Keep it simple may be Fraser Mac’s rule of thumb, but the success he’s enjoying from it is complicating life. He’s on the playlist for some very big names – Yoko Ono, Bob Weir, Fergie of the Black-Eyed Peas, and Natasha Beddingfield. Fraser Mac (Fraser McGregor, BA’10 in Popular Music Studies) is quickly making a name with his songs.
He won the Pop category of the 2011 John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and claims two of the top three nomination spots in the same competition this year. He was nominated for a Toronto Independent Music Award (TIMA) in the Best Electronic category. (Awards are held Oct. 6.) Two of his songs are charting the HOT AC charts in Canada – you can hear “Walk of Shame” and “Addicted” on Top 40 stations across the country.
Fraser Mac set his demanding schedule while a student at Western, performing to sold-out crowds at the Sound Academy and Alumni Hall as lead singer of Pink Floyd Tribute Band PULSE. He also wrote and performed the brand song for Ovarian Cancer Canada, “Let’s Walk for the Cure.”
“I’ve been writing songs for almost 20 years,” said Mac. “Practise makes perfect and the more you write, the more you learn. I write songs better today than I did six years ago and I wrote better songs six years ago that I did 12 years ago.”
Winning contests and working with established artists helps spread the word, but it’s Mac’s work crafting the notes that really earns the accolades.
“When I began my studies at Western, my interest in the craft of songwriting underwent a metamorphosis from hobby to passion,” he said. “I finally realized there is an unmistakable anatomy of a hit. I’d grown up thinking that songs had to come from an honest place, when the truth is, they don’t. You don’t need to fall in love to write a love song or have a crazy night out to write a dance song. You do, however, need to understand that there is a formula. My time at Western really taught me how to critically and analytically LISTEN to a hit. After comparing all the top billboard songs on the Hot AC charts for instance, you’ll notice they all have what I call an ‘epic’ chorus – and you better get to it within the first 30-45 seconds or else you’re going to lose the listener’s interest.”
Clearly his method works. He entered “Green Light” in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2011 because it has the anatomy of a hit: “the verse, pre-chorus, (epic) chorus, b hook and bridge. I also feel “Green Light” has a particularly hook-y chorus – something paramount in successful pop music.”
Choosing the category was more difficult because the song has elements of pop tunes but electronic instrumentation.
This year he decided to submit two songs: a ballad called “Goodbye” and an upbeat dance anthem, “Walk of Shame.”
“I feel I have the versatility to write for anybody and really wanted to showcase this ability by submitting two songs that could be classified under different veins within the pop music genre. Finding out both songs were selected as finalists was both reassuring and motivating.”
Part of last year’s win included more than $7,000 in project studio equipment and other prizes. “It was also reassuring to be recognized by an internationally renowned songwriting contest – arguably the most prestigious one in the world,” said Mac. “The win created some industry buzz. The Songwriters’ Association of Canada (S.A.C.) and SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) have written articles about my wins.”
Mac’s creative process is different for each song. “Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes it’s the melody. Sometimes I begin with the chorus, sometimes with the verse. Sometimes it’s just the mood I’m in.”
But that doesn’t mean he has to be in the mood or writes on a whim. Mac is disciplined with his craft. “I feel it’s a misconception that hit songs need happen naturally. Sometimes they do and that’s great. I would argue that the majority of hit songs are planned and calculated. I don’t mean calculated in the music theory sense – I NEVER think about music theory. Instead, I rely on my ears and my musical instincts.”
“Goodbye,” Mac’s winning song from 2011 began with the melody. “The word ‘goodbye’ just sounded so right sitting on the leap notes in the chorus. So once that happened, I knew what the song was about. I wrote the chorus first and it was nice because when it came time to write the verse, I knew where I was heading.”
Walk of Shame, one of this year’s finalists, involved a different process. “Conceptually it was born in the studio. I was trying to explain the vibe I was striving to capture for a record I wrote called “Blackout.” I said to my producer, “think Ke$ha/walk of shame.” He responded with, “How does that song go?” and it ended up being a eureka moment.
Mac also hopes it will help the song stand out. “It’s important to have a different concept/angle if you want to make an impact. “Walk of Shame,” with its controversial theme and attention-grabbing lyrics, stands out as a fresh, never-been-done-before song subject – one of those subject matters that’s like ‘I can’t believe he said that’ which is why it was the lead single off my debut album Smokeshow.
“Being a concept-driven song, I decided to start with the story, the lyrics. I knew it was a song about doing the walk of shame, so I thought it was important to establish a pace, achieved through the rhyme scheme. Pop music is pop music because it gets stuck in the listener’s head, which is why my only pop songwriting rule of thumb is: Keep it simple.”
Mac met radio producer Bobby Gale in January 2012 at Songposium, an intensive seminar organized by S.A.C. Gale was one of three panelists who critiqued songs. “Bobby was the blunt Simon Cowell of the group. However, when it cam to my song “Blackout,” he gave me a glowing review and said he would 100 per cent take it to radio.”
Mac followed up with Gale and began working with him in March. “Radio stations receive hundreds of songs a week, and when you don’t have a label, manager, publicist or marketing team, it’s important to be aligned with somebody who knows what they’re doing. You only get one chance at a first impression.”
With Gale’s guidance, Mac’s songs are making that chance count. As well as charting on the HOT AC, and the song competition nominations, two of his songs are being pitched to A-list artists.
“When you don’t have a label behind you or a publishing deal or a manager, you end up wearing a lot of hats yourself. It’s up to you to create your own buzz – to make it happen. It’s important to keep putting yourself out there. So that’s what I’m going to keep doing. I’m going to keep working with different producers, collaborating with songwriters, networking with industry pros and write, write, write. I’m chasing my dream and I’m dreaming big. I know that getting there takes time, patience, rejection and drive, but I’m a hard worker and I’m not giving up. The day will soon come.”
Wearing many hats is not new to Mac. He was a film and television actor, performing with Patrick Dempsey, Jason Priestly, Elizabeth Perkins and Burt Reynolds. He studied voice with Western alumna Elaine Overholt (BMus’75), who is known as vocal coach to the stars because of her work with Queen Latifah, Richard Gere, John Travolta, Renee Zellweger and more. By age 16, Mac ranked in the top 100 of Canadian Idol.
Stay tuned to Fraser Mac to find out where his star takes him next.