Interview and photos by Scott Preston
I had the pleasure to speak with CEA nominee (Singer/Songwriter category) Shawna James and ask her some questions:
Cincy Groove: Did it feel good to finally get your first cd released?
Shawna James: Yes, but there’s a long story behind it. People have been asking me to do a cd for a while-or telling me I needed to. I started playing guitar 4 -5 years ago, but I had been singing with a 20 piece jazz band to get started and because I wanted to cover the songs I had learned to sing by. Before, I had just been singing at home on my own to records that I would turn up really loud and then try to sing over. I didn’t really feel confident enough to get out there and sing in front of people. I just didn’t think I was good enough. I drove every neighbor I ever had insane singing all hours of the night and day. When I moved out of my last apartment my landlord said he would miss me singing Patsy Cline! Anyway, I had this guitar that I bought a few years before that I would generally get drunk and fall into instead of play. I had some extra time on my hands for reasons I won’t go into and finally decided to teach myself how to play it in 2004 I think. I think I gave myself arthritis as I would play some days for something like 11 hours. It was then I wrote a bunch of songs right off the bat and within a year Erwin Musper offered me a development deal. I immediately went into a 2 year writing block and no more deal.
What happened was, I got married and it didn’t work out, we have remained very close friends but I pretty much left feeling like a failure and spent that entire Summer in bed crying and trying to figure out which date to kill myself. I mean I knew how I would, just not when I would. Right before I moved out and after not writing for a long time, I believed I would never write again-that the creativity was gone or a fluke or something. I eventually came to the idea that if I pull a Bob Dylan and go electric and use these distortion pedals it will jar something in my brain with the different sounds. I also wanted to learn to play slide and was listening to a lot of Blind Willie Johnson. I ended up starting this side project called The Slacks and wrote 5 or 6 songs with them, which was PJ Harrington on bass and Ric Hickey on drums and me of course on guitar. PJ decided he was moving to Austin and Ric decided to work on a solo acoustic album so there I was. We played one gig at Northside Tavern and blew everyone away. People came up from the back to ask who the hell we were!! The bartenders were like, “Turn down your amp!”
After that this guy, Drew had been coming into the bar I worked at and we started talking about music and he said he was a drummer. He had just moved down from Cleveland and didn’t know anybody. I told him when I get it together (out of my depressed spell) we would get together and rehearse and see what happens. He and I had got together and wrote a bunch of stuff but have never written any words. I want my side project to be solely for me to play guitar and not sing at all. We finally and recently just got Sarrah Hutton to play bass with us, who also happened to play guitar for The Woos and was one of the people I met at Allyn’s. She is now playing bass for Cash Flagg. I kept thinking about Sarrah because she is a great guitar player but I wanted her to play bass. I don’t know, she just kept coming to mind for some reason and now I am so glad she did! It just so happened that she had picked up the bass and was teaching herself how to play. She came down to one of our practices just to see if she was interested and we automatically clicked. She actually opened up the drummer and me to a new way thinking/playing our music. When Drew and I were alone we sounded like Black Sabbath meets early Led Zeppelin with a bit of The Pixies. I was playing the guitar, learning slide and trying to make it sound like a bass at the same time. Somebody said the other night I sound like Robin Trower on acid lol. People usually ask how many guitar players we have when they listen to
The Slacks basement tapes. Makes me feel really good even though most times it is accidental-the sounds I make that is!!
Cincy Groove: So all that happened a few years ago, but what made you start playing and writing again?
Shawna James: I met a singer/songwriter on myspace named Paula Knight and booked a bunch of shows with her and it really pulled me out of the pits of hell which is where I felt I was for a while. It made me excited enough that I started writing. I literally hadn’t played out in over a year and I hadn’t written any songs outside of The Slacks for 2 years. I ran into my singer/songwriter (Local Honeys) drummer Todd Drake who I hadn’t seen in a long time. He sent me a message on myspace and said “Let’s make a record”. So to get ready I went and played the Southgate House for the first time in a long time and played a bunch of new songs. I ran into Billy Alletzhauser that night who I’m really good friends with and plays with me as well and he said, “Let’s do it!”
Cincy Groove: How long did it take you to record your cd?
Shawna James: We got it done in 15 weeks but boiled down, 10 days, because I had actually booked a bunch of gigs in Scotland and didn’t want people to come up to me after the show asking if I had any cd’s for sale and me say “No, I came all this way and I have nothing to offer you but a memory.” What Billy and I did for the next 15 weeks was get together every Monday for a couple hours. We ended up recording it all in his basement The Batcave. My friend Ed Cunningham from The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars came in and laid down some fiddle on one track, Todd Drake is on 4 tracks and Billy and I did the rest. We had the cd mastered at Serif Sound by Andrew Hamilton and I then went to QCA to have it duplicated after being up all night at Serif. I picked it up on a Thursday and got on a plane on Monday.
Cincy Groove: How many cd’s have you sold?
Shawna James: Well, I work at 2 bars. I picked up the cd’s on a Thursday morning and by Saturday night at midnight I had sold the first 50 to just my bar customers alone. I only had 100 printed. Altogether since the cd was released I have sold about 150 cds. It’s funny I posted a blog on myspace saying, “I know its not a big deal for some of you to sell 50 cd’s in 48 hours but I feel like I just went aluminum. Next we are going copper lol. The funny thing was I didn’t even play any shows before I left for my trip to Scotland and then none when I came back until the CD release at Northside.
Cincy Groove: How did you find out you had been nominated for CEA singer/songwriter of the Year?
Shawna James: When I got back from my trip to Scotland I went and dropped off the cd at WNKU and they started playing it. I’m sitting at home one night online doing tarot card readings. I had been doing it for a couple weeks and this one card kept coming up saying I was going to be publicly recognized for work you have done in the past. I’m thinking I haven’t done anything I’m so lazy lol. Do they give awards for watching TV? As soon as I did that reading and got that card AGAIN I checked my phone and saw I received a text message from Ric telling me I was nominated for singer/songwriter of the year. I texted him back asking by who or if he was just joking? He replied and said by City Beat. I couldn’t believe it! I mean, we did that record in 10 days and in an effort for me to not have to say no to anyone about having one. After I dropped it off at WNKU City Beat wanted to review it and then they wanted to interview me. So I really got overpaid on that cd, since I really did it only so I had something to sell to people over in Scotland.
Cincy Groove: Were you disappointed you didn’t win the CEA?
Shawna James: Well I knew I wasn’t going to win. When you are nominated in the same category as Kim Taylor you know you are going to lose. I mean, she is good! I have always admired her songs. The good news was that I did want to take it personally for a second but everyone was telling me that you were nominated and that is huge so i didn’t. So that made me feel better. Besides, everyone in the this year’s category is brilliant in my eyes-minus me though.
Cincy Groove: How did the cd release show go?
Shawna James: We had the show on November 30 last year at
Northside Tavern. I wanted to book a night where a bunch of other CEA nominees played. I ended up playing with Nathan Holscher, Frontier Folk Nebraska and the place was packed and I was completely surprised. It made me feel really good.
Cincy Groove: Whats your writing process like?
Shawna James: I’m one of those people who can’t just sit down and write everyday even though I know I should. The feeling has to come over me or I have to be obsessed about something or someone. I really don’t know any other way to write at this point. I wish I could do it another way.
Cincy Groove: Has music always been a part of your life?
Shawna James: Definitely. I have these recordings from when I was about 7. It’s hilarious, I’m making up words to the songs, I seriously have the blues at that tender age. I howl about love gone wrong even then! My mom was a regionally famous country music singer. I grew up with band members in the house all the time and I mean great pickers! They were rehearsing all the time, playing gigs 5 -6 nights a week. They even had a bus! When I woke up in the morning there was always a radio on and when I went to bed at night there was still music playing. I was the girl going to Tri-County mall and hanging out in Record Bar with the other hipsters. But I would buy Ella Fitzgerald records, old blues compilations, any Cole Porter, Edith Piaf etc. We had a lot of vinyl records in our house, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, Otis Redding, Patsy Cline, CCR, The Eagles. I was never one of those kids who listened to Duran Duran or any popular music-ever. I still don’t.
Cincy Groove: What venue did you get your start in?
Shawna James: I really got started at Allyn’s Cafe. A friend of mine a long time ago said if you want to write songs and play guitar run with people who write songs and play guitar the way you want to write and play. I ran into Jason Arbenz, because I used to work at Wizard’s Records during the time of Lazy, Roundhead, Boo Boo Clan, Spider Foot so I knew all those guys and Jason told me to go down to Allyn’s on Tuesday nights and talk to Eric Diedrichs from The Simpletons. I really got to know all the people I know today from going to Allyn’s on Tuesday nights. All those people from Allyn’s came to watch me do karaoke one night, because at that time I couldn’t play guitar but I wanted to show Eric that I could really sing and that I wanted to participate in songwriter night even though I was just learning to play guitar. Eric Diedrichs came to silly karaoke night and said “Holy Shit! We need to get her up at singer/songwriter night.” That’s pretty much when it all started.
For shits and giggles Mike Landis and I recorded Fiona Apple‘s “I’ll Know” song at his house and occasionally started playing together. We got up and did it one night at Allyn’s. Sean Riney was there, Chuck Cleaver was there I mean everyone playing at that time was there. The whole room became quiet when we were playing. I was like a deer in head lights. I remember Sean Riney coming up to me after I got done playing and told me “You need to keep doing that, because you are really good.” It made me feel excited. I started to go down every Tuesday night and Eric was the one that pretty much forced me to get up and play the song I was learning. He would even hold the words up for me and it was also around the time I was learning to tap my foot, play and sing at the same time. He wouldn’t get mad at me if I stopped in the middle of a song or if I started over. He was very supportive.
Cincy Groove: Where did you play your first solo gig (other than Allyn’s on Tuesdays)?
Shawna James: My first solo gig wasn’t really supposed to be a solo gig. Mike Landis was supposed to play with me but he had double booked himself. He was supposed to play with Promenade. He said “You’re on your own cause I have to play in Dayton”. I didn’t even have a guitar to put a cord in, I had nothing lol. He came to my house the next day and dropped his guitar off. Mike said just strap the guitar on and walk around the house and get used to it. I did the show up in the parlour at The Southgate House. I think The Stardevils were playing downstairs in the lounge. They were so loud and I was having trouble keeping time. The whole room upstairs was full with all those people who had been watching me at Allyn’s. Chuck Cleaver was there, Messerly & Ewing, The Stapletons, almost anyone you could name from the past 5-7 years. It made me feel really good, made me feel a part of the music community even though I had such a hard time through the show.
I also want the night where everyone gets together to be an open forum jam since I haven’t really had but one “get together every week” band experience.
Shawna James’ website:www.myspace.com/introducingtheslacks
Feb 23 2008 8:00P The Comet w. Tonefarmer Northside, Ohio
Mar 1 2008 9:00P The Southgate House w. The SLacKs–Prince Fest Newport, Kentucky