SHANNON SHAW IS NOT UNFAMILIAR with bad interviews.
Not narky or difficult ones for the co-singer/co-writer (but in titular reality the frontwoman) for Shannon And The Clams: they haven’t pissed many people off in their 15 year existence, not even people who have some issues with their home, Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. And Shaw is more likely to have a reputation for being “a hoot” as one Australian interviewer recalls.
Instead, we’re talking ones where the interviewer knows nothing about her, can barely string a sentence together, or just trip over their enthusiasm with amateurish glee. Oh boy, there’s plenty of them as even a few minutes online would show. So, asking for a friend who may or may not be hoping his interview doesn’t do the same, does she have a technique for dealing with these?
“The first thing that comes to mind is one time where I did a really bad job with that. It was in Florida, this interviewer asked me all these questions, and they seemed like a really cool, intelligent person – they were a journalism student – but every single question they asked me was so generic, so boring, every single question that you could guess right now,” Shaw says. “I answered all of them politely, tried to zhuzh them up a little bit, then at the end of the interview I said, hey, I just want to let you know that you feel free to ask me anything else that you want.
“You asked me all these things that you could Google, why not ask me something weird, ask me something more personal, ask me something that has nothing to do with my musical influences.”
Nice. Who wouldn’t like that opportunity?
“It hurt her feelings, and that article didn’t go well,” she sighs. “Didn’t go well.”
Taking into account that ahead of a new tour and a Splendour In The Grass appointment, The Clams have played enough gigs in Australia to make this redundant, one question we can avoid this time around is the extension of the musical influences one: where someone tries to pigeonhole Shannon and The Clams into being a garage punk band, or a ‘60s retro group, or an Elvis-era rock ‘n’ roll band, or Buddy Holly’s Crickets backing a Spector girl group.
They’re all true enough, depending on which track you’ve started on, but always seeming like only part of the story. Maybe we should just say Shannon and The Clams is a pop group and damn the consequences.
“That doesn’t bug me. Maybe 10 years ago I would have been like, ‘Pop? He’s crazy!’, But now I’m way more open to it,” Shaw says. “I like pop music, I do. And yes, it’s from a certain 30 years of time that are not modern. But I can’t get mad people for pigeonholing us: it’s so human to compare and to connect things and to give things context.”
Honestly, if we I going to talk influences, maybe we should forget the music and look at the ground. The soil.
Not too long ago, Shaw moved from her long-time home in Oakland to Portland, Oregon. Oddly, or tellingly, she has referred to this as her moving back to the country, though Portland is hardly rural.
“I live in the middle of the city, but my fiancé is a vegetable farmer and so I get to escape out of the farm whenever I need to,” she grins. “That’s really nice. I lived in Oakland for 16 years and sometimes I miss it, but just a change was what the doctor ordered.”
She’s not exactly out there wielding a hoe or scattering the seeds, but that’s not the point for someone who calls herself “a country girl”, having grown up on a farming property in northern California, which her mother, who used to work at a psychiatric hospital (her father was a firefighter, and both of them were Mormons – if that matters) runs.
“I walk around and look at them, see how they’re doing and I might ride a four-wheeler around sometimes and pick some wild plums. There are cornfields to hide in. It’s just nice to be somewhere so different and feeling closer to nature little things like waking up to the sound of birds, or being able to hear plants swing in the wind outside,” Shaw says. “The kind of stuff I really miss, and is important to me.”
Why the need to escape? Does she need the isolation?
“I guess isolation is not quite the right word but knowing that I can sit out at the end of my Mom’s fields and nothing is going to be around except bugs and maybe one of our dogs,” says Shaw. “Openness, space, nature, and it’s a different kind of hard work, you know. Being in the city is so different. There’s constantly that sound of cars that you get used to, and then you don’t.
“I did miss being somewhere where I can go outside and not feel like someone is going to walk up and see me under that tree and bother me, or I’ll be in the way. Just being able to tuck myself away and not be bothered is good.”
With that as her starting point more than two decades ago, it had to have had an effect on the way she approached music, if not life. Maybe writing wasn’t about connecting with others but with herself.
“This is making me realise that having so much space and openness, and knowing I could go where no one could hear me, was definitely a beginning place for me to go sing,” she says. “Knowing that no one could hear me sing or play around on the guitar, no one could make fun of me, no one could tell me I was doing it wrong. I’ve never thought about that before but now I’m realising that if I didn’t have access to something like that …”
As her voice trails off, Shaw’s eyes lose focus as she disappears into a memory, and then brings herself back.
“Aside from writing music out on my Mom’s property, the rest of my songwriting typically happens in the car, where no one can hear me: driving from Oakland out to my Mom’s property You’re on to something.”
Did that early isolation, the chance to at least start well out of sight, give her some confidence when people started judging her singing, writing, playing, everything?
“I had more of a stubbornness. I definitely would say most of my childhood I was very afraid of doing something wrong, and had a huge fear of being embarrassed. I definitely got bullied a lot and at some point I started to realise, oh they going to hate me and make fun of me no matter what I do, there’s nothing I can do to escape that, so I may as well do whatever I want,” Shaw says. “I feel like from that moment – I was probably 16 when I had that epiphany – I had a different attitude about everything that I put forth, whether it was me and how I dressed or how I interacted with people.”
Did it work? Did it help? Did it matter if it didn’t?
“It definitely gave me more what presented as fearless but was definitely some overcompensating. I had that fake it till you make it attitude for a really long time, and it really helped me: I project what I want and sometimes it’s enough to where I’m really able to lift and change my brain to being ‘you can have that if you want it’,” she says.
“I definitely grew up with a lot of that and when I started playing in warehouses, with garage rock bands and punk bands and stuff like that, I got a lot of judgement, a lot of criticism, a lot of comments, and sometimes it would upset me but it pretty much always just gave me more fuel to, I guess not prove them wrong, but prove to myself that I’m doing what I should be doing, and I should keep doing it.”
It’s not like it was just a small reaction, or just some usual grumbling from competitive peers.
“Realising that I am not someone who looks like they would be a normal musician: I don’t know … being a woman, being fat, being tall, and being part of this scene that was very male, it was like I didn’t belong anywhere,” says Shaw. “Instead of making me try and shape myself to fit in, it kind of made me want to become more and more and more myself, and feel good not fitting in.
“But [the band have] never fit in anywhere. Like you were talking about, people pigeonholing us: there is no perfect comparison anyway. That used to make me sad, in the beginning, and now I love it.”
Shannon & The Clams play Westwood, Melbourne, July 21; The Corner, Melbourne, July 22; Splendour In The Grass, Byron Bay, July 24; La La La’s, Wollongong, July 27; Mary’s Underground, Sydney, July 28.