The Division Belle
Shannon Wright has called Atlanta home for the past 18 years, yet she remains something of an outsider in the local music scene. A self-described recluse, Wright keeps a low profile and plays out infrequently – for the past decade the Jacksonville native has focused on the European market, where her raw-nerved music has found more receptive audiences. “France, Italy, southern Europe – people of color seem to like me,” she laughs. “I guess I’m too emotional for northern Europe. Intense, not emotional – I hate that word!” she winces while correcting herself.
I’m ashamed to admit I’d never caught Wright live until October, when she opened for Shellac at Mammal Gallery. She blew me away – this may be blasphemy, but I found her set more memorable than the headliners’. “Shellac wanted me to play solo, but I did two shows with my friend Kyle from Louisville on drums,” she tells me over coffee in Grant Park one recent Sunday morning. Atlanta was one of those shows, to my everlasting glee. With sparse backing (Shellac bassist Bob Weston joined in for a few songs) Wright and her guitar delivered a set of smoldering intensity (yep – that’s the right word) that hooked a large share of the crowd.
Wright enjoys this configuration – she played the EARL with Deerhunter drummer Moses Archuleta a few months earlier – but on record she’s nearly as likely to rely on piano. That’s one of the reasons she prefers playing overseas. “Europe is an entirely different world. They bring in the pianos, and a tuner – they can afford to do it, because the shows do well.” Wright appreciates this wherewithal to pace her set, drawing from both piano and guitar based songs.
Disillusionment with the music industry and skepticism over how long she’ll continue riding its treadmill has been a theme throughout Wright’s career. It informed a 2000 Stomp and Stammer feature, and dates to the dissolution of her ’90s band Crowsdell. But an abiding love of the art and an uncanny knack for a guardian angel to arrive at just the right moment has kept her going. This kindness of strangers girds the story behind Wright’s new album, Division.
Katia Labeque is a renowned pianist in classical circles. “She’s a total punk rocker at heart. They’ve had Philip Glass write for them,” Shannon effuses. Along with sister Marielle, her duo’s repertoire also includes Steve Reich, John Cage and Terry Riley. In Madonna’s Truth or Dare documentary, when Madge wants to expose her dancers to new music, she takes them to see the Labeque Sisters.
In 2014, “I was playing in Switzerland, and Katia and her boyfriend David invited me to dinner before the show.” Wright had once met David Chalmin (a musician and producer in his own right), who told her Katia was a big fan. “The promoter had added me to someone else’s bill – some hippie band. It turned out to be a terrible show. I was super-bummed and tired from touring” (to Wright’s recollection “the audience reaction seemed OK, but I didn’t want them to like me!”) Labeque had a different impression, however. “She came backstage afterward and gushed about it. I told her I’d been thinking about quitting, and she wouldn’t have it,” offering Shannon use of her Italian studio for a week to decompress and write.
“I can’t even explain how incredible this place is – it’s not a recording studio you’d see in a magazine; it’s in the middle of Rome, Italy; her furniture is very ancient, minimalist, with two super-rare Steinway pianos. I was super-intimidated by the whole situation. I just sat with the pianos for a couple of days, like, ‘Hi!,’ and eventually started writing.
“It was supposed to be no pressure, no expectations,” she continues. The situation reminds me of a MacArthur Grant, an amazing no-strings-attached gift. Chalmin was also in Rome, with a standing offer to drop in for recording help. Shannon eventually broke the logjam, writing two songs in one night – the first, a white-knuckle ride called “The Thirst,” is posted on her website. Wright returned from Rome with three completed songs and the momentum to continue writing at home. She later returned to Europe, finishing Division with Chalmin (who also added cello) in their other studio in Paris – apparently modern classical pays better than I realized!
Wright hewed to her usual pattern of playing nearly all instruments herself. “I usually ask for help if it gets more complicated than I’m capable of,” she explains. This time she wrote drum parts for a few tracks she turned over to Frenchman Raphael Seguinier. “I sat in the room following along with each beat while he recorded them – which was a little weird.”
Any notion that Division is purely an austere piano/drum album would be incorrect, however. It features as much keyboard and electronics as it does pure piano – in part a product of Wright’s home recording after a friend lent her a passel of vintage keyboards and drum machines. “I have to watch myself and remember to go outside,” she admits. “I can easily stay up all night in my music room with these things.”
The opening title track is something of a head-fake, favoring the thunderous guitar with which she’s more often associated. It’s also the last song Wright wrote for the album. “I sequenced it first because it’s the beginning of the narrative,” she explains. “A lot of times when you write a book the first chapter is the hardest.” Wright dismisses the notion that she’s simply entering another guitar phase, however. “My body tells me what’s right. Somehow it’s as simple as ‘I feel like playing guitar today,’ like ‘I feel like playing basketball today.’” Surprisingly, closer “Lighthouse (Drag Us In),” a piano tour de force that builds to Division’s biggest maelstrom, was written in Atlanta rather than on those stately European pianos.
“Katia was so generous at a time I desperately needed it,” stresses Wright, reciprocating generosity toward a benefactor who doesn’t appear on the record. “Actually Steve has always been that kind of champion for me too,” she adds about Shellac’s Steve Albini, who’s also recorded several of her albums. “Over the years when I’m feeling down, that no one cares, I’ll get a text from him, ‘Listening to your record right now – Blowin’ my mind as usual!’ or whatever. I think that’s partly why they ask me to go on tour. Steve’ll say ‘I just want people to see you. They don’t know what they’re missing.’” Regarding the Shellac trio she adds, “We’re old friends – we stay in touch, intertwined in each other’s lives. We ride in the van together; it’s the easiest, simplest tour I can do.”
They’re part of the extended Touch & Go Records family – the label’s mothballing of operations a few year back likely exacerbated Wright’s music business frustrations. She hasn’t even bothered to release her last two records in the States, doubling down instead on longtime European label Vicious Circle. Vinyl and cassette (!) copies of Division are available at her website, and in this day and age digital versions transcend sovereign boundaries.
Although Touch & Go has resumed limited operations, Wright doesn’t foresee a return to the label – and harbors no ill will. “Corey still wants to do it – it’s in his soul, but he can’t take on what it was,” she says of T&G founder Corey Rusk. “Most of the things he puts out now are old friends like Shellac, where ’I know this is going to sell x amount, it’s only every three to five years, I know how to do it.’”
Besides, why keep banging your head against the wall on your home turf when you enjoy better traction elsewhere? Days before we spoke Wright had accelerated her European travel plans to accommodate an arts/culture program on French TV, where she’ll perform a song a day for a full week.
On tour Wright will handle both guitar and piano, joined by a drummer and Chalmin’s electronics. The same configuration should hit the States in March/April – and to her chagrin she’ll be out of the country when Katia and Marielle Labeque perform February 26 at Emory’s Schwartz Center. “I’ve got friends lined up to take care of them,” she reports, hoping to return at least part of Katia’s hospitality.
Don’t expect the grueling “road warriors in a van” regimen of her early days, though. “The US mentality – herd the cows in, herd ‘em out – I just can’t get behind that anymore,” she says. In Europe, “They really love music and art and hold it in high regard, and get funded by their countries to bring in different types of music. For instance, I’m a vegetarian and they always make me an elaborate meal.” Sure beats the delivery pizza or $10 bar stipend.
A reclusive musician who raises an amazing ruckus with her guitar, worked with Albini, and whose skills extend to piano…. Word of warning: don’t commit my faux pas and suggest a PJ Harvey parallel. It’s a hot button for Wright (I don’t think my mention of Scout Niblett helped matters either). “It’s so frustrating because I’m always compared to women. It’s like women can’t be inspired by men, or vice versa. There’s only room for a PJ Harvey, a Bjork and a Cat Power and everyone else, ‘You just sound like them – and that’s just the way it is, girls.’ That’s super annoying. I didn’t even know PJ Harvey had a piano record.”
At Mammal Gallery I doubt I saw Wright’s eyes for more than three minutes total, her hair draped over her face. She adamantly denies that’s a calculated pose, however. “I don’t care what I look like up there – I’m not trying to be pretty. A lot of women, if they stopped trying to be pretty all the time, they might do something great. I once had a booking agent say, ‘Why do you have to make your face look like that on stage?’ And I’m like, ‘Are you hearing that come out of your mouth?’” Naturally, that stateside male was soon her ex-booking agent.
I recall zero audience banter during her set, including between-song thank you’s. “I’m sure I said thanks,” Wright counters self-deprecatingly, “but probably mumbled it so much no one could hear. It would be a lie for me to do that – it doesn’t come naturally. The music part, that’s 100% natural and truthful.”
The truthful moments are what keeps Wright going. “I think my happiest times are when I go on tour (in Europe). If I stopped doing this it’s the loss of live performance I think I’d mourn.” She doesn’t sound overly disillusioned at present, but isn’t making promises beyond summer European festival tours either.
If Wright draws the curtain on her performing career, it’ll be with a clear conscience. “I feel like I made the record I wanted to make,” she says of Division. “There’s usually a song or two where you think the performance wasn’t there, or you couldn’t get the right guitar tone. Not this time.”
The smart money says we’ll be talking about another impressive Shannon Wright record – whether fueled by piano or guitar – in another few years.
Photo by Jason Maris.