Thursday, September 24th, 2009
[Ed: Shannon Stephens just released The Breadwinner. More info here.]
Back in my collegiate days, in Holland, Michigan, I was in a band called Marzuki, named after my older brother, who wasn’t in the band. Our striking lead singer was a local songwriter named Shannon Stephens (we shared last names but with different spellings), who had a gorgeous alto voice like Judy Collins and a penchant for writing catchy folky songs about love and heartache. Like most college bands, Marzuki was an entertaining and clumsy affair, a well-meaning but confused hobby project that never quite found its footing. As a band, we just weren’t that good. We played what might be described as confessional folk pop songs with faux-Celtic undertones, toying (occasionally) with melodrama and multiple meters in an attempt distinguish ourselves from all those other mediocre college bands. There were drones, and jigs, and songs about mice and songs about love and songs about God. We jammed in the basement of Durfee Hall, played shows in Vorhees Hall, and ate lunch in Phelps Hall. Our big break was playing at Calvin College, opening for October Project. Which lead to a monumental (and misguided) excursion to New York City, in the hopes of making it. We quit school, lived in the lower class suburbs of northern New Jersey, commuted to laborious day jobs in Manhattan, practiced at night, tried recording an EP, played unmemorable shows at historical “landmark” clubs (Kenny’s Castaways, The Bitter End) whose existential names should have cued us to our inevitable ruin. We ate ramen noodles, cried in our sleep, fist-fought, drank too much, and, one year later, packed our bags and went back home unsigned, broke, hungry, empty-hearted, delirious, and permanently chagrined. The world began to take tragic shapes! The world became One Big Rock Band Cliché. I had enough of it. I turned my back on music, went to writing school, became a graphic designer, joined a gym, and found inner peace and happiness. The End.
But what about Shannon, the striking lead singer, with the voice of Judy Collins? Well, in all the fitfulness of a summary: she moved to Seattle, got married, raised a beautiful family, worked in landscaping, and grew older, wiser, and more complete. For ten years, music was set on the backburner while the joys and trials of ordinary life loomed large, as they do.
Until now! This month ushers the first full-length album from Shannon in almost ten years. And Asthmatic Kitty is proud to release this joyful, heartful collection of quiet, gorgeous songs about family, friends, work, love, and the beauty of the world at large (more fitful summaries!). Having lost touch with Shannon all these years, I decided to use the release as a means of catching up, via email. Here’s an account of our discussion:
Sufjan Stevens: It’s been about 10 years since your first LP? Why wait so long? Have you been writing music all along, in private, or did you take a long break from it all?
Shannon Stephens: I made a few half-hearted attempts during those years to write or collaborate, but I never could bring myself to finish the job. In fact, I made a habit of repressing my inner songwriter. Occasionally a song would leak out in spite of it all. “The Breadwinner” and “The Most Delicious Hours” were written when I had a job at an escrow company, fielding pissed-off calls from real estate agents. It was a job with a lot of stress and no creative engagement, so my brain rebelled by producing songs. But I never followed the songs through to completion, meaning I never recorded them properly or performed them until now. Mostly, I was depressed about music and needed to take a break. For a solo artist to work full-time at a day job to make ends meet while managing all the business duties of a music career AND staying creative was too much work for me, and no wonder I burned out. After a few years of completely turning my back on all things musical, I started to unwind the tremendous ball of yarn it had become. I was finally able to enjoy writing again, and then recording, and now performing, without sinking into the mire.
Q: Allow me to indulge in summary and generalization. Your first record was about heartbreak and heartache, among other things. This new record centers on themes of the home, family, and domestic pressures (and pleasures). How do you reconcile the conceptual differences? Is it also a matter of reconciling youth and adulthood?
A: You’re right that the subject matter is really different this time. Ten years ago I was an innocent, unsophisticated kid with very little subject matter to work with. Regarding grown-up issues, I was totally naive. So the only concept that carries over between the two LPs is the concept of autobiographical songwriting. I didn’t make an effort to build bridges between my previous work and my new stuff, figuring that my ten-year absence would explain the incongruence. If I had been making music all along for the last decade, there would have been a couple more albums to bridge that gap.
Q: I’m quite embarrassed by some of my older songs, and often feel they’re the product of immaturity. Do you have a similar view of some of your older material?
A: Yes, I do– particularly a few songs from the Marzuki days, when I felt compelled to turn every song into a neat, tidy little gospel message. I frankly don’t want to perform a lot of those songs now because I can’t really get behind them anymore. Life is not neat and tidy; neither is the gospel message! And I don’t want anyone to think I’m suggesting that.
Q: At the same time, people often tend to like the older songs. Is there some kind of psychological disassociation that’s required of us to maintain a healthy view of older material? I never like the idea of condescension toward a song. But I loathe looking back, and the idea of nostalgia makes me sick. Also, I fear that some of the best songs are the product of reckless naivety, the fodder of youth.
A: I’m not sure how to handle requests for some of the more embarrassing songs. Sometimes a song can be good and immature at the same time. For instance, going through a college breakup is an event that happens when you are immature. But if you can articulate it properly, the song transcends the phase of life it was written in. Other songs are not articulated well in the first place, or they come to the wrong conclusions, and those do not transcend. Those are the ones you end up wanting to bury. And those are the ones I’m not currently planning to play at shows. But the question is still unresolved for me, because those embarrassing songs don’t just belong to me; they also, in a way, belong to the fans whose lives they have affected. Maybe it is arrogant to refuse to play them, even if they don’t represent me anymore.
Q: What role does music serve in your life now that your priorities are family, job, home, husband, and other transcendent occupations? What is the value and/or purpose of the song amidst all the trials of ordinary life, when you’re raising a child, paying bills, making dinner? For myself, I’m starting to fear that music is far too selfish, self-absorbed, and self-interested for the ordinary life. When I’m entrenched in a project, for instance, the dishes are left undone, the bills left unpaid, the house is a mess. I become sub-human. I begin to despise all my bad habits.
A: I get depressed if I’m not making music. For the duration of my break from music, I was mildly depressed. I felt that there was “no time” for anything but work and duty, and I had a despairing attitude about it. However, it’s amazing how much energy a creative endeavor can bring. It can often give more than it takes. I squeeze practicing in between dinner and bedtime. My daughter and my husband play games and read books while I belt it out in the basement. It’s roughly an hour a day of rehearsing, but it’s enough to see a gradual improvement, and I come upstairs energized and happy. Music is self-centered in a healthy way for me because it’s introspective and meditative. It has to happen alone and at the expense of other duties. But it brings more vitality to my life and home than, for instance, a clean kitchen could bring. One notable difference for me now is that I have a partner who picks up the slack and with whom I share this experience. That makes it more communal– in fact, that makes it possible. I wouldn’t be doing this without Seth. I agree with you in the sense that the life of a solo artist can be very unhealthy and isolating. You’re holed up in a messy house with empty pizza boxes and tangled-up cables, and you don’t want anyone to come over and see the mess.
Q: I’m at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public. Although I have great respect for the social dynamic of music—that it should be shared with others, that it brings people together—I now feel something personal is irrevocably lost in this process. Now, while I refuse to act wholly on this impulse (I refuse to take my audience for granted in spite of my mood), I’m still trying to find the value of the song in private. Having spent ten years in private (not sharing your music), can you offer some wisdom on this matter? Does a song have any meaning even it’s not shared?
A: I gravitate toward old-style folk music like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger because these guys were writing music for the people. Their songs really said to people, “You are not alone.” I’ve always felt a desire to do just that, whether I was conscious of it or not: to speak to people’s lives by speaking about my own. So I’m never content to have a song that’s purely private. I always feel a great sense of relief having finished a song, because I’ve articulated the problem, or scratched the itch. But then I want to get out there and see if anyone else has that same itch, and if my song can scratch it. That said, I do write lots of songs that never see the light of day. It was you that said to me years ago that you write one good song for every nine crappy ones. The nine are destined to be throwaways. Oftentimes I’ll write several songs around the same musical or conceptual theme, and one of them outshines the rest. In writing those songs, I’m clearing the way so that I can move on to the better song. A lot of those rejects are meaningful to me; they’re sort of like journal entries. Also, I can steal from them later if I need a catchy bridge or something.
Q: Do you have any desire to play shows, tour, do all that stuff?
A: I love to play shows, and I’m really excited to hit the stage again. Touring is sketchier. I haven’t been away from my daughter for more than a few hours since the day she was born, and I like that. I like that she sees me every day, and that we do the same bedtime routine we’ve been doing for almost five years. But from all I’ve been hearing about the life of a musician right now, touring is the best way to make ends meet. I’m interested in making ends meet. So I’m tentatively planning to tour when the opportunity arises, and hoping I can afford to bring my family along.
Q: The “industry” has changed marvelously since your last release ten years ago. Does this have any bearing on your approach to it at all?
A: Apparently the industry is a lot tougher now. It’s hard to make a living off of record sales. You have to be savvy and aggressive, not to mention really good. But I’ve just spent nine years as a gardener in a city with a very high cost of living. My husband and I have worked our tails off to get the bills paid, and some months we don’t get them all paid. So I’m accustomed to shucking and jiving and chasing a dollar; it’s in my DNA now. My approach has a ferocity it didn’t have before simply because I’m hard-wired differently now. I guess that suits the state of the industry. Unfortunately, hard work isn’t everything either. There’s also the element of chance.
Q: How has your voice changed over the years?
A: My voice is in a transitional phase right now. I’ve been a little scared to let it out of its cage, because it’s showing signs of being a brute. I took lessons with a wonderful teacher for a couple of years, and she taught me how to strengthen the middle of my range so that I could really sing with guts. I gained so much power. I suddenly felt I could sing a whole different style of music. I started to gravitate toward grittier, bluesier vocal styles. And I think I’m still headed that direction. There are hints of it on the new record, but there’s definitely more to come.
Q: What can be said of musical ambition at this point in your life?
A: I’m not attached to any particular outcome. I have to write, record and perform for the sake of my own mental health. I would like to keep following my muse, and hope she doesn’t lead me down paths of dorkiness. I am hoping to be making a living wage sometime in the next few years so that I can quit my gardening job. Is that too much to hope for? Probably.
Q: Does your family support you in your musical endeavors?
A: My husband was always confused about my relationship to music during my long break. He’s thrilled that I am back whole-heartedly. He actually is doing a ton of the managerial work right now. He stays up late doctoring the Facebook or the iLike page while I’m sawing logs. But he mostly just wants me to be a whole person, and knows that music is essential to my health. My daughter is starting to grasp the ideas of rehearsal and vocal practice, and strange people showing up at the house with instruments to play. She likes to come visit me when I’m downstairs rehearsing. She comes in and plays her card games on the floor at my feet while I’m belting out songs. I call that support!
Q: Are you part of a musical community out there in Seattle? Do you desire to be? Or are you fine on your own?
A: I do desire a musical community, and don’t have much of one at this time. Mostly, the people who played on my album are my community. I’ve been going to more shows lately to find out who’s out here and what they’re doing. So far, I’ve been surprised: there are some great people out here that I’d never heard before. I’m excited to build a network if it’s based on fun and friendship and collaboration.
Q: Do you miss the experience of collaborating in a band? Do you have good memories working with me and the others in Marzuki? Do you think you’d ever work like that again?
A: I do miss the rigors and joys of being in a band. I sometimes miss the safety of having three other people to critique and improve upon my musical instincts. Other times I love the freedom and challenge of trusting my own quirky ideas. I have great memories of being in Marzuki; most of them are just of sharing daily life. Our adventure to New York for a year was an intense growing experience for me as a person and a musician. I even have fond memories of the shouting matches and the ridiculously deep piles of unwashed dishes. Now I hire a band of grown-ups, and the boundaries are very different. They have families and rent payments just like I do. They’re not twenty-somethings with little to lose. I need to be very organized in order to not waste their time. But they’re so talented and fun that I get enough of that collaborative joy to keep me happy. I might be too accustomed to total control to be able to be part of a “band” again, but I would consider it if it came up.
Q: The Internet allows for unprecedented availability of new music at any moment, what I call instant access of indiscriminate excess. The “computer” has encouraged a great proliferation of music just by the nature of its cheapness: affordable laptops, affordable software, affordable connectivity. I revel in the creative convenience of it all. My whole career is founded on computer cheapness. Anyone can make a record, post it, download it, make it happen—regardless of national lines or time zones. Such magnificent democratization of art. But more and more, these days, the excess is getting to me. I sometimes feel I could not, should not, would not participate at all, and that my innocuous music offers nothing new or beneficial to the white noise of it all. What has motivated you to make this record, and release it, in spite of the impending white noise?
A: It’s true that computer cheapness has allowed anyone and everyone to release their own music, which in a way is fabulous– so many people are able to bring their ideas to completion that may have previously only dreamed of it! But in a way it’s really awful, because the playing field is completely saturated. You feel like you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other players, and you have to shout louder and make a bigger buffoon of yourself in order to be heard; and even then, people are so tired and desensitized by all the shouting and buffoonery that they may not listen carefully enough to understand the value of your work. And yet, when a work is substantive, it can literally jump out of the white noise, like color against black and white. Some of your songs are magical in that way. A song like “Casimir Pulaski Day”, which still brings me to tears, is a sanctuary, a quiet place in which to rest from such things as the bombastic schemes of the music industry. I don’t expect my new album to have a very wide reach simply because there is so much competition. But maybe it will reach people like you and me, who are worn-out from all the white noise and looking for sanctuary. That’s what I hope for. Even if that doesn’t happen, if nobody takes the time to listen, I still needed to release this album as an act of faith that my creative expression is worth bringing to fruition.
Q: We did an interview years ago in which you said some deprecating things about dating, all quite justified, in my opinion. But what’s your view of dating now?
A: Ha ha, very funny! I think I went on and on about that in our last interview. Suffice it to say I’m not the fundamentalist I used to be. I’ve developed a healthy respect for other people and their unique ways of navigating life. So I have no “view” of dating anymore. But I’m still glad I took a break from it all those years ago. I really needed it.
Q: What music have you been listening to?
A: I just listened to Neil Young’s “Harvest” a few months ago, and it blew my mind. That album was released the year I was born, and though I never heard it, I think somehow it worked its way into my genetic makeup. I’ve also been memorizing the new Great Lake Swimmers album– I love it completely, which is rare for me. I’ve been exploring some of the folk greats, like Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills & Nash. When we’re in the car, Ruby and I listen to the Seeger family’s various recordings for children. And as always, I am still exploring the work of Nina Simone. She is a huge inspiration for me.
Shannon Stephens, “In Summer in the Heat”
In Summer in the Heat