Q&A: Jason Shannon, emerging local songwriter

Categories: Q&A

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Jason Shannon photo courtesy of the artist

Hang around the Minneapolis clubs long enough and you will notice a lot of local bands who define themselves as "Americana." It's a broad genre, one that is open for a lot of interpretation and nuance, but it's a term that suits the new record by local Jason Shannon perfectly. Sprinkling the slightest bit of twang and drawl into pop and rock song structures, Shannon's songs are clean, inviting, and personal.

Shannon will release his album, Jason Shannon, tonight at the Varsity Theater. In preparation for the show, we called up Shannon to ask him a few questions about his songwriting and his new record.

What are you listening to right now? If I turned on your iPod or your car stereo, what would I hear?

You'd hear a lot of Bob Dylan, that's for sure. [laughs] You'd probably mostly hear Bob Dylan. I somehow can't escape him. I don't know if anybody is able to escape him -- even if they don't listen to him, they're probably hearing him indirectly. I don't know, Wilco, Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles. I listen to, I occasionally rock some Bob Marley and Townes van Zandt. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. Those kinds of writers. I like Lucinda Williams and Tom Waits. What I would call classic songwriters.

That's a pretty solid list.

I'm hoping I'm picking something up from them.

Tell me about the transition of the last three years. You started out playing in a band called Dear Machine; how did you transition to a solo project?

The band split up and the members went to all different cities, and I just continued on with the idea of making records and playing and hopefully touring locally and regionally. What happened was, we broke up, I bought a bunch of recording gear, and I wasn't exactly feeling the aesthetic of my last band, so I basically just bought a bunch of gear and started recording on my own and playing solo acoustic gigs around town. Just sort of developing my songwriting craft.

How would you compare Dear Machine to your solo sound?

The songs then were a little more rock-oriented. I feel like I've matured as a lyric writer, and I've gotten in touch with a more channeled version of the songwriting, rather than a premeditated, forced to sit down and try to write a song kind of method. In terms of aesthetics, I'd say the new record embraces more of the sounds from where I grew up. I grew up in Louisiana. So the record has more of an acoustic feel, and it can be slower, as opposed to the rock/hard rock sound of my old band.

How long have you lived here?

I'm 30, and I've been here since I was 15. I moved up here just before I started high school. My mom got me a guitar because I didn't have any friends, and that's kind of how it started.

Guitar was your first instrument?

Yeah. I got it for Christmas.

When did you start performing?

I was in bands in high school. I was in one of those bands that would get together at the community center and have a battle of the bands. I've been doing it for a while... I met the members of my first band in college, so we started performing around 2001 or 2002.

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How often do you write new songs?

Since I've been working on this record, a lot of my time has been taken up getting that in line. There's a whole creative process that has nothing to do with getting a record out and about, so since I've been working on the recording and mixing and getting my band together -- I have a seven piece band, so I've had to spend a lot of time arranging the members to form a cohesive sound. But when I'm not doing that, and focusing on songwriting, I'm doing it every day. Probably for a few hours a day.

How did you select the 12 tracks for the album?

I don't even know. We tracked 30 songs. I have just a huge backlog of tunes from three or four years of writing, and I picked 30 from the batch. And that wasn't even necessarily the 30 best ones, just sort of the ones I am feeling. You know how you open up your closet and you're like, what should I wear? Your favorite outfit could not go worn for two weeks, but that doesn't mean it's not any good. We recorded 30, and I just picked the 12 takes that I thought were really inspired takes.

I didn't do a ton of pre-production. What you're hearing on the record is, maybe there was 15 or 20 minutes of talk about how it's going to go, and then we would just go in and try it.

You have quite an impressive lineup of musicians on your album. Who will be with you at the release show?

The band that will be at the release show is my consistently-attended band, it's not like a guns-for-hire kind of band. It's a seven-piece band. I had hired people to play on the record, and they were like, well can I play in the band? We've been working hard over the past six months to get it together.

Was there a transition between learning how to record together and learning how to play live together?

Absolutely. I had an idea about the aesthetic, from a sonic standpoint, but I didn't exactly know how that would translate. It's been a transition. We get together and we rehearse long hours, just arranging parts. As you can imagine, with a seven-piece band, if everyone just played all the time it would sound like a bad soup. Luckily I've arranged the band where I can be [the leader], and it's not problematic. I have the ability to call time out and tell people that I don't like this or I don't like that.

You're the boss.

Pretty much. Which is nice. I found out from playing in other bands that my personality just requires that. I had a long bout of hesitation about being that way because you like to be nice. I like to be one of the guys, but at the same time I've been in bands long enough to know that you do need somebody that's shepherding the sound.

What are your plans for the new year?

I'm hunkered down at a coffee shop daily, just contacting people. I left my job. I'm trying to make the band a viable entity, both creatively and commercially. It's not like I'm trying to be a sell-out rock and roll artist, but I'm definitely trying to get it on the road outside just the Twin Cities. That's my goal.

Jason Shannon will play a CD-release show at the Varsity Theater tonight with the Wars of 1812, Molly Maher, and Erik Koskinen. 18+. 8 p.m. $8.


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