“Before COVID, a bunch of bad things happened back to back.
To survive it, I had to find a way to reframe all these negative things and try to find the silver lining.”
As we’ve collectively learned in the current era of pandemic induced trauma, grief is a hell of an emotion. Shannon & The Clams are no strangers to the feeling – and they’re here to memorialize what they’ve learned as a result of it on their sixth studio album “Year of The Spider.” A labyrinth of an album laced with the reflections of the dichotomy of love and loss that stem from life’s challenges, it becomes a relatable and deeply personal narrative for a release in 2021 – a year defined by a trauma-fueled reality. However, the albums’ completion in early 2020 means the all-too suited soundtrack was less a response to COVID , but a processing mechanism for their own domino-like tribulations that began long before then.
A writing period that began with a notable event – the passing of their former drummer Mick Crosby – led to a series of unfortunate events that would alter the inner and outer surroundings for the outfit. In 2016, the Oakland natives experienced the tragedy of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that set a community space they so often graced a blaze. In 2018, the Northern California wildfires that ran rampant nearly decimated Shannon’s parents home. In 2019, a peeping tom forced Shannon to flee her longtime apartment shortly followed by her father’s contracting of cancer shortly after (we’re informed he’s well now). The band, on personal and professional levels, were being tested long and well before the world collectively joined in.
At an emotional tipping point – Shannon turned to an astrologer to seek answers, healing and a way forward. What she found was eight. Figuratively of course. Directed to seek solace in times of powerlessness in Durga, a Hindu goddess who holds a weapon in each of her eight arms, reminded Shannon of another eight-armed (or legged) being. Unfortunately, she thought at first, it was the incarnate of her greatest fear, the spider.
The connection begged the question: What does it mean to lean into, rather than run away from, your fears to seek protection?
The answer finds itself woven in the most intricate webs across the track-list of their most fully realized album. Produced by The Black Keys, Dan Auerbach, the resulting work is an evolution that illustrates the perplexed expression of grief through experimental and experiential vision. Far from the consistent fuzzed garage rock of their humble beginning in 2009’s I Want To Go Home, Year of the Spider is spontaneous in sound, and one of the most complex the Clams have produced to date. The sonic variations can be attributed to their pulling of inspiration from a variety of genres, decades and manifestations of love while maintaining enough of their signature magic to assemble a cohesive unit. From doo-wop to psychedelic rock, punk to disco – Shannon and the Clams have not fallen short of creating a kaleidoscopic experience of an album that reframes the existence of grief – to an overall reminder of the existence of love. While not explicitly framed as such, what the album achieves in doing is taking the negative memories of the painful past and reimagining them as constructive reflections of love once present to love that propels them into a more harmonized future.
LADYGUNN had a chance to speak with Shannon Shaw to delve deeper on how vulnerability inspired the creative process behind “Year of the Spider,” how she let go of her anxiety around experimentation in music, and how reframing her fears ultimately led her to finding her ultimate protection.
Interview condensed and edited for clarity purposes.
First off – congratulations on your sixth album, Year of the Spider! A little birdie, or press release, informed me you are actually incredibly scared of spiders. Which must lead to a really interesting backstory to the title. So can you share a bit more on the significance of the eight-legged creature?
So my mother is a recent ex-Mormon and not very witchy in any way, but has always told me that spiders have been drawn to me since I was a baby. She likes to tell me the story about giving me a bath in the sink when I was a baby and a spider dropping out of nowhere and dangling right in front of my face. They’re just constantly drawn to me. So I guess I chose the spider as a symbol of the thing that scares me the most and how I had to find a way to flip the script and reframe it all. For example, yesterday, I pulled some grapes and there were like three or four gross, white spiders that fell out when I picked a cluster. When I saw them, I had to be like “Okay, don’t throw the spider-filled grapes and scream and never go to dad’s backyard ever again.” Instead it’s “get a hold of yourself, remind yourself that they’re spiders. Spiders are creators, spiders control their ecosystems and control the mosquito population.” It’s a way to try and take a break and control my emotions for a second, that’s kind of where that started. So when creating the album, I just had all this negative stuff stacking up back to back and it just felt like it’s endless assault. And that’s even before COVID when a bunch of bad things happened back to back. To survive it, I had to find a way to reframe all these negative things and try to find the silver lining.
Like you mentioned, a lot of this album was created as a result of many unprecedented happenings in your lives, pre-pandemic. With this method of reframing, what kind of silver lining do you pull from being able to create this album during these trying times?
At some point last year, we kept being like “I know we’re in shelter in place right now, but we’d love to hear any mixes for the album.” Then it got to a point where we’re like “wait, this album might not even ever come out because we have no idea what’s going on in the world.” So slowly we got a mix, but then we were told we might not be able to tour this album. That was just the reality – no one knew what was going on. We knew it would probably come out someday, but we didn’t know for sure. That was a tough pill to swallow because no one likes to not know what’s going on or living in this terrifying new reality. I’ve basically been on tour for 10 years, and used to living life not really having settled anywhere, ever. So to realize “Okay, there’s nothing I can do right now. I can’t go anywhere. I just have to shelter in place and be safe and be clean. I’ve also got this album I can listen to, I guess.” Change is good, but change is also really hard. So It kind of became this moment where I focused so much more on really experiencing my record. Normally when I make an album, I don’t listen to it. I feel like I just spent weeks inundated, just drowning in content that we wrote and need a break because I’m about to go to tour it. But this record was different, I experienced living with our album for over a year because I already had a break from recording and there was a chance it wasn’t going to get toured. So honestly, I had all the time to sit with it and felt like many of the songs I wrote were originally about something else, and now in the context of COVID, they became more real and just took on a whole new meaning.
It seems the silver lining was gaining a new perspective on your music and losing the expectations of the typical process of create, release, tour. But that left you with this question of “How do I get that final satisfaction?” I once heard an artist say touring was like the orgasm to creating an album. I thought that was a really funny way to put it.
That’s really cool and I can totally see that. I’m totally going to start thinking of it like that. And it’s funny because when the tour’s over, you’re exhausted but you’re satisfied. None of my Mormon family will pay any attention to this, but yeah it’s like “Oh my god, that was amazing. Thank you! Now I can’t wait to rest and take a break and get my strength up for next time.”
What a good analogy then. Shout out to whoever told me that that.
It is, yeah! I want to know who said it. That’s really funny.
On the album, many of the songs revolve around vulnerable themes of love and loss. How do you feel talking about these experiences via your music helped you process the situations happening around you? Did you feel the primary inspiration to be vulnerable was to help other people or was it just trying to process and get through the events yourself?
I mean, both. The major thing for me with Shannon and The Clams, at least for my role in the band, is to be vulnerable with fans. I feel like playing shows and releasing music is a shared experience. If I were to hold back on a song, that would be a missed opportunity so every song I write is about something real. I can’t write it if it’s not. The goal is to reach someone. It kind of used to bother me in the early days when someone wouldn’t know what my song was about. Even though a lot of the time I’m too shy to actually say what it is. Like our song “Ozma” – people always thought it was a breakup song but it’s actually about my dog dying and how special she was. But now, the way I’ve come to be is – whatever works. If someone thinks it’s a great song for whatever reason, that means it’s speaking to them and that’s what’s important. I think music is medicine for whatever ailment you’ve got and if it’s helping you through a breakup or a death or a move or any kind of change, then it’s working properly.
Something that has always been very central to Shannon, as yourself and the many projects you’re involved in, is that it’s always community oriented. What is helping you stay connected to your outer world, especially at a time of major physical disconnection?
I definitely feel connected. It’s interesting because I feel like social media is the devil and the angel at the same time. It’s totally what divides us, but it’s also what brings people together. It reminds you both of a life you had and a life you can have. It reminds you that everyone is still there and it can also be so isolating. I don’t remember why I went straight to social media but I guess because that’s the obvious way people are staying connected right now. Since my life got way more quiet and everything shut down in Oakland, I moved to Portland and I’ve been spending a lot of time at my mom’s in the country. So I’m not seeing very many people other than my brothers, my mom, my dad, and my partner. But I feel like I’ve gotten this urge to talk on the phone a lot now. I feel like I did when I was in middle or high school and the phone was the most important thing. So I’m all about FaceTime and having really good conversations now. It’s so different than being at a show or at a bar surrounded by people and everyone’s drinking. It’s really fun and good for your soul, but there’s not much real connection. So it’s been nice to go back in time and just make a phone call, talk to that one person, and actually find out what’s going on with them.
What other methods are you approaching as an artist to stay connected to supporting creative communities?
I think lots of artists can agree with me on this, but I think people who have kept their jobs, feel bad and really want to find ways to support us or people who don’t have a voice or maybe those who don’t have access to community or family at this time because everything’s so isolated. People I talk to share things with me like buying people’s merch and goods right from the source. I’ve had a lot of people buy my prints or subscribe to our Patreon or participate in our karaoke nights. I feel like that has been really, really beautiful. That kind of connection and people just sharing like, “Hey, if you need food, I know this girl who makes cupcakes and she’s needs money for this or that.” I feel like there’s just so much more connecting on that level. Have you experienced that?
Yeah, definitely. Especially in the entertainment industry, I feel we’ve gone back to the days of bartering and living life that’s not centered around the idea of capital. I have friends like “I’ll trade you tomatoes from my garden for a painting.” It’s been really nice to see that come together, but still a little mismatched how much music and art communities are kind of shadowed in financial aid.
Totally. Totally suffering. And who knows how it’s going to turn out too. I think some people are just realizing how much they need us all. For certain other people, I think that’s going to be a slow realization. Like lots of venues have had to close, lots of places are going to have to be at half capacity and artists are going to make way less money than they ever did before. So there’s been several times where I’m like “okay, I gave up everything to do this as my job. Now I need a plan B and C because I haven’t been paid to do Shannon and The Clams since November 2019. What can I do?” I’ve spent the last 11 years of my life working on this goal of becoming a professional musician and sharing this talent and love that I have. But now what? What if I can’t do that anymore or ever again? What do I do?
What would Shannon do if music didn’t come back to the way it was before?
I don’t know. I mean, I am a watercolor artist. I have done a lot of painting thinking if I never get to come back and keep doing music professionally, then I need to brush up on my painting skills. Which luckily I did. I did a lot of painting work. But I don’t know…growing up I always wanted to be a nurse like my mom, but I think I’m too much of an empath and would ruin everything because I’d be too emotional.
I just started Grey’s Anatomy and can’t even handle watching that, so the medical field is out for me.
Yeah, I know! It’s a pipe dream I guess. I’m just not really sure – what should I do? I know I wouldn’t go back to any of my old jobs. I worked in a movie theater, in a mental institution for the criminally insane, as a nanny, a personal assistant…you know, weird jobs.
Well, I definitely saw something along the lines of fashion. I’ve always had an interest in your style, so I thought it would be a potential route.
Oh, that’s interesting! I could see myself doing that possibly. Like plus size ladies, we need more cool clothes! It’s also a good thing that I didn’t have access to “cool clothes” for so many years because I’ve had to figure it out and make it work. By doing that, I’ve created my own style. The whole thing with the apron and suspenders and stuff like that was because what I really wanted was a fluffy fifties party dress and I couldn’t find that. I know there are brands that might have something, but as for an actual vintage chiffon dress, that’s what I want! And not only does it not exist for my size, but I also couldn’t afford things like that if it did back then. So it was like – you know what, I’m just going to rig it. That’s what the apron is, it’s a rigged party dress. And if I never had to struggle and be creative, then I would just not be me. I don’t know who I would be.
View this post on Instagram
I love that, but hopefully a backup plan isn’t needed now that you have a tour lined up – finally. How does it feel to see tour dates at a time when you didn’t think it was going to happen? Fingers crossed at the cusp of a very strange time with the Delta variant running rampant.
Fingers crossed! I mean, the fans are the major missing element to our lives. It’s like that connection, that trade from stage to the audience and back and forth. That’s my medicine too. I’m really looking forward to that. Part of me is like if people have to wear masks, I won’t be able to see their faces! But then it’s like, no – you can still feel each other. I think that it’s just going to feel so good to be together. It would be nice if every show could be outside, but either way I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’s what everyone needs.
Is there something that you’re excited to play live? Something that as you were creating for this album you were like, “I can’t wait to share that!”?
I’m really excited to try the very first song on the album “Do I Want To Stay?” Not all songs translate live. They might be so great on the record and then when you play it live it just doesn’t feel as good as it feels on the album and vice versa. I think that “Do I Want To Stay?,” if it goes how I envision it happening live, could be a really special way to open the set. It opens the album and can really create the atmosphere for the rest of the show. I’m also really excited about playing “Mary Don’t Go,” which is another song on that album that I love. It was very close to me.
Speaking of the tracks, some of the songs have taken a bit of a new direction sonically. Like one of the most obvious being “All Of My Crying,” which is very disco forward. Where did the inspiration come from to explore these new sounds and what kind of influences were carrying you all through this new chapter?
Me and Cody have always been huge disco fans. Even before it was cool, when it came back.
Before the BeeGees documentary, huh?
We’re HUGE BeeGees fans. We just are, always have been. Also, if anyone hasn’t seen that BeeGees documentary, it’s SO good. Anyways, Cody wrote “All Of My Crying” – but his falsetto as a lead is always something that we’re trying to get him to do more often. Live, it’s so hard for him to do because it’s just so hard to keep singing like that. It’s such a strain, but that was just fun to experiment.
So the main influence was rooted in this experimental itch you all just needed to scratch?
You know, I used to be so afraid of going too far out of what people are used to with Shannon and the Clams. It just seems very weak to be afraid of playing around with music. I don’t like just one type of music. And if I’m gonna keep trying to sound like myself, that’s really weird. I shouldn’t have to try at all, it should just come naturally. Also, if you just keep doing the same thing over and over again, you’re not growing anymore. I feel like as long as you’re trying stuff out, experimenting and finding new music – that means you’re alive. I guess on one hand I was afraid to experiment. I was afraid to sound clean. I was afraid to have my voice be more forward in the mix. I was afraid to work with a producer. I was just afraid of all these experiments. And in the end, I was glad that I had done all of these experiments. It’s so good to always be trying new things and growing.
Hearing this circles back to the beginning of our interview and the overarching theme of the album. It seems the creation process of the album is a parallel to you finally giving into your fears and producing something that, in the end, ultimately protected you by allowing you to process all the negatives occurring around you and turning them into a track-list of silver linings.
Yes – there you go! That’s it – that’s a wrap!
CONNECT WITH SHANNON & THE CLAMS
story | JEANETTE DIAZ
photos | Kristin Cofer