To many, Christopher Ward is the songwriter who penned Alannah Myles career-topping global hit, Black Velvet. In fact, the once popular MuchMusic VJ has had a long and colourful career, principally as a songsmith but also as an author, memoirist, podcaster and occasional actor. Now residing in Los Angeles, the following interview was conducted by e-mail shortly before the release of Same River Twice, a new album that has its release on May 28.
To learn more about his songs, inspirations and collaborations, the affable and youthful pop star is conducting a Long & McQuade YouTube stream on April 29.
Let's start with the obvious. You have a new album of songs coming out, and you've elected to release Black Velvet, written for and turned into a massive hit by Alannah Myles. What made you want to return to this career-defining song and how is your version different?
I wasn’t going to do Black Velvet. I’ve heard lots of other versions, and they all pale beside Alannah’s, but I was curious to see if I could find something unrevealed in the song that I could show. I’ve played it at writers in the round shows and gotten a great response. People say that they’re hearing the song for the first time or that they understand it better. For me, it was like allowing people into the late-night sketch that became a song they all know. Mine is the quiet, front porch storyteller’s take. Alannah’s is the powerful, emotional version, the one that has stood the test of time.
Many might see you as a one-hit-wonder with Alannah and remember you as a VJ at MuchMusic, but in fact, you have written for many notables. Tell us a few stories about the acts that have had hits with your songs, and how you came to write them?
Better to have one hit and for it not to be Ice, Ice Baby.
Matthew Gerrard and I wrote a song with an Australian artist named Brooke McClymont that a 15-year-old Hilary Duff heard and loved. I was living in Paris in 2002 and the night before the Hilary session, Matthew emailed me and said we have to take the sexiness out of it, quickly. So, being the shameless opportunist that I am, all I asked was ‘when do they need it?’. There was a little further drama when Brooke heard it and hated it and tried to get Disney to pull the song from The Lizzie McGuire show, where it was featured. Fortunately, we navigated that issue and the song had a long life at the top of the Disney Radio chart.
One of my favourite songs I’ve written is Beautiful Goodbye for Amanda Marshall. Dave Tyson had this gorgeous piece of music that intimidated me at first. I thought how do I write something to match the emotional depth and melodic sweep of this music?
Cut to 3 months and a couple of trees of lyric attempts later, and out of desperation, I thought ‘what kind of lyric would Raymond Chandler (noir detective writer of The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely) write?’ That’s how I came up with lines like “and all the things we never said/ I can save for someone else”, and the world-weary opening line, “I’m fed up with my destiny/ this place of no return”. It made sense because Dave and I had always envisioned a seasoned voice, like a Joe Cocker, singing the song,
We were surprised, maybe a bit skeptical, when Amanda Marshall asked to give it a try, took it home for the night and returned the next day to deliver a hair-on-end powerhouse vocal. We’re just the writers – what do we know!
The song Black Velvet has a colourful history. Care to tell us more?
The lyrics to Black Velvet were gathered in fleeting impressions of the American South on a Greyhound bus trip from Toronto to Memphis. I was on a MuchMusic assignment to cover the 10th anniversary of Elvis’ death, travelling with a cameraman and 40 Elvis fanatics. For me, every song has a key line that unlocks the rest of it. With Black Velvet, it was “a new religion that’ll bring you to your knees”. I was reading a book by a woman who wrote about Elvis and his mother and had travelled to Tupelo and visited their church. She had witnessed the preacher exhorting the congregation, down on one knee, and it reminded her of Elvis’ stage moves. Hence, the “new religion “which for me was ‘rock n’ roll’.
Dave and Alannah and I were working on songs for her first album and Dave casually said “it would be great if we had a shuffle”. I put up my hand and played the first verse and chorus of Black Velvet and Alannah instantly claimed it!
Why that song connected as it did, I have no idea. Just last year, Melissa Etheridge, Kelly Clarkson, Meghan Patrick and ‘The Masked Singer’ covered it. Upcoming, it’s going to be featured on “Beat Shazam”, “Name That Tune” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. The power of one song to have a place in so many people’s lives is humbling and mysterious. I remain grateful.
No disrespect but you are an old-school writer and singer and maybe because of this, your oeuvre has fallen between the cracks more than not. Tell us about this album, and what you hope to accomplish with it. For instance, is this a collection that you hope to shop to singers who rely on outside material?
I went into making this record for creative reasons. I knew what kind of music I wanted to make and how I wanted to record it. How I would navigate the challenge of finding an audience wasn’t on my mind for one heartbeat, but now that it’s done, I would love these songs to be heard. A lot of joy went into writing and recording them, and I think they could have meaning for people who loved crafted songs that express life in all its stages. I tried to push myself creatively to share whatever hard-won knowledge I have in the hopes that some of it would resonate with listeners who, like me, have lived a little.
Can you share a few amusing stories, or horrors ones for that matter, from being on the road, or more broadly in your professional life?
Every musician has a few horror stories and I don’t think mine are any more execrable than anyone else’s. Bar owners who refuse to pay, rowdy patrons threatening to break your guitar over your head if you don’t play their favourite song, getting fired in favour of a stripper – all of it.
I used to take the insults seriously, starting with a lusty “play some rock n’ roll” and escalating to “Zeeeepelinnn”, before landing on that Zen koan of insults, “play something you know”.
To encapsulate it all into one gig I have to return to Fort Erie, Ontario, where I was billed, seriously, as “The Chris Warrat Duo, Direct from Toronto”. The climax of the gig-from-hell came when my guitarist and I were on a tiny stage, far too close to the unhappy patrons as we tiptoed through our Jackson Browne covers. Just as we started The Beatles’ You Can’t Do That, a bottle flew through the air past my head. I stopped playing, said “You can’t do that,” mustering as much outrage as I could, and we left the stage, the bar and Fort Erie with no pay, but no bruises.
Do you have a favourite song you’ve written?
The favourite song I’ve written? I was living with Alannah in a run-down fourplex apartment in The Beach area of Toronto, just up from the boardwalk. I’d come back from a disastrous tour where I got stiffed by (a promoter) in Saskatoon at the end of a week playing at the colourful A-4 club. My tour got cancelled suddenly, and I had to pay the players and fly them home, returning to The Beach with my tail between my legs.
Alannah was doing the odd extra gig or print ad, like one for ‘Tidy Bowl’ that we laugh about to this day. We usually had no cash and when my SOCAN cheque would arrive, we’d celebrate by paying the bills and heading downtown for a Cosmic Burger at the Queen Mother Café. I wanted to write something romantic for us, to lift us out of our struggles and provide that temporary escape that a song can. From that period came Sonny Say You Will, an old-fashioned song in many ways, referencing the boardwalk from the Drifters’ song as well as from our neighbourhood. She loved it and recorded a beautiful version on her second album, Rockinghorse. It was my mother’s favourite song too.