Talks with Shannon Hurley

 

Shannon Hurley

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California

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CEV:  Tell me about the music that you were exposed to growing up and how that influenced you in regards to becoming a singer/songwriter yourself? 

SH:  The first records I heard were top 40 and disco because my mom sang with a rock band when I was little. I used to listen to Donna Summer and The Go Gos.

My grade school years were filled with New Wave bands like Duran Duran and The Human League. I was an MTV couch potato. I was obsessed with pop music so of course as an adult I still carry this strong pop geek mentality. And a love for synthesizers. 

CEV:  Were there any artists who stand out in your mind as major influences on your style? Why?

SH:  Well the first band that stood out for me was Duran Duran because their popularity was skyrocketing on MTV and I was drawn to their dance-oriented, synth hook laden style and cryptic but romantic lyrics.

Later, in the mid 90s I lived over in England and a friend turned me on to Kate Bush. I love her intimate and dramatic style. Until I heard her, I never sat at a piano and sang. She opened up a new world for me. I would practice "Wuthering Heights" until my throat was sore.

CEV:  Was there a point in your life at which you knew that you wanted to be a singer/songwriter? Tell me about that.

SH:  Yes. I knew I wanted to be a singer-songwriter in college. I was studying trombone at the University of Colorado at Boulder and there was one semester where Pat Leonard (who wrote songs with Madonna) taught a songwriting course so I signed up. Again, this opened up a whole world to me.  he took us up to Caribou Ranch and recorded demos as a class. It was an amazing experience.

I got my music degree in trombone performance  and hung around Boulder where I joined a jam band called "Jyemo" playing keys. I sold my trombone to someone in Brian Setzer's orchestra and stayed with keys.

The songwriting bug snuck up on me. Before I moved to LA I was reading books about writing songs and listening to the artists I admired, like Tori Amos, the Beatles, and Joni Mitchell. It was like I was gathering ammunition for the future.

CEV:  What do you remember of your first songwriting experiences? Was it a difficult experience or did it come naturally? Please explain.

SH:  While I was in Pat's class I wrote songs which I can't remember now, but his feedback was that one song reminded him of late 80's Springsteen and a classmate said that one reminded him of ABBA. It's weird that I don't remember the songs themselves but I recall how they were received by others. I have always felt like it has been important to know how listeners perceived my music because that's how I like to communicate with people.  

When I moved from Boulder to LA in 2001 is when I started woodshedding. Writing held growing importance in my life and I was practicing on a big old Fender Rhodes in my Hollywood studio apartment. I started doing open mics with Ben Eisen, who is now my husband (and bass-player). I felt like I didn't write my first good song until 2003. That song was "Garden Path".

CEV:  Did you have any formal music training growing up? How has it helped you since? If not has it been a hindrance to your singing/songwriting?

SH:  My first formal training was piano lessons at age 10, but I wasn't a good student. I didn't practice much and when I did, I'd flip the sheet music upside down and play it that way because I thought the songs were boring. I was more interested in playing Prince's "Little Red Corvette" on piano than "Row Your Boat".  Then I picked up trombone in 5th grade not because I was in love with the instrument-the school was just short on trombone players. It has helped my singing and songwriting and that I now know about music theory.  I loved the electronic music class I took in musicology. We had the little Ensoniq digital keyboards and I composed a piece on Performer software. I had just seen "Emma" and I loved Rachel Portman's film score so much that I wanted to compose music for movies. Yes- musical training has definitely helped introduce me to all things that are possible for a songwriter.

CEV:  Do you remember your first live performances? Were they fun or frightening? Explain.

SH:  I was terrified. I went down to the open mic at Psychobabble Coffeehouse in Los Feliz, which was about a mile from my apartment in Hollywood.  I didn't have a car so I walked there, carrying my Korg keyboard. I had massive blisters on my hands. When I got there, another performer was talking to the barista. She  ordered hot tea and was a regular performer there at open mic. I marveled at how relaxed she was! I went up and did a song I wrote called "Surround Yourself", which was the best that I had at the time. My heart was racing and my palms were sweaty. It was awesome.

CEV:  Once you decided to be a singer/songwriter how is it that you actually start the whole process and get moving in the right direction?

SH:  Tons of open mics. Ben and I went to all of them in LA. It was miserable because there were many times at Highland Grounds or Canter's Kibbitz Room where we'd sign up and wait around for five hours but didn't get to play. But when you finally play, you learn where you are at as an artist. We did open mics for about six months.    

CEV:  When was it that you studied songwriting with Pat Leonard? Exactly how is it that you go about studying songwriting and how much help was it to your songwriting?

SH:  It was spring of 96. It was the only semester he ever taught at CU. In a way, it was very "School of Rock"- studying examples of songs that the class would bring in. Pat told personal stories of recording in the studio with Madonna. As a class we would write songs together. When we went to Caribou Ranch (where Chicago and Billy Joel recorded) to do a demo of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", it opened new doors in my mind.

CEV:  Tell me about your first album Ready to Wake Up which came out in 2007 and what it took to take the album from idea to finished product.

SH:  The seeds for "Ready to Wake Up" came from my "Sunrise" EP. My friends Matt Pavalaitus and Colleen Grace (who performed as part of a singer-songwriter showcase I ran with Steve Leavitt called "Don't Call Us Tori") helped me by helping me record a couple songs (including "Garden Path") for free. I liked Matt's style, which infused a little Jon Brion into a lusher soundscape.

After these recordings, Ben and I split up after living together for a year and a half. I wrote about thirty really sad songs. He had moved to Chicago and it was difficult. I tried to figure out why he wanted to go. In 2005 he came back to LA and we got back together and I wrote "Sunrise".  Then my guitarist at the time, Amit Leeron, called me and he found me a producer to record more songs. With his connection I contacted Guy Erez, who had produced and co-written a song with Jennifer Love-Hewitt that I had heard and on the basis of that, I decided to meet with him. That ended up being a huge defining moment in finding my sound. Guy is great. His production tends to be warm, personal, and very polished, which works perfectly with my style. We did three songs and so I combined those with two of the songs Matt produced, and I had an EP. A year later I had enough money to record the rest of my full length album "Ready to Wake Up". I went to producer Michael Woodrum, who I had met when I performed on Marina V's "Live at Soundmoves" album. We did a handful of songs together, and those were fun times in the studio and I was happy with the turnout. Then I wrote "Matter of Time" which I went back to Guy to produce.

CEV:  Were you surprised to be named as one of Rolling Stone’s top 25 best bands on Myspace? What did this mean for you and your career?

SH:  I was completely surprised. It was back in 2006, the height of MySpace. Another band on the list was the Airborne Toxic  Event.

Obviously it has helped a great deal because Rolling Stone magazine is a widely read publication and it's a good tagline to say that I was on a list.  

CEV:  Ready to Wake Up didn’t stop with just the one album. Why did you put out a call for remixes of your songs and how did that turn out?

SH:  It started with Celeste Lear, who is an electronic artist that also performed for "Don't Call Us Tori". She reached out to me and asked if she could remix one of my songs (she ended up doing "Breaking Down" which ended up on "Ready to Wake Up".

I loved hearing the song in that context and so I asked the remix community to participate in a contest through CC Mixter. "Sunrise" had an independent contest through AcidPlanet, and that song alone received almost 400 submissions. I finally took all songs down from the sites and they are no longer available to be remixed. 

CEV:  In 2009 you made a couple of decisions about your music. You moved to Nashville and you formed Lovers & Poets with your husband. What prompted those decisions and how did they change the dynamics of your career?

SH:  When we moved to Nashville, Ben found a Craigslist ad from someone looking to collaborate with a writer/artist for a chill-pop project. I was intrigued so I met with Bryan Talbot at a coffeehouse called  Bongo Java and we discussed our mutual desire to create electronic pop. We started forming sketches of several songs that I had and eventually I came up with the name Lovers & Poets. Bryan and I parted ways after completing a few songs because of creative differences but Ben became my new partner. The focus of the band is on the melody and the bass groove, so we feel like it's a nice musical representation to have us both as the faces of L+P.

Integrating electronic music into my songs has been liberating. I use only my keyboard, laptop, a pre-amp and mic, and a bass to create L+P songs. Now I'm working in parallel universes, having created a new "alias" with L+P where the songs are quite different from my solo stuff. I hope to continue the two paths simultaneously.

CEV:  In a rather unusual move you ended up doing 3 months as a pop lounge act at the Hyatt Hotel in Saigon, Vietnam. How in the world did you end up getting a gig in Vietnam and how did that help your music evolve?

SH:  I got the gig through artist friends who have also performed abroad at the Hyatt. I had never done anything like that before and it was tremendously helpful. It was the best thing I could have done for my career because before the Vietnam job, I wasn't playing out regularly. The first two days I was very nervous because of the amount of material I had just learned and I didn't know how the crowd would react, but it turned out that the crowd was always lovely. I still keep in touch with many of the people I met who came to listen to me perform.

CEV:  How instrumental was Kickstarter in making your latest album California a reality? What are your thoughts on the whole process that Kickstarter represents for indie artists to obtain funding for projects?

SH:  I was divided at first. I am stubborn and I don't like to ask for help in anything. But I suddenly had the realization that the ones who contribute to Kickstarter have a special connection and are glad to help.  It gives everyone a sense of involvement and I feel closer to my fans. These people are basically investing in my career and I wanted to give the fans nice rewards for their participation. The levels varied from $20 for a "California" CD and their name in the liner notes, to $100 for my whole discography, handwritten lyrics, and a PDF songbook of "Ready to Wake Up". I ended up raising a little more than $2500. I would definitely use Kickstarter again.

CEV:  Why is your latest album dedicated to California?

SH:  I first moved to California in 2001 and lived in L.A. for 9 years before departing to Nashville. "California" was written as a farewell to my favorite state. Ben and I moved to Nashville because we were interested in buying a house and also Ben was disillusioned with LA (partly due to him having worked at a record label) and I was not opposed to going somewhere new for an adventure.

About 7 months into our time in Nashville, we decided to come back to California. Ben had a change of heart about LA so thankfully we made our way back out west, although I now really love Nashville now too. We made some great friends there and it really was essential for me to go there to find my musical identity. The new album is sort of a cross-pollination of the California and Nashville sound, and to me, the record feels completely "American". The songs were written in California and Tennessee, and many songs featured  Nashville musicians right alongside of California musicians, thanks to the Internet.

CEV:  Tell me about the songs that listeners will find on California and why they are described as your most personal album yet?

SH:  Like I said earlier, "California" was my farewell love letter that I wrote in 2009 before leaving. "Looking for Sunshine" was written after I moved back to LA and my mom passed away..it's about trying to get back to the good days but no matter how hard you try, you just can't. "How Long" was written in 2004 and it is an introspective on the frustrations of being a musician in LA. "Beg Steal Borrow", a song about wanting to be accepted and loved, was written on the way to Tennessee.  

CEV:  Was the fact that Beg Steal Borrow appeared on the web based series Venice important to gaining you the recognition you needed to move this project forward? Explain.

SH:  Well, I love the music that Kim Turrisi chooses for her series. Jen Woodhouse, Jen Foster, Kat Parsons, and Kyler England are a few of the artists whose songs appear on the show. Kim is a loyal supporter of my music and the fans of Venice are great. The show just celebrated its first Emmy win this year.

CEV:  What was the most difficult thing about doing the album California? What was the most enjoyable?

SH:  Well, I had to learn how to record this album on a budget without cutting corners. I couldn't record every song with a full band in a big studio but I wanted to give each song that polished, glossy sound. So I had to choose a handful of songs to record with Guy Erez and the rest were done on my laptop. Hopefully there is not too much of a difference between the songs. What was most enjoyable? Getting to work with all my favorite people. Guy Erez is my go-to producer, Ben plays bass on every track, Dave Allen plays drums on many songs, and my good friend Mark Cofer contributed many of the guitar tracks on the album.

CEV:  You’ve also got an upcoming Armada Music/Rebrand Records release called Sun Gone Down. Tell me about this project and when listeners can expect to be able to hear the music or buy a copy.

SH:  I was approached by Raz Nitzan, one of the writers of 'Sun Gone Down' after he discovered the Lovers & Poets album on the now-defunct Amie Street website. I recorded the vocal at Aruna's studio. She is one of the other writers of the track, and a prominent trance vocalist in her own right. This all happened in the fall of 2010. I found out that the South African DJ Protoculture had gotten the track and I he debuted it at A State of Trance in Johannesburg this past March. He did a fantastic job with it and it went on to be track of the week on Armin Van Buuren's A State of Trance radio show. Alex M.O.R.P.H (one of the scene's most in-demand remixers) and Chriss Ortega released an extra mix of the song. The original and remix are both available on BeatPort (through Armada Music on Max Graham's Rebrand Records). On July 15th the Protoculture mix will be released on Paul Oakenfold's CD compilation 'Never Mind the Bollocks'. I really love this new direction my career is taking and I want to continue singing trance.

CEV:  What is Don’t Call Us Tori all about and is that something that you are still involved with?

SH:  I started "Don't Call Us Tori" with Steve Leavitt back in 2004 to showcase female singer-songwriters. We held shows at Hotel Cafe, Westwood Brewery, Tangier, and Karma Coffeehouse up until about 2009. Kari Kimmel, Marina V, Kyler England, Libbie Schrader, Gilli Moon, and Skyler Stonestreet were some of the artists who played the showcases. We have no plans to revive 'Don't Call Us Tori' at this time but maybe we'll do a one-off show in the future.

CEV:  Are you heading out to do any tours in support of your new album?

SH:  I am currently performing as Lovers & Poets with Ben but I'll be switching gears at the end of summer to start performing more solo material. I will be doing full band shows and hope to have a proper CD release party in late August.

CEV:  Any final thoughts you’d like to share with the readers about California?

SH:  Thank you to all my fans for the amazing support. I hope you enjoy this album!

CEV:  And thanks for taking the time to talk to me about your music Shannon. I wish you the best of luck with your career in the future.