A few weeks back, I got the chance to grab a beer with Shandy Lawson. He's a great songwriter but I was a little worried that he might not be as cool, in person. In fact, he's one of the few musicians who, after having met and talked with him, I have more respect for. I think I have a pretty good bullshit detector and he struck me as honest and sincere.
He's got a new live album available for download on his website, along with his last studio album. shandylawson.com The pictures included here were taken at the shows where he recorded the live album.
I was hoping to run a straight interview in the Advocate, but my technology failed me. Instead, I did a profile thing. It was too long to print, as it was, so I'll put the full piece up here, along with the transcript of the interview recordings that I could salvage.
The Advocate thing:
There are a lot of local songwriters who will tell you that Shandy Lawson is local songwriting royalty. His folk/alt-country yarns are full of complex characters and pathos. His fifth album, The Dark Side of Red, is now available as a free download.
“I want to write songs the way Hawthorne wrote poetry.”
Comparisons to Flannery O’Connor would not be undue and he claims influence by lyric poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Seamus Heaney. A New England sensibility is at the core of his identity but he objects to the pastoralism of Robert Frost. He prefers to examine a darker, dirtier New England. Although there is poetry in his words, storytelling is a more important feature. His songs are often gripping character studies of low people in bad places.
“I didn't get a whole lot out of it besides a nice tan and the runs.”
A factory worker for 10 years before his shop was outsourced, Lawson might be expected to put more autobiography into his songs of the dispossessed. He could write about going to Mexico to teach someone whose language he doesn’t speak to do his job; instead, he writes about miners and murderers. Folk is a genre frequently full of self-interested soul searching and heart wrenching personal experience. His closest personal connection to those subjects is the history channel and his prison pen pal. But that’s not to say his work is inauthentic. He doesn’t write until he’s researched enough to know he’s telling the stories properly and he only tells stories that affect him, in some way.
They’ll look to me as a father/ Dispensing wise words of wisdom/ With significance and charisma/ In everything I say
When I’m king
-King Shandy the Great
Although part of the Woody Guthrie folk tradition, he doesn’t push an agenda like Steve Earle or play identity politics like Ani DiFranco. Lawson prefers to influence his audience by telling affecting stories and hoping the listeners put some thought in. He doesn’t seek the stage as a pulpit from which to dispense any message.
“I've always believed a decent comfortable day job is the songwriter's worst enemy.”
More comfortable in his home studio than on a stage, Lawson doesn’t perform more than a couple of times a year. His recorded output is the primary access point for the songs. Mainly recorded at home or at Media Park Studios, where he’s head engineer, his recent albums don’t bear the rough edges that usually typify his DIY brethren. Though not slickly produced, the albums don’t sound like they were recorded by one man alone in the studio. He considers himself a rudimentary instrumentalist, but that doesn’t stop him from playing guitar, mandolin, keyboards and drums on the recordings.
“I kept a very close eye on this Radiohead thing.”
Lawson released his most recent effort, The Dark Side of Red as a free-or-donation download on his website citing similar releases by local art-folk band Mercy Choir and alternative rock demigods Radiohead as inspiration. He made the gamble that if he didn’t start out in debt by pressing copies of the CD, he might actually make some money. So far, it seems to be paying off. There were approximately 150 track downloads the first week with some visitors to the website leaving optional donations.
‘Cause I’m happy just to be here/ In the company of friends/ Got no time to worry where it ends.
-The Company of Friends
Lest anyone think he’s a humorless loner, Lawson has convened a disparate group of songwriters from across the state. The American Society of American Lyricists Society (ASOALS, for short (it works best if you say it out loud)) is comprised of James Velvet, Peter and Julie Riccio from the Sawtelles, Eric Paradine, Russell Shaddox of the Mold Monkies, his brother Tory Lawson and occasionally Frank Critelli. They gather monthly to complain about the scene and to show off new songs written to a theme determined by Lawson. They also frequently play shows together and Lawson produced the last albums by Critelli and the Sawtelles. It’s a cadre held together not by any shared philosophy or style, but by dedication to the craft of songwriting.
The Dark Side of Red is available for free from www.shandylawson.com
Why did you put the new album out for free on the internet?
I figure if I don't spend a grand and a half having them pressed and manufactured, I won't start out a grand and a half in the hole.
Tell me a little about your history, as a musician.
I started taking guitar lessons when I was 4. Started songwriting at 15 or 16. That was also my first band. We were a punk band but we didn't know it. We played Zeppelin and the Dead and Hendrix, but we played everything double time and super loud and fast and it wasn't until right before we broke up that we started realizing we should be playing Ramones and stuff like that.
What did you do in that band?
Were you writing for that band, lyrically?
Yeah, a little bit, lyrically. That was always our weakest stuff. We ended up dropping that material. But I was trying. That band lasted 5 or 6 years then I bought an acoustic guitar. And I started writing on that. I started playing on that because no band is much easier than having a band.
So I started playing gigs like that and didn't have to worry about the drummer not showing up or the bass player not showing up.
Did you play out with that band?
Keg parties. It was all high school stuff. It was keg parties. Someone's parents go away for the weekend and we move in and play a two-day gig.
When did you start performing solo?
I would say about 9 or 10 years ago. A little coffee shop here and there. That was right about the time that I met Frank Critelli. We split a bill in Hamden one night. He pretty much took me aside right then and said you should be playing New Haven. Because the scene north of here sucks.
Where do you come from?
It takes me an hour to get down here for all my gigs and everything but this town is where it's happening. Hartford blows.
He introduced me to the right people and "you've got to play here" and he'd get me a gig there and "you've got to play here" and he'd get me a gig there. It kind of felt like cheating because rather than bumming around the scene for a decade trying to get into the right places, he got me in.
So, playing guitar at 4? Did your family get you into that?
My dad played guitar. He was a songwriter. He never took it too seriously. He was in a couple of country bands. But there was always a guitar around. When I was 4, he got me a little 1/4 sized guitar and set me up with lessons. I never got all that good at it. I definitely don't sound like I've been playing guitar for 30 years. I got to a certain point and I stopped. But I've always played. And it wasn't until recently, the last 5 or 6 years, I started messing around with mandolin, keyboards and drums and all that stuff.
Your brother, Tory, plays too, right? Is anyone else in your family a musician?
Just him. He plays a little of everything.
How about education? Did you go to college?
Every 7 or 8 years I go back to school for a little while and then it never works out. Usually I'm a philosophy major or a history major. I'll probably be going back next fall, fall 2008.
What will you study?
Where will you go?
Probably Central. I expect to go for 3 semesters before I lose interest. I must have 200 credits that are completely useless because I still don't have math, psychology any of that. But I go, I take interesting stuff then I lose interest.
I like school, I love the classroom, I like learning, I don't mind homework, I love reading. But there's nothing I want to do in life that requires a degree. That's the problem. I go to school but I have no goal. I have no purpose for being there besides having a good time.
So what did you do after high school?
After high school, I went to college for a year.
When I was in high school, I worked in a factory. I went to college for a year and after I got thrown out, I went back to the factory. It ended up, I was in manufacturing for 10 years. I was a tool maker. I was running machines. The factory ended up closing its doors and moving to Mexico. I went to Mexico for a little while. I was supposed to train Mexicans how to be machinists. I didn't know a word of Spanish. So I went for a little while. It was a good time, I'm really glad I went. But I didn't get a whole lot out of it besides a nice tan and the runs.
But now you work in the studio. What do you do there?
I'm the head engineer. I do a little bit of actually producing of projects I did the Sawtelles' last record, Frank Critelli's last record, my last record. But mostly it's just engineering. We do hip hop and jazz and punk and whatever comes through the door.
It's kind of a dying business. Because of the costs of recording gear and computers
I understand you’re building a home studio.
We're planning to add on to our house. I think this record came out great, but I'm much more comfortable recording in my own place. In my own space and I know Frank and the Sawtelles would probably be more comfortable in more of a homey setting. So I'll be building my own place.
How long does it take from when you finish the song until you record it?
Maybe an hour and a half after writing the lyrics. They're all different. I like to get comfortable with them, play them live a few times before I record them. But it doesn't always work out that way.
So, what’s the real thing? The performance or the recorded thing?
The recorded thing is the real thing. I'm generally very uncomfortable performing. I don't like gigging. I used to do as many gigs as possible. I don't know what I thought would come of that. Like I said, usually I have to drive an hour to get down here. So by the time I get down here, I'm already tired and pissed off from the traffic. And I'm hungry. Plus we have to find a babysitter. And then I'm sitting in some Yalie hangout where everybody's trying to ignore me because they're trying to study or do their homework.
I've cut it down to I book three shows a year. Usually I'll pick up a few more here and there. Someone's playing somewhere interesting and I'll hook up with them. This year, I had the Buttonwood Tree, great show, the Sofa coming up this Friday. That'll be a great show, I love playing Books and Company. The Daffodil Festival. Those are my three gigs this year. I'm sure I'll pick up something for the fall but I don't do the coffeeshop thing anymore. It's too frustrating. It's never worth it.
So how do you promote yourself?
I don't promote myself.
That's part of the problem with having a good day job. I've always believed a decent comfortable day job is the songwriter's worst enemy. Because you have nothing to complain about. You have nothing to drive you to do better, to succeed.
My life is in a really great place. I don't think I'm... I think skyrocketing success would be the worst possible thing to happen. Not that I don't want to make a lot of money. If songwriting was my day job, I wouldn't like it anymore, it would be work and I would resent it and I wouldn't want to do it. I don't like gigging enough to tour and go do that. And I don't like answering to anybody, so having a label boss would ruin the whole thing. Right now, I play when I feel like it. I play to nice, cool, listening rooms. You were at the Buttonwood show, the place was packed. I had a great vibe and everyone had a good time and we went out and partied afterward and I made a few bucks and doing that a few times a year is perfect. And I don't have to work too hard to do that.
So, why did you release the new album this way?
Radiohead did that. Just as an aside, Radiohead makes it really hard to like them because they do a couple of great albums, then they do a bunch of shit for a decade then they do something good. I've always liked Radiohead. I've always been kind of fascinated by this whole apocalypse of the music business with what are downloads gonna do? What's gonna happen with the CD? So I kept a very close eye on this Radiohead thing.
(Talking about DIY)
...Patsy, Calvin DeCutlass, Mike Lasalla. I had them all write a verse for the song and they all came in and sang the verse that they wrote. And that's one of my favorite things ever, is that recording. But for the most part, I'll play all the instruments and do the production.
When I started working in the studio, we have a basement that had been flooded a whole bunch of time and there was radio station equipment from the 50s and 60s. And before I went and threw anything out, I figured I should know what it is so I'm not throwing out anything that some geek online is going to freak out over. So, I started learning about electronics...
(Talking about folk music and Steve Earle)
I would love to hook up with a good DJ. I have no problem with any element of music, whatsoever. Which is a conscious effort. When I was in high school, I was one of the most ridiculous music snobs ever. I was at my junior prom when the DJ played "Stairway to Heaven" and stopped the record before it got to the fast part and I wanted to hang him in effigy. Boycotting bands that had drum machines in them. Now, I'm open to anything. One of the things I've been working on is putting beats together for hip hop. My studio, we have a lot of rappers that come in.
(Talking about the Sweetheart of the Rodeo show at Cafe 9)
I never really liked that album. I didn't know any of the songs from it. I was assigned my song, I had to learn it off of iTunes. But I'd do anything he (Chris Buskey) asked me to do. He's a great friend, I'm a huge fan of his. And then when I was driving down there that night, I couldn't find a parking space. I'm like something must be going on. I ended up parking in the friggin' garage, I payed like fifteen bucks to park. I walked 8 blocks to Cafe 9. The only reason they let me in is that I was playing and they had to kick someone out, to let me in. I don't understand why that worked and not anything else that week.
I took a couple of videos at Books and Company. Tragically, his best songs are longer than the three minute limit my camera has on video.