Wright Takes Flight
Shannon Wright's Emotion-Splattered Acoustic Punk Hurtles Toward The Heart.
By Linda Ray
JULY 3, 2000: SHANNON WRIGHT'S RANDOM access imagery could hardly have a better setting than Solar Culture, its gallery walls covered with intensely personal statements, beguiling secrets, exposed roots and open wounds.
Wright's performance is best suited to rock clubs only for lack of such fitting venues elsewhere. Not a show for a chatty bar, hers demands and rewards the kind of focus you might devote to your own most inward gazes.
If you generally try to avoid that sort of thing, this may not be the show for you. Her performances are so intimate you can see her insides; her touch is inescapable.
If she were a painter, she'd belong to the abstract expressionist school, imparting meaning via an immediate emotional response, rather than conveying a clear message in commonly understood words and pictures. In that context, her first Quarterstick release, Flightsafety, might be likened to a Karel Appel, using instrumentation and tempo like recognizable shapes and colors, often pleasant, sometimes frank, always thought-provoking. By contrast, her recent Maps of Tacit might be more like a Willem De Kooning--intense, distorted and vaguely threatening.
Wright's poetry is oblique, using sound and meaning abstractly. It's impossible to convey on paper the emotions conjured, for instance, by the line "Your mar hushes my frame/you lid the envelope of monsoon'" from "Flask Welder," or "The recital is staged and ready to recite/stating the flaws and running you wild/but I'll be any stable you like," from "Fences of Pales." The latter song plays something like a pre-war bistro waltz, and you imagine that you'd get the same impressions if Wright were singing in German.
"That's it!" she exclaims. "That's exactly what I want. I like the idea of metaphors, playing with words that may not be grammatically correct, that don't necessarily have specific meaning, just some honest connection with human emotion that everyone deals with."
Wright is quick to say, though, that the darker sound of Maps is not necessarily a personal reflection. Like an actress, she draws from a range of her experiences, including some of the most immediate ones. But the character of Maps has taken its depth from a particular distance. Wright had made Flightsafety almost immediately in the wake of the breakup of her band, Crowsdell, and her subsequent flight from New York to North Carolina and, finally, Atlanta. Over the course of a year's time and touring, including several dates opening for Giant Sand, Wright gained the perspective that informs the dissonance and contrasts on Maps.
"In reality," she says, "the record just came from me feeling more comfortable in my skin, and closer to what I needed to express." She points out, though, "The new record isn't so bleak; it's a friction between things that are very beautiful and things that are very ugly. It shows a side that is very real but people don't touch on often. We always seem to be cleaning up our messes and putting them away, but they're there and they're alive and I tend to bring those stories back up.
"The live show always has been more like the second record. I've always performed Flightsafety differently live, more dynamic and emotional. Some may think it's much more aggressive."
Both her performance and her music are often as aggressive as you can imagine. She plays hard and doesn't obscure the technique. For example, you can often hear her fingers on the guitar making sounds other artists and producers would likely eliminate in the mix. In singing, she can belt to her last breath, her farthest note, allowing you to hear the strain on her vocal cords. But the strain yields a charming vibrato, and with the next breath she may whisper or croon over music that lilts or caresses.
The range of her vocal expression is matched, if not exceeded, by the scope of her musicianship. On Maps, Wright plays nearly all the instruments herself, including acoustic guitar, piano, drums, bass, Hammond organ, Wurlitzer, harmonium and "noises." As her own producer, she's kept the accompaniment spare to the point of elegance, providing emphasis and color rather than fills.
To record Maps, she returned to an isolated rural studio where she had recorded Flightsafety. "It's way out in the woods at this guy's house," Wright says. "You just wake up in the morning and record until you go to sleep. There's one room where you record, one room the size of the closet where the board is, and the engineer (Jim Marrer) works from his living space. He doesn't let anyone in. You just sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor in the room where you record.
"I work better in that sort of environment, with no distractions. You just concentrate on the music."
Wright's single-mindedness is accompanied by a meticulousness that ultimately prompted her to involve one high-profile outsider in this otherwise do-it-yourself project.
"I recorded four tracks in Athens with (indie rock producer) Steve Albini. I saved those songs for him. There was a certain sound I had in my head for drums. I knew he could get it. I knew that he would record the drums really big. The songs we recorded together are so sparse, everything's sort of angular. I didn't want the drums to sound like rock drums, just big."
Albini, whose production credits include The Pixies, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Breeders, Helmet, Palace and Slint, got exactly the sound she wanted and, for good measure, mixed the tunes at Abbey Road in London.
The importance Wright attaches to drums, to tempo, is underscored by the fact that she's accompanied on tour only by a drummer, Brian Teasley, who also played on two of the Maps tracks Albini recorded. Of her live set, Wright says "It's very emotional, very raw, you have to be attentive. It's got sort of a punk rock aesthetic driven with acoustic instruments. I like the idea of getting things across with acoustic instruments.
"The live show is like a theatrical show. I don't really intend it to be that way. I'm just being me and I'm being honest. Whatever it turns into is sort of out of my hands."
And if you let it, it will haunt you...with your own ghosts.
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