Posts Tagged ‘radio’

Ukulele me

February 27th, 2015

It’s that time of year again here in Vancouver: yes, it’s ukulele season. Next weekend is the annual Vancouver Ukulele Festival, a three-day celebration of the weirdest little instrument on earth.

I’m highly attuned to news related to ukuleles, because there was a time in my life when people kept on giving them to me. I’m not sure why, but I’ve got three now. I don’t really know how to play them, but they’re fun to have around.

ukulele 2

And I love the sound of them, too. In fact, the first story I ever wrote for the CBC show Definitely Not The Opera was about the ukulele — its reputation as a goofy comedy instrument and its growing popularity. The uke was still the underdog and the bad joke of the music world back then, but over the past decade, as I predicted, it’s gained a lot more respect.

More and more musicians have discovered the uke’s versatility and its tiny, tender heart. Since I recorded that story for CBC, Eddie Vedder has recorded an entire album full of ukulele songs (appropriately titled Ukulele Songs). And the instrument has gained some indie cred at the hands of artists such as tUnE-yArDs and Jens Lekman, too.

But the master of the ukulele love song, in my estimation, is still Stephin Merritt. From his many Magnetic Fields masterpieces, to his work with the 6ths, to his silly solo ukulele ditties, he breaks my heart with every strum.

ukulele 1

Still not convinced that the uke can be a soulful instrument? Check out this cover of “Motherless Child” by Vancouver musician (and Ukulele Festival organizer) Daphne Roubini.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I think I have something in my eye…

Radio road trip

May 7th, 2014

I took a road trip to Bellingham with a freelancer friend last weekend to see one of our radio idols: Ira Glass from WBEZ’s This American Life.

This news earned me a few weird looks in the days preceding the trip.

“You’re driving down to the U.S. to see a radio star?”

“Never heard of him.”

“Oh, that sounds… interesting.”

So when we arrived for the show, it was gratifying to discover that we aren’t alone in our enormous enthusiasm for public radio. The Mount Baker Theatre was absolutely packed.

And Ira, in all his self-deprecating glory, was greeted with hoots and hollers of joy when he came out on stage.

The show started in the pitch dark. All we could see was the glow of a tablet as he strode up and down the stage talking about the unique intimacy of radio storytelling.

When we’re watching video, he said, we tend to be judgey. What a person is wearing, the way they look, the environment they’re in… these things all affect the way we digest what we’re hearing.

“With radio, there are no barriers,” he said. “It just goes right into you.”

The show offered a rawer, more genuine version of Ira Glass than you get to hear on This American Life. For example, he swore. With really bad words, too. It was beautiful.

“I love it when people curse. I love it. I love it!” he said.

He also talked about taking drugs – a very funny story about ecstasy and anxiety that he told to The Guardian newspaper this week, as well.

But most of all he talked about the art and craft of storytelling.

Using humour and surprise in storytelling, he said, is what makes the world seem like a place worth living in. Empathy, too.

“Without empathy, what’s the point of telling any story?” he said.

He wrapped up with some encouragement for the aspiring storytellers in the audience.

Don’t give up, he said, even if your stories don’t initially turn out the way you’d hoped they would. He played a recording of one of his early radio pieces — a dry and incomprehensible report about North American crops… I think — to inspire us all to keep at it.

And for creative people with projects in mind, he finished with this advice:

“Do it now. Don’t wait. Do it now.”

I saw this lovely video of Ira talking about the creative process last year and it has a lot in common with what he shared in Bellingham last weekend.

It was well worth the trip to hear him say it live and in person.


Rubber duckie radio

April 8th, 2014

I recently had the privilege of putting together a story for Greenpeace Canada’s latest podcast, which is out today on iTunes.

My part of the podcast is about phthalates, endocrine disrupting chemicals that are used to soften plastic. I was already familiar with the subject when Greenpeace assigned me the story… I first learned about phthalates when I read a magazine article back in 2008 and realized with horror that the rubber duckies my kids chewed on in the bathtub were potentially toxic. I ended up throwing all of my kids’ squeezable bath toys out in a panic.

Great progress has been made in the regulation of phthalates in products for children since then. It was great to be able to report on an environmental success story and get the truth about toxics in toys. Spoiler alert: I can end my vendetta against the rubber duck.

Producing the story involved the very cool experience of conducting an interview with an expert in Beijing via Skype. But the best part of the assignment was interviewing my daughter at bath time. Recording her squeaky voice telling me all about her favourite bath toys was a hoot. I should interview my kids more often.

I was happy, as well, to get the chance to work for Greenpeace — an organization that started here in Vancouver and whose work I’ve long admired. You can also hear me on one of their earlier podcasts interviewing strangers on the street about the Greenpeace vessel, the Rainbow Warrior.

Long may she sail.


Dancing to a different tune

January 31st, 2014

I told a story on the CBC Radio show Definitely Not The Opera this week. It was for an episode that’s all about seeing your parents in a new light.

It’s a tricky maneuver, telling a story about your parents on national radio. Especially when it involves describing how you saw them when you were a child. I’m now a parent myself and can look back and recognize how hard they worked and how little I appreciated their efforts at the time.

That must be part of the joy of becoming a grandparent… knowing that your own offspring are finally going to understand how grateful they ought to be.

Anyway, my story on DNTO is about the first time I saw my parents dance together. They have some moves, see, and the first time I saw them on the dance floor, I realized that they’d had a whole life before me during which they’d had quite a lot of fun.

Thanks for giving up on nights out at jazz clubs in favour of endless chores and exhausting family vacations, Mum and Dad! 

Telling my story on DNTO also made me think about how my own kids see me these days. During the brief moments in between dropping them off at school, trying to meet deadlines, shopping for groceries, doing laundry and desperately trying to make it to extracurricular activities on time, I’m not exactly a barrel of laughs most days.

It’s been a good reminder that when your kids see you having fun, it makes you more human in their eyes. And presumably less of a bossy, errand-running, robotic parental unit. Note to self: loosen up a little.

You can listen to my story about my parents here (my bit starts at around 0:13:45).

Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking up new ways to thank them for all of their hard work. It might be an impossible task, but at least I know I’ve given them one gift they genuinely enjoy: a new dance partner who really knows how to move.



The Birth of Canadian Indie: Winnipeg

March 3rd, 2012

The Winnipeg episode of my ongoing series for CBC Radio 3 is on Grant Lawrence’s podcast this week. What a fun episode to put together. Really made me want to visit Winnipeg, too. It’s a city I’m fond of without ever having been there. I have an affinity for small prairie cities with chips on their shoulders.


The episode gives a seven-minute overview of Winnipeg’s early punk scene and how it developed into the unusually literate and politically charged music scene that exists in the city today. As always, it was rather a lot to cover in seven short minutes. But, of course, huge fun trying to squeeze as much in as possible. One of the highlights was an interview with The Weakerthans’ cerebral, articulate frontman John K. Samson. Here’s my favourite outtake from the interview:

“I’m kind of a thwarted fiction writer, that’s what I’ve always wanted to be since I was a kid, so I’ve tried to transfer those ambitions into pop songs. So that’s the starting point for my lyrics, I think, is to try and tell stories, and to tell stories about the city that I’m from. It’s kind of become the main theme of my work, and something that I’ll be writing about for the rest of my life trying to figure out.”

I also had a long chat with Do Make Say Think’s brilliant Julie Penner, who gave me a lot of background on the city as well as a list of amazing old Winnipeg bands, almost none of whom, alas, I managed to fit into the story. I did dig up this superb YouTube clip of Red Fisher, though, one of the late 80s bands that almost all of my interviewees mentioned. The fashions in the video are almost as much fun as the music. Red Fisher’s drummer, Jason Tait, now plays with The Weakerthans.

Special thanks to Blair from Endearing Records for this episode. He gave me a lesson on Winnipeg’s early music scene and told me where to start.

You can hear the episode on CBC Radio 3’s podcast #310, or you can stream it right here.