An Interview with
by Alexander Laurence
McNally is a mover. She grew up in Long Island, has lived
in California, and is now living in New Orleans. At 27 years
of age, she just released her first solo record Jukebox
Sparrows. The songs are whiskey-stained with slide guitars
running wild. Her soulful songs blend rock and country into
a new stew.
Shannon has a dynamic voice and a sexy presence. She has
been touring America most of this year since her album came
out in January. This summer she will be the opening act
for John Mellencamp.
I talked to her in the offices of The House of Blues. During
our interview, Shannon ate a lot of food. She had an appetite.
I sensed right away that she had been a model at some point
in her life and was now making up for lost meals. For some
it may have been intimidating talking to someone as talented
and as beautiful as Shannon, but I am used to hanging out
with models and beautiful people, so it was just another
day in the life.
If you like roots-revivalists like Lucinda Williams and
Gillian Welch, you might like her music. You can go to her
and listen to her music right now. Or go see her on tour
this summer. Or you could do it the old fashioned way and
simply buy the album.
You were on Late World with Zach the other night.
After you played a song, he stood next to you and made a
joke seemingly at your expense. Was he making fun of you?
Shannon: He's just
a strange act. I wasn't sure where the punch line was. I've
found that with a lot of things lately. Satire doesn't exist
anymore because life has gotten too goofy. It's hard to
tell where the parody starts. At least that's what I thought
when I saw Britney Spears on Saturday Night Live. There's
no standard form to what anyone does. People don't know
the differences between different forms of comedy or acting.
It's all this lowest common denominator knee jerk reaction.
People just sit back and watch. It's pretty lame.
AL: Did you listen to music growing up?
Shannon: I love music.
Music is an elixir: you can add just about everything. We
all have hearts. We have an organ in us that beats. If you
listen, it makes sounds. While a human being is alive you
are making sounds all the time. That is basically music.
Music is just sound.
AL: What about the spirit? Do you have a spiritual background?
Shannon: Yeah, I do
come from a musical and spiritual background. To me they
are the same thing. This has always been a part of my life.
I do like gospel music. What is gospel music and what is
secular music is not always so clear cut. There is a lot
of gospel in all music. When someone is reaching for some
truth there is always something gospel in what they are
talking about. Life is to be celebrated. It is a gift.
AL: When did you get
involved in music and when did you decide that it was something
that you wanted do?
Shannon: My parents
played music. Music is everywhere. I was doing it long before
I thought that I could make a living doing it. I had singing
lessons. I was in the school chorus and school orchestra.
I was in school plays. I like to be onstage very much. I
like what happens onstage. I like the interaction of people.
I like the interaction of musicians, and the music that
comes out of that, and the breath that you share. I like
how the energy flows between the performers onstage and
AL: Already you are
getting compared to other singers and songwriters. Are others
figuring out that you are unique and doing your own thing?
Shannon: I think that
people are getting it. I think that people don't always
have the words to describe it. Therefore they usually gravitate
towards dominate female figures. There are not that many
of them. So it does seem rather obvious when they choose
to compare someone else to me.
I think that people feel it when they hear it whether they
know what to call it or not. Whether they want to call it
"country" or "retro" or "rock and
roll" or "blues".... Whether they think it's
like Bonnie Raitt or Sheryl Crow or Stevie Nicks.... I have
a vague idea of what they are trying to get at. I don't
think that what I am doing is only comparable to what other
women are doing because I really follow an esthetic that
some great male songwriters have lain down before me. I
follow a songwriter esthetic. As long as people pick up
on that, what they call it isn't really important to me.
AL: Do you think that
it's weird that a person your age today can pick and choose
from the history of music and all the great bands of the
past and incorporate that into what they are doing?
Shannon: Do I think
it's weird? We live in the age of information and technology.
What good is it if we don't know how to sift through it
and choose what we like regardless of what era it was made
in? As human beings we repeat ourselves infinitely and endlessly.
There are no new ideas. There are not any new songs because
basically there are no new concepts. It's just a matter
of what we call it this week.
It's not the norm for a first time artist because the industry
has become the focus rather than the music. I try to focus
on the music first and the industry second, but I take both
of them into account. I enjoy music to the point that I
am fascinated by other people's stories. I read about people
and listen to sounds on records and I pick and choose. That
is what art is about.
If you put a magnet in a pile of lead shavings, some stick
and some don't. That's the way it happens with people, ideas,
and music. If you open yourself up to music and you listen
to it and give it proper consideration, some of it will
stick with you. Just because a lot of young artists don't
do that means that they have all this information at their
fingertips but they are not going home and doing their research.
People don't look back to the source. If a twelve year old
looks at Britney Spears and asks where did she come from?
If she gets to Madonna and asks where did Madonna get all
her ideas? I take it a few steps back and go as far as I
can. Things are not that different. The only thing different
AL: How long did it take to write this album and how did
you go about it?
Shannon: Some songs were written a long time ago. I wrote
most of the songs in about a year. I had a lot of ideas
and I knew what I wanted. I had never produced a record
before. I worked with Josh Grange and Ron Aniello. We all
produced the record together. I knew what I wanted. It was
a big give and take between the three of us. I could have
done it but I needed some help.
AL: Did you play in other bands?
Shannon: Yeah. I was in a lot of bands. I have done solo
acoustic and duo acoustic.
AL: How do you write songs? Do you have books of lyrics
and then you fit them into songs? Do you just strum things
Shannon: It happens in different ways. Sometimes I will
sit down and play the guitar and that will inspire a concept
and the lyrics will write themselves. Sometimes it will
start out as a poem. Sometimes I will sit down and play
an instrument that I don't play very well like a piano and
come up with something. I can get creative there. I can
handle basic stuff but I am not a piano player. It challenges
your brain and makes you use another part. It unlocks a
nice little cavity that you didn't know was there. There
might be a gem in it.
AL: What about the song "Jukebox Sparrows?" That
reminded me of Tom Waits.
Shannon: I love spoken word and the Beat Tradition. I think
that in a way it's a wave to Tom. I like all the Beat Writers.
I was reading Jack Kerouac at the time. That song was the
reason I made the record. I was acknowledging all the music
that I liked and moved me. I was giving them a name.
AL: What are some other things that you do besides music?
Shannon: I do yoga. I am a soccer player. I like the American
women's team. They are no joke. I like traveling. I grew
up in New York and have been a vagabond ever since. I love
gardens. I love things that grow. I am going to play with
John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson this summer. I have opened
up for a few bands. I am looking forward to headlining myself
AL: This record took a long time. Maybe you have another
record of songs ready to go?
Shannon: A couple of records maybe. I worked out some songs
onstage. I haven't really made a demo yet.
AL: How did you write the song "Colorado?"
Shannon: I was sitting in a room with Barry Reynolds. He
is a brilliant songwriter. He started playing this beautiful
little riff. The song wrote itself. I had the chorus and
verse. I took it home and wrote a bridge. It's a song about
a woman who flips out at a bank and craves open space.
AL: Are all your songs narratives?
Shannon: I think so. Most of them are.
AL: What is "Now That I Know" about?
Shannon: It's about getting up in the morning. The reasons
that you get up. The things that you look forward to. I
wrote the song about two years ago.
AL: I notice that on several first records recently that
there is some cover song. Did the record company suggest
that you do an obscure song by The Rolling Stones or Gram
Shannon: No. But I do play cover songs. I do "When
I Paint My Masterpiece" which is a Bob Dylan tune.
AL: Do you have any advice for young girls who want to
Shannon: Don't sleep with people for favors.
AL: I guess if you live in New Orleans, Halloween must
be a big holiday? What costume would you wear on Halloween?
Shannon: A bellydancer. I have been a bellydancer for Halloween
in the past. I haven't dressed up for it in a while. I like
Saint Joseph's Day better.
AL: Most people who
live there like Jazz Fest.
Shannon: I'll be there tomorrow afternoon. It's the second
AL: What do you love about music?
Shannon: Music extinguishes a certain uneasiness. It relieves
it. It keeps depression at bay.
AL: Is rebellion important to you?
Shannon: What you rebel against is important. If you rebel
in positive form, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King or John
Lennon, that's important. How they rebel is important. Thinking
is probably the most rebellious thing you can do.
-- Alexander Laurence