Singer/songwriter Shannon LaBrie: “I don’t think that art can ever be too personal”

shannon labrie
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Making music is more than a career choice for Nashville-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Shannon LaBrie. It’s a means of expression, connection, and telling stories that come from her heart to touch the hearts of her listeners.

Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, LaBrie came to national attention with her 2013 debut, Just Be Honest, a title that encapsulates her goal as a songwriter and performer. Led by the first single, “I Remember a Boy,” the independent release charted Top 10 on iTunes and Triple A radio.

Three years and a lot of tour stops later, she returns with War & Peace, an emotional 12-song collection that delves into love and loss. LaBrie’s music is described as American soul, but that only scratches the surface. At times pure rock, other times pure blues, War & Peace showcases her vocal range and gift for poignant, resonant lyrics. 

In your bio you state, “I started writing this album after a loss that put me at war with everything in my life. These songs are small doses of the war I feel inside and the peace I long to find.” How personal is too personal when it comes to songwriting? Is any subject off limits?

I don’t think that art can ever be “too personal.” No subjects are off limits for me; it’s just how I write. One of the beautiful things about songwriting is that you can be as literal and personal as you want while still keeping some things a mystery.

“Heaven Crashed Down” and “Alcohol” are extremely personal and very literal. They are that way because, for me, they needed to be that explicit and vulnerable. “Crumble” and “War & Peace” are songs about moments that I may never spell out word for word. They are all just as personal as the next song; they’re just telling the story in a different way.

You played classical piano at a young age, and then, inspired by your father, you began playing guitar. Did the piano provide a basis for your guitar playing, and do you still play or write on piano?

I don’t think I’ve earned the “Classical Pianist” title [smiles]. I learned how to play piano by setting my CD player on top of the piano and learning by ear. I’d play ten seconds of a song and then pause it, learn it, and repeat. Probably drove my mom crazy.

I don’t know if piano provided a basis for guitar playing. I was never trained on either instrument, so I was never taught their similarities. For instance, an A minor on piano and an A minor on guitar sound like completely different chords to me.

Yes, I still play and write on piano. Half of the songs on this record were written and played on piano, the other half on my guitar.

Were you always drawn to singer/songwriters as influences?

James Taylor was all we listened to growing up. My dad learned to play guitar by listening to his records. James Taylor is a bit of an idol in my family. It wasn’t until middle school that I started to discover music that wasn’t influenced by my dad.

Lauryn Hill was a huge discovery and influence. She opened the door for me, musically, in a huge way. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was on repeat until I graduated high school. Probably one of my favorite albums of all time.

What steps did you take to hone your talents during the early stages of your career? Did you focus more on writing or on practicing guitar and vocals by covering other artists’ songs?

I never covered other artists’ songs. I wish I had been driven to do that, because I’d probably be a much better musician. When I was young, I didn’t have the foresight to appreciate the value of practicing and honing my talent. I just wrote songs and played all the time because it made me feel better and helped me cope with hard things. It wasn’t until I moved to Colorado that I realized that music was more than a hobby. It wasn’t long after that realization that I packed up my car and moved to Nashville.

At what point did you feel that you “got it” as a songwriter — that you understood the craft and had the material to take to audiences?

It was a short time after I moved to Nashville. A guy named Mike Doyle at Major Bob Music took me in and mentored me. I wrote a song called “I Remember a Boy,” and showed it to him. I didn’t think it was any better than any of my other songs, but when I saw his reaction, I knew I had written something good. I never know a song is good until I see people react to it.

How has your criteria changed in terms of what you consider a good and complete song?

Goosebumps are always a good indicator. Like the first time I heard Hozier’s song “Take Me To Church,” on Lightning 100. I was headed to a meeting, but stopped my car and listened. It was that good. Doesn’t matter the structure of a song; if you can make people feel it, it’s good.

Are your songs sometimes composites of various lyrics, melodies, or chord structures, or are they always start-to-finish ideas?

Rarely do I ever write with a polished, start-to-finish idea.

Lots of people start with melody, chorus, hook, a quote that inspires them, but I start almost every song with the first two lines. I’ll sit down at my instrument and mess around, then I’ll fumble a melody and a lyric will spill out. Sometimes the melody and lyric will just pop in my head in the most random moments and I’ll just know. I have to stop what I’m doing and write the song. “Heaven Crashed Down” was an oddball song that started with the chorus.

I was watching the Tom Petty documentary with my boyfriend at home and all of a sudden I had “Heaven Crashed Down” in my head. I turned to Tim and said, “I have to go write a song.” I went in the kitchen, picked up my guitar and started singing, “It took a toll on mama, oh the things she wrote, nothing quite like dying, real real slow.” It wasn’t until I finished the first verse and chorus that I realized I was writing a song about my dad.

Do the songs sometimes end up in a completely different place from where they began?

Honestly, no. I’m definitely surprised at how lyrics take on different meanings the more I sing them, but usually every song finishes the way it starts. Actually, a lot of my songs will have the very first line pop up in the chorus.

How do you know when a song is finished and ready to be recorded?

I’ve noticed that most of the songs I record are songs that made me feel a huge sense of relief after writing them. There’s a sense of fulfillment and pleasure after completing a song.

After I wrote “Alcohol,” I felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

With that said, I was a little nervous about playing it live, so I asked one of my favorite songwriters, James Tealy, if he’d come over and tell me if the song sucked or not. His reaction to the song definitely gave me confidence to keep playing it. The more you see people react, the more you’ll know you should record it.

You moved to Nashville in 2008, when the industry had already changed radically. Even over the course of the six years since, it continues to change. What’s good and what’s not so good about the state of the industry, particularly for independent artists?

What’s amazing about the industry today is the fact that the doors are wide open. You can get your music out there and actually make a career without having a major label behind you. The internet has become the middleman between artist and fan. As a result, artists and fans have power.

The really hard thing about being an independent artist is that you need money to make a real impact. That’s why lots of artists have financial backers, crowd funding, investors, or labels. Lack of money makes things very hard, but not impossible.

War & Peace was three years in the making. How did you keep the material fresh and keep from over-analyzing it during that time?

Honestly, when I booked the date to record in the studio, I had an entirely different set of songs lined up for the album. “Alcohol” and “War & Peace” stayed, but the rest of the songs got bumped for songs I had written two months prior to recording. My producer, Tom Michael, is really good at keeping me from over- analyzing or overworking tunes. A good producer saves artists from themselves in that way.

I think the key to keeping material “fresh” is to keep writing and never stop. Once you stop writing, you’re in trouble.

How was the recording process different or similar for this album?

When I recorded my first album, I didn’t have tour dates under my belt. My first album was my first recording experience. I was new at almost everything, therefore the recording process was much slower. We played instruments piece by piece, which naturally resulted in a more polished pop sound.

War & Peace was an entirely different recording process. I wanted to record live in the studio with the band. I wanted the music to feel intimate, organic, and raw. I didn’t want it to be perfectly lined up to the grid. I felt the live aspect of recording better supported the rawness of the lyrics.

The experience I gained touring my first album and writing good and bad songs over the period of two and a half years put me in a great position to record with an augmented confidence in the studio.

Experience seems to take away the nerves of everything. I wasn’t nervous about recording this record because I knew exactly what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it.

What is the process like for you in terms of studio performance, takes, comps, and keeping a live feel to the songs?

My producer and the band made it very easy. We didn’t have a lot of time to over-analyze. We recorded the album in two days. We just got in the studio and played the songs and let it be. We probably played each song two to three times. My producer excels at keeping things moving forward, while still living in each song and letting each take be free, natural, and sincere.

For those who are just learning about you with this album, what do you hope they take with them after listening to War & Peace?

You are not alone in this world and there is always hope.

Musical trends come and go. Will the singer/songwriter always survive?

I honestly don’t know. I’d like to believe that great songs will never die, but who knows! Got to enjoy the moment and take it all in.

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