Graham Reid | | 9 min read
In the balkanisation of pop and rock so many new genres emerged that critics and record store jocks had to invent names to describe and help identify these myriad forms.
One of the most interesting is “chamber pop” which takes its reference points from the sometimes-orchestrated and deftly arranged songs by the likes of the Association, Left Banke, late Sixties Beach Boys and others.
Brookyln-based pianist/composer Shenandoah Davis belongs at the singer-songwriter end of that spectrum (with a smidgen of Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom at times, and clever arrangements for backing vocals and strings).
Davis has toured New Zealand previously but makes a welcome return (dates below) and this time is on the back of her most recent album Souvenirs which she admits is her break-up album in that it looks at relationships past and possible, but also about a an accident that befell someone she was becoming attached to.
It is deep stuff but delivered with passion and compassion.
Time then for Shenandoah Davis to answer our Songwriters' Questionnaire . . .
The first song which really affected you was . . .
Honestly, it was ‘Bad to the Bone’ by George Thorogood. My parents had a vinyl player growing up, but the records were Raffi, Spyro Gyra, and James Taylor. I remember riding in my Uncle Ed’s truck somewhere in Pennsylvania -- Uncle Ed smoked cigars, which I wasn’t supposed to know but I did know somehow, and he collected shark teeth, and he drank Budweiser, and he had a George Thorogood tape in his truck. I remember hearing it come on and just being shocked that people were allowed to make music that sounded so wild and raucous. I wouldn’t learn about the British Invasion and the Beatles rocking the world until quite a few years later, but I remember that song really stirring and shaking up something inside. And then there’s a completely ludicrous sax solo that is just impossible to like. I have to say that needlessly virtuosic arena rock still has a bit of a soft spot in my heart.
Your first (possibly embarrassing) role models in music were . . .
I was homeschooled and pretty separated from most popular culture when I was growing up, so I didn’t really start listening to music until I went to college - which happened to be the same year that Napster launched. I was studying opera in school and listening to a lot of Tori Amos, Kate Bush, and Regina Spektor in my free time. I took harp lessons for a semester and remember thinking “maybe I could play harp and sing and write songs like that” - then Joanna Newsom’s first full-length came out and I immediately abandoned that idea and stuck with piano.
The one songwriter you will always listen to, even if they disappointed you previously, is?
Honestly - I’m not big on second chances.
As songwriters: Lennon-McCartney or Jagger-Richards; kd lang or Katy Perry; Madonna or Michael Jackson; Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson?
These are tough…
Katy Perry - what can I say?
Has to be Madonna!
Johnny Cash 100 percent.
The three songs (yours, or by others) you would love everyone to hear because they are well crafted are . . .
The song of mine that I’m the most proud of is ‘Gold Coast.’ I think it’s the best song I’ve written so far, and am not sure I can write one that’s better.
In terms of other songs - I really admire ‘Father and Son’ by Yusuf/Cat Stevens. I know that’s a little old-school, but I like the different characters talking to each other without the definition that one is correct and the other is incorrect. I like the two points of view he represents there.
I’m also very fond of ‘You and Me’ by Penny + The Quarters. I’ve been listening to that almost daily for the last year. It’s simple in a really beautiful and honest way that I would like to borrow for my own songwriting someday, but I don’t feel like I’m quite there yet.
Melody first? Words or phrase first? Simultaneous?
The melody usually comes first for me, and it usually pops up while I’m out for a walk. I’ve had horrible luck trying to sit down and write a song from nothing (the only time I’ve actually been successful at it was in a theatrette in Oamaru on my first tour of New Zealand seven years ago.) Chords tend to follow the melody, then lead things in a new direction just in time for the chorus or bridge - and lyrics always come last. Songs are about the music and how they make someone feel for me more than the lyrics, so I pretty much have to finish writing the song and then decide what it’s about based on my own feelings before I really put words to it.
The best book on music or musicians you have read is . . .
Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks. As a neurologist, he discusses how different brain disorders and injuries have affected people’s abilities to listen to and play music. You can never quite experience music the same way that anyone else does, and you can never hear something through another person’s ears, so as a musician I’m always fond of reading about or hearing about people who just experience music on a different plane than I will ever be able to. I find it quite fascinating and actually enjoy imagining that some of the characters from this book may be in the audience at shows occasionally.
If you could co-write with anyone it would be . . .
I don’t really have a songwriting crush - I feel like the way I write songs, while it makes sense and sometimes produces results I’m happy with, takes an inordinate amount of time and doesn’t really make sense. I think it’s like that for most people - some days you have the good ideas, some days you have a whole bunch of shit ideas, some days you find something to put your energy into other than music and it tends to yield far more productive results.
That being said, I’ve dated and been involved with a lot of musicians, but haven’t ended up in a relationship where I write music with them, and I think that would be a really unique ingredient to add to a relationship. Writing music has always been pretty focused in and around loneliness for me, it’s the thing I do when I feel lonely or the excuse I’ve used when I’m around people and would prefer to be alone, it’s something to get a bit lost in. I like the idea of getting lost there with someone else along, but just haven’t stumbled across the relationship where I trust the person enough to share my bad musical ideas with just yet. I’m working on it, though. I have a lot of bad musical ideas saved up.
The last CD or vinyl album you bought was . . . (And your most recent downloads include . . .)
The last one I bought was the Sundial EP by Mirah. I actually haven’t even listened to it yet - I was eagerly waiting for it to arrive via post for weeks and weeks before it came out, and then the day it arrived I unpacked it and had to immediately head to the airport to head out of town - so the initial exciting moment of peeling off the plastic covering and listening to it has just been lingering, and the longer I put it off, the more of an event it feels like. It’s a lot of pressure to open a vinyl for the first time.
I don’t download music as streaming is free and easy in the states, but here is my Top 10 from last year (most played, not most-good, although I will stand behind most of these tunes):
Jesus Was A Crossmaker - The Hollies (Judee Sill cover)
Anyone (Who Knows What Love Is) - Irma Thomas
He’ll Have To Go - Jim Reeves
Here Comes My Baby - The Tremeloes
Cut Your Bangs - Girlpool
The Scratch - 7 Year Bitch
Is This Sound Ok? - Coconut Records
New Frame of Mind - Kathryn Calder
If You Go Away - Dusty Springfield
All Through The Night - Cyndi Lauper
One song, royalties for life, never
have to work again. The song by anyone, yourself included, which
wouldn't embarrass you would be . . .
I used to be married to a US musician who had a “one song” band - anytime it would pop up in a bar or at karaoke or in a TV show, we had to flee the room immediately. I’d honestly rather work an office job for the rest of my life than have the success of a single song haunt me everywhere I went.
But if I NEEDED to have one, it would be Eternal Flame by The Bangles. I think any song that is a stone-cold over-played hit will inevitably embarrass you at some point, though. Success is a bit embarrassing all by itself.
One line (or couplet) from a song -- yours or someone else's -- which you think is just a stone cold winner is . . .
I love all the lyrics to ‘If It’s
Alive, It Will’ from Angel Olsen’s first album - I remember
playing with her probably 8 years ago in a tiny club in Chicago and
just getting my socks knocked off. She’s just magic.
My friend, you are unique but not always
Some stranger you don't know has surely felt your pain
Some stranger out there might even own your name
And say all the things that you said
Your thoughts existing in someone
Songwriting: what's the ratio of inspiration/perspiration?
I do think it ends up at about 10/90 - but the inspiration needs to come first. You can perspire over something all you want, but for me if the inspiration isn’t there from the start, it’s just never there. I’ve ended up writing a few songs that I somehow finish, and they take much longer to write than the songs that start with inspiration, and I play them a few times at shows and then just scrap them - something just doesn’t stick. (I won’t be playing any of those on this tour, don’t worry.)
Ever had a song come to you fully-formed like it dropped into your lap?
No, but that sounds fantastic. I’ve had a few moments where I have a dream in which I write a song and it’s really good, and wake up in the middle of the night and try to record it, but inevitably in the light of day my brilliant idea that came to me in a dream is just a Sam Smith song that came on the radio in a convenience store/bodega/dairy the day before.
And finally, finish this couplet in any way you like: “Standing at the airport with an empty suitcase at my feet . . .” (You are NOT allowed to rhyme that with “meet” however)
I only cried a little walking through the duty free
New Zealand Tour Dates - January & February 2018
18 January - Summer in the Square, Auckland
19 January - Wine Cellar, Auckland
20 January - The Dome, Gisborne
21 January - Jamie McPhail’s Sitting Room Sessions, Napier
25 January - Space Academy, Christchurch
26 January - Dog With Two Tails, Dunedin
27 January - Sherwood, Queenstown
29 January - Donovan’s Store, Okarito
31 January - East Street Cafe, Nelson
2 February - Meow, Wellington
2-6 February - Gathering In The Forest, Whanganui