead sheet” (melody, lyrics and chords on a staff sheet). THEN, I work with an arranger to flesh out the melody and really make it come alive. We do it all through e-mail, which means I can work with Joshua in Washington DC or Brian in London, Ontario.
Musically, I have always been drawn to the musical style associated with musical theater. I love the wordplay inherent to showtunes, I love orchestral scores, and lord knows I love a piano!
Please tell us about “The Sparrow” and what inspired you to write the song.
I worked at National Geographic for 8 years, researching countless nature documentaries. From time to time, this entailed determining the correct word for a grouping of particular animals. The more I learned, the more I was charmed. I mean, some of them (e.g. “host,” “ascension,” “flutter,” “gaggle”) were just so delightful!
So it was an idea that had been in my idea for some time, mostly because I thought the whimsical nature of so many of these terms would be fun to string together. I’d also wanted to try my hand at a kid’s song, and this seemed like the perfect subject.
Of course, the song is really about the importance of a home base in life—a place where you are loved and where you feel safe, a place where you can return after a day’s adventure. I love list songs, but I usually like my songs to strive for taking listeners on some kind of personal journey.
I love learning the names of “animal congregations.” How did you research that and how did you decide on which ones to include?
I found some pretty good lists on the Internet, but I made sure to check out each term to be sure it was correct and standard. I had a huge list, but had to limit myself to what scanned and rhymed. Unfortunately, they ALL wouldn’t fit!
Which animal congregations are your favorites?
My favorites are two that didn’t even make it into the song: a parliament of owls and an ostentation of peacocks. And though it’s not my favorite, I think I’m most intrigued by the idea of a “murder” of crows.
The pictures for the book are so charming. How did you illustrate the book?
Well, Emily, you are very, very kind. Thank you. I am married to a first-rate illustrator and cartoonist, and was most humbled by my efforts at our dining room table with a pencil and crayons.
Of course, you may notice, I cheated a little, both to mix it up visually and to make the whole effort a little easier. I bought two “sparrow” stamps and a pink ink pad at a local crafts store, and some cute whale and cat stickers I found at the dollar store.
The Internet was a big help in helping me make my animals look the way they should. I’m embarrassed by my foxes but kind of proud of my lemurs.
A Short Biography of Jill Léger:
Jill Léger is a Toronto-based composer/lyricist specializing in cabaret music about the complications of life and love in the 21st century. In April 2009, her musical revue “Googling My Ex (And Other Obsessions)” played to a packed house at Statler’s Piano Lounge in Toronto. “Googling My Ex” also performed to sold-out crowds at Playbill Café in Washington DC in June 2008. Léger’s music was recently featured in “Planet Michael” at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in DC and “The Greatest Holiday Musical Ever” at Don’t Tell Mama in NYC.
Léger comes to Toronto from Washington, DC, where she spent more than a decade working in TV journalism, sharing a 2000 Peabody Award for C-SPAN’s year-long series on the American Presidents and receiving a 2008 Emmy nomination for her documentary work at National Geographic Film and Television. Though she is a life-long lyricist and lover of wordplay, she didn’t begin writing music until 2004, when she became fascinated with the life and career of silent-film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Eager to celebrate his lost talent and restore luster to his unfairly tarnished name, she began work on what would become “Call Me Fatty!” a full-length musical about Arbuckle’s life. In the process, she was introduced to DC’s vibrant cabaret and theater community and became hooked on writing music.
“[Léger’s] songs are delightful and funny, and I loved [her] performances of them.” –Rebecca Luker
“You’ll love Jill Léger’s songs–her heart and wit and her ability to apply a classic sensibility to contemporary situations.” – Composer/lyricist Tom Toce
Please join me at a “Sing Books with Emily” gathering soon. We’ll come together like a Parliament of Owls, enjoy Jill’s delightful illustrated book and sing Jill’s wonderful song “The Sparrow.”
Until then, enjoy a Karaoke Sing-Along on YouTube:
More places to find Jill’s work:
PS: A BIG THANKS to friend Michael Miyazaki (www.CabaretDC.Wordpress.com) for teaching me how to put that nice YouTube window in the post!! Thank You Michael!
Murmuration, starlings and the sparrow…