Nowadays the southern singer-songwriter and former Crowsdell frontwoman is all about connectivity.
By John Schacht
These days, to suggest that maybe the digital communications revolution isn’t really doing all that much for communication between humans is to quickly get yourself dismissed as a techno-troglodyte or cranky, progress-hating Luddite.
That’s certainly the narrative driving us all toward faster and faster “connectivity” – otherwise known as the planned obsolescence of last season’s smart phones, tablets and iPads. But can cyber-stalking, “Like” buttons and what-I-had-for-dinner Tweets really replace genuine moments shared with a community of people?
Atlanta-based singer and songwriter Shannon Wright sure doesn’t think so and her new LP, In Film Sound, is an ode to the kind of face-to-face connectivity that used to build communities like the one she came of age in. After starting her career fronting indie outfit Crowsdell in the mid-90s (Stephen Malkmus produced and played on the band’s excellent debut Dreamette) , Wright went solo and built a reputation for intense live gigs and visceral recordings — most of which appeared on the venerable Chicago indie label Touch & Go’s Quarterstick imprint before it essentially shuttered in 2009.
Touch & Go, operating mostly under the steady hand of former Necros bassist Corey Rusk, grew from a fanzine in the late 70s into one of the nation’s poster children for DIY independence during the Big 6 major label 90s. T&G’s eclectic roster ranged from Big Black and the Jesus Lizard to Calexico and TV on the Radio, and the label’s longevity and reputation earned it the right to manufacture and distribute for other respected indie labels such as Kill Rock Stars and Merge.
But like the doomed coalmine canary, Touch & Go succumbed to the 2008 financial crisis and the shift to digital downloading, legal and otherwise. For Wright, who came of artistic age in that community of musical outliers, the label’s demise represented much more than just the loss of her U.S. music distributor. It was, she says, a symptom of the niche-fueled alienation the digital world ironically fosters.
“The Internet’s supposed to be this thing where you can connect with everything, but you’re not really making a community that way,” Wright says, citing indie DIY acts like the Minutemen that she grew up on. “Bands that came through were real, and you could connect with them. They came from the same working class world and made you feel, ‘okay, I’m not alone in this.’ That was exciting, you felt like you were part of a community, and I feel like that that has gotten really lost.”
Wright’s response has been to focus her efforts on Europe, where she has a very supportive French label and draws much bigger crowds. But her latest, out in the States on Ernest Jenning, is arguably her most visceral and anguished howl of beauty since 2004’s Over the Sun, and a conscious rejection of current music trends. Recorded in just nine days with members of former T&G label-mates the Shipping News, In Film Sound eschews ProTools’ multi-layered approach and click-tracks for a straight-to-tape ideal. Wright even extends that beyond the music in her attempt to document something emotional and authentic, including the LP’s titular artwork —a graffiti tag Wright did herself rather than Photoshop.
“I just wanted to record a record how I did 10 years ago, and how most everyone I knew recorded,” says Wright. “I wanted to go back to the most basic thing, which is: write music, record it, take a picture for your artwork, have it printed out, done. Very simple.”
The music certainly captures that less-is-more aesthetic. Turning from the more nuanced flavors of Let In the Light (2007) and Honeybee Girls (2009), In Film Sound detonates first with the sinister riffs and crushing beats of “Noise Parade,” and Wright never really takes her foot from the intensity pedal the rest of the way through. The opener lands somewhere between doom-y Sabbath, Shellac angularity and Sonic Youth noise, while the dark, swampy blues of “The Caustic Light” and “Mire” escalate into an ass-kicking pummeling built on furious drumming and exploding cymbals, as well as Wright’s percussive guitar playing.
But this isn’t an ode to dissonance, either. Elements of melody, graceful tempo alterations, and instrumentation beyond the guitar-bass-drum backbone the record’s built on supply strategic contrast, too. Even Wright’s mellower songs crackle with intensity, mini-conflagrations of emotional catharsis. “Who’s Sorry Now” rides a slow riff and pretty melody over distorted guitars and rich organ swaths, and “Bleed” finds Wright yearning for a missing lover atop elegiac piano chords.
Throughout, you can hear Wright’s desperately seeking connections — between friends, lovers and humans in general. Citing the shift in American culture from DIY necessity to trendy hipster slumming, Wright has increasingly sought and found refuge in Europe. YouTube clips of Wright’s European shows back up her popularity there, and though the Internet is just as accessible overseas, she says there’s a fundamental cultural difference that’s found her touring less and less in the U.S. (Wright doesn’t even currently have a U.S. booking agent.)
“They’re very emotive people and they want to be moved in the same way that I was when I was listening to bands like the Minutemen or any of those types of working class bands that had to make music because that’s what they did to get out their frustrations,” Wright says “One thing that keeps drawing me back to Europe is the fact that people need those moments in their lives — they need to feel something. Because otherwise it’s like being in a factory of life.”
And Wright never cheats listeners out of those moments — she probably wouldn’t know how to even if she wanted. While she concedes her music won’t be for everybody, that doesn’t bother her either. What matters is that she and the audience both reach that state of transcendence where that night’s communal experience leads down the road to a community of like-minded souls.
“It’s definitely an intense show, but it’s not intense in a bad way, or bad feelings — it’s more of a comfort, and letting things out, but also finding beauty in those emotions,” she says. “It’s just like the purest, most honest form of instant communication — that’s the beauty of music, it’s instantaneous. For the people that are open to experiencing those feelings that we all suppress — whether it’s longing for beauty or love or being frustrated because things are unjust — I feel like when I’m playing live I’m just expressing what everybody’s feeling. I’m just the vessel for that.
“You’re standing in a crowd, but everyone around you is feeling the same way, so that when you leave you’re like ‘oh, my god.’ That’s how I feel when I walk off the stage — I’m so happy, and it’s not because the audience thinks I’m amazing or whatever, I just feel really happy that we were able to communicate like that.”
Europe’s rewarded her with sold-out tours, decent hotels and good meals, and even money to take home with her to the States. Still, though the U.S. hasn’t been as open to Wright, she’s not quite ready yet to give up on it yet.
“There has to be some point where people go, ‘my god, I want to feel something. I don’t want to sit on my fucking computer for hours on end and live through a screen,’” she says.