Q&A with Bruce Callow

Recently I mixed a track for my friend Bruce Callow who I finally met in person a few weeks ago. Bruce’s song is called “Waiting for December” and you can hear it first right here…

Initially I thought I’d make a blog post about the technical aspects and challenges of the mix, but I decided it would be more interesting to hear more about the song and the creator himself, so I invited Bruce to a short Q&A.

I had a really good time remixing your song “Waiting for December” for film and tv. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for the song?

Bill, I really appreciate your help in breathing new life into this song and helping it find new audiences!

It’s one of those songs about yearning for your homeland. After living in the tropics for a number of years, I found myself strangely missing the Canadian winter. You know, the magic of the northern lights, avoiding frostbite, playing hockey on lakes, the Canadiana I grew up with. “Waiting for December” was originally released on a Woodsongs Radio Hour compilation CD in and got some encouraging airplay on Roots and Folk radio shows across the USA. One of the radio programmers compared it to Green Day’s “Time Of Your Life.” I am grateful to my old band-mate Brian Winter in Calgary for having recorded the song with me and for keeping the tracks safely stored so this new project could be completed.

You grew up in Canada but you’ve been living in Costa Rica for quite some time now. What are the biggest cultural similarities/differences you’ve noticed? Has this affected the kinds of songs you write?

Apart from the weather, Costa Rica and Canada are similar in important ways. Both have universal healthcare systems and have dedicated their national budgets to education and health rather than the arms industry. Costa Rica has no army which distinguishes it from pretty much every other country in Latin America. It has a pretty impressive track record on protecting the environment and using renewable energy. There are some headaches to deal with at times like the bureaucracy that causes so many things to operate at half speed, but that is part of living in a different culture. Building highways here for example is like putting a man on the moon! But the most important thing is that Costa Rica has its moral compass set in the right direction. Family ties are very strong here and they take better care of their elderly than we do in North America. I have seen that time and time again. I have adapted to life here and raised two sons with my Costa Rican wife which has no doubt impacted the way I see the world and the songs that I write. I consider myself a citizen of the world, of planet Earth, more than a citizen of any specific country. But my Canadian roots still mean a lot to me and made me who I am.

Right now Costa Rica is just beginning to receive what may become a huge influx of migrants/refugees coming from Nicaragua resulting from the terrible political violence that has been going on over there the past two months. There was a massacre of university students and the violence is not letting up. One of my new songs is about a 15 year-old boy who was killed while bringing water to the protesters. This stuff should not be happening and it makes me angry and sad, so I am writing and plan to record some songs about it. Too bad for Nicaragua as it had finally started to become a hip tourist destination.

On a happier note, I am currently collaborating with the local arts school in my town Santa Ana to create new arrangements of some of my songs. I am lucky to live within walking distance of one of the best arts schools in Costa Rica. Both of my sons took classes there over the years. I am excited I will soon be performing with larger bands and orchestras. Its been a long time since I played trumpet in my high school band.

I recently organized a show for my elementary school guitar club students at a music club called Jazz Cafe. I have taught guitar classes on and off for 20 years. The kids compose their own songs for these shows and its great way to introduce them to playing live using monitors and a big PA system. Its kind of my version of Jack Black’s School of Rock.

How old were you when you started writing songs? Did you have any musical goals when you started? How has your focus changed over time?

I started writing songs when I was about 14 and was captivated by the music of bands like the Who, Rush, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, as well as the punk bands of the late 70s and early 80s. I liked the punk ideal that anyone who wanted to could strap on a guitar and get on a stage and play in front of people,so I traded my trumpet for an electric guitar. The fact that I could barely read music on the trumpet helped my decision! In fact I spent most of my time in the jazz and concert bands playing by ear and getting by by sitting next to the first trumpeter and imitating what he did. I had great tone but one day we got a new musical director and he discovered my little secret so it was on to rock and roll.

Early on I became interested in writing songs about the human condition. Bands like the Sex Pistols, DOA, and Midnight Oil made strong impressions on me. I have played in many bands and done my share of touring and recording. Unfortunately most bands have a habit of breaking up before they reach their potential. Bands like Rush and U2 are very rare. I eventually came to conclusion it was better to go solo. You don’t have to deal with drummers and its cheaper all around. Back in 2003 I did a 10 date solo tour of Australia which I could never have done with a band.

In a punk band called Riverbank Action I toured from Calgary to California and back as well as across the Canadian prairie provinces in a van that we bought for $500. When I got to see up close how “successful” veteran punk bands lived and traveled I decided it was time to change direction.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s two of the pop/rock bands I played in reached what you might call the ‘almost made it’ category. We opened tons of campus and ballroom shows for touring bands that were either on their way up or on their way down. It gave us a peek into the world of rock stardom playing our own songs in front of 500-3,000 people. It was awesome opening shows for bands like Frozen Ghost, Meatloaf and the Wailers.

I learned later on from quite a few experienced musicians that signing with major labels did not guarantee long-term success or happiness for the musicians.In fact, it could be quite a negative experience where you end up not even having the right to release your own music. This was the pre-internet music industry of course.

I also learned that music can be an important force for positive change and a good vehicle to see some of the world. My band New Internationalists had a reputation in Calgary for doing more benefits than anyone else. That is how I met my first Central Americans, playing a benefit concert to help the people of El Salvador during their civil war.We didn’t get paid of course but the food at those fiestas was great and I was sold. I was so impressed how happy these people were who had lived through such hardship. It made me want to explore outside of the Calgary bubble.

In 2008 I organized a very successful benefit concert in Calgary to raise funds to build new prison facilities for women and children prisoners in the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Kids were mixed with the rest of the prison population in cells holding 40 people. It was appalling. That same trip in Calgary I performed live on the air on CBC radio to raise awareness about the problems in the Nicaraguan prisons. The campaigning helped convince the Canadian embassy to fund the project which allowed us to get it done.

At present I am very happy to have signed with some great companies that are working to place some my songs in TV shows, films and ads. The technology today sure helps us musicians work with people all over the world. Over the past few years I have also dabbled in film voice work which is a gas. It was a lot of fun having my song Better Side used in climate change education film called Odyssey 2050. I am looking forward to more of this kind of thing.

What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters?

Seek collaborations with musicians who are better /more experienced than you are.Set realistic goals and try to achieve them. Don’t hang out with time wasters and drug addicts. Help others out because one day it’s going to come back to you when you least expect it.

UPDATE: Since the writing of this blog, Bruce has signed an exclusive deal with Imaginary Friends Music in Santa Monica for the use of the song “Waiting for December” in film & tv projects!

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