(an extended version of the Star News article, more interview below)
By Brian Tucker
Shannon and the Clams will play two shows in Wilmington – Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar on Carolina Beach and in Wilmington at Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern the following day. That’s two chances to catch the band’s smart blend of garage rock, 60s girl groups, and R&B, and definitely two different shows. Plus, the Tiki show is something the Oakland, California band has wanted to do.
“We always do a different set. We’re really good about that. We always shake it up, wear different costumes.” lead singer and bass player Shannon Shaw said. “We love Wilmington. We had so much fun when we played (The Calico Room) four years ago. Booking the tour, I said, remember that Tiki Bar at the end of a pier? That sounded so cool, those people seemed so nice. I’m ecstatic that it’s working out this year. I always wanted to go.”
It’s been a productive year for Shaw, she and the Clams’ latest album Onion came out in February and her solo album Shannon in Nashville was released in June. For these shows they’ll play Clams music (“I don’t want to take the focus away from the Clams”) but she’d like to come back and perform from her solo album (it’s excellent, hopefully she will). Both albums were produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
“He was a huge part of it, really comfortable experimenting and having a good idea of how it’s going to feel and sound. He’s, luckily, a Clams fan and wants to honor our sound. Everything really serves the band and what we’ve built over the years. We were able to put a lot of that old studio sound we loved, and have listened to our whole lives, into our own music.”
Onion really charms, with songs of heartache (the scorching “Did You Love Me” and “Tryin” penned and sung by guitarist Cody Blanchard) and loss (“Don’t Close Your Eyes”) done with a thick, colorful exterior but not without chips and scars. And there’s no mistaking sincerity on either album – start to finish with lush music and Shaw’s impassioned delivery that cuts deep, especially given the subject matter at work on Onion.
Both ragged and beautiful, Shaw is an engaging singer. She can take a single word, like ‘onion,’ and make it a hearty chorus, pulling emotion from herself and then from the listener. The album’s soundscape is a mix of music that sounds fun and haunted, sadly apropos given many songs center around the tragedy of the Oakland Ghost Ship fire of December 2016, an artist collective in which thirty-six people perished. On “Don’t Close Your Eyes” she sings, “I woke up and heard the world crying, crying over you.” Half way done with the album when it happened, Shaw said performing the songs serves to revisit friends and keep their memories alive.
“I would hope it does for those hearing the songs. It’s a reminder its okay to feel sad and angry and feel the loss. And also search for some hope, find some positivity somewhere because you can’t just be consumed by the loss. It’s good to try and remember how amazing and life-changing, and how big a part of the creative being, all those people were in Oakland,” Shaw said. “I cried the first few times I played these songs. I performed, but weeping the whole time. I don’t want anyone to feel sad, but the point is to feel everything but don’t forget to try and feel good.”
Additional Q & A with Shannon Shaw
Have you backed off a song if it feels disingenuous?
I’m a squeaky wheel. I’m all about vibes, wait that’s such a weird sentence, but I’m all about vibes. What I really mean, if something feels right I’ll obsess over it. There’s definitely been a time whether the recording, or the guitar, or the back-up vocals, or the production doesn’t feel right. Sometimes it’s so hard to put your finger on it because there are so many minds at work by the time it’s recorded.
There have been times when I’ve said I’m sorry, we can’t do it, let’s re-record it or take it off the album. I’m really sensitive to that stuff. I have to love every single thing we put on there. It’s very important. It something feels like filler I’d rather have a shorter album than have filler on an album.
“Did You Love Me.” What do you recall about writing it?
That was the first song I wrote for Onion, it was about coming to terms with, I had to do a hard thing and break up with a very nice person that I didn’t love. It felt really wrong to, there was no reason to break up. I just didn’t have the same intense feelings he did. So there’s this big part of me that was hoping and praying that he didn’t love me even though I knew he did.
It was just this question I had in my head all the time, like, it would have made me feel better if he said, oh, I don’t love you either. That’s hard for someone, to feel so sure and strong about you, and you don’t know what you want. That’s as hard as being on the opposite end, I think.
Is it hard to play that song or is it self-healing?
Definitely self healing, definitely cathartic. But at the same time when I play my songs I have to reconnect with those feelings in order to do the best performance possible. I feel like if I was just playing the songs and not thinking about how they made me feel, or where they came from, I feel like I wouldn’t be giving a heartfelt and genuine performance. So I have to go back there every time.
There are songs I’ve played enough times that I feel so healed by whatever event drove me to write it that I have to look at the song differently. I do need to feel that I can emotionally reconnect to it in order to serve the song and do it justice.
Can you share something about “Telling Myself”?
Cody wrote that one, I know it’s about…he was trying to make a relationship work that was absolutely not working. He kept trying to be a good boy and make it work and it just wasn’t.
Dan Auerbach, did he help you be you?
He was a huge part of it. He is really good at seeing a big picture, being like, put tremolo on there. Suggesting that we do stuff, and, oh neat, I have this great percussion idea. Go in there and do this really quick. Sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes we’d do it and I’d be like I don’t know what he’s talking about, how it can be good, but it would totally feel right once he did it and then get mixed. He’s just really comfortable at experimenting and having a good idea of how it’s going to feel and how it’s going to sound.
I think he’s such an amazing producer, he really comes alive. He’s, luckily, a Clams fan and he wants to honor our sound. He really did. That was the deal we had because we didn’t know him well. I worked with him on the solo project and loved the experience. But it’s like, when you work with a producer how much freedom you get?
No, he’s working with you to make you sound as good as possible and try new things. He’s just an idea man, he has great ideas. Everything really serves the band and what we’ve built over the years. We were able to put a lot of that old studio sound we loved and have listened to our whole lives onto our own music.
You play bass and sing. Is that two parts of the brain holding hands?
I never played or sang before so I learned at the same time. I was self-taught, just by doing. I didn’t know any other way; I didn’t know the right or wrong way. I now know that the way I play is technically wrong but I just don’t care. That’s how I play. I don’t sing how someone would teach you to sing. But it’s me. I’m very left handed so I feel a lot of lefties had to adapt in a lot of ways. I don’t know if I had that advantage, if that has helped me in some kind of way, coordination, but I don’t play left handed I play right handed.
A lot of visually cool goes with the music. Has it always been important to have that?
Absolutely, Cody and I met at art school. I’ve been drawing my whole life. The way I would draw as a kid is how I would write songs – cathartic. If my brothers were bullying me I would go draw a million pictures of my brothers messing with me and what I would do about it. They would be funny now but at the time they were so serious to me. There were these comics of me in a ninja gee and one street fighter fighting each one until I got to my biggest brother and ripped his head off or something.
I’ve always drawn my feelings as a way of getting through them. And songs, basically I’m still a complete child is what I’m telling you. But yeah, visuals have always been a huge part and go hand in hand. We’ve had so many offers to have people to do our album art but I always have to have a hand in it. It’s hard for me to not have my aesthetic or influence on something represents this band, something we’ve been working on for so long.
Who would you sing a duet with, alive or not, do a bunch of songs with, if you could?
I mean the dream would be Roy Orbison. Dexter Romweber would be a dream, Flat Duo Jets I saw, definitely a big fan. I was so inspired the first time I saw him, that MTV footage in the backyard and they played that cover song. That was when Shannon and the Clams was solo and playing open mic nights. I saw the two-piece playing oldies music and basically all I did back then was oldies, girl group and some punk music, and I was so inspired.
Writing about the Ghost Ship fire, will singing these songs serve to revisit friends?
It does for me, I would hope that it does for those hearing the songs. It’s a reminder that it’s okay to feel, okay to feel sad and angry and feel the loss. And desperately also search for some hope and find some positivity somewhere because you can’t just be consumed by the loss. It’s just not good and it’s easier to just be down and let it consume you.
But I think it’s good to try and just remember and how amazing and life changing and how big a part of the creative being all those people were in Oakland. And remember all the good memories and feel all the feelings you need to feel but also remember the good things. It’s really a simple concept but I make it so much more complicated because I can’t help but feel emotional when I think about it. It’s really to just not forget all the amazing things they did to change the scene in Oakland.
It gets easier, I mean, I cried the first few times I played these songs. That Ghost Ship song I wrote we debuted it at Burger Baloo last year, its seven months after it happened but it’s so fresh but a lot of the people that died would have absolutely been at that festival and feeling that lack of them being there, that hole in the community. I performed, but weeping the whole time. I don’t want anyone to feel sad, but the point of the song is to feel everything but also feel good, don’t forget to try and feel good.
So it’s incredibly hard at first. And of course the break-up songs, But I think it’s such an important part to remind yourself that you’re alive. I’m sure that many people have been so depressed that they almost felt nothing, if you’ feeling intense feelings it means that something’s there. Even if you’re depressed and don’t feel anything, I mean, there’s something there and you should try and not give up. It helps keep me grounded I think, to be so in touch with emotions.
What leads a singer to make a solo album? Did discomfort strengthen you? Subconscious need for time away and re-charge?
Kind of all of that, but it was Dan’s idea. He invited me to do the solo project and I was terrified. The first thing you said was the discomfort, something that was driving me, and it did become a source of creation. I think being scared, feeling sad, not knowing what was going on, really intense emotions that are hard to get hold of yourself. I think that those are such good creative forces if you can harness them.
I was feeling everything when I was there – I was feeling weird, unworthy, uncomfortable, shy, feeling not good enough, feeling like I was taking an opportunity from someone else. At some point I was like, stop being a weenie and sing on this record and write these songs. I had to get real low and really second guess myself before I could all the way stand up and be like, you know deserve to be a part of this and this whole experience. Stop wasting time and let’s go. I just needed that to happen.