Story and photo by Faye Bayko, The North Island Eagle, May 21, 2021. (edited)
Michael Lee loves his job as a paramedic, but he’s able to love it because of the emotional release he gets from his interest in songwriting.
“I was told when I was in the Justice Institute of BC, it’s not a matter of if you’ll get PTSD, but rather when, in this job,” explained Michael Lee during a recent interview. It was through the institute that he had earned his paramedic certificate.
Post traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that’s triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, or series of traumatic events. Frontline workers, such as paramedics, are vulnerable to the disorder because of the nature of their job.
“One of the things they say is a help in that regard,” Lee added, “is to not make your job your life. … You have to have something else, and for me that’s songwriting.”
Lee first started songwriting in 2007 after the 12-year-old daughter of a woman he was dating at the time was killed in a tragic accident in October of that year. “It struck me, and I don’t know why it, in particular, resonated with me. I’d never met the daughter.”
While the couple never dated long enough to have breached the barrier that comes with dating-with-children status, Lee felt the desire to write a song he hoped would help the mother and the girl’s siblings survive their grief.
At the time, Lee was working as a computer programming consultant with a long-term contract that took him down to Chicago, Illinois, on a regular basis. While in that city he would frequent the Red Head Piano Bar, which was where he would often see singer Lisa McClowry perform.
Lee, who had used poetry as a creative outlet up to that point, pitched McClowry the idea of partnering up to produce the memorial song he had started writing. He had the lyrics and a basic melody but was not comfortable providing the vocals. He hoped McClowry would. She agreed and Lee, after returning to Canada, sent her what he had.
“I sent many things to her, and she shot them down many times.”
One of the lessons Lee had to learn was the difference between writing poetry and writing songs. “Songs are all about the sounds.” He demonstrated how the use of vowels rather than consonants produce a much more pleasant sounding song. The rhyme was not as important as how the words sounded.
“So, I had to change the lyrics because I had ended (the line) on a hard note.”
He also learned to keep the song simple. “You can be far more esoteric with poetry than you can with songs.”
His learning curve was steep, but soon he had a version that gained McClowry’s approval, and they moved on to bringing in another musician to develop the accompanying music. That musician was Scott May, a member of The Ides of March band.
“From what I understand (May) did 67 different versions of it before he found the one that he liked.”
The next step was putting all the pieces together. They did this in the Chicago suburb studio of Jim Peterik, founder of the band, Survivor. “I’m not doing anything. I’m just there ‘cause it’s about my project,” Lee explained.
Lee had hired professionals to help produce his song and learned a lot about songwriting along the way.
When he returned to Vancouver with his project, titled Danielle’s Song, he presented it to his ex-girlfriend, and that was the end of his songwriting until he moved to Quadra Island a couple of years later.
“It was probably my most productive period,” Lee said. He worked on creating skeleton songs (basic lyrics and melody). “I was living in a beautiful place. I didn’t know anybody on the island, and there was the beautiful ocean where I could watch the Orcas go by.”
He started creating a backlog of songs. “It was a lot of output, with a lot of crap. But I taught myself to know when I was going down a crappy road.”
Then he discovered Tunedly, an online platform for musicians and writers to record and publish their songs. Lee was able to partner with composers and singers to bring his writing to the next level, and like most online experiences it was a global affair. “Two composers I like to work with are Claude Etienne, who lives in Paris, France, and Christopher Burke, who lives somewhere in the States.” Each man, he said, provided him with a different take on his songs.
“There are certain songs I can’t sing them without another song in my head.” One such song, he said, brings Elvis Presley’s Memories to mind and he is unable to focus on his song without Presley’s interfering. “So I give it to Claude and he will come up with a different tune to it.”
Burke, on the other hand, will reproduce the song exactly how Lee sang it on the demo he sent in, but sometimes the end result is remarkable. “The first time he did the song, I Miss You, I actually applauded the (computer) screen.”
He has never met either artist. Their relationship exists only in the digital world.
In the real world, Lee continues to rework some of his poems into a song format, as well as creating new songs. One such new song was inspired by Lee’s paramedic experience and demonstrates how songwriting can benefit both the creator and the listener.
“I come across younger females that I know are trying to tell me something but they pull back at the last minute.” This can be frustrating for Lee, who is not only a parent but naturally sensitive. So he tried encouraging the young women to open up by telling them a story about a bear coming into their home and they having the courage to make it leave. His effort didn’t seem to help, so he created a song titled, Wolf.
“The purpose of creating the original bear story was to use as a tool to show how opening up might release some of the pain (of the secret),” he explained. “Right now, instead, we have self-harm and cutting as attempts to release the pain. I just think talking about it would be a better alternative and it would act as a steam release of all the internal pressures caused by having to black out these thoughts.”
“The purpose of creating the song itself though, is for me to find a way to deal with things. You see the ugliness of sexual abuse and due to reasons of privacy, we can’t talk to others about it. So, this is one way of doing so without infringing on anybody’s privacy.”
As a paramedic, Lee said, he is called to a variety of emergencies but can only deal with the physical results of that callout. “The cutting, the attempted (and successful) suicides, the black-out drinking and overdoses. It’d be nice if the deeper causative problems were handled first, but there’s no easy answer in what that might look like. Some good intentions have created some not-bad solutions, but there’s always room for improvement.”
As an older adult, Lee, 58, said his life experience has helped him cope with the demands of both his writing and his day job. From being a father, a computer programmer, firefighter, and a job-site medic, he has been in a lot of problem-solving situations.
“I used to solve problems in my client’s software products. I think I more or less do the same thing now. I enjoy the detective work. With software, however, I got to see the results. In this job, you do the best you can and pass the patient on to those with better training (doctors, nurses). When we’re lucky, we find out if we’ve given a prognosis that proves correct. Those are the best moments.”
Personal experience with drug and alcohol abuse, as well as mental illness, within his family has made him sensitive to others. “I think and hope, it makes me more compassionate when I see it in my patients. When I’m frustrated, I try to remember that no matter how bad my day might be, my patient’s day is worse. They are the one on the stretcher, not me.”
As for his songwriting, he continues to use it as a tension release. Whether it moves forward into a second income stream, remains to be seen. In the meantime, he has put forward two of his songs to be considered for publication through Tunedly, but they have to pass the site’s audience test. Meanwhile his self-published work is available on Youtube and iTunes under his own name, or that of a virtual band he created, An Adequate Mind, including the upbeat, catchy, 1, 2, 3, the video of in which he not only appeared in but had a lot of fun with a film filter.