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Exclusive interview with the Grammy and Juno award-winning chanter/songwriter Dan Hill

29 Nov 2010

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P.T.  In Intimate, you wrote a beautiful song about Africville called “Africville Skies”.  What does Africville mean to you as an Afro-Canadian and how does it feel to have been approached by the Montreal-born jazz pianist/composer Joe Sealy  to pen about this town?

D.H.  I was proud to have the opportunity to sing about the oldest black community in Canada established gradually in our country after the war against England (which took place from 1812 to 1814).  In 1838, the community was complete and it was comprised of descendants of American slaves.  In this respect, free land and equal rights were promised to Black Loyalists. Africville was a beautiful and strong population which was self-sufficient.  This community had his own infrastructure:  schools, church, etc. So, I was enthused to sing about this historic population.  Joe Sealy’s father was born in Africville.  When his father died, one of his feelings was to write an album called Africville Suite where we find beautiful pieces about Africville.  Joe Sealy wanted me to write lyrics about this community.  To be more specific, Africville was a small unincorporated community located on the southern shore of Bedford Basin in the city of Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada).  In 1967, the community and its dwellings were razed and the residents were evicted.   They were forced to relocate.

I feel honoured that I have been approached by Joe [Sealy] to pen “Africville Skies”.  I love him and I think he is a brilliant composer.  More importantly, he is a fabulous human being.  He received the Order of Canada.  I was very proud and I was moved to write lyrics for this great artist.

P.T.  In your book, we learn about your hurdles as a songwriter, especially at the beginning of your career.  The music industry has changed tremendously and has its challenges, particularly with all the downloading.  What advice do you have for young people who want to make it as songwriters and singers?  What can you tell them regarding the protection of their work through the royalties?

D.H.  They need to do their homework about the music business, through reading for instance.
There are great books on the market which allow people to understand the intricacies of the music industry such as All you need to know about the music business written by Harvard alumni lawyer Donald S.  Passman.  This book gives an excellent overview of the music industry.  Young people can also seek guidance from individuals who have been in the music industry for many years.  Mentors and connoisseurs of the music business can give access to people and resources needed to develop a career.  It is always from the best that you learn.  This will allow young people to save a lot of time and energy.  It will also permit them to avoid traps.  I would like to add that it is important for artists to get a business understanding of their career.

For the people who want to make it, more specifically as songwriters and singers, they can learn to play an instrument.  It is important to write daily.  You have to practice and study on a regular basis.  It is useful to listen to records and try to understand what the artists are doing by looking toward what it is resonating with what you are creating.  You have to go through this process with authenticity and by bringing your own originality.  It is important also to catch up to novelty because the music domain evolves constantly.

It is helpful to broaden your horizon.  In this respect, if you are an artist who doesn’t sell much with your CDs, you can consider other venues such as commercials, movies, TV shows, etc.  There are many ways for songwriters to make money, even more now than when I started in the business.

P.T.  In your book, we learn that your father who became the first Director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission placed great value on you to pursue an academic profession and didn’t accept easily the artistic road you chose.  What message do you have for young people who want to be in the music industry but are being deterred by their family who want them to choose a liberal profession?

D.H.  This is another very great question.  I think that it depends on the individual.  It is extremely competitive to make it in the music business.  For instance, Jay-Z said it was ten times harder to make it as a rapper than as an NBA basketball player.  So, to make it as a musician or as a performer it goes back to what was discussed earlier, you have to be really versatile.  I mean, it is helpful to be able to play and master an instrument.  If for some reason, you do not end up to be a pop star maybe you can consider teaching guitar, give voice lessons or become a record producer for instance.  So, it is possible to see the music field as a broad canvas of which there are many different ways to make a living instead of seeing the prospects in a much narrower way.  It is not everybody who will become the next Nelly Furtado for instance but I don’t think either that it is unimaginable to make a good living in the music industry if you have more than one string to one’s bow.   In other words, young people can’t limit themselves and it is important to see how to be prolific across many genres.

I encourage young people to follow their passion and exploit their talent.  They have to assess their lives and find out what they’re good at and focus on that.  Doing what you love will always make you a winner.  However, they have to be willing to work very hard for it and make some sacrifices.  For instance, the late Charlie Parker practiced saxophone fifteen hours per day.  He didn’t become the pioneer of bebop just by coincidence.  There is no such thing as an overnight success. In other words, there is no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs.  Success means diligent work and discipline. There are a lot of talented people who will never be discovered because they will never develop their potential by being determined to put in the hard work, or some will surrender too soon.  You have to be patient to see the results of all the efforts. One of my favourite mottos is:  “Strivers achieve what dreamers believe”.  When opportunities are presented, young people need to be prepared.  By the way, whatever the domain chosen by young people, they must have a serious work ethic and not rest on their laurels.  The best physicians, for instance, need to be retrained regularly to stay current on the latest research and procedures.  There are no shortcuts.  Young people have to be focused and diligent.  I could add that my determined mantra is:  Never give up, dream big and do not settle.

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