Measuring Success

I saw something today that really got me thinking.  We spend a lot of time, especially in the music business, talking about success.  But what is success, really?  It’s completely subjective.

Last week I had surgery to remove a tumour in my knee (it’s benign, just pesky and it keeps growing back for some unknown reason).  It’s the second time I’ve had this surgery, so I’m practically a regular now at the physiotherapy unit at Vanderbilt Hospital.  I’m no stranger to the teeth-gritting, slow-as-molasses, frustrating process of coaxing my leg to bend, straighten, and walk again.

Today I was particularly frustrated.  It was just one of those mornings when the weights were too hard to lift, my knee was more swollen than usual, I was leaning more heavily on the crutches and I just couldn’t imagine how I’m going to run across an airport or skip across a stage again.  It’s silly, really, because I know that very soon I’ll be doing just that.  But sometimes patience isn’t my best virtue.  So I was feeling like a failure today.

Then, everyone in the room stopped for a moment and I looked up from my swollen knee to see what the fuss was about.

Everyone was looking at an old man on the walking track next to the bench where I was sitting.  I had noticed him earlier, because he had been wheeled into the unit in a wheelchair.  Instead of legs, he was wearing metal prosthetics from the knee down with sneakers on the bottom.

That old man was taking his first steps.  They were tiny, slow, uncertain steps and he was holding onto a walker for dear life…but he was taking them.  I watched him work his way past me at a snail’s pace, and on the way by, he smiled at me.

Needless to say, I felt pretty stupid for being frustrated with the fact I couldn’t walk without crutches.  I have legs.  And even though I can’t do it right now, I’m going to walk on them again…and dance…and skip across the stage.  I’m lucky.

Success, for that old man, meant taking ten steps with a walker.  Success for me today meant that I could walk with just one crutch.  Success for my friend the runner means running 5 miles each day.  Success for the homeless guy on the corner of Broadway and 4th means enough coins in his cup to buy a loaf of bread.  Success for a millionaire means another million bucks.  Success for one musician means playing a song to a campfire audience and hearing them sing along.  Success for another means selling a few million records and filling a bunch of stadiums with fans.

I guess what I’m saying is, success is a tricky concept.  It changes, depending on where you perceive you are in your life.  And maybe the more success we experience, the more our idea of success becomes skewed, and the less satisfied we are with the things that used to be enough.

I’m not saying that small things have to be enough, and that we shouldn’t reach for more.  But maybe we should take a moment to recognize those small things that we accomplish each day, and to appreciate those things with gratitude.

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of that.

*****

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My Christmas Wish List

I wish for deep snow that’s packed down enough for sledding on but makes for a soft landing when you fall off at the bottom of the hill and lie there laughing.

I wish for Christmas carols sung in four-part harmony.

I wish to look out through frosted windows at a big white moon over the snowy lake.

I wish to harvest a wonderfully pathetic and sadly beautiful Charlie Brown Christmas tree from an ill-fated spot under the hydro wires.

I wish for a sense of peace and contentment for my Dad, my sister and I this Christmas, even though Mom’s chair will be empty at the table.

I wish for hours of quiet time spent with my nose in a great book.

I wish for that thick, muffled silence of a winter night in the Canadian woods.

I wish for my sister and I to re-create the perfectly cooked turkey Mom used to make, with giblets left over for my dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior.

I wish for the giant logs Dad cut this fall to keep burning all night long in the wood furnace, so the frost isn’t nipping at our noses when we wake up in the morning.

I wish for the patience to stand long enough in the cold outside the back door so that the chickadees will eat out of my hand like they did when I was a kid.

I wish for the ability to let go of the things that don’t matter and to hold onto the things that do, and to be fully present in every precious, fleeting moment I get to spend with the people that I love.

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Reba!!!

I grew up listening to Reba McEntire CDs.  I memorized every lyric, sang along with every line, and tried like heck to yodel out every single string of notes that rolls of those one-of-a-kind vocal cords of hers.  There’s nobody else in the world who can sing like Reba.  In this age when we seem to put expiration dates on our female artists after age 35, she’s the only woman left from my childhood days who is still sending her songs to the top of the country charts.  She sang about love and heartache…about parent/child relationships…about prostitution…about murder…even about HIV.  What a fearless lady.

I just finished opening Reba’s Western Canada tour.  I got to stand alone in front of sold-out arenas packed with thousands of people, armed with only my guitar (and a grand piano for variety), and sing my songs.  What an honour.

I also got to sit next to Reba when she ate her dinner at backstage catering next to her crew and band, just like a regular Jane.  I got to thank her in person, not only for the incredible opportunity this tour was for me, but also for the years of inspiration she has given me as a singer, as a songwriter, and as a woman in the music business.

And every night, I got to stand at the side of the stage and sing along with every lyric, every line, and every wonderful yodeling string of notes in her entire set.

Wow.

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Hello Canada!! My Cinderella Moment at the CCMAs

I have been trying to write a diary entry about this year’s Canadian Country Music Awards, but I don’t know how to put it into words.  I really don’t.

After being last year’s most nominated female artist and walking away without a trophy, suddenly this year I found myself standing there holding not only the Songwriter of the Year CCMA for Johnny Reid’s “Dance with Me”, but also the CCMA for Female Artist of the Year!!!

If you saw it happen on CBC TV, you must have seen the shock on my face.  It was genuine.  I was in a category up against incredibly talented women who have blazed a trail of CCMA wins before me, and who I consider to be stellar vocalists and songwriters.

Even though I’ve penned a lot of songs people would recognize, I’m still pretty new on the scene as an artist in my own right, and it was a HUGE honour that the industry chose to vote for me and recognize me in that capacity this weekend.  If you’re not a big CMT watcher or country radio listener, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were out there saying ”who the heck is Victoria Banks?”

So if you’ve come to look me up for the first time, let me introduce myself to you….

I’m a thirty-something, proud Canadian woman.  I took a crazy leap of faith to do what I love for a living.  I’ve driven clunker cars, eaten a lot of Ramen noodles, and lived in roach-infested apartments along the way.  I’ve fought my way out of an abusive relationship, gone through the heartache of divorce, and lost a family member to suicide, and I don’t know how I would have survived any of it without my music.  I worked as a songwriter for ten years before I poured every ounce of my heart into my debut CD as a songwriter, singer, and as a producer.  When you listen to my CD, I hope you can hear how much I love what I do, and I hope the music touches you in a healing way, because that’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing.

I honestly never expected to stand on a stage and accept awards for doing what I love, but I have to admit, it feels pretty amazing to be able to say…Hello Canada!  I’m Victoria Banks…2010 Songwriter and Female Artist of the Year!!

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This Ain’t No Small World

I’m sitting on the window seat in my room at a 100-year old Inn in the heart of the Smoky Mountains as I write this.  Last night I played a show here in Balsam, North Carolina…tomorrow I’m in Flat Rock, NC…three days ago I was writing songs in Vancouver…I chalked up some air miles on my way there from playing the Cavendish Beach Music Festival in PEI…and just over a week ago I was playing Dauphin Country Fest in Manitoba and the Carlton Trail Jamboree in Rabbit Lake, Saskatchewan.

Needless to say, my body has no idea what time it is!  I’m accumulating a large pile of laundry that’ll need to be done when I get home, and I’m really looking forward to sleeping in my own bed again, but I am really soaking in life on the road.

For instance, I never would’ve thought I would see the east coast sun come up on Trans-Canada Highway 1 en route to the Charlottetown airport, and then watch the sun go down on the SAME DAY on the west coast end of the exact same highway!  I’ve shared a really huge stage (and a really tiny van between flights) with some really cool band members that I met for the first time this summer.  I’ve played my songs under tents in the afternoon heat, with couples dancing on the grass in front of me.  I’ve played them through giant walls of speakers that knock the wind out of you when the kick drum plays, looking out over a sea of sunburnt people singing along and campers parked Woodstock-style as far as the eye can see.

I’ve been swimming on hidden red sand beaches among Prince Edward Island jellyfish, eaten fresh home-baked pie at the end of a gravel road in the heart of northern Saskatchwan, screamed my way down a giant indoor waterslide in a posh hotel pool in Vancouver, and last night I sat and drank lemonade on a porch overlooking the Smoky Mountains with the deep south summer sweat trickling down my back.

They say it’s a small world.  It’s not.  It’s a huge, endless world of possibilities!

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My “City of Dreams” – Nashville Artists come together for Tennessee Flood Relief

I was reminded yet again this week of why I love Nashville so much.

Sure, I’ve had my frustrations with this city…I have ridden the music business rollercoaster long enough to have had my heart broken by this place quite a few times, and I’ve probably called it more than a few bad names over the years.  But seeing the footage of last week’s floods that sent houses floating down the interstate, stranded and drowned people in their cars, washed away roads and homes, swept our beautiful downtown in a 52-foot deep river of water, buried the Grand Old Opry, the Opryland Hotel and Mall in sewage-filled lakes, and left countless people homeless in Red Cross shelters…seeing my friends injured and stripped of all their belongings…seeing my town declared a federal disaster area…that made my spirit ache.  And the fact that I was out on the road at the time and had to learn about it from panicked friends’ phone messages, facebook photos and twitter feeds instead of seeing it on the national news…well that just made my blood boil.

So on the plane ride home, not knowing exactly what would be left to come home to, I decided to write a song about this city.  I called it “City of Dreams”, and it poured out of me onto a tear soaked page.  I finished the last line as the plane came in for a landing over a moonlit Nashville, looking out on nothing but a dark emptiness where the downtown core should be and the large areas of blackness where sections of city were under water.  The next morning, I recorded a guitar/vocal version of the song in my home studio and uploaded it to youtube along with a slideshow of the flood footage and a plea to viewers to donate to the local Red Cross.  It was the only way I could think of to try and help get the word out about what had happened to my city and its people.

I uploaded the video on Thursday.  By Friday it had 3000 views.  By the following Wednesday it was up to 14,000, and I got a call from Eric Legg, the engineer who recorded my “When You Can Fly” CD.  “We’ve got a film production company called N Focus Films who wants to make your song into a video for CMT and GAC to help raise flood relief funds for the Red Cross” he said.  “Ocean Way studios will donate the studio time to record it and I’ve got all of the musicians lined up to play for free.  Everyone believes in your song and relates to it, and we want to make it into something special.  We want you to gather all the artists you can find to help sing it, but we have to do it this weekend, so you only have 2 days to prepare.  Can you do it?”

I said yes, took a big breath, hung up the phone and immediately started calling every artist, record label exec, manager and co-writer I could think of.  And then I went to bed and lay awake staring at the ceiling, wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into.  I’m just a songwriter – I’m not a big music mogul or a huge country star – who the heck was I to ask people to do something like this?!!  But Thursday morning I woke up to a ringing phone and a full email inbox.  The Nashville music business network had kicked into high gear, and the project was off and running.

Friday night at 9pm, I was at Ocean Way studio with some of the best session players in Nashville.  They had been playing on records since 10am, but they stayed hours beyond their usual wrap time and played an incredible track for the song – for free.  By midnight I was in my home studio charting harmony parts, deciding which line would work best for which artist, and singing a reference version of each part along with the lead vocal.

Three hours of sleep later, I was back at Ocean Way studios bright and early with Eric Legg and a team of engineers, a makeup artist, the production company manning the cameras, and 30 artists.  Everyone was working for free, and everyone had checked their ego at the door.  Blue Umbrella Promotions donated “City of Dreams” tee shirts for us, a local restaurant called Maggiano’s even stepped in to donate food for the recording marathon, and for the next six hours we all worked together, united in a spirit of charity and motivated by the losses we and our friends had suffered, to make magic happen.

It was without a doubt one of the most moving and humbling days in my career as a singer/songwriter.  As the producer, I got to direct vocals by some of the most talented artists in Nashville – artists that I grew up listening to on the radio – as they stepped up to the microphone one by one to take turns singing lines.  I got to stand in a room surrounded by a tapestry of incredible voices, teach them their parts and conduct them as they all sang the big “gang vocal” together in intricate harmony.  Everyone was positive.  Everyone was enthusiastic.  Everyone patiently waited their turn to sing, and cheered on the others as they recorded their lines.  I have never felt so honoured or so proud to be a part of this incredible Music City.

I’ll be back in the studio with Eric and the camera crew tomorrow, editing vocals and preparing for the mixing process.  One of the talented engineers at Masterfonics called today and offered to master the song for free to prepare it for radio play.  Everything is coming together.  The plan is that by the end of the week, “City of Dreams” will be finished and ready for unveiling.  I will keep you posted.

P.S. If you haven’t yet seen the original “City of Dreams” slideshow, here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvpG4lTSVmA

(Update: here’s the link where you can check out the final video from the project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjoDpmNYaas)

Posted in Blogs

Lyrics for “City of Dreams” Flood Relief Song

By request, I’m posting the lyrics to the “City of Dreams”, the song that I wrote and recorded this week in support of the Red Cross after Nashville was hit by devastating flooding.

You can watch the video at this youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvpG4lTSVmA

CITY OF DREAMS

I’M POETS AND PIRATES AND LEGENDS AND LORE

HONKYTONK ANGELS AND OLD TROUBADORS

LOST SOULS AND LOVERS WITH HEARTS ON THEIR SLEEVES

I AM YOUR CITY OF DREAMS

I’M DIRT ROADS AND FIREFLIES AND BRIGHT NEON LIGHTS

HIGH RISES, DOUBLEWIDES, LEFT WING AND RIGHT

AS BIG OR AS SMALL AS YOU WANT ME TO BE

I AM YOUR CITY, I AM YOUR…

CITY OF DREAMS

MY FAITH IS JUST WORN IT’S JUST

TATTERED AND TORN AT THE SEAMS

BUT DON’T YOU GIVE UP, DON’T YOU GIVE UP

DON’T GIVE UP ON ME

I’M TEACHERS AND RESEARCH AND FARMS BALING HAY

SPORTS FANS AND SYMPHONIES, BEER AND CHAMPAGNE

I’M BLACK AND I’M WHITE AND ALL SHADES IN BETWEEN

I AM YOUR CITY OF DREAMS

I’M BAPTIZED IN TEARS AND A RIVER OF RAIN

THE TEARS WILL RUN DRY BUT THE SCARS WILL REMAIN

BUT I’M NOT AS BROKEN AS I KNOW I SEEM

‘CAUSE I AM YOUR CITY, I AM YOUR…

CITY OF DREAMS

MY FAITH IS JUST WORN IT’S JUST

TATTERED AND TORN AT THE SEAMS

BUT DON’T YOU GIVE UP, DON’T YOU GIVE UP

DON’T GIVE UP ON ME

I’M STRONG AND I’M SACRED

THAT SWEET SOUTHERN GRACE IT RUNS DEEP

SO DON’T YOU GIVE UP, DON’T YOU GIVE UP

DON’T GIVE UP ON ME

Written by Victoria Banks (May 5, 2010)

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A Day in the Touring Life

I’ve been playing some arena shows in western Canada lately as a solo acoustic act, opening for Randy Travis on his “Around the Bend” tour.  Being a solo opener can be a bit hectic, but it’s pretty amazing.  Here’s how a typical day goes on the road:

Five hours before showtime: you’re retrieving your big suitcase of CDs and merchandise from the airport baggage carousel, setting your watch to the new time zone, checking that your guitar is still in one piece inside its flight case, and hopping a shuttle to your hotel.

Four hours before showtime: you’re signing in at the venue’s security office while your shirts, CDs and photos are being inventoried (aka “counted in”) at the arena’s merchandise table.

Three hours before showtime: you’re soundchecking to a huge, echo-ey arena filled with a sea of empty chairs.  The monitor guy sidestage is making sure you can hear yourself, and you’re waiting to get the “thumbs up” from the “front of house” sound guy waaaaay down at the far end of the building who is tweaking levels and trying to anticipate how you and your guitar will sound when all of those chairs are full of bodies.

Two hours before showtime: you’re eating dinner in the catering area with Randy’s band, roadies and sound guys, trying to fight the urge to try ALL of the cakes and pies on the dessert tray.

One hour before showtime: you’re in your dressing room – basically a hockey locker room – getting your show clothes on.  If you’re lucky, they have spruced it up a bit by hanging curtains around the walls, adding a rug, a comfy couch, a full length mirror, drinks and snacks.  Otherwise it’s…well…an empty hockey locker room, complete with sweaty sock smell and urinals.

Five minutes before showtime: you’re standing sidestage with the monitor guy, putting in your in-ears.  They’re custom-molded ear bud earphones that fit very tightly into your ears to drown out all external noise.  They plug into a receiver pack that hooks onto your belt so you can hear yourself instead of being completely thrown off by hearing the echo of the speakers out front.

Thirty seconds before showtime: the house lights go to black. The house music goes quiet.  The emcee takes the mic on stage and introduces you.  The crowd cheers…the roadies point their flashlights on the stairs so you can walk up on stage…you take a big breath, and up you go.

Showtime: you’re standing center stage, strumming the first notes of your first song.  You can’t see a single face out there – all you can see is the blinding white spotlight and complete pitch black darkness.  You can’t hear anything except your own voice and guitar in your in-ears (try singing with your hands over your ears and that’s pretty much how it feels).  It’s basically like you’re an under water scuba diver, completely isolated in the middle of a sea of people.  You can get freaked out if you think about how many people are out there listening.  You can get freaked out if you think at all.  So you just don’t think – you just do what you do – get lost in the moment and play and sing your heart out.

When the night is over, when the cheers have died down, when you have talked to the fans, signed autographs, posed for photos, packed up your guitar and suitcase and headed back to the hotel, you lie awake for a while in the silent hotel room with the music still ringing in your ears, and you think about how surreal it feels to be so far from home, singing your songs to thousands of people, knowing that they are out there singing along.  And then before you go to sleep, you double check that your alarm is set so you can catch tomorrow morning’s flight to the next show in the next town…and it starts all over again.

Posted in Blogs

A 4-Million Dollar Miracle

I arrived in Regina, Saskatchewan last weekend with no idea what I was getting into.  I knew I was there to perform a few songs on a telethon, but that’s about it.

Folks from Saskatchewan know Telemiracle well – it’s a province-wide annual telethon that raises an immense amount of money for people with special needs.  For the past 34 years, it has funded things like medical fees, wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, accessibility modifications in homes and vehicles, and medical travel expenses – all of which would not normally be covered costs for folks in need.  It features an ever-changing national cast which has included Johnny Reid, Doc Walker, Paul Brandt, Lisa Brokop, Frank Mills, Alan Thicke and many more.  This year it was George Canyon, Canadian Idol’s Carly Rae Jessop & Matt Rapley, Brad Johner, actress Andrea Menard, Sheldon Bergstrom, Donny Parenteau, Sierra Noble, The Northern Pikes, multi Juno-nominated Michael Kaeshammer, and myself.  The main co-hosts are Beverly Mahood and Sesame Street’s Bob McGrath, who has been a part of all but one of the 34 annual Telemiracles.

What I didn’t know was that this was going to be much more than a gig.  This was going to be a team of national cast members taking live TV viewers through a 20 hour marathon, entertaining through the wee hours of the night with energy and heart alongside local Saskatchewan performers.  It was unplanned collaborations on a stage in front of audience members who stayed for the entire telethon…microphones thrust into our hands at the last minute to emcee…a steady stream of thousands of volunteers from all over the province taking over shift after shift of pledge-taking duty on over 100 phones which Saskatchewanians kept ringing constantly for all 20 hours straight with their donations.

I was there to see a $600,000 bequest left entirely to Telemiracle by a Saskatchewan lady farmer and I stood on stage with the rest of the cast, honouring her memory with a few unique minutes of silence…and still the phones kept ringing.  I walked among the audience members, shaking hands extended from wheelchairs and reaching out to touch hands that couldn’t reach back, seeing their lips moving along with the song I was singing to them. I sang “The Rainbow Connection” with Bob McGrath, fighting back tears and a flood of memories of watching Sesame Street with my Mom as a little girl. I met a little boy, born with severe club feet, and watched him run across the room in his little sneakers because Telemiracle had paid for the months and years of casting and re-casting it took to correct his legs.

20 hours later, when the balloons and confetti had fallen, the last song had been sung, the troopers in the audience had finally gone home to bed and the cast and volunteers had gone off to party away the last of their adrenaline, I stood for a minute on the stage and stared up at the number on the wall.  We had raised over 4 million dollars.  4 million dollars, in a province of only 1 million people.

I feel very blessed that I got to be a part of that.

Posted in Blogs

Taking a Breath

Last year was the best year of my life.  It was also the worst.

A lot of amazing things happened.  The launch of my debut record made me the most nominated female artist at the Canadian Country Music Awards, taking me through a whirlwind of media interviews, video shoots, a two-month cross-Canada radio tour, and sharing a series of concerts with some of the biggest acts in country music.  In the meantime, I was a songwriter on 12 radio singles on the airwaves over the last 12 months and was holding down a full time job in Nashville as a staff songwriter for Sony Publishing, which required me to co-write with other artists 5 days a week when I wasn’t on the road.

It was all very surreal and exciting, and I’m truly grateful for every moment of it!

But last year was also the year that my Mom got sick.  It was 5 months that I cried a river of tears on countless long distance phone calls with my family, trying to make decisions about her health when she wasn’t fit to make them herself.  It was a few stolen hours between video shoots and radio interviews to visit her in the hospital and wrap my arms around her.  It was the moment that I got the phone call that took my breath away on the day that, when she felt she no longer had any control over her life, she took her death into her own hands. It was the terrible hours I spent in numb shock before boarding a flight to Canada that afternoon, packing the clothes I would wear to her funeral along with six weeks’ worth of concert and TV clothes for the cross-Canada tour I was about to embark on. It was walking onto an arena stage a few nights later without a clue how I was going to keep myself from breaking down.  It was writing her eulogy on a flight homebound from Vancouver after headlining a concert for charity and sharing the stage with terminal cancer patients the night before.

Last year was everything, turned up to a thousand.  I was filled with joy and broken to pieces at the same time.  I did a lot of smiling when I wanted to cry, and I did a lot of holding it together when all I wanted to do was fall apart.  And by Christmas I felt like I couldn’t possibly do that for a moment longer.

So for the past month, I’ve been taking a breath.  This workaholic girl forced herself to stop running, stop writing songs, and just sit still.  I’ve cooked a lot.  I’ve read books.  I’ve cried.  I’ve listened to music. I’ve taken my dog for walks.  I’ve written in my journal.  I’ve remembered who I am and the real reasons why I do what I do.  My heart feels a little more healed and my creative well feels a little more replenished.  And now I think I’m ready to step back out into the world again.

My birthday is coming up on Monday and a brand new year is stretching out in front of me.  I guess the biggest lessons I’ve learned from the past year are these:  No matter how things may appear on the outside, we are all human and fallible on the inside.  Life is short, and it can shower us in spotlights or cover us in scars, but what really matters is that we walk through it authentically…that we love with all our hearts, meet each day with grace and gratitude, and have faith that everything – no matter how wonderful or terrible it seems – happens for a reason.

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