interview by Michael McCarthy
I won’t brag about the volume of music we receive on a daily basis now, but I will say that it’s often overwhelming. And it takes a lot to please me these days. Being good or even great doesn’t necessarily cut it. I have to fall totally in love with an artist’s music if I’m going to spend my time covering it. [Granted, I could start writing more negative reviews, but I’d rather point you in the direction of fantastic music than to tell you not to check out something you’ve probably already decided to check out anyway.] In any case, swimming in the vast sea of music we receive, I recently found a buried treasure when I opened a hidden chest and discovered the music of Shayna Leigh. There were two songs in particular that made me want to know more about her (hence this interview): “Little Criminal” and “Crash.” What these songs have in common is a marriage between loud, punchy beats — almost in the hip-hop vein — and keen melodies, which Shayna’s voice rides beautifully. Some of Shayna’s earlier music is more in the vein of ’60’s singer/songwriter material than today’s pop, but with the songs on her new EP, Hey Shayna Leigh, she walks the fine line between today’s commercial pop and those older songs that made her want to start writing songs in the first place and she makes it look easy, the songs almost having a whimsical, playful vibe about them. In the following interview we talk about her change in direction, songwriting and more…
You released an EP called The Cold Hard Truth and the Dream on Noisetrade earlier this year, but those songs almost sound like a different artist, especially when compared to “Little Criminal” and “Crash,” which are my two favorite songs on Hey Shayna Leigh. Are your influences now different than the influences you were drawing from when you made the previous EP? Did you make a conscious effort to change the direction with the new material?
This is such a good question and honestly one I am surprised I’m not asked more often! So I’m already pretty impressed with you guys! What I would say in terms of influences is not so much that my influences changed (because I think generally we all sort of just like what we like) but rather that the influences I chose to draw on for my own work and myself changed. My first EP was very much inspired by the songwriters of the east coast in the 60’s (think Carole King, Paul Simon, Laura Nyro) who are all major inspirations to me, while my new music is more of what I call singer-songwriter pop- organic elements infused with pop sensibilities. I think in my previous work I had some trepidation about going in a pop direction because I couldn’t really picture how it would come out… it was very much about trying something new and seeing where it took me. I am beyond glad I did though. I am really proud of how it came together and do think in many ways Hey Shayna Leigh is a combination of where I’ve been as an artist and also the beginning of where I’m hoping to go!
On a related note, “Last Criminal” and “Crash” remind me of the latest Sara Bareilles album and also the album Don’t Look Down by singer/songwriter Skylar Grey, the latter of which uses a lot of heavy, hip-hop-flavored beats. Are either of those influences?
Sara Bareilles is definitely an influence of mine. I need to check out Skylar Grey more thoroughly (I will make a note to do that now… haha). I’ve always really loved contrast- smooth musicality with harder beats, which is what I believe makes this style of music so intoxicating. Creating these two songs in particular was definitely a big step into previously uncharted territory for me- Michael Mangini, who produced the tracks, and Peter Zizzo, who co-wrote them with me, were both very much instrumental in the development of this element of the music. I think when you get into a room with people who have such incredible ideas its hard not to be inspired.
Was The Cold Hard Truth and the Dream your first release ever? If not, what did you release previously?
Yes- Cold Hard Truth and the Dream was my first ever release! I have actually recorded a lot of other material (two full albums actually) that I haven’t released because I felt like I hadn’t quite said what I want to say… That’s a big thing for me. I take pretty seriously the idea that my music is what I am putting out into the world, no matter how many people hear it, so I feel like there is a responsibility involved in terms of what kind of message I want to share.
How old were you when you first started playing music? Did you take guitar lessons or anything like that as a child?
I started singing through acting as a child. I grew up in Orlando, FL where I did a lot of commercial acting and theatre… which naturally led me to begin taking singing lessons… and that was sort of it for me! I’ve taken voice and vocal coaching pretty consistently since then. I have dabbled in piano and am still convinced that one day I am going to take guitar lessons, but I consider myself to be very much a vocalist first, so that’s always been my major focus.
Have you always wanted to be a solo artist or were you ever in bands?
I’ve played in a few cover bands in my day, but I’ve never actually been in a band. Honestly, I think I would really like it. I love collaboration and co-writing and creatively sharing, but I think what makes a great band is the chemistry of the members… I think it’s a lot like dating… you can’t force it to work if it’s not right. I am totally open to the idea, but I also love doing my own thing. I guess my motto is to keep creating in whatever way I can and see where it takes me!
When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician for a career?
For me, it has always been more that I just can’t stop. I have this urge to say more, do more, make more which is what keeps me here and keeps me going I think.
You wrote the song “Drive (Back To Where You Lived)” with veteran songwriter Peter Zizzo. How did that collaboration come about?
In the time between releasing Cold Hard Truth and The Dream and beginning the process of recording what has now become Hey Shayna Leigh, I went through a phase where I spent pretty much all of my time talking to any and everybody I could find or happened to come across (haha) about music and my music and the industry. During this period, I met Peter and Mike Mangini who work together, and we decided to try to write a song. The first song we wrote was “Drive.” It was written the day we met. That was very much a defining moment for me.
I understand “Drive” is now playing everywhere at Forever 21’s. How did this come about?
I am not entirely sure how this came about. I believe there is a pretty intense, competitive process for how songs are selected to play in retail stores. This was a super exciting moment for me though- it was really the beginning of the development of momentum for “Drive” and the EP… I will never forget the day I found out we got this placement!
How does the songwriting process usually go for you? Do you always work with a co-writer? Do you usually start with lyrics or a title or a melody or…?
I love co-writing! I love the idea that when you sit down in a room with a person, whatever you create is this one of a kind thing that is formed from the combination of multiple brains and hearts in a moment that can never be repeated. Also, to be honest, I like to work with people who I think are more talented than me! I say this not to knock myself, but more to draw attention to the amazing writers I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. To me, the goal is always more about making the music the best it can be, however I can. I don’t have a way I always begin a song… sometimes the music will come first and very much inform the melody. Sometimes it starts with an idea/concept. It really always varies with me!
A lot of songwriters write poetry to sharpen their wit with words. Do you follow this tradition? Do you journal?
I journal more therapeutically than poetically I think… I write down little thoughts and phrases throughout my days sometimes and I often write essays, for lack of a better description, about life and what I’m learning as I live it… I think the more you write the better you get. It’s a simple as that.
A young actress plays a childhood version of you in the video for “Drive (Back To Where You Lived).” Was the part difficult to cast?
The director of the music video is very close childhood friend of mine who now has her own production company in LA (check out Lady Rooster productions!), so I was very much able to trust her with casting this role in particular because she actually knew me as a kid! Most important to me was that “Little Shayna” seemed real. Part of what I wanted to get across conceptually was that we all have dreams that we can achieve. Sure there will be setbacks, but we are all worth the pursuit of our dreams, so I really wanted her to be a very normal kid. I wanted to call into question the notion that you have to be special to achieve great things. I wanted the video to be the story of someone regular who is willing to fight for her dreams, because we all can.
In the video, you give one the impression, that you have a history of not fitting in, like when the guy doesn’t want to kiss you during spin the bottle. Were you unpopular when you were growing up? Were you ever bullied?
I have always felt a little bit like I didn’t fit. I wasn’t bullied, and I have been lucky to have absolutely beautiful friendships in my life, but growing up is hard. And both high school and college were kind of low points for me– I felt awkward and unsure and uncomfortable… and I didn’t have boyfriends like all of the “pretty” girls (I put this in quotes not as a commentary on anyone’s appearance, but because if you weren’t one of them, the assumption was that you weren’t pretty enough.), so I struggled a lot as I think a lot of people do. And so I love the idea of us all talking to our younger selves from the other side, when you realize that you’re going to be ok 🙂 That’s a lot of what “Drive” is about for me.
I understand you’ve been touring a lot. Who have you toured with this year?
I just got back from touring with Howie Day, Honor by August, and the Gallery. It was an amazing summer! I feel quite lucky!
How many shows have you played so far this year?
I spent the whole first half of the year writing and recording so not as many as it may seem probably around 10 I would guess.
Tell us a funny story from the road.
Well, there was this one time we got stuck on a bus in beyond ridiculous traffic and almost missed a show. It was basically the worst 7 hours of my life. My guitar player and travel buddy however had the best 7 hours of his life as he left with the phone number of the cute girl he sat next to who he is now dating. So there’s that. Hahah.
What’s your favorite social networking site or ap? What’s your least favorite?
I discovered Facebook first… so it has a special place in my heart. But there’s something interesting about Twitter also… because so much content is being shared so quickly- there’s this sense that you can say anything and few minutes later it sort of ceases to exist. Which is fun! My least favorite? I don’t know… I haven’t really gotten into Snap Chat? Does that count?
Has your music ever been influenced by comments people have given you online? If so, how?
I mean I feel pretty honored always whenever anyone takes the time to comment or leave a message- I always read it and it always has an affect. There is nothing like hearing that someone likes your song. At the same time, when someone doesn’t like my music, I am also oddly honored that somebody took the time to give me a piece of constructive criticism (or even the kind of mean, negative feedback that I believe comes with the territory of attempting to do anything publicly) I look at it as a compliment that this particular individual felt the need to stop what he was doing and comment… it means I’ve reached that person in some way. I’ve always feared invisibility more than I’ve feared criticism.
And now some questions from our random questions bank…
How popular would you ideally like to be? For example, there’s massive popularity like Adele and then there’s moderate popularity like Neko Case.
I don’t give this too much thought. I’d like to make a difference in any way that I can. I think you just have to put your stuff out there and hope people are affected by it!
Name five of your favorite movies, books, albums or TV shows.
Good Will Hunting (movie)
Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed (book- Just finished. SO GOOD)
The War of Art – Steven Pressfield (book- if you are an artist of any kind at any phase of your career, I cannot recommend this book enough)
Cool Runnings (movie)
Do you know any foreign languages?
I studied Spanish in high school. I wish I knew more.
Rambo or Rocky?
ROCKY!! “Eye of the Tiger” is one hundred percent on any workout playlist I have ever made!
What’s your favorite movie soundtrack?
I actually don’t know. Maybe Garden State? That was pretty defining for me during my formative years. Clearly I also like bits of the Rocky soundtrack!
Professionally speaking, have you ever done anything you’ve regretted? (Doing this interview doesn’t count!)
Besides this interview (haha), my most major “regrets” (I don’t really believe in regrets- I think everything we do either teaches us something we need to learn or gets us to the next place in our development) have to do with not listening to my instincts, and doing what someone else who had more experience or information told me to do instead of what I knew in my heart was right for me. I think most of the time we all know instinctively what’s best for us.