Musicians search for the write stuff at Gordie Sampson Songcamp

If you’re going to write a hit song, you might as well try and do it in a place that looks like paradise. That’s Gordie Sampson’s rationale for bringing Nova Scotia’s youngest and brightest musical talent to the Cape Breton Highlands for a week every summer, to find inspiration in the hills overlooking Ingonish Harbour and to ease them into the songsmith’s equivalent of military training.

Instead of the lonely late-night bedroom, or a fluorescent-lit office on Nashville’s Music Row, they get the sweeping grandeur of Cape Smokey as a backdrop and the comfy surroundings of historic Keltic Lodge.

Now in its fifth year, the Gordie Sampson Songcamp is like Tin Pan Alley on vacation — with assists from the provincial Communities, Culture and Heritage Department, SOCAN and Music Nova Scotia — as the Nashville-based Big Pond native behind hits by Keith Urban, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood shares his artistic and business expertise with up-and-coming talent back home.

There is a community spirit among artists like Jenny MacDonald, Mo Kenney, Willie Stratton and Molly Thomason who, in recent years, have been joined by a more pop-oriented crew: Kyle Mischiek, Laura Roy, Elijah Wohlmuth and Natalie Lynn. Early participants are now instructors, as Dylan Guthro, Carleton Stone and Breagh Mackinnon join Sampson and Slowcoaster’s Steve MacDougall as the musical version of junior camp counsellors.

In its three years at Keltic Lodge, after outgrowing its original home at nearby Glenghorm Beach Resort, Songcamp has developed into a pressure cooker of creativity where dozens of songs are written. At night, there’s the pressure valve of bonfires and nearby Ingonish Beach to blow off steam at the end of each day.

On the Thursday morning of this year’s Songcamp, participants are recovering from a beach party and fireworks blowout the night before and get an extra hour to sleep in that also helps prepare them for the week-ending concert that night at Keltic Lodge’s Ceilidh Hall. But the week isn’t over until the young ladies and gents sing; there are still songs to be written, and possibly even recorded, before showtime. Eventually, the crowd rolls into Cabin K, headquarters for the weekend, from which Sampson’s manager, Sheri Jones, co-ordinates the day-to-day schedule with her staff while her partner, Wayne O’Connor, handles technical details.

There’s much chatter about the night before, from Kenney’s prodigious pyrotechnical display to the soundtrack of ’90s pop and rock tunes. But before long, Jones is moving things along, saying “Time for class,” while the campers grab their instruments and pair off for a “Power Hour” of writing that must result in a tune from each team.

On Cabin K’s front porch, Chris James hides sleep-deprived eyes behind sunglasses and pulls out his acoustic guitar, while Thomason and Lynn sit in the swing with a notebook to jot down their thoughts. James starts strumming, with the opening line, “I didn’t buy you flowers … ” and the words start coming together, charting the impulsive onrush of a sudden infatuation. A chorus is built out of “Didn’t think about the letdown,” and the hook phrase “Baby, just do it, do it.”

Hey, it worked for Nike, and Thomason gives the line a yearning tweak while James paces around the yard, playing the chords. Thomason throws out “I’m a never-ending story” for the next verse, and Lynn responds, “That’s sick, I love it.”

After some fine-tuning — there’s some discussion over whether “imagining” works better as a verb or a noun; the former makes more sense, but Thomason thinks the latter has a steampunk vibe — the piece is ready for the lunchtime song circle in Cabin K’s backyard.

One by one, the groups present their deadline ditties, and the quality is remarkably high. Barb Cameron, Nicole Curry and Dana Beeler show world-weary savoir faire with Running Out of Ammo, while Stone, Stratton and Mackinnon opt for a quiet weeper on This Is How You Break a Heart.

“They’ve come up with 60 top-shelf songs this week; you’d lose your freaking mind for some of them. People should become famous with these songs,” muses MacDougall, as smoke from grilled sausages wafts over the plastic picnic tables.

Now it’s the Front Porch Trio’s turn, as James, Lynn and Thomas take their place on the patio.

“Someone get that guy a cowboy hat!” hollers Guthro, while Stone offers up “That’s a huge chorus!” after the last round of “Baby just do it.”

Clearly, the song was a success.

The instructors get to show their stuff as well. Guthro, Gordie Sampson, Doug Sampson and visiting instructor Donovan Woods sing an ode to holiday overload.

“I need a vacation from this vacation,” goes the singalong chorus, as the verses describe how “one innocent tequila turns into seven margaritas.”

Yes, the song is a goof, but who’s to say it couldn’t wind up in the hands of Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney? Songcamp isn’t about crafting high art in strange time signatures or finding the next Leonard Cohen; its goals are ultimately commercial, training a new generation of composers in how to stake their claim in the modern music marketplace.

The participants all have their own idiosyncrasies, and some, like Stratton, Stone and Kenney, have already established solo careers with music that’s not necessarily mainstream. But that doesn’t mean they don’t bring, or take away, something valuable.

“One of the things that is so exciting is the different genres that develop, especially now that we’re in the fifth year,” says Gordie Sampson, who notes that the pop quotient has taken a big jump this year with the addition of Halifax producers Corey LeRue and Chris Knoxx, sequestered in Cabin F to create finished tracks with many of the songwriters.

“Yes, people like Willie and Mo are going to be less conventional, less pop oriented, but what you find is that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to write it.

“Everyone understands that the business is not as big as it used to be, and if you want to be Willie Stratton and do a tour in your personal genre, you might also have to write some more commercial songs to make that happen,” says Sampson.

“Getting a song on somebody else’s record just affords you a way to do what you wanted to do in the first place. Once people get their head around that one of my favourite things is watching people become more optimistic about writing and more willing to cross genres. They don’t have to sing the song, they just have to write it.”

In Cabin F’s bedroom studio, LeRue mans the computer controls while coaxing Enfield singer Wohlmuth through a tune called Intuition. “Killer!” exclaims LeRue as Wohlmuth nails the falsetto part before doing another pass to add a layer of lower vocal harmonies.

“You’ve got (a) naturally easy voice, you don’t have to force it,” says LeRue, known for his work with Fairview rapper Quake Matthews.

“It’s so obvious, I can hear what your body’s saying,” croons Wohlmuth, “Follow my intuition, baby.”

Reclining on the bed, Mischiek whoops when the beat kicks in.

“That hook is so hard!”

LeRue suggests “more sass” on the second chorus as the song builds its sense of lustful abandon.

In the next room, Rankin MacInnis, the crew’s “musical Swiss Army knife,” lays down a pounding piano beat for a song called Monster, co-written with Curry and Dave Sampson, describing a relationship about to self-destruct. It’s got potential too, and MacInnis really sells the tune later that night at the packed concert in Ceilidh Hall.

But it’s the consensus that the big hit of the week is Laura Roy’s Party With the Lights On, a dance pop mover with an instant hook that was blasted repeatedly at that beach party the night before.

“I was down in Nashville last week, writing with Hillary (Lindsey, Sampson’s Jesus, Take the Wheel co-writer), and I played her a couple of things,” says the camp founder, who was called back to Tennessee as soon as it ended.

“I played her that song, and I think it’s a global smash. There’s no question about it; I don’t know what has to come between here and that happening, but it’s not much.

“Whether it’s Laura doing it herself or pitching it to somebody else, it may become a breakout club song.”

Songs by Mischiek, and Guthro’s LeRue-produced collaboration with Quake Matthews, Summertime Win, are already finding their way onto Maritime pop radio playlists, which is music to Sampson’s ears. He expects more Songcamp-crafted material will start making it into revenue-generating channels on air, online, in TV and film, and in the hands of other artists.

“That’s going to be exciting, especially for the people who help put the camp on. Nothing makes our sponsors happier than us saying, ‘Look, these songs actually made money this year, it’s not all Kumbaya,’” he says with a chuckle.

To hear the fruits of their labours, captured on the Songcamp compilation CD, visit
by Stephen Cooke, Chronicle Herald.