By David Templeton | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Music videos are nothing particularly new. They’ve been around, in one form or another, for decades now, and some of them—think Michael Jackson’s monster-mashing Thriller, Madonna’s iconic Like a Prayer, or OK Go’s jaw-dropping treadmill workout on Here It Goes Again—are legendary.
There are, of course, no visible violins in any of those.
This is not to say that there aren’t a fair number of violin-centered music videos out there, a few of them certified viral sensations, from Joshua Bell’s lightning rod 2007 video experiment, in which he played Bach’s Violin Concerto in a Washington D.C. subway, to Crystallize, the massive 2012 video in which a parka-rocking Lindsey Stirling dynamically plays her violin and dances like a magic-conjuring elf through a series of perfectly lit ice caverns and castle-like formations.
The first is decidedly DIY, about as low-tech and no-fuss as a music video can be, while the other looks like it cost half-a-million dollars to make—and possibly did. Somewhere in between those two polar opposites are the majority of the videos made by savvy musicians who recognize that in today’s media-fueled, multi-pronged entertainment landscape, it’s not always enough to write, perform, and record a killer tune. If you really want people to hear your music, you’ve frequently got to find a way to get them to see it first.
Based on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, renowned fiddler Jocelyn Pettit is a celebrated step-dancer, singer, and composer, and was recently the central player in a short string of modestly popular, word-of-mouth music videos. For Pettit, the world of music-video production and distribution is only just beginning. Meanwhile, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards—an innovative, string-powered pop ensemble in which the members (Cortese, Valerie Thompson, Jenna Moynihan, and Natalie Bohrn) all sing as well as play—have also realized the value of video. They have created more than a dozen videos so far, turning the majority of their songs into little cinematic gems that run the gamut from everyone-sitting-around-the-studio-playing-a-tune to animated anthropomorphic animal spectacles to choreographed dance-themed crowd-pleasers to affirmative, power-forward, multi-artist consciousness-raisers.
Wherever you—and any music videos you may have created—happen to fit between those extremes, Cortese and Pettit’s varied videographical feats and accomplishments are full of learned lessons and ready-to-share tips, tricks, and discoveries.
“For our recent video Windrose, the title track on my new album, it was my first time working with a full professional video team, though during the pandemic I did quite a bit of video work myself, just figuring it out as I went,” says Pettit. Windrose uses crisp footage of an exuberantly meditative Pettit fiddling in a variety of gorgeous outdoor locations and intercuts it with stunning drone footage of the coasts, forests, and mountains, spread throughout with images of a woman in a backpack hiking through the wilderness in what looks like one of the best solo adventures ever. “I worked with an awesome filmmaker, Robin Férand, who really helped bring my ideas to life. He got some great drone footage, too, which is good because I know nothing about drones.”
The drone operation was by Steve Tan of Tandem Photography & Films, and the video’s striking opening shot—the four directions of the compass drawn in the sands of a beach, washed over by a gentle, sparkling wave—was by Sue Carmody.
“Windrose was all filmed around Vancouver and Squamish, which is where I’m from, and that was part of the reason for doing it the way we did, to show our fans from around the world a little bit about where we live and what it’s like,” Pettit says.
Until recently, for the most part, Pettit’s videos have primarily been straightforward performance capture, generally shared on YouTube, though for the previous video, 250 to Vigo, Pettit took a step toward a more story-centered approach, self-directing a tuneful charmer of a piece, centering on a roadside performance of Pettit and her band—Joel Pettit on bodhran, Siew Wan Khoo on piano, Erik Musseau on whistle, and Colm MacCárthaigh on guitar—all playing in front of their cars in what appears to be a lakeside campground. There is additional footage of the musicians playing on a picturesque ridge, shots of various roads and highways and trees, and birds sailing serenely overhead.
“That was also a great experience, but since it was totally self-made, it was a huge learning experience,” she says. “I had not had much experience with filming or editing before that, so it was a lot of fun, and I did learn a lot, including learning what a storyboard was. It was really wonderful, but I was very happy to have a professional team take on the next one.”
To get that shot, it did require hauling Khoo’s piano up to the ridge.
“It wasn’t that far, thankfully,” Pettit laughs. “We didn’t have to hike up a whole mountain or anything.”
If it sounds like a lot of work just to create a musical calling card or promotional tool, Pettit would be the first to agree, but she also believes there is an artistic satisfaction that comes from making the effort. “It’s another form of creativity,” she says. “As musicians, we are always so focused on the sound part of things, but the visual element can be really fulfilling to play around with as well.”
Asked what advice she’d give to any young musicians or bands or ensembles weighing the pros and cons of making a music video, Pettit is enthusiastically pro-video. “Go for it!” she says. “Just have fun with it and enjoy the process. But make sure to give yourself plenty of time. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that creating a video almost always takes a lot longer than you think it will.”
Laura Cortese, after developing, creating, and releasing numerous videos over the last several years, has found that a strong sense of collaboration is the key to a successful video. “For me and my group, at the start, the idea for a video usually develops with some back-and-forth as a collaboration between myself and the videographer—but sometimes I have a pretty strong idea from the very beginning,” Cortese says.
For example, “Skipping Stone,” from the 2017 album California Calling, was always going to feature synchronized swimming, though that notion originally came from a conversation she had with a fan. Recalls Cortese, “I knew a woman who was a synchronized swimmer who came to one of our shows and talked to me afterwards, saying, ‘I can imagine my synchronized swimming troupe doing choreography to this song, maybe for a music video or something.’ So when it came time to do the video for “Skipping Stone,” I knew that was what I wanted for it, and we found a videographer who would take that concept and make it happen.”
The swimmer, for the record, was Michele Kraus of the Rose City Raindrops, and filmmaker Madison Rowley directed the shoot in the Willamette River in Oregon in 2017. “I wasn’t even there the day they shot it,” Cortese says. “They sent me photos from the day, shots of the women swimming in the Willamette River, and then sent me the cut at the end.”
Cortese’s not always sure why a certain concept fits a particular song, but when the right idea materializes, she generally knows it. “For the song ‘Dreaming,’ from our latest album, I just had it in my head that I wanted us to dance in the video,” Cortese says. “The idea is that we would be dancing ourselves, but there would also be professional dancers, so there could be a pretty wide range of possible choreography.” That video was directed by Monica Thompson with choreography by Annie Kahane.
“We try to make a music video for as many of an album’s songs as possible,” Cortese says. “So, it’s a little bit of believing that all of our songs could have a video component and then figuring out which videographer would best suit that particular piece. I guess you could say we have an approach that’s a little like Beyoncé and Lemonade, a kind of pop ethos where you say, ‘If I make music, it can and maybe should have a visual component. It doesn’t just have to be something you hear.’ So then it’s about finding the people who can see a story in your song or be creative with you in collaboration.”
Inspiration, of course, comes in unexpected packages. The album Bitter Better was recorded in a studio in Belgium where film scoring is often done, so the band decided to take advantage of the big screens in the control room by putting “weird and arty” films onscreen while they were recording. “We’d have things like David Bowie’s Labyrinth playing silently,” Cortese says, “or these beautiful nature documentaries, and with so much visual stuff happening while you are making music, you can’t help but think about that music in visual terms and get a lot of video ideas for your songs.”
Bitter Better, released in 2020 in the early months of the pandemic lockdowns, has provided some of the group’s most innovative and entertaining videos. “Where the Fox Hides,” a bouncy tune that is indeed filled with references to foxes, was the inspiration for the aforementioned animated video, with a well-dressed fox walking through an animated city. “If you look closely, you can see us peeking through some of the windows,” Cortese points out.
Some of the videos that came out of the album, while just as meticulously well-produced, are a bit less visually ambitious, though just as powerful musically. The songs “How Long,” “From the Ashes,” and “Typhoon” were all shot in the Belgium studio, with the band basically seated in a room singing and playing. The latter tune had the musicians playing to a pre-recorded studio track, but the two former songs were actually performed and recorded live for the video.
One of the band’s most slyly effective videos was another from California Calling. The video for “Pace Myself” is essentially a pastiche of self-made videos of 61 working women musicians, in addition to Cortese and the Dance Cards. The video, cut together by filmmaker Sean Trischka, begins with a white-and-yellow-on-black text statement.
“This song represents the words we hear from lovers, family, teachers, and friends that try to shape us into something other than who we are. Growing up, I was always ‘too intense.’ Be less enthusiastic. Be more mysterious. Who were you told to be? Did you listen? This video is a reminder to create space, to reflect, and to celebrate as we define ourselves in our own words.”
“There are so many all-female ensembles working,” Cortese explains, “but you wouldn’t believe how many times someone tells me that my band is so novel and inventive to be an all-female band, like, ‘I don’t think I know any all-female bands!’ Which is sad because there are hundreds of female musicians and all-female bands out there touring the world. So with this video, we wanted to take the opportunity to showcase as many female musicians as possible.”
Cortese sent out an email, with full instructions, to all the women she could think of who play music, and then waited for the videos to come in—and they did. “I love that video because each of the artists in it has a very fulfilling and inspiring musical life regardless of whether everyone who sees the video has ever heard of them,” she says.
Clearly, for Cortese, the art of making videos is something she’s developed a strong affinity for. “I love it,” she says. “For me, you put so much energy into writing a song, and then recording the song, and then releasing the song. I like that there is one more step of creativity that happens, where you create a final visual piece to go along with it. That’s what a music video is. It’s the last bit, and sometimes—a lot of the time, actually—it’s just a whole lot of fun.”