Singer, Songwriter, Guitar: Brooklyn, NY
Think back to grade school. That first warm day of spring. The energy. The restlessness of it. How many times did you glance at that clock and stare out the window?
On a day just like that I remember our music teacher telling us we were going to have class outside. Immediately we scampered to get our things together and followed him straight out the door, without a care of what the rest of class would involve. After a few minutes of walking, we reached the middle of a nearby park. That’s when he stopped and gave us our assignment: “Close your eyes and tell me what you’re hearing.”
Simple enough. So, we answered.
A car horn. People talking. A truck making noise.
But it was all wrong. He emphasized the space in which we were standing—the trees, the grass, the fresh air—“Now, close your eyes. What sounds do you hear?” For an uncomfortable few moments, no one answered. And then, finally,
Then another answer:
Wind blowing the leaves in the trees.
“How many?” He asked.
No way, a thousand!
I’m very thankful for experiences like that—the ones that help make a special connection to nature. And one thing that’s drawn me to John Shannon is that for a long time he’s also felt a closeness to the natural world.
“I always felt connected to nature. Everyone is, especially as children, but most often in this society you get led away for a while. But if you make it back in... ever since then for me, man, it’s been like an open door. Nature to me is an open doorway into something else, into spirit.”
“I started to develop this sense of listening for songs in the wind and rivers. I feel like there’s a lot of that for me in nature. The more time I spend out there listening, the more it comes back into my songwriting.”
Listen to the special sense of timing on his CD, American Mystic. When John plays the guitar and sings he's just so comfortable—it’s like the music fits him just right. There’s a steadiness and a peacefulness. Nothing feels manufactured.
“In my core I’m an improviser. The music that I absolutely love is just purely improvised music, so I’m trying to keep that element. I use people in my band who come from improvisation, who can flow in the moment. That’s a key to keeping music alive.”
“And for me it’s always about some form of healing. You can call it bringing people to a sense of peace or a sense of clarity through music. I’ve always felt strong about that aspect of sound.”
And it’s all authentic creation. John is a strong believer in original music, and the effort and energy that goes into making it. He tunes his guitars in all different ways. Harmonically, it’s dense. Lyrically, it’s tender:
Oh my heart; a thousand waves; years gone by are all the same, you know; you’ll see; we’re going like a breeze into the day.
“One of the first things I learned about living with the earth was how to open up my vision from seeing in a tunnel, which city and society living breeds, to a wide-angled vision. You look straight ahead but push your circle of vision out to the above and below, and the left and right. That in itself is really a beginning of so much awareness expansion because your senses follow your sight.”
And that’s what John is aiming for—to bring us into our wide-angle vision, musically. To help us find those deeper meanings in song.
“I feel like it’s time for musicians to open up to a new music philosophy. Up to this point it’s been about notes and harmony and styles, and now all that has been fully explored and we are in a period of more imitation than innovation. The truth is that there are no wrong notes in music, which is not a widely accepted idea. This leads to the fact that concept work in music is pretty undeveloped. Concept work, such as using the power of intention, can open the doorway to new techniques and styles. With a strong focus and clear intention behind sound, there is a real change in how it’s perceived and how it affects people.”
That search for new music philosophy has created material for an upcoming CD: Songs of the Desert River (early fall, 2010). John told me how the desert has been a main point of inspiration for his music and his life, and how he has spent much meaningful time there. Picture him sleeping in the openness of the American Southwest, or climbing down trails of ancient waterfalls in the deserts of Israel.
“What’s amazing about the desert is that it’s so empty. All this space, yet there’s a presence there that’s so strong. I’m from Pittsburgh, PA, so I spent my life on the east. The first time I went to the desert it was in Arizona, and it changed my whole concept of everything really. I’d never experienced being somewhere and seeing just desert as far as I could—and then a snow-capped mountain peak that was probably hundreds and hundreds of miles away in the distance. I never had that sense of depth perception. When I came back to the East Coast it translated into everything around me there, too. It was very expanding."
"And that right there, the inspiration from expanded depth perception ties directly into my music. It’s all about creating and exploring inner depth.”
What becomes quickly apparent is the incredible understanding John has for the music (follow the exploration and improvisation back to Waking Vision, a jazz trio formed during John’s stay at Berklee College of Music). But above all that innovation and music philosophy, it’s a peacefulness and sincerity that shines.
In a way that reminds me of another singer and songwriter, Piers Faccini. It’s their search for purity, and honesty. And the want to share something special—for the music to connect with people. Giving and receiving as one.
“When you’re up there on stage with the audience, first and foremost we’re sharing a moment in time. I don’t want to play at people. Ever. I want to share in an experience. It’s all about having a music experience. And I feel like what Piers was saying: there’s no me without them, to ignore that is to play irrelevant music. I’ll never be the artist who plays something from beginning to end with a map that doesn’t involve the interactive energies of the audience, and I’m not talking about audience participation either.”
So it’s about giving the listener credit for being an intelligent, feeling human being. John believes in letting us figure things out. He’ll give us pieces of the story here and there, but lets us make connections on our own.
“Yeah, you don’t throw art at your audience. Instead, it’s like you say, ‘Let’s meet in the middle of this circle. I’ll walk to here and then you walk to there and it’ll be an experience.’ So we both had to take a journey to get there. Otherwise, it’s just entertainment. And I’m not creating music just for entertainment. It has to have another purpose to make the journey worthwhile.”
“It’s all about the journey: the inner journey, the outer journey. I feel that more and more people are starting to open up to that kind of music experience.”
"Lion's Mane" (mp3)
from "American Mystic"
Buy at iTunes Music Store
All stories are copyright of Gregory Koutrouby and A Thousand Stories unless otherwise noted.