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An Interview with Shannon McNally
by Alexander Laurence

Shannon 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 website 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.


AL: 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 the audience.

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 is technology.

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 on guitar?

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 soon.

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 Parsons?

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 be musicians?

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 weekend.

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


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