MusicMusic Features

Ex-Live Vocalist Chris Shinn Debuts Stunning Solo Album

Musician talks 'Falling Up' and falling out with Live ahead of Snug Harbor show

Chris Shinn sings into a microphone in the middle of a crowd during a show with live
Chris Shinn (Photo by Lucia De Giovanni)

Chris Shinn says he’s scared shitless.

The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist has fronted several bands, including multi-platinum selling alternative rock group Live from 2012 to 2016. The Charlotte native has written countless songs and has performed in front of thousands of people, but he admits that he’s very nervous about a gig at Snug Harbor on June 16. That’s because the hometown show is the live debut of Shinn’s solo album, Falling Up, credited to ShinN, which dropped in November 2022.

A vulnerable, emotionally direct and frequently dark fusion of beauty, angst and desperation, Falling Up is Shinn’s masterpiece, a gripping rumination on trauma and hope.

“[The record] is not like anything I’ve done,” the 30-year music industry veteran says, speaking from his Charlotte home. “With this record, there’s no compromising. I played all the instruments, engineered the record and mixed it. I took some chances on arrangements, and it’s weird. Some people are going to think I’m crazy.”

It’s with a mix of trepidation and elation that Shinn is putting this challenging material on its feet before a crowd, and his emotions are heightened because the Snug show is the first time Shinn’s played live since December 2019.

“When I was in Live, I was never nervous, because they weren’t really my songs,” Shinn says. ”I was singing songs that were 20-something years old that everyone already liked.”

Even in other bands Shinn cofounded, Celia Green, Unified Theory, and Everything is Energy, Shinn felt the same; his bandmates had written the material together, so any failure was a group failure.

“If [Falling Up and the Snug show] don’t work, it’s all on me,” Shinn says. “That’s a different feeling, and it’s exhilarating and scary as shit.”

Shinn has assembled a crack band to play the full album, including old friends Patrick Dahlheimer, who is Live’s former bassist; and Jason Gerken, drummer with Kansas City rock band Shiner. Shinn is clearly proud of the album he created in his home studio, calling it “fiercely revealing and vulnerable.”

Growing up the son of former Charlotte Hornets owner

Chris Shinn’s last name may spark recognition among Charlotte sports fans, because his father, George Shinn, launched the Charlotte Hornets in 1988, only to move the franchise to New Orleans amid a tsunami of fan venom in 2002.

Chris Shinn remembers growing up amid the supernova of his father bringing an NBA team to Charlotte as living in a bubble.

“It was fascinating and fun, but ultimately it probably didn’t do my family any favors. As the Hornets were happening there was no emphasis on my schooling,” says Shinn, who remembers jetting off to other cities on school nights to catch NBA games. “My grades went in the shitter.”

At the same time, Shinn showed scant interest in the family business.

“I wasn’t a sports kid. I was a skater and a musician,” he says.

Though the family wasn’t musical, George bought Chris and his brother miniature quarter-sized guitars, which the boys never played. That changed when Chris dusted off one of the instruments and started accompanying himself singing while writing songs. He remembers R.E.M. and The Cure as big influences. As a student at Myers Park High School, Shinn became a fan of Live, particularly the York, Pennsylvania band’s 1991 album Mental Jewelry.

Meanwhile, his junior high and high school band Imaginary Heroes booked gigs at The Milestone Club and Pterodactyl Club. Shinn befriended Charlotte-based musicians Benji Hughes and Jonathan Wilson, and soon after turning 18, he and his friends made the move to Los Angeles.

As a result, Shinn was out of town when everything went south with his father and the Hornets. In 1999, George Shinn admitted during a nationally televised sex assault trial to having sexual relationships outside of his marriage, thereby tarnishing his reputation. The elder Shinn withdrew from the public eye as his popularity — and Hornets ticket sales — plummeted. Both factors likely prompted the Hornets’ move to New Orleans.

Far from the tumult, Chris Shinn played music with Hughes and Wilson until the friends went their separate ways. Hughes and Wilson launched alt-rock act Muscadine with debut album The Ballad of Hope Nicholls in 1995. Hughes released his critically praised 2008 debut album A Love Extreme while Wilson played guitar with artists like Roger Waters. As a producer, he’s worked with acts including Father John Misty and Billy Strings.

Meanwhile, Shinn founded alt-rock band Celia Green in 1995. The band recorded but never released an album.

The band gained notoriety when the house Shinn was renting from landlord Dean Torrence, of 1960s surf-pop duo Jan & Dean, burned down. The band had been rehearsing at the house, so Shinn and his bandmates lost all their gear in the blaze. Then Celia Green imploded when the guitarist and the drummer left to play with rock/hip-hop crossover artist Everlast.

“Right after that happened I met Christopher Thorn, so one door closed and the other one opened,” Shinn says.

Thorn was the guitar player for retro-hippie alt-rockers Blind Melon. Two years after frontman Shannon Hoon’s drug overdose death, Thorn was scouting musical collaborators. Shinn went with Thorn to Seattle to meet Blind Melon bass player Brad Smith.

With the addition of Pearl Jam drummer Dave Krusen, the band Luma launched in 1998, but Shinn and his bandmates quickly renamed themselves Unified Theory. Based in Seattle, the group spent a year touring and recording their self-titled debut album that dropped in 2000. Shinn first met his future bandmates from Live when Unified Theory toured with Live and Counting Crows in 2003.

By 2006, Unified Theory was playing packed showcases in LA and New York clubs. The band had completed its second album Cinematic, but Shinn was exhausted. He took a brief vacation back in Seattle, but told his bandmates that he was just a phone call away.

“For some reason they took it as if I was leaving,” Shinn says. “What a shame. We could have evolved into a monster of a band. We were on fire.”

Whatever the reason, Thorn and Smith ghosted Shinn and Krusen, who continued to play together for several years. Unified Theory, on the other hand, simply fell apart.

Chris Shinn reflects on his years fronting Live

After launching short-lived heavy-rock band Everything is Energy, Chris Shinn moved around, splitting time in LA and New Orleans. By 2012, he was living in Nashville and attending a pool party when three members of Live called him on speaker phone.

In 2009, Live had gone on hiatus which turned permanent when vocalist and chief songwriter Ed Kowalczyk left the fold. The remaining members, guitarist Chad Taylor, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer and drummer Chad Gracey, reformed Live without Kowalczyk and recruited Shinn to rerecord songs from Live’s back catalog so the band could license the music for commercials.

“On the re-records, I went [to York, PA] and nailed it,” Shinn says. “I parroted Ed as close as I could.”

After the session went well, Taylor, Dahlheimer and Gracey asked Shinn to join the band and go on tour. Shinn, a fan of the band since high school, accepted the offer.

Live performs a show in front of a large crowd
Live performs a show with Chris Shinn (center). (Photo by Lucia De Giovanni)

Live went on the Summerland Nineties nostalgia tour in 2013 with Everclear, Filter, and Sponge. After that, they went into the studio to record new Live album The Turn with producer Jerry Harrison, former keyboardist and guitarist with Talking Heads. At least some of the band went into the studio.

“Taylor, Dahlheimer and Gracey cut the backing tracks without me there,” Shinn says. “Then Jerry [Harrison] and I spent at least a month together [in the studio] working our asses off on that record.”

In the process, Shinn impressed Harrison with his talent and work ethic, and the two forged a tight friendship. Today, the 48-year old Shinn refers to the 74-year old Harrison as his “musical dad.” Shinn also receives a writing credit on every song on The Turn.

“Our goal [with The Turn] was to push the boundaries and take this awesome ship they had built to other places,” Shinn says.

Chris shinn holds a guitar on stage next to a bandmate from Live
Chris Shinn (right) onstage with Live. (Photo by Lucia De Giovanni)

He soon realized that other Live members had a different goal: to get product out in order to play it on tour and keep the commercial juggernaut rolling.

In a 2022 Rolling Stone interview, Shinn remembered his reaction to Live’s money-minded approach to making music. In response, Taylor dismissed Shinn’s recollections as the opinions of a “trust fund kid.” Shinn says he’s heard the “rich kid” put-down before, including one from notoriously rude super producer Bob Ezrin (Lou Reed, Alice Cooper), but such denigrating comments are water off his back.

The trauma Shinn has until recently internalized from his firing from Live is another matter. Shinn says he was determined to remain loyal to Live, but after he refused to cancel a long-planned family reunion in Arizona for a last minute one-off gig, his bandmates started negotiating a return to Live with former frontman Kowalczyk. In 2016, Taylor called Shinn to give him the boot.

“I could give a shit that I’m not in the band,” Shinn says. “It was never my band to begin with.”

One of the conditions for Kowalczyk returning to the fold, however, was having The Turn essentially erased from the band’s history.

“To have The Turn just removed, and then have everything taken down — any video things we had done, it was a big kick to the gut. I spent five years, and all I did was focus on that band. It was a massive betrayal that I pushed way down,” Shinn says.

Harrison, who produced three other Live albums in addition to The Turn, has urged Shinn to release the album as a ShinN solo project. The plan should come to fruition soon, Shinn says.

Still, the betrayal Shinn felt from his former bandmates stung.

“Who the fuck do you talk to about that?” Shinn says. “How many people do you know who have sung in multi-platinum selling bands, but they now want to pretend that you don’t exist. There aren’t many people to talk to about that, so you push that shit down.”

In ‘Falling Up,’ Chris Shinn gives himself to the music

In the meantime, Shinn had married, but the eight-year relationship, including over two years of marriage, was unraveling. Then COVID and the shutdown that followed removed distractions and put a magnifying glass on the couple’s problems.

After the divorce, Shinn turned to the home studio he had built with money earned fronting Live. He learned to use all the equipment he had once watched first-rate producers and engineers use, but now he was at the helm.

“It’s funny what trauma will do,” Shinn muses. “I fully gave myself to the music, which I hadn’t done before.”

The result is Falling Up, released under the name ShinN.

“I remembered 18-year-old me who had fire in his eyes and was fearless,” Shinn says about recording the album.

Chris Shinn sits on a curb
Chris Shinn (Courtesy of Chris Shinn)

Accessing the passion of his younger self, Shinn focused his decisions on what worked for the album.

“Whatever was coming through those speakers needed to resonate with what was happening inside [me], the same way dogs howl when the sirens go by,” Shinn says.

Shinn addresses his inner turmoil in the harrowing kick off track “I’m Inside.” Amid grinding guitars and clashing cymbals, Shinn’s supple yet hair-raising vocals ascend like a secular hymn.

“Taking each day/ in over cast gray/ Has secret meaning/ studying shapes in bottomless lakes/ The ancients, still breathing…”

“It’s the beginning of acknowledging that I was locked up emotionally,” Shinn says.

Shinn stretches himself with an arrangement including the sounds of strings, violin and Mellotron on “The Artist.” Over strummed guitars and a stuttering drum pattern, Shinn’s hushed confidential vocals surge forward:

“I am the reject, the keeper, the sleeper/ The underachiever in charge/ Casting a spell starts the raining in Hell/ Somewhere in there is a heart…”

The lyrics display the fierce optimism and hope that underpin even the album’s darkest songs.

“‘The Artist’ is me truly in my power,” Shinn says. “Hands down, music is magic for me.”

Shinn’s redemptive optimism is also evident on his 2023 EP Tentacles and Teeth, which is comprised of darkly psychedelic experimental pieces that didn’t quite fit with Falling Up’s flow.

Soaring, stomping and apocalyptic, the EP’s “Black Around the Edges” was composed during Shinn’s separation and divorce. The music is married to new celebratory lyrics about the current love in Shinn’s life, his girlfriend.

“How can you take/ Your aim off the draw?/ And not cross a lane?/ for real/ Control is letting go/ A steep climb, a stain…”

His bandmates have expressed an interest in playing additional shows, but right now, Shinn’s steep climb is preparing for the June 16 gig at Snug Harbor. That includes reuniting with bassist Dahlheimer.

Shinn stresses that he doesn’t hold his old Live bandmate responsible for the ugliness that arose near the end of his tenure with the band. In fact, Shinn says, Dahlheimer reached out a few years back with a heartfelt note that touched Shinn deeply.

“For him to be back with me right now is such a monumental and incredible thing,” Shinn says. As for his music and the future of his band, Shinn is dedicated to be fearless.

“I decided in my head and in my heart, that whatever I imagined, I would just do,” Shinn says. “If it’s a crazy thing with a song, or the videos I make, that’s it. Don’t be afraid to be exactly who the fuck you are.”

SUPPORT OUR WORK: Get better connected and become a member of Queen City Nerve to support local journalism for as little as $5 per month. Our community journalism helps inform you through a range of diverse voices.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *