'I thought, Let’s see if I can at least write the song that the whole narrative hinges on. I did, and I just kind of fell in love with it...'
In Conversation With... Shane Wilson
Shane Wilson is already an accomplished writer with a stage play and two books under his belt, but in light of his recent music-inspired book, The Smoke in His Eyes, Shane picked up the guitar, and started writing music instead of poetry...
You’ve already written two books and a stage play; you’ve earned a degree in English and taught at a community college. What made you tackle the world of music?
I think it’s all explicitly linked together. I was working on my second novel, The Smoke in His Eyes, which was born out of a desire to understand the creative impulse. I had just put out my first novel, and I was faced with 'imposter syndrome': Who am I to think I have anything important to say? Who’s going to read all of this? I was forced to deal with these questions of the creative impulse, but beyond that, What compels me to share what I create with the world?
The idea for the second novel was born out of that thought process, and that brought me to the story of three different artists – two musicians and a visual artist – and I was going to use the narrative to explore the different reasons why we create. I was going to have one artist who was very interested in self-expression and finding the perfect song, and another was more interested in financial gain – the Taylor Swift end of it all – and the visual artist was going to be kind of the happy medium, the person who marries technical proficiency with artistic achievement.
In preparing to write this book, I thought I don’t want to sound like a jackass, so I should at least attempt to learn something about these instruments! I picked up a guitar for the first time five or six years ago, when I started to work on this book, because I wanted to be able to describe it: what it mechanically felt like to make the notes, what it felt like when the strings pressed into your skin, what it felt like to make chords, and the only way you can describe something like that is to have experience. I got this cheap Yamaha starter set from Guitar Centre – it was like $80 or something – because I’d always wanted to play the guitar, but I didn’t know if I’d have the stick-to-it-iveness. I started just kind of dicking around on it, making chords, and I think most musicians have had that moment where they stick three or four chords together for the first time and they make a song that they’ve heard before. For me, that song was a Ryan Adams track called Two, and playing it for the first time was like unlocking a magic trick. Bruce Springsteen calls playing music his magic trick, especially live performance, and I felt that on a real interior level. This thing that I’d never been able to understand, now I could make it! From that grew the desire to write some of the songs that the characters in the book had written. I thought, Let’s see if I can at least write the song that the whole narrative hinges on. I did, and I just kind of fell in love with it.
I will always say that I’m a writer first, because that’s my first love and what I think I’m very good at. The music came out of that, and I just had a lot of fun writing these songs. I’m not a very technically accomplished guitarist, I’m not going to start riffing off the solo from Free Bird. I like to say that I’m like a glorified campfire guitarist with a knack for words and storytelling. That’s really the focus of the music: telling these pocket dramas with very lyrical narratives. Learning to play music and learning to write songs has contributed to my process as a writer as well. It’s freed up some part of my brain where if I hit a wall as a writer, I can pick up an instrument and walk around a bit. It's a really interesting marriage between these two forms.
Did you have a moment in which learning turned into enjoyment?
There was a lot of time where I was just strumming whole notes, because all I could do was make the shape, strum, and then think really hard about the next shape, and then strum! I can do very limited lead work, but I am a rhythm guitarist, and the hardest part to learn for me was the strumming: How do you even do that and then transition? I think the most academic thing I did when learning to play the guitar was read an essay about strumming, and that made more sense to me than any video – I read an essay where someone described the process of doing it, and it just clicked for me!
The big part of learning is finding people whose style would match whatever was inherent in me that made me want to strum in this particular way. I think it has a lot to do with what I listen to. The music I listened to when I was in college was very Ryan Adams-y: that alt-country, Americana music. The rhythm of whatever you listen to just gets in you somehow...
Would you say that there are any artists who have influenced the book as well as the album?
When I look at the people I listened to a lot when I wrote the book and the album, the three names that come to mind are Bruce Springsteen, Jason Isbell, and Chris Cornell. Cornell’s solo stuff was something I was really listening to a lot when I was writing the book, and he actually passed away the day I signed the contract to put the book out. One of the epigraphs of the novel was one of his lyrics.
I’m also a huge fan of David Ford’s work and I was thinking a lot about his work when I was trying to name the album. I love Ford’s album I Sincerely Apologize for all the Trouble I’ve Caused, and I love that name, because it’s so wordy and stupid and delightful! I kind of leaned on that tradition when I named my album Of All the Things I’ve Ever Said, I Mean This the Most. It has the same kind of 'mouthful of words' feeling to it.
I like all four of those artists because they’re very narrative-driven and they’re very lyrical. I was really studying Springsteen’s The River and Isbell’s Southeastern. Isbell has such a knack for first lines, it’s sickening! The opening lines of all of his tracks are just so compelling. I was really working on doctoring my first lines, because that’s the hook – we talk about that in writing, too. Springsteen just has such a way with narrative, and I became fascinated with Thunder Road, which I think is maybe the perfect narrative song. Those are the guys I was listening to when I was putting the two pieces together.
How would you describe the album; is it one narrative, or an anthology of stories?
It’s an anthology of stories, but you can definitely read the album as a narrative from start to finish if you want. It also occurred to me the other night, after probably too many shots of whiskey, that it tells two different stories if you listen to it forwards and backwards. Every song can stand alone, but you can listen to them all together and you can sort of suss out a story that way.
I have described the album as acoustic singer-songwritery emo. When I was in college, I listened to a ton of My Chemical Romance, and Mayday Parade was one of my favourite bands – I went to school in South Georgia and they were a Tallahassee, Florida band. As cheesy as it feels now as an adult, I was a big fan of emo rock music, but never a fan of the harder side of it, the screamo stuff. I like to be able to find the melody, and I have a hard time with that with certain genres. Certain genres fight to hide the melody a little more, and I’m a big fan of melody.
I prefer to strip away a lot of the production, and just have a man and his guitar, and at the most maybe a drum or a piano. There’s no autotune, nothing is over-processed, there’s just three or four tracks of vocal and maybe a couple of instruments. I really wanted to hold on to that “man alone on stage, just telling stories” sort of vibe for the album, and I think that we were able to hold on to that. With the exception of one track, I ended up playing all the instruments and doing all the vocals on the album. One track features a female vocalist, Michelle Winfrey. When I was playing live in the 'before times', I did have another guy, Jerry Smith, who plays percussion with me, but the album was largely recorded during quarantine; I’ve got these songs and I keep talking about a record, and I don’t have anything else to do, so let’s just get this thing down!
Is your approach to song writing similar to your approach to a novel?
I could talk about my writing process forever, because I’ve been doing it for so long. I think that the song writing is something that is still revealing itself to me, because it’s been a little bit different each time. What usually happens is I get a line or two of lyrics that I think are pretty good, or at least good enough to warrant further consideration. I look in that line for an inherent rhythm in the words, and from there I just mess around on the guitar. I’ve written everything on the guitar, at least so far! Again, I’m not classically trained on this at all. I understand the structure of music, but because I’m not trained, I can only hear it. I can hear when a chord progression resolves it. In terms of writing music, it’s just play, and then it kind of falls together – or it doesn’t, it falls apart. There are plenty of songs on the cutting room floor that fell apart.
One song – I think it was the second song I’d ever written – was called That City. I thought that lyrically it was very strong, but musically it wasn’t working for me. It was very hokey! The first version of it was some sort of weird, sublime acoustic mess. It was too happy for the subject matter. There was something about it that just didn’t sit with me. And that’s one reason why the album took longer to put out than it would have: I just couldn’t decide about this song, because I liked so much of it, but hated so much of it! It really took opening the hood up on that song and messing with the arrangement, changing the key and the tempo, until I found a form that met the function of the song. Sometimes these things just fall together almost immediately. There’s a song on there called Ask the Whiskey, which I wrote in a cabin in the woods while I was working on a novel, and it just came together in about two hours and it has never changed: no words, no music, nothing! This other song took about a year to get right. I changed it every couple of months until I finally landed on this version of it that I was actually happy with it.
I can just sit down and write a story from beginning to end, it’s much more linear, whereas songwriting becomes much more cyclical. There’s a constant battle with revision.
That’s where my first novel came from. I thought it was going to be a poem, and it just kept going. It was seven pages of shit and there was just nothing I could salvage into a workable poem. I just put it on the shelf, and when I came back to it, surprise! It was a novel.
Would you say that this debut album is quite a conceptual album, staying with a theme rather than exploring and being creative?
I think so. I almost want to say it’s less of a concept album because these are songs that just came out of me and they happened to kind of fit together. I think part of that is, as an artist exploring the medium for the first time, we tend to fall back on experience for the subject matter, because we’re not comfortable just letting loose yet, so I’m falling back on personal stories that I’ve probably already explored in fiction, and re-telling them- re-framing - them as songs. When I look forward to new music projects, I think they are going to be more concept albums.
This is technically my second release, and my first was a concept album released under the name The Blue Ridge Connection. It was a collaboration with a guy named Neil Ray; it was a spoken-word / folk concept album telling the story of a guy named Martin who goes into the mountains looking for the meaning of life. He trips on mushrooms. He talks to a snake. He meets a woman named Faith and falls in love, and they drive off into the sky together in an old Chrysler car. It’s seven or so tracks, but it was all written and recorded in four days. That to me is a concept album.
You talk about a sense of storytelling but also the fact that it is autobiographical. What are the themes of the album?
This is where I’m really tapping into my emo roots, because it’s all about love gone sideways; young love, and the pitfalls of all of that. There’s one song on the album called Angry James and it explores the theme of an asshole at the bar and all the things that you want to say to him because he won’t get out of your face and he’s had too much to drink. Then there’s a song called The Ballad of One N' Done, which was written while I was watching my girlfriend play Red Dead Redemption II, and she was just this maniacal cowgirl riding through the desert killing everybody with no questions asked. The song recasts her as this man-eating woman that trolls the desert for terrible men. There’s the one-off weird stories, but the theme as a whole is how we can be haunted by our past.
Are there any personal hauntings that you’ve explored in this album?
One motif I think recurs throughout is the power of place to haunt us. There’s a lot of turning your back on cities: leaving the location to escape the ghosts that haunt that place. That’s probably a very young thing, too, because when you’re young and love goes sideways, it can ruin a place for you. An entire city can be ruined when things go south. You can’t go to a particular restaurant without thinking of the person. If you have a particularly nasty or violent breakup, you have to worry about the rumour mill and your name being in everybody’s mouth. Sometimes the only way to escape that kind of thing is just to leave and go somewhere else. The album sort of leads up to this moment where the protagonist decides to leave and try again somewhere else.
You were born in Alabama and raised in Georgia. Did you feel this sense of being displaced when you were growing up?
Yeah, and as I get older I see more of a tendency to root myself. I’ve long believed that you root yourself more in people than you root yourself in place. I think a lot of my Southern brethren would disagree with that, because they are very married to the South. I'm a pretty liberal-minded person and I feel a little out of place, but I am Southern, so I do also feel at home. This idea of being a nomad and wandering from place to place and group to group was something that seemed 'romantic' to me when I was younger, but now as I get older it’s starting to feel exhausting to pick up and move on a whim.
The thing that worries me about putting down roots is I don’t want to be too comfortable. I think comfort gives way to laziness and a lack of output, and I’m a big fan of creation. I think if I were to seek another major move, or if I were to try to escape again somewhere else, it would be the result of that creative well drying up within me. I think I’ve learned that creativity comes from somewhere else. It doesn’t have to come from constant chaos and turning things upside-down. That way lies only madness. While it’s still appealing – if I could throw a bunch of shit in a car right now and do something anywhere else, I would – I think there are ways to look for chaos that are less permanent and less life-changing.
You have written a stage play, and now you have started to pick up music; do you think you might want to venture into a musical?
I think you’ve really tapped into something here, because I am a little bit infatuated with the idea of writing a musical. I don’t think I necessarily have the technical know-how to put a musical together in the way it should be, but I love Once, the Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová musical. I think that’s a very accessible way to write a musical, because the story is there, and the songs are kind of built into the mechanics of it. I could definitely see The Smoke in His Eyes as a stage musical written in that form.
I was a musical theatre major for a short time – I was more focused on vocal stuff; I never picked up an instrument back then – until I realized that if you’re not good at musical theatre, you’ll end up working in a restaurant, but if you’re not good at writing, you’ll be a teacher, so I changed my major to English! I do want to write a musical, for sure.
I did a little book tour when The Smoke in His Eyes came out, and part of what I did was play some of the songs I’d been listening to while I wrote the book, in conjunction with reading parts of the book that spoke to those songs. It all culminated in playing the song Before We Fade Away which is on the record and the book. Maybe that’s the process by which I should approach this musical: find the moments that lend themselves. Rent is the same way: when you have a story peopled by musicians, you just have to find the occasion for them to sing, it’s already baked right into the story.
I noticed that when I did the album, I started to pull back towards writing again. I find that every time I shoot out a little bit out of my comfort zone, I’ll do that project but then come back to writing. Now I’ve got a couple of manuscripts ready to send to the publisher, I’m priming to shoot out into new territory again, and maybe that’s the musical!
You have had practice on stage with your two-man band called Sequoia Rising. Was this a collaborative experience, or you testing your own material?
Way back when I was a musical theatre major, I was in another two-man band called Purely Coincidental, and it was a failure by most metrics, as many first attempts at anything are. We played some little shows at coffee shops, but I was eighteen years old and we were in a very small town where there wasn’t a bar music scene. In that band I was just vocals and the other guy played guitar.
I was looking for somebody to play with, because I think you need percussion if you’re playing in bars, and that’s very much the scene where I live now. It’s a pub scene and it’s a cover song heavy environment: there’s not many venues that support original artists. The biggest bands locally are the bands that just play a load of Journey songs, but I still wanted to do it and I was looking half-heartedly. My friend Jerry Smith came over one night and started keeping rhythm with the song that was playing on Spotify, and I thought, Oh, that’s pretty good! That’s kind of surprising! I picked up the guitar and it kind of worked.
We worked on it a little bit, then a friend of ours who owns a bar here asked us if we wanted to play, and I said, Well, Jerry, we’ve got to come up with a name now! We decided on Sequoia Rising because he lived on Sequoia Avenue and I lived on Castle Rising Road, and we just threw those words together. It’s funny because when you’re just shooting the shit with your buddies, you come up with great band names all the time, but then when it’s time to actually name your band, you can’t think of anything! I always think of this one band name we made up when we were in college: Seuss’s Pack of Cigarettes. I always thought that was such a great name for a pop-punk outfit!
There was some interest from venues in listening room environments, which is what I think our community is missing. I’m kind of at the point now where the gigs I’m looking for are the gigs that will allow me to play what I want to play. I don’t think there’s a harder job in music than playing in a sports bar that is not interested at all in what you’re doing. They’re there to watch the game, and here I am in the corner, just making noise! I value that experience, but I’m starting to look at listening rooms as those are the better gigs for what I’m trying to do.
With the pandemic still ongoing, what is install for Shane Wilson?
Things have started to slowly open up here, especially if they have outdoor space, so they can function and have live music. I have spent the last year working on this project, and while I’m starting to think about where and how live shows might happen, I have a job and I’m lucky that it has continued throughout the pandemic. There are musicians in this town who have music as their sole source of income, so I’m not trying to compete with them for spots right now. As the restrictions continue to lift, I’ll start to look into getting out there and booking gigs again, but for me, I’ve treated the pandemic as an opportunity to really get into the creation part of it.
Now, don’t get it twisted, I’ve definitely spent far more time than I should admit playing Fortnite during the pandemic! At the same time, I saw it as an opportunity to really plunge into this project, and when that project was wrapped, I plunged right into another project. I’m releasing an album but also have two manuscripts finished for publication. It was either sit and lament and drive myself crazy with this newfound isolation, or find a way to make that isolation a productive time. I’m about ready to get out there and mix it up with the world and see what the next project is going to be, but I’m relatively proud of the way I spent my time in isolation.
You can stream Of All the Things I've Ever Said, I Mean This the Most on Spotify. You can also purchase The Smoke in His Eyes here, the book that inspired Shane Wilson to pick up the guitar! Be sure to follow Shane Wilson on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, for all the latest on books, music, and more!