This week we chatted with Shannon Harney, a pre-med student and musician based out of San Francisco. In the latest installment of our interview series, Shannon discusses her new album, her inspiration, and what she does in her downtime.
Twenty Two: Let’s start with the basics. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Shannon: I’m a galactic sky-walker, first of all. I turn 25 on Monday. I grew up in the redwoods above Half Moon Bay and aside from my stint as a pre-med student at UC Davis, I can’t seem to tear myself away from the Bay Area. I like to spend a lot of time staring really closely at natural design… rock formations, flowering bodies, tree-lines. Most of my curiosity about the world stems from a fundamental fascination with evolution and natural history. I think we learn a lot about human relationships by observing the innate cycles around us. Also, I really really love pickles, and spicy food, and crafty cocktails and vintage clothes.
Twenty Two: Have you always been interested in music and performing?
Shannon: Yup. I started doing musical theatre when I was really small and most of my performing until college was on the stage. I sang in plays, but I don’t have a trained technical voice, so it never really went anywhere. I thought I was kind of a lackluster vocalist until I started listening to Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor and I was like, “Nice! I don’t have to do vibrato to be awesome!” But my shows now definitely have an element of theatre to them. I can’t help it. I never really grew out of being an ostentatious five-year-old.
Twenty Two: How would you describe your sound?
Shannon: Seriously. I always sweat over the “genre” and “tagging” part of this business. I mean, in short, folk. Or indie-folk. I’ve been calling it forest-folk recently. It’s all very lyric driven, very communicative and emotive. I’m not writing to make people dance or as background music in a bar. I really want to talk to my audience, to look them in the face and tell them a story. If my fingers accidentally knock against some piano keys in the process, then that sounds nice, too.
Twenty Two: What’s the process you go through when you’re working on new music?
Shannon: I take a lot of time. I hear about musicians who write songs every day, every other day, but that is just not possible for me. I really need impetus to create; I don’t like grasping for straws to come up with content or a theme. Most of my songs are products of long bike rides or gardening sessions when I’m left to my own internal dialogue.
Twenty Two: What can our readers expect to hear on your latest album, “Cat Called”?
Shannon: You will hear a lot about me. Past romances, their climaxes and subsequent dissolutions. I began writing about my experience as a twentysomething in the city, too. Evolving away from being exclusively a love song girl was an awesome journey and I really wanted to capture the moment that I’m experiencing with my friends right now. Being an artist, not going to grad school, wanting to plow ahead earnestly in music and shed off any trepidation or anxiety and all of the obstacles and stimuli that make that very difficult.
Aurally though, there’s a calmness to my sound, an irregularity to my piano style that comes from being self-taught, a singing voice that certainly incorporates elements from my days as a spoken word poet, rhythmically and also tonally.
Twenty Two: Where do you find inspiration?
Shannon: At present, in reoccurring themes in my life regarding adulthood, the coming of age in a society that has a very specific measure for success. I’m also a very noun oriented person; I could probably make an album just reciting a list of my favorite objects. I’m often inspired by a short burst of adjacent sounds and the song will build up around it. As I mentioned, I’m fascinated by the out-of-doors, the resilience of non-human structures & anatomies, so I reference nature a lot as well.
Twenty Two: Whose musical career would you like to emulate?
Shannon: It’s been interesting this past year to begin really studying other performers’ careers and observe their breakthroughs and setbacks reflected in their music, tour schedules or releases. I’ve always really admired other female songwriters from the wild of California: Alela Diane, Mariee Sioux, Joanna Newsom… women who have prioritized the slow and steady over the commercial and hyped.
Twenty Two: How has living in San Francisco influenced your work?
Shannon: Meeting so many artists of various disciplines has been amazing and I’ve really grown into the idea of community-powered art and events. Not just “a concert” or “a play”, but everything at once. Food. Movement. Visual art. Aural art. Fashion and costumes. San Francisco has an incredibly rich culture of collaboration and I love seeing what components artists link together… there are so many surprises.
Twenty Two: Who are some of your favorite musicians at the moment?
Shannon: I just can’t get over these duos of electronic musicians and vocalists. Made In Heights, The XX, the new SBTRKT album, Little Dragon, Phantom from Finland. The confluence of electronic music and organic voice is one of my favorite sounds and I’ll hopefully be exploring that a bit on my next record.
Twenty Two: When you’re not working on music, how do you spend your time?
Shannon: Operating my adult day-care in San Francisco. Drinking tea, cruising the neighborhood, playing chess and drinking bourbon, driving up PCH and finding the best taco trucks. But I mean, the music thing is really more of lifestyle than an activity I partake in. It colors everything I do, everyone I spend time with, all of my tastes and hobbies.
Twenty Two: What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Shannon: I’m looking forward to recording another album early in 2013, collaborating with some electronic producers, expanding the instrumentation and scope of my sound. I’ll be shooting my first music video this fall to coincide with my first Pacific Northwest Tour in October. I’m interested in exploring mixed media a bit more, too; using projections, poetry, and dance in an effort to bolster my live performance. I want to push against the idea that I’m just like, “a singer” now, because it isn’t the case.
Twenty Two: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Shannon: It has been profound to work with other musicians while creating my band and it has made me really appreciate the value of rehearsal time. It’s important to find the balance between over-rehearsed music that loses its edge and emotive power, and wanting to preserve that freshness too much and failing to orchestrate something beautiful and intentional. So booking studio time has proven key.
If you’re in the Bay Area, check out Shannon’s live show tomorrow at Cafe Van Kleef in Oakland.
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