Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
“And this voice (that) came spilling from beyond (wild) veils are blowing (blood) and God (in) thick musty clots (this voice) spilling over the misty cliffs at dawn (roared) out the ‘shape’ (silken) into fists of thunder (sacred) into cups of color (shining) against the infinite (music) at dawn (came) and relieved them (one) by one (and) the captives were released from death (blood) and God (flash) a series of knives (faith) is this (piece) of skin (eyes) upon the face-“
– John Aiello on Shana Morrison in concert
“And I’m looking for the answers/Or the question/Reaching back through generations/With a vision”
– “Connection,” Shana Morrison/Narada Michael Walden
Being a singer/songwriter when you are Van Morrison’s only child is a hard road to traverse — the terrain inherent with lofty public expectation and the hollow trappings of fame. Yet, even with such obstacles to battle, Shana Morrison has met her challenges, distinguishing herself by virtue of a stunningly beautiful voice and original songs that reveal a woman on a path of self-discovery.
In mid 2002, Shana released her second solo album, 7 Wishes, that should drastically broaden her audience. The record, on the Vanguard label, was produced by veteran Steve Buckingham (widely known for the pristine sound he created on Dolly Parton and Mary Chapin Carpenter albums) and features many blues-soaked arrangements, the silky supple melodies intertwined in the long smooth lines of Morrison’s vocals. Standout cuts on the record include the punchy “I Spy, ” the contemplative Zen meditation “7 Wishes,” and the wistfully piercing “Song For The Broken” — with each verse perfectly framed in the delicate whisper of Matt Rollings’ B3 organ. Still, it’s the haunting duet she performs with her father on his over-looked classic “Sometimes We Cry ” that truly demonstrates the limitless range of Shana’s singing: the song flooding the pores of her body, words half formulated at the corners of her lips, slowly taking their whole shape in earthly space.
Shana’s Morrison’s life changed directions in 1993, when her father requested that she appear with him at several of his U.S. performances. The experience immediately carried Shana back to her roots. As a small girl, she had often found solace in her grandparent’s record store in Fairfax, exposed to countless blues and jazz classics heard through the hisses and pops of old vinyl. After her parents separated, Shana spent her teenage years living in the Los Angeles area with her mother Janet Minto ( the former “Janet Planet” and subject of many of Van Morrison’s most soul-gouging love songs), eventually enrolling at Pepperdine University and studying business. Even though Shana continued to sing and write songs as a student, she chose to keep her art secret, showing this side of her heart to only her closest confidants.
Until Van Morrison summoned her to his stage.
In concert with this master musician (a sampling of these performances is memorialized on the live recording A Night In San Francisco), Shana saw her real face show through the misty walls across the mirror. Suddenly, she was able to feel and see first-hand the impact that her music could have on a large audience. Suddenly, awash in the power of the moment, all the things she had kept hidden inside herself for so long were revealed and the Muse took full hold of her being.
Now recast in the image of her father in the image of one thousand other musicians who have preceded and influenced her, Shana Morrison is on a journey of infinite dimension. Every day brings with it a multitude of new turns, and she has no idea where this road will ultimately lead. But that’s of little importance. The only thing that matters now is to just keep moving steadily forward.
This interview with Shana Morrison was conducted July 18, 2002 in Mill Valley, California.
Well, I sang in choirs when I was in school, in women’s chorals and in small groups. But I wasn’t into the “acting” part of it as much as I was into the singing. I wasn’t in any bands when I was in school growing up, I mainly just sang for fun. Back then it wasn’t an “ambition” or something I thought I’d be doing professionally.
That’s right. I’d perform them for family and some close friends, but that’s about it. I’ve always been a shy person, not wanting the spotlight. I’m really a private person and I don’t show myself to people I don’t know very well.
Yes, that’s true. My paternal grandparents had a small store, Caledonia Records, in Fairfax, just about 12 miles up the road from here in Marin. On weekends when I was a child, the family would all go up there, and I would work behind the counter, handing out change at the register. I started doing that when I was about seven years old I guess. I was exposed to all kinds of music in the store — things like Rickie Lee Jones and Steely Dan. I always wanted to get my hands on the Kiss and Led Zeppelin and AC/DC albums that all my friends at school were listening to (laughs), but my grandfather would have none of it. He said that stuff wasn’t really music, and he steered me back towards the jazz and blues LPs. And at the end of the day, I would get paid. But not in money. I would get to chose a record to take home as payment for working in the store.
Yes, basically they moved out here from Belfast so they could be close to me while I was growing up. They never had any employees in their store, working there every day by themselves — my grandfather doing the ordering, stocking, and books, my grandmother helping customers. I first started going there when I was 3, after the shop first opened. They closed it after 10 years in 1983. (pause) Once I was a teenager, I was old enough to travel to Ireland on my own, and they moved back. My grandfather really missed home.
Steve (Buckingham) is wonderful to work with. He believes in letting the music and the artist shine through a record. I’ve actually known Steve for a long while. He’s been a strong supporter of mine, and we’ve always kept in touch. As far as making a record, he thinks more and talks less than most producers. He thinks before just throwing out an answer. He truly has respect for the artist he’s working with. And I respect that — I admire the way he carefully makes his decisions. He’s careful to insure that you’re not there singing on his record. He just lays back and lets your music shine through without trying to point you in any certain direction.
The attraction for me is in the performance. I started out traveling with my dad after graduation from college in 1993. Dad invited me to sing on stage with his band during his tour at the end of that year. And while I was on tour with him, working with all these incredible musicians, I really got excited. I got excited watching the process. It made me think that if I wrote some songs myself, I’d want to try and perform them on that level. So after the tour ended and I came back home, I started writing seriously, putting things together. But it was more the performing, rather than the recording, that intrigued me.
I have been very hesitant. I grew up knowing a lot of music people and hearing a lot of stories. And it didn’t make the music business seem that attractive to me. I saw it as a corrupt free-for-all without any standards. I went in reluctant. I wasn’t about to play the game. I was careful about what I did. I did things my own way. I formed my own band and my own label. I managed myself, keeping control over what was happening. I didn’t allow myself to jump in all the way. I went slow. And eventually I found Vanguard, and was able to make a record with a real producer. But it took me a long time to be convinced. It’s hard to go into this business, picturing yourself as a product, which is what you become once that record is released.
The advantage is that I’m older. When I write and perform I’m not worried about if it’s hip or cool. I started when I was out of college; I started as an adult, and I didn’t have the burden of trying to fit in. I did what I liked, without having to put up any fronts.
Well Steve Buckingham and I decided to record that song while we in the middle of making the album. I always liked the song — it’s one of those instant classics my father seems to always be able to write. But actually, I didn’t cut the song with my father. Steve and I recorded “Sometimes We Cry” in the studio, and left two holes for solos to be over-dubbed later. My dad’s harmonica solo is over-dubbed. It came out so beautiful. I love the sound and the feel of his harmonica. I was actually kind of surprised he did it. He usually does things live in one take and is opposed to any over-dubbing. It just came about all of a sudden. I asked him to do it, and he said yes. Maybe he was in a good mood that day (laughing).
The people I’ve listened to the most — that would be Earth, Wind and Fire, Teena Marie, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Rickie Lee Jones. Also, Iris DeMent, Christie Hennessy, Paul Brady, Mose Allison, Bill Withers, Dan Hicks, Bob Dylan, Joe Jackson, Jann Arden, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Smokey Robinson and Tom Waits. I also love Dolly Parton (who Steve Buckingham has produced) — and other country music. And various Irish performers like Mary Black. I like a lot of different stuff. Which is probably why my music is so spread out stylistically. To me, every song is a whole new world, no constraints. It’s a new clean slate and you get to start over. I see myself more as an entertainer than an artist really. I perform songs and see what people respond to. And then I go from there.
I like Rickie Lee Jones and Teena Marie because of their styles, because it’s not formula with them. As a writer, I try and have some originality and not do things because this is the way you’re “supposed” to do it. That’s not what it’s about for me.
I always identify more with women, but as I’m sure you know, saying you write like someone is like saying you look like someone. We are all unique. All of the women I mentioned previously had qualities that I admired as a young girl, though. Ricky Lee Jones was street; Teena Marie was funky even if she wasn’t black; Dolly Parton could tell a story that made you cry and inspired you to be a better person; Iris Dement (who I discovered in my 20’s) was romance; Joni Mitchell was intellect; and Jann Arden was someone who would let all of her vulnerabilities show, who seemed strong for not cloaking her weaknesses.
I generally write the lyrics first. I finish all the lyrics, then start thinking about the music. I want my songs to be about some thing I thought was important enough to write down in the first place. Then I frame the music around that. Finding the time and space to write is difficult though. But the writing itself is exciting and fun, it’s one of the few things I do that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something when I’m done. (pause) I really need to be alone to write. And there are just so many other demands to deal with. It’s hard to keep a band together. It’s hard to keep four different individuals together and motivated. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to do that.
I do. At one point Steve Buckingham had urged me to go to Nashville and work there. So I did. And now I end up going there once a year to write. I’ve made some great friends by collaborating, people like Michael Lunn and Kim Patton-Johnston. I’ve learned so much about the craft of songwriting by working this way. It’s so exciting to sit down with someone at 8 o’clock in them morning and then leave at 4 in the afternoon with a finished song.
I met Michael here in Mill Valley while I was performing at Sweetwater. He came in with his posse. He heard me sing and liked my music and approached me about collaborating. He’s a tremendous guy, a tremendous talent. We wrote about 10 songs together. I had to work really hard just to keep up with him.
I watch Oprah, cook, clean house, and “nest.”
My parents have always let me live my own life. They believed I could handle my life. They have both been very supportive, but have still let me go my own way.
I haven’t heard anything negative from him, so I think the reaction’s been pretty positive. But I don’t put as much weight to what he says as other people might just because he’s Van Morrison.
I think we all want to make a statement, a living, a career, rather than just have a “moment.” But we’re not all able to do it. Talent and drive alone don’t determine what happens. Intangibles play into it. All I can do is keep doing my best and try to keep it going. You can’t worry about the big picture. There’s no determining that. You just have to see what happens. There’s just no way of knowing what will happen…
For more on Shana Morrison, go to shanamorrison.com.