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Shannon and the Clams Frontwoman Shannon Shaw Goes Coast to Coast

Discussing influences, therapy through music and The Bee Gees

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Shannon and the Clams
Shannon and the Clams (from left): Shannon Shaw, Cody Balnchard, and Will Sprott. (Promotional photo)

When I spoke with Shannon Shaw over the phone on April 19, she was enjoying a short respite between tours at her California home after having just ended a West Coast tour with her band Shannon and the Clams. The tour included a sold-out stop at San Francisco’s famed Fillmore Auditorium, just across the bay from the band’s hometown of Oakland. 

Though the tour was only two weeks long, it didn’t feel that way, she said. 

“Man, it feels so long,” Shaw told me as she repacked her clothes for her band’s upcoming trip to the South, which will include a stop at Charlotte’s Neighborhood Theatre on Tuesday, April 26. “I think it was after having so much time off and before that I’d been sick, and then on tour [bandmate] Cody and I both lost our voices, and somehow it was still one of the funnest tours we’ve ever done. I think the crowds were just so amazing and happy to see us — happy to be able to go out.”

Now the Clams are heading south, where they’ll bookend the Charlotte gig with appearances at Charleston’s High Water Festival on April 23 and Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival on April 29, fitting in other regional spots in the meantime. 

While Shannon and the Clams are known for playing high-energy shows featuring an upbeat, surf-garage-rock style (among other genres), their songs carry a certain sadness to them. Their latest album is no exception. 

 

While recording Year of the Spider, which released in August 2021, the band witnessed forest fires ravage areas around their city, including one in Napa that nearly her forced Shaw’s parents to evacuate their home. Also fresh in their minds was the trauma of the Ghost Ship Fire, which in 2016 rocked the Oakland DIY scene that birthed Shannon and the Clams.

On a more personal level, Shaw’s father was diagnosed with cancer while they were recording the new record. 

During our phone call, we got a chance to discuss how Shaw turns to songwriting to address such trauma, and how she differs in that respect from her longtime friend Cody Blanchard, with whom she shares songwriting and vocalist duties in Shannon and the Clams. We also discussed the band’s Southern following, Shaw’s Southern influences, and how the hell anyone could hate The Bee Gees.

Queen City Nerve: Do you all notice a change in following and turnout when you come over to the East Coast? 

Shannon Shaw: I mean, it is different just because we’ve been a West Coast band forever. But I would say that we have some extremely dedicated hardcore fans in the Southeast that have been at, like, every show since the beginning. We play smaller venues [in the South] and maybe we just don’t get over to the Southeast as often. Like, we’re going to play South Carolina. We only played there one other time. So we need to show our face more often, but we really do have great fans there, too.

That South Carolina show will be at a festival, as compared to the Charlotte one, which will be at a mid-sized theater. I’ve seen you play on a pier at Carolina Beach in 2018, as well.

We had the best time playing that. I loved it. And then a lot of the people that were at that show went to the show the next day at Reggie’s in Wilmington, right? Yeah, it was just cool. It kind of felt like we were part of the scene or something. It was just such a cool setting. Not the easiest setup for everyone, but you’re there for the atmosphere. We made a lot of friends on that trip.

Shannon and the Clams
Shannon and the Clams will play at Neighborhood Theatre on April 26. (Photo courtesy of Another Management Company)

How do you change up your approach, if at all, when you’re playing at, say, a festival as opposed to a theater as opposed to a pier?

Well, I really have to center myself. I’m pretty sensitive, so if I feel like the crowd isn’t as into it or something, I’m like talking to myself in my head while people are watching us — pumping myself up or trying to focus on a really smiley person that looks like they know who we are. And then I just kind of have to project the feeling I want to have while I’m playing, and then I get into it. 

I really feel like crowds are sensitive, too. I feel like we’re feeling each other back and forth, ugh, I guess that sounds pretty weird, but I’m sensing them, they’re sensing me, and their joy and responses totally pump me up and give me the gas to go harder. Playing a show is such a mutual exchange. We need each other. And we have been very lucky to have amazing fans. Every show we play where people don’t know us, we make new fans. We’re pretty good at making people dance that aren’t ready to dance.

Your band’s style has been labeled with any number of genres and compared to music that came out of the ’50s and just about every decade since. What did you come up listening to?

I came up with oldies. My mom and dad also both love country Western. We listened to a lot of Hank Williams, a lot of Roger Miller, a lot of Patsy Klein, but then we also listened to a ton of, like, 1960s pop music and ’70s, like a lot of Kinks, a lot of Rolling Stones, and then anyone with, like, a Southern influence. My parents were really crazy about CCR. Roy Orbison is definitely my number one hero forever.

Basically the stuff that they loved absolutely transferred onto me, which is beautiful, soulful singing that’s coming from a real place. That’s what perks up my ears is when I’m convinced that whoever is singing means what they’re saying.

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I can definitely hear that Western inspiration, especially on your solo album. How do you enjoy having these different acts like Hunks & His Punx and Shannon and the Clams to experiment with, then being able to sort of take direct control for your own solo effort? Shannon and the Clams is already known for featuring such a wide range of styles, so how do you push yourself to explore even further when you have your own thing going on or are playing with Hunx & His Punx? 

It is tough to flip focuses. But whenever I get to play with Hunx, I feel like I get a break. I’m not in charge. I’m not the lead person. Hunx & His Punx, if you’ve never seen us play live, you have to see it sometime. The music, of course, is good and fun, but the live performance is the missing piece. Seth [Bogart] is just such a natural comedian. He is so hilarious and he is a showman. It just feels so fun to be supporting this, like, he’s such a superstar. It’s really fun to be playing with him and not having to be the absolute lead, you know? It’s nice, and it’s different because we’re laughing 100% of the time that we’re on stage. We’re laughing the whole time. It’s just nonstop fun. 

And with Clams, it’s absolutely fun, but I have to really tap into the emotions I felt when I wrote the song so that I can really give it the most honest performance. Clams songs that are fun, too, I’m doing the same thing [as with Hunx]. And then the solo stuff is so deeply personal and I don’t have my Clams — who are my brothers — I don’t have them to hide behind or with me or anything. So with the solo band, it’s like I am surrounded on stage by insanely good musicians, and so all these insecurities that I have definitely start to creep out, and I’ve got to bat them back down. 

But the solo performances are really satisfying. I feel like I have tons of Shannon and the Clams fans and some solo fans, and the solo fans, they’re just different. It’s like I can feel how important that one album was to a lot of people, and that is very gratifying. You see it on their faces when I’m playing. Hopefully the solo band will get to tour more at some point, I’ve just been so busy and surviving a pandemic.

Absolutely, just make sure you stop by Charlotte when you do that because I am one of those people for whom that solo album was and is important. 

Yes, definitely. 

Shannon and the Clams

You mentioned how personal some of the songs that you write are. In the new video for “All Of My Crying,” whose idea was that to run with a metaphor about using personal trauma or sadness and turning it around to be used for good in an artistic way?

That was the brainchild of our very close friend Ryan Brown, who directed the video. It was like the first video where we’ve ever been like, “Ryan, hey man, I trust you. Let’s hear your idea.” Because Cody and I went to art school together, and that’s how we knew each other, and everyone who plays in that band is really creative. So we’re used to having full control over any creative project.

So any other Shannon and the Clams video, it was my idea or Cody’s idea or everyone’s idea together. So this was the first time where we let someone take the wheel, and the concept off the bat was so good that we just wanted to see him do it. We know his quality. Ryan’s done a lot of videos for us and my solo band in the past, and we just trust him.

And in terms of how that metaphor plays out in your music, you all have experienced some traumatic events that occurred while you were recording this album and before then. Do you see songwriting as therapeutic in that sense? Is that where you turn to when you’re going through these things, be they larger, more broad issues like the forest fires or something as personal as what you dealt with with your father?

Oh yeah, 100%. Absolutely. I feel like I can’t write unless something is going on, and then I’ve got to kind of capture it. [pauses for a moment] Sorry, my dad was calling me. I’ve got to hang up on my poor little dad. [laughs]

Ahh, I feel awful. You will have to send my apologies. But I’m hoping that means he is doing well? 

Oh, he’s doing really good. Thank you for asking.

So in terms of what you were saying, you almost feel like something has to be going on in order to write so you can capture it in the moment?

Yeah. I mean, at some point, I’d like to learn a tip from Cody, because Cody doesn’t typically write from his direct experiences like I do. He’s always been a storyteller. When we first became friends at art school, he was a creative writing major and his writings were my favorite. I was reading a lot of Haruki Murakami and lots of magical realism at the time, and then when I met Cody and he was writing stories that were as good as my very favorite authors of all time, it definitely was like a big link, like, a big part of why we became friends. That was just so rad.

Cody and Shannon together at a Shannon and the Clams show at the Royale in Boston. (Photo by Brandon Goldman)

So the way he writes, a lot of songs are through almost like traditional storytelling in the sense that he’s imagining a possible scenario that has nothing to do with him and it’s all about observation, or he knows the story of a friend and is doing a creative interpretation of the experience.

That makes sense. I can definitely see that play out now that you say that, to the point where I could probably go back and guess who wrote what songs. There is a lot of magical storytelling within some of your songs; “The Rabbit’s Nose” comes to mind immediately. And then there are a lot of songs that are more about emotions, love and loss, like “Ozma” about losing your beloved dog. Is that a pretty good way to tell who wrote a given song? 

Yes, for sure.

 

Shannon and the Clams have long been known for delving into a whole bunch of different genres and styles and even eras, but this latest album almost seems to take that to another level. Did you feel like you unlocked a new layer of creativity? Did it just sort of come about naturally?

I think that we felt comfortable experimenting in ways that maybe we hadn’t thought of before. Cody and I are huge Bee Gees fans, and he sings like Barry Gibb when he wants to — with no effort. That’s just natural. That’s how his voice comes out. It’s just incredible. But we were so inspired by the Bee Gees documentary.

I feel like in the ’80s, there was this thing where everyone made fun of The Bee Gees. I don’t totally get it. Probably just the thing that’s, like, things from your childhood either make you cringe or you love them, and I feel like maybe the generation before me hated The Bee Gees because they liked all this other music in the ’70s, or just when something gets popular, then suddenly all these people hate it for whatever reason.

Well, I think there’s also some homophobia involved in that anti-disco movement that pop culture has only recently started to shake off.

You are so right. You’re dead right there. But we have always been fans, and seeing that documentary was really — we both felt just incredibly inspired by it. And I don’t know if that’s how we started working on “All Of My Crying,” but we’ve always tried to encourage Cody to focus even more on that super-high voice that he does. 

The album has gotten a lot of critical acclaim. Pitchfork called it “not only the most musically diverse Shannon and the Clams record, but also the most lyrically affecting.” Is that something you guys pay attention to or just sort of do your own thing and don’t worry about it?

I pay a little bit of attention. I try not to pay too much attention because I’m kind of sensitive and sometimes it can get in my head. But generally we are lucky and we have really positive press, which is a good thing. But I would never let us release an album that I didn’t feel was special or important or honest. I feel like we’ve got some serious quality control. 

Shannon and the Clams
Shannon and the Clams are known for fun live performances. (Photo courtesy of Another Management Company)

Super cliche radio host question to wrap up: For folks thinking about stopping by Neighborhood Theatre on Tuesday who haven’t seen y’all perform yet, what can they expect that night?

Definitely a lively show. You’ll definitely see some matching outfits and some people who are singing as hard as they can … Let’s make it the wildest Tuesday you’ve seen in ages. 


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