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Interview: Shenandoah Davis Talks Politics And Heartbreak

Interview: Shenandoah Davis Talks Politics And Heartbreak

Friday 26th January, 2018 2:33PM

US songwriter Shenandoah Davis is no stranger to our shores, having travelled here twice before her current month-long New Zealand tour. Davis released her first album in six years Souvenirs last September, a gorgeously composed reflection on the minutiae of heartbreak. The moving record's classically-influenced pop music has met with significant international acclaim, winning end-of-year accolades from the likes of Pitchfork. We caught up with the artist in transit from Napier to Wellington, as she was heading towards the South Island leg of her tour. Read on for our conversation with Davis, where she talks about her love of small-town New Zealand, how personal relationships inspired Souvenirs, her perspective on current US politics, and more...

How are you doing?

I'm doing great! We've been driving from Napier to Wellington and pulled to the side of the road in Greytown so that we could chat.

How was the drive? Greytown's pretty cool.

It's beautiful. We've just gotten here, we've been having a really slow drive today. We stopped at an organ museum in Woodville, and we were there for about an hour and a half playing all of the organs and chatting with the couple there. They have about four hundred organs that they've collected over the years. 

How's New Zealand been treating you? I heard your Summer In The Square show in Auckland was cancelled the other day.

It was! It was cancelled for rain. It was very sad, but New Zealand has been treating us great so far. I have two bandmates that I've brought with me, it's my third trip to New Zealand but its the first trip for both of them. It has been fun for me to play tour guide a little bit in between shows. But it's always nice to see a place through the eyes of someone who's never seen it before. All of us have been looking forward to this trip for quite a few months. It's fun to have some fresh eyes on everything, and for me to finally feel comfortable enough now that it's my third trip here to be able to help someone who hasn't been here before to navigate it a little bit. It's helping me to learn everything in a different way.

You've been here twice before and you once toured with Anthonie Tonnon. What keeps bringing you back to the country?

I really love the people here. I feel there's a stronger appreciation for quiet and thoughtful music here than there is in the States. I think that especially once you get into the smaller towns that the people are a bit more open-minded and excited to go to a gig that maybe they don't know a whole lot about, or that they haven't researched. In the States people are a little bit more set in their ways. If there's a hip hop show coming to town, some other people might say "Oh well I don't like hip hop music so I won't go to that." But people here seem more keen to be checking something out that they haven't experienced before.

It must be an interesting time politically travelling outside of the US at the moment. It also seems to be a relatively rare time in New Zealand where there's a bit of optimism around politics here. What's your perspective on things?

I don't want to say anything that will prevent me getting let back into the States but it feels to be kind of a relief to be out of the country. Especially to be keeping up with the US news with so many thousands of miles in between, to be able to look at things on CNN and the BBC as they come up and have it seem so much further away. It's nice to have that emotional distance from it because especially in Seattle where I live, it's a very liberal city, most of the cities are super liberal. Everyone just wakes up in the morning with like rock in their stomach, and sees the news everyday and sees what new atrocity or incredibly insensitive thing has been said by Donald Trump.

Everyone's living in, not a state of fear, but it's like watching a really bad movie. We have had some seemingly minor victories in other elections and different branches of the government, being able to maintain their own power and their own beliefs in spite of the administration. But I think a lot of people in the States are feeling pretty powerless about everything that's going on. It's nice to learn a little about another country's government and hear some good news for a change. And also to hear the perspective from people in New Zealand on what's going on back home.

You've talked about your latest album Souvenirs as a breakup album, but not in a traditional sense. Could you please talk about your ideas behind the record, and what sparked off the record?

When I had started recording the record I was in the process of getting divorced, and that was something I had been putting off for a couple of years. The relationship had not been going well but I had been putting off getting divorced. My family is great, but for me personally I just felt really embarrassed that the relationship had failed. I really don't like failing at things, I try very hard not to fail at anything. So by my standards that was the biggest failure of my life that I had experienced so far.

So I was going both through the marriage but (also) through other relationships that I had had, both romantic relationships and platonic relationships, and trying to find some sort of pattern. Or something that I could learn from these older relationships that maybe I hadn't considered before to prevent myself from making the same mistakes again. Trying to figure out what I could've learned from these situations that already happened, or if there had been maybe something I had overlooked in the moment.

In the therapeutic process of doing that I was able to pinpoint some very specific moments in relationships where I should have seen the tides changing, or I should have come to some kind of realisation. Those are the seeds that sprouted into the songs from Souvenirs. The songs are souvenirs, the little moment-memories that I've somehow hung onto from these past relationships.

There's so much detail in your recordings and your lyrics, your music really rewards the listener for paying attention. What inspires that level of attention from you?

I just really believe if you're going to put energy into something or try to do something you should really put as much energy as you can spare into it, and do the best possible job that you can. Making a record is a lot of hard work, so to me it made sense to put as much effort and energy and thought into making the record and just making it as intentional as possible. Especially since the music is released under my name, there's not a band name to kind of hide behind. I wanted to be really careful with the lyrics and what I was saying to make sure it was all something I really believed in and I could stand behind. And it could be a story that I wouldn't mind telling at one hundred to five hundred shows, every night, telling the same stories over and over again.

It was really important to me to just make sure that whatever I was making I believed in it. Because as a musician especially going on tour, it's easy to get tired of things if you aren't one hundred percent invested in them from the very beginning. For this record, because some of the stories don't really have enough drama around them to really seem offhand like a story that's worth telling, there are a lot of small details and small moments, in general the songs are not about grandiose tragedies. While we were making the record and while I was putting together the live band, making a more grandiose cinematic sound was my way of elevating the stories a little bit.

What have you got planned for the coming year? Do you need to get back to a day job at any point?

I do have a day job, I work remotely. I run a nanny agency that's based in the States called Adventure Nannies, and that has been a really fantastic job because everyone works remotely so I'm able to do it from anywhere in the world. Although I have taken as few weeks as possible off for this trip, so I could make the most of my time here and really enjoy it. In terms of music I have scattered shows around the US for the next six months. At the end of those shows I'll start writing another set of music.

Do you have any ideas of what themes you might be exploring with your next set?

I'm not sure, I've become really interested in writing a music in the last couple of years. Even though I'm not going to start composing the music until at least July, I have been in the research phase a little bit and reading a lot of biographies of women or groups of women around the world. I've been focussing in on the 1920s through the 1940s. Just trying to zero in on someone else story that I could tell rather than keeping the focus on my own stories, because there are infinite amazing stories that already exist that people haven't been exposed to yet.

You recently played at the famous Folsom Prison in California, what was that like? Are there any other exciting locations that you're looking forward to playing at?

Oh my gosh, I've played at the prison quite a few times, it's a really unique experience. It's an all-male prison and the general population definitely does not, if the were choosing a type of music I don't think that they would pick quiet singer-songwriter piano music, but it's just the concert that's happening that day. Everyone comes to it with an open mind and it's a little bit more interactive than most shows. There's a lot of questions and answering. You'll play a song and one of the inmates will pipe up and ask a question about the lyrics, or comment on a part of a song that they particularly liked. It's simultaneously a much more casual setting and a much LESS casual setting.

We played in Gisborne on Saturday night and that was a fantastic show, that was the only show on this tour that was in a city that I haven't been to before. Everywhere else I'm going I have been to and I'm looking forward to all the shows for different reasons. I would say I'm particularly excited to go back to Okarito and play in Donovan's Store for the third time, that's one of my favourites. That's an experience that there's nothing truly comparable to in the States.

You can catch Shenandoah Davis touring New Zealand in January and early February, for more info and tickets see HERE.


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