Asif Illyas’ eureka moment came while shooting the Alan Doyle episode of his new YouTube online talk show, Live on the Flight Deck. The former Great Big Sea frontman was sitting in Illyas’ 737 aircraft cockpit simulator, discussing their proposed “flight” from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia. Doyle asked if they could detour south to Tasmania. “He just started talking about the fact that Tasmanians got made fun of by the rest of Australia, and that was something he connected with,” says Illyas. “Newfoundland had a similar thing, the outpost island out in the ocean. I never would have learned that, and if we weren’t in the simulator, he wouldn’t have been thinking about [it].” That was when Illyas knew his web series would fly. “This is cool,” he thought. “This could work.”

The “flight deck” is in the upstairs spare bedroom of Illyas’ Halifax home. The Shire, his self-built recording studio, is in the basement, where he does most of his work. These days he mainly scores music for the CBC, National Film Board, The Movie Network, and SuperChannel feature dramas and documentaries. But he’s also produced, played with, or arranged music for a long list of East Coast musical luminaries, from Lennie Gallant and Mary Jane Lamond to Kim Stockwood, Bruce Guthro and Ashley MacIsaac. Illyas had been in the band MIR (itself named for a space station), which was signed to Warner Music in Germany in the late ‘90s, and has garnered more than 30 East Coast Music Awards nominations over the years. He moved on to do more studio work when one of his children contracted Type 1 Diabetes, and he had to curtail his travel – and the frequency he flew – for family reasons.

It was a confluence of events about five years ago that sent the talk show idea to flight.  Illyas’ love for music and his passion for aviation came together around the same time that he was discussing, with a friend, “What does a musician have to do to stick out above the static?” Blogs, podcasts, livestreams and video diaries came to mind, then he saw a couple of episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Illyas had already been toying with the idea of building his own flight deck simulator to help realize his dreams of flying – a love launched when he experienced a cockpit visit as a child en route to visit family in Sri Lanka. “The pilot actually let me sit in the captain’s seat and move the yoke a little bit, and I remember the plane doing a tiny tilt back and forth,” he says. “After that, all I could talk about was flying the plane.” The idea of using air travel as a doorway into personal conversation seemed natural to someone who had spent so much “down time” going from A to B.

“I thought about a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with my friends and bandmates [on the road],” says Illyas. “When people travel, their guard is down.” Most of the nine episodes that have already been shot begin with an introduction to the guest and the end point to which they’re “traveling.” The destination has some significance for the guest, and opens a door for some personal chit-chat, before the guitars come out and the singing begins. Guests whose programs have already been recorded include Doyle, Joel Plaskett, Ria Mae, and Dave Carroll (a natural choice, with his airline revenge hit, “United Breaks Guitars”).

“I thought about a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with my friends and bandmates [on the road]. When people travel, their guard is down.”

The link between recording and flying is not such a great stretch for a self-proclaimed computer nerd. Illyas had aspired to aeronautical engineering since childhood, but his capacity for making music pushed that dream aside. After winning a Grade 12 talent contest by performing a self-penned song with a band of friends, his drummer’s father (a doctor and recording studio hobbyist) encouraged him to continue in music. And he remembered something he’d read. “A long time ago a Popular Science article rated the top ten jobs that required technical knowledge,” he says. “Number one was airline pilot, and number two was recording engineer. It became a thing for me to think about them together.”  Illyas admits that the aviation motif even turns up repeatedly in his own music, including his most recent release, the single “Your Love,” a duet with future Live on the Flight Deck guest Rose Cousins.

Along with the Tassie-Newfie parallel, Illyas has learned a lot of colourful trivia about some of his guests. Ria Mae confesses that she’s fine with flying and landing, but take-offs freak her out. Amelia Curran confirms that, yes, her parents named her after the aviatrix Amelia Earhart. You don’t have to guess what Dave Carroll had to talk about.

Illyas recently returned from a trip to Barbados, where he visited one of the few remaining Concorde aircraft for an upcoming Live on the Flight Deck episode. Once on board he immediately observed a startling sight: “I noticed that there were the same switches as on an old Beatles [era] recording console,” he says. “The connections are there between the electronics on a cockpit and on an old mixing board. The connection always made sense to me.”

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There’s a chance that the Good Vibes Music Group will release its own music at some point, but for the time being, the fledgling company is focused on music publishing, and especially discovering new talent. Hence the name of its first series of talent scouting sessions, the Discovery Song Camps, going on this spring in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Nashville and London, England.

Good Vibes is the brainchild of Canadian music whiz Jason Murray (of Black Box Music) and veteran, Grammy-winning writer/producer/musician Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. And while both principals have plenty of other irons in the music-business fire, talking to Murray creates the distinct impression that Good Vibes is a kind of mutual admiration society.

“I would say that Kenny is closer to a Canadian than anyone I’ve met out here,” says Murray from Los Angeles. “He’s navigated a four-decade career and managed not to burn bridges, and to be honest and kind, and to mentor people. That’s a huge part of what I get to learn, every day that I spend with him.”

International connections aside, Good Vibes is very much a Canadian company, based in Ontario, with international representation through SOCAN. And while applicants for the first Discovery Camp came from far and wide, three of the eight participants in the L.A. camp were from Toronto. “I’m definitely not abandoning where I come from,” stresses Murray. “We’re trying to create a pipeline for Canadian writers and producers.”

Murray is pumped up when we reach him in the studio during the final hours of the first four-day Discovery camp. “It’s been pretty amazing,” he enthuses. “I’ve done the SOCAN-sponsored Merge song camps for the past three years, so I learned a lot about how to do it properly, how to get the right energy.

“We had 1,000-plus applicants just for the L.A. camp. The goal is to bring people who have something very specific, and put them in an environment to test them and see whether they really have what we think they have.

“Our goal was to curate and manage each room around something we felt was commercially viable. We had someone we thought was a great concept person, somebody we thought was great with melody, somebody who was classically trained. For us it’s more about the talent and the competitiveness of what other writers and producers are doing.

“That’s what makes this a little different from other camps I’ve been involved in. The pressure is off.”

“This camp is not really about having hit records come out of the sessions. It wouldn’t be fair to expect that from the writers we picked. It’s more about learning about them, them learning about us. And about us challenging them to really do some heavy lifting as songwriters. If a great song comes out of it, fantastic. We’ve had some great ideas; are any of them going to be hit songs? I don’t know. But it’s a discovery for them, learning about themselves and each other, and that’s the goal. That’s what makes this a little different from other camps I’ve been involved in. The pressure is off.”

The first Discovery Song Camp was a creative hot house, and probably a “pinch me” moment for most of the participants. In addition to Murray and Babyface, guest producers/collaborators included artist/producer James Fauntleroy, and hit-making production duo Monsters & Strangerz.

The only criteria for winning a place at one of the Discovery camps was talent, and that the writer or producer be a free agent, that is unsigned. And when each camp wraps, the work created still belongs to the writers in the rooms.

“We own nothing,” says Murray. “Everybody who wrote on a song takes that piece of the song with them when they leave, whether it was written with Babyface, or Fauntleroy, whatever. Good Vibes has no stake in it. We’re just doing the right thing. Karma is like a boomerang, you throw it out there and it comes back to you when you least expect it.

“If we can find two or three phenomenal writers and/or producers from these camps, we’ll be thrilled. We’ve got Nashville and Atlanta next month, then London after that. Then we’ll assess things, and decide what we’ve got, who will work well with each other in our system. This is just a first date. It would be amazing if we find three or four writers who have a special niche that we can use at the end of it all.”

How do Murray and Edmonds assess a song’s commercial potential when the pop climate might be completely different in a year or two, when the material actually gets released?

“One of Kenny’s biggest songs, a track that went to Bobby Brown, was written six years before Bobby Brown cut it,” explains Murray. “I’ve got a song I wrote 14 months ago that’s going to be a single on a record that’s coming out in five months. From our perspective, the commercial viability is about how you dress up the song, but that’s not the composition. The composition is something that doesn’t have a shelf life. I truly believe that.

“James Fauntleroy was telling us about ‘Mirrors,’ a song he did with Justin Timberlake, that was written more than six years before it came out. I’m sure the production would have changed had it been recorded at another time during that window, but the composition is the foundation.

“At the end of the day, great songs make for a healthy industry, and making good investments in artists and writers is absolutely crucial to our ecosystem. If five years from now, we haven’t signed any of these artists, but they’re in the charts, then they can come back and do the same for somebody else.”

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