Shannon Shaw’s Southern Reckoning
One day in early 2016, Shannon Shaw woke up to her phone thrumming with hundreds of new Instagram followers. “I was like, what the fuck does that mean?” says the singer, 35. Once she was fully conscious, she realized that they were Dan Auerbach fans, flocking to her account because his group the Arcs had begun following her.
She and Auerbach had never met, but she knew that he was a fan of her Oakland-based garage rock band, Shannon and the Clams – earlier that year, an Australian festival organizer had told her he only booked them because of Auerbach’s glowing recommendation. So that morning, Shaw sent the singer-guitarist a DM. “‘Hello, Sir,’” she recalls writing. “‘I don’t want to bother you. I’m in that band, Shannon and the Clams. I think you know us. Thank you for following me!’”
That conversation led to Shannon in Nashville, the sterling solo debut that Shaw released on June 6th. On the cover, Shaw poses like a doe-eyed country diva, her platinum hair drawn up in a retro bouffant. Press play, and you’ll hear Shaw singing of painful heartache over bright Sixties pop-country melodies. If Amy Winehouse had covered “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline, she might have sounded like any number of Shaw’s new songs.
When Auerbach invited her to his Nashville studio, Shaw says she wasn’t sure what would happen. She wasn’t even sure she could afford the cross-country flight. In the end, her mother threatened to sell the family car to fund the trip. “I do think I was trying to sabotage myself,” Shaw says. “And [my mom] was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not happening. You’re going.’”
Six days after showing up on Auerbach’s doorstep in the fall of 2016, she had 12 songs written, and two of them – “Freddies ‘n Teddies” and “Goodbye Summer” – fully cut. A year later, Shaw was performing those new songs on Auerbach’s Easy Eye Revue tour to crowds of thousands. This month, helped by the solo album’s publicity boost, she and the Clams will play the main stage at New York’s Panorama Festival.
Over the past decade, as the singer, songwriter and bassist of Shannon and the Clams, Shaw has honed an unusual punk sound that resembles the B-52s sucked through Ian McKaye’s straw. In lieu of radio hits, they’ve won fans among connoisseurs of the weird and true, from John Waters to Kesha. At Clams concerts, Shaw is the center of everything, with a robust voice to match her nearly six-foot stature. Seeing her light up a basement stage is a little like watching a firefly in a thimble.
Shaw, with a self-deprecating air, credits her stage presence to the old advice to “fake it ’til you make it.” As a kid, she says, she felt ugly and uninteresting. So to compensate, she developed a wild imagination and a gregarious, funny, attention-seeking exterior that feed her creativity. When they catch up to her, those same qualities can deepen her self-doubt. And this past February, just when everything was going well, they caught up.
Between the finished album, the tour, the open-endedness of her career and the new faces in the crowd, Shaw felt a sense of raised stakes that left her unmoored. “Therapy wasn’t enough,” she says. “I was at this point where I felt completely powerless, not respected by anyone–just eaten up by the music industry machine. I felt like I was just an object being batted around by cats.”
On a friend’s recommendation, she consulted an astrologist as one last Hail Mary. The astrologist brought her to tears. “If astrology is just me projecting and a person being able to read me really well, then it worked in my time of need,” Shaw says. “Because I was feeling really fucking hopeless.”
Born in Napa, California, Shaw was raised with her three brothers (two older, one younger) and older sister. Their father was a fire captain, and their mother’s father was a fire chief; today, her younger brother Paddy is a firefighter too. “It’s a huge source of pride,” Shaw says.
When Shaw was about nine, she remembers pulling up to a piece of family property with her mom and brother and seeing a scrappy little trailer with a deck attached. “The front door swings open and this man in an open bathrobe, naked underneath, flapping in the breeze, with a shotgun, comes out on the porch. My mom’s like ‘Richard, it’s me, your sister, Glenna.’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t give a rat’s ass who you are, get off my property.’”
The man was her mother’s half-brother, Richard Hepner. A volatile guitarist whose career included a brief stint in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, he became a key early influence on Shaw’s view of the world. “He was this freak, this spooky, psychedelic blues man who lives off the grid and plays guitar like no one else,” said Shaw. “We would watch him playing in the garage through this one little window, standing on tiptoes. The fact that he hated us kids sort of made us more intrigued.”
As a kid, a perverse fascination with dangerous people and dangerous feelings led Shaw to art. In the mid-2000s, she enrolled at the California College of the Arts in Oakland and San Francisco to study fine arts – that’s where she met her future bandmates in the Clams.
Before the band took shape, Shaw performed at open mics at night; by day, she worked as a clerk at Napa State Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility where her mother worked as a nurse. For Shaw, the vast hospital property was full of beauty and adventure. It also came with serious risks. In 2010, one patient murdered a psychiatric technician who had worked with Shaw’s mother for years. “It was awful,” she says. “The state has cut so much funding for mental health.”
Ultimately, she found that the six years she spent working at the hospital helped make her more resilient. “It’s kind of like being a firefighter,” Shaw says, “You have to find a way to not let it eat you up and lose faith in humanity.”
Easy Eye Studios is tucked away off a main road in Nashville, looking like an abandoned bungalow out of a Hardy Boys novel. Inside, it’s more Sunset Boulevard. Hanging rugs, rows of records and tons of vintage recording equipment fill its rooms in curated disorder. It’s the kind of moody, resplendent nest an antique dealer’s son – like, say, Dan Auerbach – would create.
Sitting in the kitchen in the morning light with two mugs of strong black coffee in front of him, Auerbach says he’d know if someone so much as moved his dust. He’s just as fiercely protective, if not more, of the music that gets created at Easy Eye, sometimes at this very kitchen table. “I’m not telling you any of my secrets,” he says with a hint of a smile.
One of the ways he demonstrates quality control at the studio is by being extremely selective about who gets to record there. No one gets in without a personal invitation from Dan. It’s a one-way street. When he heard Shannon Shaw’s voice around 2015 at Shangri La Records in Memphis, he was won over immediately. “I bought all of her albums that day,” he says.
Behind him, he points to two impressively lifelike watercolor paintings of Etta James and Chris Farley, both close portraits rendered in the same light, expressive style. “Shannon did those.”
When Shaw showed up at Easy Eye in 2016, she wasn’t sure what to expect. “I wanted guidelines and rules and deadlines and boundaries,” she says. “I didn’t get them. Dan was like, ‘Just show up. Don’t bring songs. We’ll figure it out when you get here.’”
Auerbach knows what it’s like to feel lost in a studio. He notes that his main band, the Black Keys, put out four albums before setting foot in one. “That was purely out of insecurity and ego, indie-rock bullshit,” he says. “Not wanting to sell out. That’s why we made our records in our basement – we were scared of putting ourselves out there to someone.”
Over the years, Auerbach developed a pretty simple work-around for studio anxiety. “We write for a week, we cut for three days, overdub for about a week and mix for a couple weeks. Then we’re done with the record,” he says. “I stress to everyone, don’t be insecure about anything. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. It’s no big deal. The more you can try, the better your odds are that you’re going to get a record.”
The seasoned session players in the Easy Eye house band – guys like Gene ‘Bubba’ Chrisman, Dave Rowe, Russ Pahl, Pat McLaughlin and Bobby Wood – use a musical notation called the Nashville Number System that allows them to churn out five or six hits a day. “You get to quickly say ‘I need a whirly line in between the words on the two-six-two-six’ – that’s how they operate, that’s why their records have been so goddamn good,” says Auerbach. “I want to make songs that make me feel nostalgic but also sound totally fresh. That’s what they did. That’s what ‘Son of the Preacher Man’ does to me, and ‘In The Ghetto’ by Elvis Presley and ‘Sweet Caroline’ by Neil Diamond.”
For Shaw, working with them was a blessing and a challenge, at least at first. “Can you imagine being in my position and you don’t like what these guys are playing? I don’t want to tell Johnny Cash’s bass player, Elvis’ drummer and Wilson Pickett’s piano player ‘Great job, but it’s not quiiite how I want it,’” Shaw says, laughing a little.
But she got used to the Easy Eye style. “When Dan’s in his studio, he’s on fire,” says Shaw. She remembers one of the first nights on a break, Auerbach was playing around on bass while the Arcs’ Richard Swift – who recently passed away, less than a month after Shaw’s record was released – played drums. They plucked a song out of thin air.
“They’re like, ‘Shannon, Shannon, get over here. Sing on this song,’” she says. The words that came out didn’t make any sense to her at the time, but “Freddies ‘n Teddies” would become one of the signature songs of Shannon in Nashville. Shaw said she’d been waiting for Swift and Auerbach to kick into a melody line and, instinctively, it became a song about waiting – waiting to feel visible to the person she was dating at the time – and deciding she wouldn’t wait any longer. “I was constantly waiting for him. Constantly waiting to be important to him.”
A new Freddy has since come along, she says, and he’s much cooler. “Dude, don’t let them waste your time,” she says, summing up the life wisdom she’s gained in the past year. “If you’re not feeling valued, hit the ejector button.”