New Orleans is full of incredible musicians, but none have struck us quite as enigmatically as Shawn Myers - a drummer who just released his debut album album of original works, The Silent Life. Myers kindly sat down and answered our burning questions about how his album came to fruition, the inspirations and elements behind the unique musicality, and insight into his musical past.
First off, what inspired the name of the album, The Silent Life?
There is a book called The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan. This book is actually part of a series of lecture-transcriptions Inayat Khan gave over his life. The chapter The Silent Life really changed how I think about everything. There are so many beautiful metaphors and ideas in this book that have helped me to look deeper in all things. This particular chapter in the book discusses the idea that everything comes from the stillness of nothing. It’s a beautiful idea! I don’t want to do too much paraphrasing because he is an incredibly eloquent human. Get the book! I am not Sufi, but I do enjoy learning about all kinds of connection to the world and spirit.
What is it like leading a group of musicians on your own original compositions?
It is putting a bunch of people I love into a creative sandbox that I built. I have a pretty good sense of what will work and what won’t. It is always fulfilling to hear what I didn’t expect to happen on top of what I had planned all along. Only on a few of the songs did we really have to work on the basics. "Tali Danse" and "Floating Now" were the really tough ones. They both hold a unique language that was unfamiliar to many of the musicians. But this challenge brought something different out of their playing that was spontaneous and exciting. I am so thankful to have a large musical community in New Orleans to work with and get people that are amazing musicians and also my friends.
Did the music/final product come out the way you imagined it would when you were writing/composing the music?
I try to keep an open mind with the music I write. I had a strong concept for all the songs on top of all of the written material. All of the musicians on the album are composers. Having that common language of creating music on top of being improvisors creates a degree of respect and honor between everyone. We know that this is super personal and that we have to give our all to create something of meaning and consequence. I also know and respect that they are not all a bunch of clones of me and will create what they hear. I can guide them by what I write but I have to ultimately trust their phrasing and choices as musicians. I am a drummer and have so many musical holes that they need to fill in. In my opinion they did an amazing job at filling the music in. I am looking forward to developing this music further live with so many more possibilities.
Tell us a bit about what it is like leading a band. What does it take to be able to lead a group of musicians to a desired sound?
Leading a band is HARD. Artists have personalities, opinions, needs, and limited time. I know I do. Language is tough. Many times the struggle is in the specifics of how something is being described or related to. The way you and I relate to any word or sentence is a unique thing. When I say “dog,” I have no clue what kind of images that brings up in your head. I can guarantee that it is not the image of my family dogs that come to my head and hold so many feelings. But what hopefully can be communicated is the feeling I portray by speaking the word dog. This feeling is how we can connect on a musical or conceptual level.
You have to have a very strong idea in your head of the product before you even begin. It’s your band and everyone is looking to you. You are taking their precious time to create what you have bottled up in your head. It takes being humble and taking suggestions on top of that confidence. Many times, the things I write for other instruments can be edited to work better for that instrument but maintain the intent of the song. Sometimes they can’t and just pose a challenge to the musicians. These are all choices I have to make in rehearsal or from a rehearsal recording. This is all after just trying to schedule a rehearsal or two which is a challenge in itself.
How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard it before?
I have a lot of trouble describing sound in general. In my mind I would hope that it conjures the pacific ocean and the flow of water. There are so many different influences but most of them come from the African Diaspora. I am hesitant to overly describe but would happily go in depth with why I created a song so that one may have a context for the sound they are about to dive into.
In relation to that, how would you describe this album?
This album is a huge step for me. I have loved to compose and create music as long as I’ve been playing music. I also love the Pacific Ocean and the central coast of California where I grew up. Music, writings, and teachings that explore our relation with the world around us captivate me. I wanted to use my own metaphors of sound and language to create something that was close and deep in me. Many people go the human connection route to get to a deep place with their music. I love that too but think that the world around us, outside of the human construct, holds so much connectivity that has been lost in our culture today. This album is my inception of that idea and specifically the connection with the Pacific Ocean. The picturesque-sandy-white beaches and tranquil warm waters of “sunny” California are only a small aspect. It can be comforting, beautiful, and tranquil. It also can be frigid, erratic, and intense. This album is an homage to the cultures I have been privileged enough to learn from and participate with. They honor these connections to the world around us.
In terms of personal growth, I also count this album as a huge step towards self love. Artists can be very tough on themselves. It has been a challenge to feel happy with something you create when you are listening to so much amazing music. There are many steps I know I still need to tackle and many things that I know I need to continue working on. I also hope to discover things that are above my awareness in this moment to continue forward. What I am happy with in this moment though, is the spirit of the music on this recording. I believe this album conveys the spirit that I was hoping to conjure through writing these songs and is a great beginning for what I hope this music will bring.
What's your favorite song on the album?
Rather than favorite, the most surprising song was "Tali Danse".
What inspired that song and/or its name?
This song is the only song I have written for this project that doesn’t have underlying words. The rest of the instrumental songs all have words that accompany them. I generally write melodies that are quite relaxing. They flow over various rhythmic structures. These rhythmic structures or feels effect the mood of the melody rather than the other way around. I wanted to write a song where the melody really drives the rhythmic structure. I also wanted it to be more “note-y” than other songs on the album for contrast. It attempts to combine a kind of Charlie Parker-phrasing sensibility to something that is harmonically focused on pentatonic material.
How has your music career led you to releasing an album of original work? (What's your story/past in music?)
My parents were the first step. My dad listens to such a variety of music and may still hold the torch for who has seen more concerts. We have always had a space in the family house where there are a number of synthesizers and studio monitors. I have spent countless hours messing around on primarily the Access Music “Virus-Ti” synthesizer, the same synthesizer that Hans Zimmer used on the Dark Knight. My dad has an ear. I may not have always trusted his ear letting my ego get in the way but have learned major lessons despite. My mom is a visual artist and connects to the natural world strongly in all of her work. She did the album artwork which came out beautifully. The emphasis she holds spending time outdoors has affected my brother and I greatly.
The second step is what music I really caught on to at an early age. One of the first drummers I ever heard was Airto Moreira. He would come up to the San Luis Obispo county on occasion from Santa Barbara where he has resided. He has performed and recorded with Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Flora Purim and many others. Having that in my ear in addition to Weather Report, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Led Zeppelin, Steve Roach and so much more created the basis for my own musical vocabulary. In addition, one of my best friends in elementary school happened to be an alto saxophonist listening to Charlie Parker.
I steadily increased the amount of music I was participating in after beginning to play drums in the 5th grade. When I was in high school I came across an arts academy in Michigan through a fair I went to that was meant to showcase arts colleges. I decided to apply to Interlochen and happened to get lucky and get in. I attended for my junior and senior year. I had never seen such a dense amount of kids with dedication to art. It changed me. There was a community for me!
So much happened at Interlochen but a highlight moment was when drummer, Billy Hart (Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Dave Liebman), came and did a concert with a trio. I happened to be in the combo that they coached. He really spoke clearly and gave so much great advice. I applied to Oberlin later that year where he is a professor. I was accepted and attended. It was there that I studied primarily with Billy Hart and Jamey Haddad (Paul Simon, Bokanté). Jamey hooked me up with a trip to study music and dance in Ghana over a summer. That moment changed my life. Learning had been so focused on the western style of teaching up until that point. In addition the material and connection the music had with the community was amazing. I spent most of my time in the Volta region where the Ewe community of Ghana resides. After deciding to attend graduate school at University of New Orleans, where the community and music are still close, I came across the Haitian community in New Orleans. I have been studying under a master-Haitian-voudou drummer, Damas “Fanfan” Louis, who initiated me into the voudou community in Port-au-Prince in 2016. Fanfan is playing a petwo drum on a couple tracks on the album.
Having so many different deep and meaningful connections has made me want to share and create. I try and write music that can honor a respect and feeling towards the world around us and maybe add some mystery too. All of my favorite bands and projects do that. I hope to do that in my own way. An artist that I used to play with a lot in New Orleans who has lived such a sincere life once told me, “I’m not a musician, I’m a magician.” That phrase means so much to me as it emphasizes the mystery and awe of creating sound to inspire and affect.
What's the ultimate direction you are trying to take your music?
My primary gig right now is with an amazing artist, Leyla McCalla (Carolina Chocolate Drops). She is a Haitian-American multi-instrumentalist songwriter and mom of three. I mention the mom part because when we tour, she has been bringing her two twins born a little over a year ago. She is one of my biggest inspirations and through being a part of her career and music, it has shaped what direction I would love to take with my band. We play art-centers, festivals and listening rooms with captivated audiences. These spaces are engaging and create a dialogue between the musicians and the attendees. I hope to have success enough to engage with a community of listeners across the globe. To treat a concert as a space to share sound and idea in a meaningful way as we do with Leyla is the dream.
What's next for your music?
It is time to take my own project on the road. I am looking to start touring with the music I have written in the coming months. The music has just began to open up and there are so many possibilities with improvisation and arrangement that can continue to add depth to the words, melodies and spirit of the songs. Further down the road, I would love to record more songs with a string quartet and some more synthesizers exploring those textures.
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