The Tucson singer-songwriter makes her move to the East Coast, but not before recording a love letter to her old home.
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
No percussion, no distortion, no pounding, no wailing, no fuzz.
Twenty years removed from her first high school band and 12 years after her first album for Teen-Beat Records, Tracy Shedd has moved from her slowcore/shoegaze foundation to record a fully acoustic album.
It’s a realm Shedd says she’s been drawn to for years, something fans have kept mentioning, and one that fits perfectly for her most personal collection of songs, Arizona, released last month on New Granada Records.
“My whole career, it seems like this is what people have been waiting for and it seemed like this was the right timing,” Shedd says. “People like being able to hear more of the voice and it seemed to be the next step for us.”
As a duo with guitarist (and husband) James Tritten, Shedd presents a collection of songs that sum up seven years living in Tucson, a distinctly different home than the Boston of her early career and Jacksonville, where she grew up. It’s no surprise that Arizona is a sparse yet intense album.
“The whole album, every song except for the covers, was written in Arizona. It’s about my time there, friendships, what I was going through that year. I laid myself out on the table. It’s a very personal album,” Shedd says. “After we recorded it – and I think a lot of artist feel this way – it’s like you’ve just given birth to something and this one felt like that even more. I felt stripped down. It was hard at first to listen. I laid a lot out on the album.”
Arizona is a candle flame of an album, mesmerizing, calming, each subtle variation casting its shadows on the listener. It’s an intimate listen, Shedd’s voice closer and clearer than ever, building a connection that draws closer as the album progresses.
The decision to go fully acoustic came after Shedd and Tritten toured the country in late 2011. Shedd’s bass player Andrew Wright was moving and her drummer Andrew Collberg was so busy with other projects, so the choice was a practical one at first, cutting touring costs and paring down songs into new arrangements.
“‘This is working, we’re getting a great response,” Shedd recalls thinking on the tour, relieved of any doubts she’d had. “I realized it doesn’t matter if I have a full band or if we’re playing acoustic, people love it the same. It gave me the courage. I just really embraced playing the classical.”
Mark Robinson, the former frontman of Unrest who put out three of Shedd’s records on his Teen-Beat label, came to a show in Rhode Island.
“He’s seen me play a dozen times. I met him in Boston and he signed me there and he said it was the best show (of mine) he’d ever seen. I took that to heart. This is someone who’s seen me every step of the way,” she says.
Shedd began writing songs for an acoustic album in early 2012 and soon found she had new challenges to overcome as a songwriter.
“It was a different process for me. When I write a song, I sit down and write as it comes to me I don’t touch it. Maybe lyrically I’ll get in the studio and add a word or take something away, but I don’t mess around with the tempo or anything,” she says. “This was different for me. I felt like writing on acoustic complemented the songs. I would strip the song down. I’d write it and then just sit with it for days and tear it apart. I just kept reworking them. I think if I would have written it on an electric and then try to do them acoustically it wouldn’t have worked.”
Shedd and Tritten recorded Arizona in Craig Schumacher’s WaveLab Studio, cutting the songs in a quick three days while Neko Case had the studio booked at night.
“We were separated. Craig put me into the vocal booth and Jimmy went into the main room, but (Craig) faced us so we could see each other through the glass door. Everything was live. We had the vocal mic and then the two guitar mics and you could hear everything. They had to pay attention to what was outside too,” Shedd says.
Not only did Shedd and Tritten play unplugged, but they went without guitar picks. Shedd, who usually records vocals after the main tracks, stuck with the live takes, leaving overdubs to some minimal flourishes of Hammond organ, Mellotron and Fender Rhodes.
Arizona includes guest vocals from Ivan Howard (The Rosebuds), Denison Witmer, Naïm Amor and Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb, whose rough, dusty voice counterbalances Shedd’s sweet tones on the album’s closer, an out-of-left-field cover of Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot.”
“The Sonic Youth came out of nowhere. I had my guitar, drinking some wine, and started playing the chords and it just kind of happened. And then I thought of Howe and that he should sing with me,” Shedd says. “It was really neat to watch the way he recorded. He sat behind the board with his mic, not in a vocal booth. He was just so mellow about it.
Meanwhile, he’s texting with Steve Shelly telling him he’s doing a cover of one of his songs.”
Arizona’s second cover honors another of Shedd’s favorite bands, the Magnetic Fields. She’d been covering “Candy” for years and felt like this was the time to record it.
Arizona’s other highlights include “Ninety-Five to Ten,” a peppy remembrance of friends scattered around the country and the highways that connect them; heartfelt duets “Broken Arrows” (Howard) and “All the Little Things” (Amor) and “Million Pieces,” the album’s least-restrained tune, a rocker hiding in plain sight.
After the recording wrapped, Shedd says she struggled to come up with a title for the album. Now resettled in North Carolina, she says the album is so rooted in time and place that she simply had to name it after that land that created it.
“Nothing else measured up. This is about my life in Arizona,” she says.
01.11.14 | Washington, DC | The Black Cat | w/ Howe Gelb
01.12.14 | Asheville, NC | The Grey Eagle | w/ Howe Gelb
01.13.14 | Athens, GA | Flicker Bar | w/ Wayfarer State, Mothers
01.14.14 | Decatur, GA | Eddie’s Attic | w/ Howe Gelb
01.15.14 | Carrboro, NC | Cat’s Cradle Back Room | w/ Howe Gelb