Contrary to the singular name, Winnipeg’s Ash Koley is actually a collaborative relationship between two people: Ashley Koley (vocals) and Phil Deschambault (guitar, keyboard). The duo formed in 2004, drawn together by their mutual love of songwriting, art, quirky pop and Peter Gabriel. Through 2009 and early 2010 the band released four EPs. Nettwerk signed them up last year, and their debut album, Inventions, was released to critical acclaim in October. Produced by Deschambault and mixed by Grammy Award-winner Tom Lord-Alge (Avril Lavigne, Blink 182, Sarah McLachlan), eight tracks were selected out of scores of songs Koley and Deschambault had crafted over the past five years. Ash Koley hit the road this past summer for the first time ever, thrown into the deep end as an opening act for heavyweights like Erykah Badu, McLachlan and Sheryl Crow on the Lilith Festival’s Canadian dates. They’ll be taking on their first North American tour in the not-too-distant future.
When Jeremy Fischer bought his iPhone about a year ago, he never expected it would become part of his repertoire of musical instruments. But one day he downloaded East Beat Maker, a drum-machine application, and almost overnight his songwriting process was altered. “I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of writing with this app,” he says. “I don’t write with a band so I just lock in a kick and snare pattern and work from there.”
Since then, Fisher’s downloaded a number of music apps, from Vintage Drum, a program that lets you play the skins with your fingers, to the piano app Virtuoso. In fact, he’s got more instruments and sounds at his disposal than he ever would have imagined possible. He recently took his love of music apps to a new level — the video for his new song “Shine a Little Light” has him playing apps instead of real instruments.
While Fischer’s taken the iPhone and turned it into a portable jam space, others are just beginning to discover the hundreds of music apps on the market. It’s not only changing the way people use their phones, it’s also altering the music business. “There’s evidence the market place is beginning to be populated by media produced on mobile devices,” says Aram Sinnreich, a Rutgers University media professor. “There are so many opportunities; no one can keep track of the many ways these devices can be used.”
Toronto-based jazz singer Matt Dusk uses his iPhone’s voice-recorder app to capture instrumental practice sessions that he can later sing along to. “It helps me get ready for gigs with no surprises,” he says. Musicians are attracted to the apps for two reasons: they’re easy to use and they’re cheap. Dusk likes being able to record ideas instantly, for better or worse. “When you think you have the next ‘Hey Jude,’ you can record it, then listen to it and realize you’re not even close,” he says with a laugh.
Fischer uses his phone for the same reasons as Dusk, but mobile technology also helped him make the cheapest video of his life. He spent about $14 on his apps and that was it. He already had a camera and he edited the spot with software he already owned. That’s a big change from the $40,000 Sony Music spent on making some of his older videos. “It’s really my time that costs,” he says. “Other than that, there was no budget.”
Cell-phone apps aren’t just being used for music creation. Former Torontonian-turned-New Yorker Jared Gutstadt invented Jingle Punks, an app for music supervisors. The program gives supervisors access to 30,000 songs, mostly from independent artists, and allows them to choose and use a track right then and there. Gutstadt says mobile technology is breaking down barriers, giving talented people the chance to rise to the top. “It took me eight years to get music in TV shows and now that’s something that can happen 100 times a day,” he says.
Mobile technology is only starting to influence the music world, but no one doubts that it will have a huge impact on the industry. “When I made my first record I had one guitar and a pad of paper,” says Fischer. “Now every tool you want is available on a phone.”
Stirring singer-songwriter Royal Wood’s latest album, The Waiting, is his pop record, something he felt he could tour behind. The release before that, The Lost and Found EP, was, he says, just a stop-gap to follow his second full-length, 2007’s A Good Enough Day. “I made that EP an art-boutique piece where I wrote songs I knew would not be immediately catchy but were purely lyric-driven,” Wood says. “I saved my pop writing for The Waiting.”
The Peterborough, Ont. native, now living in Toronto, is very particular about the songs he releases. He started playing piano at age four and soon picked up guitar, bass, drums, clarinet and trumpet, but never put anything out commercially until 2002’s The Milkweed EP. “I struggled with having an original voice, which is why I didn’t release anything until I was 23, 24,” he says. “I could play at a young age. I wrote like crazy and I played in lots of bands and tried lots of genres, but I always felt like I was wearing someone else’s hat. Nothing ever felt true.
But then something clicked. Since The Milkweed EP, of which he’s still proud, Wood lets a song write itself, coming out “the way it’s supposed to land,” as he puts it. “The majority of my writing is cathartic, but once you hear the melody and the emotional core, you can tell the direction.
In the case of The Waiting, producer Pierre Marchand (Sarah McLachlan) helped shape the sound by recording the first three songs: “You Can’t Go Back,” “Do You Recall” and “The Island.” The lyrical catharsis was the self-described “me-centric” Wood turning 30 and shifting his priorities. “There’s an antithesis to everything that we go through,” he says. “I had friends who were having their first kids and I lost friends to illness and we buried my grandmother and others got married for the first time [including him]. And you see there really is that mirrored experience for everything. Nothing is ever permanent and what you really should be doing is existing in the now. If you exist in the now, you understand what is valuable and what is important and what is meaningful.
“There was some huge philosophical wrestling that I went with,” he says. “It wasn’t just that I wanted to write songs and be a professional musician. It was some deep search for meaning and, even more so, what I wanted my art to say. I wanted there to be something to be reflected on when you hear it.”