A Muse's Muse Interview with UK Singer/Songwriter,
Shann Lee Parker
conducted by: Jodi Krangle
This dynamic singer/songwriter from the UK speaks out about songwriting - the process, the business, and how she's managed to keep her cool during some difficult times.
Question: What made you start writing songs in the first place?
I actually came to songwriting at a late point in my career. My husband Clem was always the songwriter, but I was always ready with a suggestion or two whenever he was short of inspiration. I would find tunes coming to me in the middle of the night (not always, but sometimes..!!) and being far too lazy to get up in the early hours, I'd do the usual thing of trying to remember them the next morning... It didn't work, come the morning, I would have totally forgotten everything.
I swear this next bit is perfectly true..!! It would have been about two o'clock in the morning, and I was drifting on the borders of consciousness, when a GREAT! tune sprang into my head. It wasn't going to get away this time..!! I dragged myself from my bed, and half asleep, crawled along to the kitchen, where an old cassette recorder sat on top of the fridge. Hitting 'record' I whistled my hit onto the cassette tape. Feeling pleased with myself for finally having captured a midnight idea on tape, I returned to bed. The next morning I couldn't wait to hear the nights recording and get on with making it into a fully fledged song. At the breakfast table, I triumphantly played my song to Clem..... Oh! oh!... Damn!! Instead of a hit song, all that emerged, was the sound of me, BLOWING! into the microphone. I could have sworn that I had whistled a tune into the tape... Chorus, verse, middle eight.. It was all there last night... Wasn't it..?? Clem nearly choked with laughter! It was at this point that I decided not to wait for bedtime inspiration, but to start working hard (in daylight hours) on my 'songwriting'.
We, (Clem and I) mainly collaborate on songs, and we have no fixed structure. Sometimes I will write the lyrics, sometimes the tune. On occasions, Clem might simply play a chord progression that instantly gives me an idea, and that suggests a melody line straight away. I have 'written' quite a few songs myself, and this usually takes form by my vocalizing a melody line using any old made up words, and after I am reasonably satisfied with the feel, emotion, and colour of the tune, I then get an idea of what the song should be about - the melody will suggest what the song should be about. That's how I sometimes arrive at the lyrics. Yeah! I realize it's a clumsy way of doing things, but it works for me. Believe it or not, I very rarely set out to write a specific song about a specific subject. On the last rare occasion I did that, a song called "Think It Over" came out. It was about the terrible violence that we see all around us today. It was a subject that I felt, and still feel very strongly about. After it was recorded, I took a step back and thought Whooo!! that doesn't sound like me, where did that come from. I do remember sweating blood, trying to put into that song exactly how I felt at the time.
Question: Can you tell us a little bit about your musical background? Was your family musical? Did you just get inspired at school? Was there someone in particular who inspired you?
Whenever I'm asked about my musical background, I always reply with the same answer; I somehow always knew, even from being a small child that I would be a singer. That's what I'd be when I grew up... I simply knew..!! I started singing at a very early age (four or five years old) singing songs that I'd heard on the radio, and performing for my parents, friends, relations... just about anyone who would listen. My Father, had, as I remember, a loud, strong forceful singing voice, and along with his piano accordion he would entertain in the pubs and clubs of the town where I was born. These are some of my earliest recollections. My Dad was a semi-pro, and for most of his early life, managed several night-clubs. This is where I think I got the idea of being a performer. I can remember playing on a Saturday afternoon in my Fathers club, standing on a huge stage pretending to sing into a microphone, with my older brother and the cleaners for an audience.
At school I was always at the front of the line to be picked (hopefully) for school productions. The few names I can remember from those days are Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, even Cilla Black, but my eyes were well and truly opened when I first heard Aretha Franklin...!! "Woo! Hoo! that's for me" I said. I guess Aretha, along with most of the other black soul artists were my love and inspiration - along with a bit of Janice Joplin thrown in for good measure. I also had every Joe Cocker album in record my collection. I suppose that gives you some idea of the kind of thing I was into.... Still am..!!
I still enjoy listening to the more 'raspier' throated performers today. I myself, was once accused by a radio DJ, of having a voice that sometimes sounds like broken glass being scraped across sandpaper... Hmm!! I just realized... Maybe I shouldn't have taken that as a compliment...!!! *g*
Question: How do you feel about collaborating when songwriting? Pros & cons? (People or situations you enjoyed the process with the most? Or the least?)
As far as I can remember, I have only ever collaborated on songs with Clem (my husband). There have been occasions in the past when I've helped friends, or band members out with a line or two of lyrics, or suggested a phrase or melody line here and there, but I don't really think you could call this collaboration. I would imagine that the majority of songwriters prefer to 'go it alone' by virtue of the fact that the songwriting process, can, in some instances be a very personal thing. A germ of an idea that's nurtured, and brought to fruition after a lengthy, and sometimes tortuous journey. Some songwriters simply don't want to share that. Now that may seem a little melodramatic, but if a song's worth writing, if it's to be good, and if it's to mean something, and maybe touch someone, then that song can't come easy...!!!
Whilst realizing the truth in what I've just written, I, for my part, don't usually sweat buckets trying to work things out. That's where Clem and I differ. I might come up with a melody, and a hint of a story line in twenty minutes. Clem will then take this and spend hours, days, even weeks refining and honing the song. He'll say to me - "...what sounds better, this chord progression, or this one, or this one, hey! what about this one?.." I have to confess that my eyes have glazed over on more than one occasion . I guess this is why we're a good team. It's not unheard of for the two of us to row like cats and dogs over a song we're writing together, but once I've suggested a melody, or maybe just a simple lyric, or even subject matter, Clem then runs with it, and after not too long, we have a song.
I suppose that a simple answer to the pros & cons of collaboration, is that unlike a solo writer, when I've run out of ideas, or ways to go! my songwriting partner is usually there to lean on, and provide me with maybe a new or different approach.
Question: Who are your favourite songwriters and why are they your favourites?
Coming from someone who's general style is belting, in ya face rock, it may come as a surprise to find out that one of my favourite composers/songwriters, was, and still is, Burt Bachara. I suppose it's because his songs remind me of when I first started singing. Some of the first songs I sang in public were those great Dionne Warwick songs that Burt had written specially for her. Beautiful Melodies, great lyrics (by Hal Roach I think), and wonderful orchestrations.
I suppose my all time favourites, have to be Lennon & McCartney. I mean, what can I say? Just think of all of those BRILLIANT! songs. Not just one or two, but countless gems, covering countless albums, and in the case of McCartney, spanning several decades.. He's still writing good songs, although in my humble opinion, not quite in the same class as the early stuff when he collaborated with Lennon.
Surprisingly, I honestly don't think I have a favourite female songwriter, although there are enough terrific ladies out there writing great songs. Lita Adams, Annie Lennox, Ruby Turner.. The list is of course endless.
Question: How do you get past Writer's Block? What methods work for you - or do you even experience it?
Well, Hmm!! Got to think about this one. I never actually set out to write a song. Let me explain in a roundabout way.
I get periods where I read books, books , and more books. All I think about is finding another good book to read. Then as suddenly as the urge took me, it will leave again, and I may not read another book for twelve months, or even a couple of years. It comes in phases.
My songwriting is a little like that. I'll find I have loads of things to say, tons of things I want to get out, and when that happens, it flows without any problem. Then someone turns the tap off, and I stop. I don't even try to get something going again... I simply stop. It may be months before the fire starts again, but when it does, out pop the songs..!! Kinda like a volcano - dormant for two hundred years, and then..POW!!! two days of molten rock. I suppose that means that, as such, I don't get writers block. It's funny, but that's truly the way it is. Clem, on the other hand, can almost write to order (sometimes it might be rubbish! but he can do it at the drop of a hat). I guess it's because he's written a lot for radio and film etc, and in that game you quite literally have to write to a brief, and have it ready NOW..!! *g*
Question: Of the songs that you've written, which one has been your greatest success? (I don't necessarily mean financial success here... However you measure "success".) And why do you think it was so successful?
Pheeeew!! That's an interesting question.. Kinda snook in there!
Well, I think I've said this to you before, but both Clem and I write just as it comes, and as such, I suppose I have to judge my writing success as the one that got nearest to how I was truly feeling at the time. Or maybe getting a message across with ease. This being the case, I have to say that there are several songs that I consider to be "successful" One is a song called "Think it Over". At the time of writing, I was increasingly worried and depressed at the amount of violence, selfishness, intolerance etc, that was surrounding us. Hey! I don't want to get all heavy here, but I believe most decent thinking people cannot help but be affected by all of the above. The song was a kind of warning. Next time you want to hurt someone, whether physically or verbally..!! STOP!!.. Stop, and think it over first. This was the bones of the song, and while the song 'per se', might not be any good, I got into it exactly how I was feeling. I guess I can't ask for more than that...?? Another was "Home to America" We had returned to the UK from America, and we were both missing the States so much.!! We wrote the song and it conveyed our feelings exactly... I guess another success. "Taking Care of Business" was a song about the way I was treated by a huge management company I was signed to for a couple of years.... Now that was a success on account of the fact that they hated the song because in it, I spoke the truth, which they didn't like one bit. It mentioned all of the dirty tricks they had played on me and all of the lies I had been told. It also told of all of the money they had ripped me off for. YEAH!! a huge success!! *g*
Along the way, We have earned a good living from our music, and people have seen fit to buy, and listen to our songs. Being totally realistic, as a songsmith, the financial reward is of course important, it is, after all, how we make a living, but there's nothing like the reward one gets when someone is affected by one of your songs in some way or another. Whether, like "Think it Over" it makes them stop and....THINK IT OVER! Or a love song reminds the listener of a lost love and reduces them to tears, Pheew!! Having a song being able to do that should be reward enough.
Question: What are your views on Independent versus large record labels? It sounds like you've had a very interesting run-in with at least one of the larger ones. What were some of the tricks they played on you and how would you advise other performing songwriters arm themselves so that they don't find themselves in a similar situation? (Without naming names, of course. ;-))
I'm afraid the answer to that question is "how long is a piece of string"? The ONLY! way not to get hurt by the 'Majors' be they record companies, or management, publishers, booking agents etc is quite simply not to bother with them in the first place! but of course it's not that simple is it? I have been (for the majority of my career) signed to major players, both record companies and management. During these times I have come across most of the dirty tricks in the book. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO AVOID THEM! Try telling a young inexperienced musician not to sign with Warner, CBS, or Polygram etc, because they would be better off on there own. They would laugh in your face. It's swings and roundabouts. True! when I was signed to Polygram, I was paid a huge advance, I was taken shopping by the head of A&R (didn't pay for a thing). I was promised the world, and for a while back there, I was feeling on top of the world. I was also lied to, cheated, and dropped pretty quick when they realized as well as having a voice, I also had a brain of my own! The same with one of the management companies I was signed to. When I was told to change my name, what to wear, (I AM NOT A FRILLY DRESS TYPE OF GIRL), and worse of all what to sing...!! All of which I didn't agree with, not only was I sent to Coventry, but EVERYONE! of my contacts were got at! No-one would take my calls, people I thought were my friends ignored me. Believe it or not, I actually found it hard to find work for several years. All because my manager, who was, and still is a very powerful man, had give me the kiss of death so to speak. I know this sounds like a page out of a novel, but I swear it's all true. Obviously not all major companies are the same, but have NO illusions, they are running a business, and if it suits them to rip your heart out, and tear your soul to shreds for a profit... they'll do it. Hell! I know of record company people that actually don't even like music!! can you credit that??
I am now independent, It's hard work, but I am the master of my own fate, and there's some consolation in that. True! I would once again like the luxury of a major behind me, but one who played the game as I would have it played, and one who viewed my career along the same lines as I see it myself..... But is this another Holy Grail! does it exist?? I guess I've come across as sour, bitter and twisted, but honestly! I REALLY! could write a book. I have a thousand stories, and a million anecdotes... I've been there, done some of it, and not liked a lot of it. Maybe you don't like the way I've come across in this. I'm sorry, but I tell it as I see it. Indeed you may not want to reproduce any of this at all It's simply a question I cannot answer in a couple of paragraphs.
Question: How can people hear your music? What's in store for you in the future?
I suppose the easiest way to listen to our music would be to either come along to a gig..( Hmmm!! not that easy from where you're situated), or by checking out the web site where you can listen to a collection of songs both original and covers. There's a couple of MP3s and a range of streamable RealPlayer tracks. http://www.clem.dircon.co.uk/.
I am soon organizing a merchant account so that people will be able to buy direct from the website with a credit card. If people have been interested enough to buy from my site, I will send CDs out after being sent payment by cheque, but mostly I sell the CDs at gigs. I suppose that the credit card deal might enhance my sales somewhat!
I am planning on going into the studio in June to record a new CD. I have plenty of material right now, but the gigs do tend to get in the way, so I've put some time away in June when we can concentrate solely on recording.
I am also beginning to think about working in the USA again, I am looking for a booker/promoter that would be interested in a project like this. I'll keep you informed. We are also booking some dates in France for mid Summer, as we are buying a house in France, so we might as well look to that market in a bigger way. As you probably know, we gig on average, five, sometimes six nights a week... Yeah! it's a hard life if you don't weaken and I have thought that it might be nice to cut down the gigs down for a while and concentrate more on media work if I can, (sessions etc).
"Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, ate the soup!.. :0))"
You can find Shann's official bio HERE.