Every once in awhile, an artist will come along that is unbelievably refreshing. An Intimate Evening with Michael Shaw could be that artist. Songwriter and vocalist Michael Shaw unveiled his debut album, entitled This is It., earlier this year, and with it comes raw, emotional material that would envy the likes of The Beach Boys and Electric Light Orchestra. I had the great opportunity to chat with Shaw in June about the making of the album and the process of isolation that was needed to craft This Is It.
I’ll start by saying that the album was beautiful. Really great job. And it’s funny; after reading the bio and seeing how you rented a cottage and just wrote out in the countryside, that’s the kind of vibe that I got from the album. Very relaxed. What made you want to isolate yourself for this writing process?
Well, I wanted to kind of get away from the noise of everyday life and just kind of focus on music. I’ve always wanted to do that, just go somewhere, and the north coast of Ireland is really special to me. I’m from Northern Ireland. When I was a kid, my parents used to take us up there, and we used to go to the Giant’s Causeway, which is one of the wonders of the world. It’s featured on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. So there’s definitely a rock-and-roll tie-in there.
But yeah, I just wanted to go there. It’s about four miles from the Bushmills distillery, which is my favorite whiskey. It all kind of made sense. (laughs) But you know, as far as isolation goes, it’s the only real way to get stuff done. Obviously, I still have family over in Ireland, and I went over and hung out with them for a couple days before I went up there. They were trying to find out where it was, and I was like, “Nope! Nobody’s bugging me! Leave me alone.” (laughs). I went up there, rented a little MIDI piano, brought my laptop and a mic, and then I just went to town on Logic Pro. So yeah, it was definitely the way to do it.
There are so many digital distractions in life, and I don’t think people really realize how present it is in your life until you go and you cut yourself off. As much as you’re able to, of course.
Yeah! I mean, I definitely had Wi-Fi and all that kind of stuff but I didn’t know anybody up there so I was definitely anonymous. I would just drive the countryside and then go have a few whiskeys, stoke the fire, and just start writing.
That sounds awesome, man.
Yeah it was awesome. And nobody could tell me when to stop, so it was great. And I’m a huge fan of Jeff Lynne (Electric Light Orchestra), so when they wrote Out of the Blue, their double album…which I think came out at the end of ’77 or ’78, he basically holed himself up in a, I think it was in Switzerland, like a Swiss chalet, and wrote a double album in a couple of weeks. It might have been a little bit longer. I kind of wanted to do that.
And I’d seen other artists do the same kind of thing. I thought, “it’s my time, I’m going to go to do it.”
This was your debut album. When you were writing these songs, did you go into it thinking about what peoples’ perceptions would be, since it’s the first impression? Or did you write whatever you wanted?
Yeah, I didn’t care what people thought of the record, to be honest. I’m a huge fan of melody and vintage pop songwriting. I wanted to do that, even though it’s not necessarily in vogue. That was just something that I wanted to do, and it turned out pretty well. People are responding to it relatively well, so it’s a win/win.
What did you have to do to pull some of the more personal lyrics on this album out of you? I know that some songwriters deal a lot with apprehension when figuring out what it is they want to say when it’s a more intimate subject.
Well you know, at the time, there are a few songs on the record that are definitely influenced by my mother being diagnosed with cancer. She died about a year or so ago. So that was definitely an inspiration for some of the lyrical content. You know, with the name of the band, I felt that I needed to kind of address some of the stuff that was going on around me and happening to me at that time, otherwise it would kind of fall short. So, I don’t know. I would just let stuff pour out of me. I think solitude enables that, if you’re just hanging out with yourself and you don’t have any distraction. You allow yourself…you just become more free when you’re able to do that when nobody’s there listening to you. I think it just blends into more pure lyrical content.
That was really it. I kind of just surrendered to the solitude and let whatever came out come out. Some of the songs are definitely about my mom and all that kind of stuff, but then I would just go through feelings that I was experiencing with certain friends or people that I know. Basically, with the record, if you go through each of the songs, they’re about a specific person. All of them. And you know, obviously my relationship with each person. For example, “Now You Know” is basically about a guy that I knew and how he just kind of pissed me off, and I bit my tongue for a long time. I just decided to tell him, “hey, this is it.” Needless to say, we’re not friends anymore, but you need to be true to yourself, in life and in general, and songwriting is the same kind of thing. It may not be the coolest thing to do, or to write about, but I think that certain listeners of music will pick up on that and appreciate it.
I think that’s the beauty of songwriting; there’s an honesty to it. Even if there’s something that’s said and you don’t know who the person is that’s being referenced. You can tell that there’s an honesty, and you’re then able to take a song like “Now You Know”, and tie it back to your life.
Yeah, and I definitely think for the most part…I’m not the greatest lyricist; I’m definitely more focused on the music. But I think that lyrics are effective if you’re able to accentuate the emotion: the emotion of the music, and the emotion in general. If you try to get too specific, it’s not going to be as accessible to other people. You just kind of work and rework the lyrics until you’re like “okay, I’m being true to the song and my feelings, and I wrote it, but I think it’s also something that other people can relate to when they hear the lyrics”.
The album definitely has these epic moments, particularly during a song like “Leave Me Alone”. I felt like you were channeling artists like The Beatles, The Who, artists that have always been able to produce that theatrical element to their work. What were some of your influences for this particular release?
Great question, because the arrangements are definitely not groundbreaking at all, and I didn’t want them to be, because I did want the record to be relatively accessible. Bottom line is, I just wanted to write music that I would actually listen to, that I’d want to hear, because I’m a huge music fan. I’m constantly on blogs and trying to hear new music that I really like and enjoy. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to find that. That was kind of the key to me. I definitely have a love for all the greats, all of the classics.
For example, “Leave Me Alone”. The way that song started…the template that I was almost kind of using initially was John Lennon’s “Mother”. It was very slow and sparse. I got together with a friend of mine whose a producer, and that was one of the first tracks I started to develop after I wrote the initial idea. He loved the melody and the sentiment, and he really related to it. He just made it into a bigger song. We worked on it as a little demo, then I brought it to the band, and I kind of went from there. The band were the ones that came up with that climatic build at the end. That was just kind of something that evolved naturally out of jamming the song. That’s basically it. That was the template that I used when writing it, but it totally morphed. That’s the beauty of songwriting. You’ll start with something, and it’ll totally change and develop and morph into something else.
When I first wrote these songs, and was like “let’s do this band thing”, I wanted something that sounded like a cross between Electric Light Orchestra and Badfinger, but a more modern version of it. I don’t really know if I was successful in that, but I like the final product. I think it sounds pretty good.
On other songs too, like “Rain Cloud”, that’s definitely a song where you can hear elements of The Beach Boys, with the vocal breakdown and the middle eight. That’s definitely Beach Boys influenced. But that’s just my take on it; people have been doing that for years.
I feel like all music, no matter what, even it’s the groundbreaking music, is generally a combination of all of those peoples’ influences. There’s only so many chords and so many notes and frets on a guitar, but it’s everybody’s take on it. And that’s what makes artists so unique, what makes an artist like you so unique. It’s your own interpretation of it.
I think the vocal, especially, completely change any….if you try to write a Beach Boys-type song, you’re never gonna sound like The Beach Boys because their voices were so distinctive and so high in the mix. That brings new life into that format, that medium.
What kind of message, if any, would you like fans to walk away with after listening to your music?
I think at the heart of this record, it’s all about self-expression. I think the message would be that if anyone has any level of musical ability, to just go out and do it. Do it yourself. I was in bands for years and your…..your creativity is somewhat diluted because you’re dealing with other people. I think with this record, it wasn’t. It was like, “this is me. Take it or leave it.” I think the message is that if you have something to say, or something you feel, music definitely has a therapeutic quality, and you can release a lot of demons by expressing yourself through music.
What does music mean to you?
What a great question! It’s…it’s all-encompassing in my life. I listen to music every day. It affects my moods. It makes me happy; it can make me sad. It’s escapism. It’s just art. If you’re any kind of human being that is in touch with themselves, your really want to…it’s a great way to experience life. You can learn from songs. You can have amazing experiences through songs, whether you’re at a late night party and somebody throws on a Daft Punk record and you go crazy dancing, or you’re studying or working and you want to focus or relax yourself while you’re doing that. It’s all-encompassing. And it’s a great release for me to actually create, and work that side of my brain. It’s a huge part of my life. I’ve been making music and been in bands since I was fourteen. I’ll always make music. Always.
This has been another Shameless Promotion.