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Q&A with Shannen Moser | Feature Interview

by Julia Leiby (@littleconscious)

Shannen Moser is a Philly-based singer-songwriter who in early January released her debut album, Oh, My Heart. It’s a potent and spiritual collection of folk songs buoyed by Moser’s unmistakable, country-tinged voice. On an unusually warm, sunny day Moser and I discussed the process of recording her first professional album, her influences in Philadelphia and beyond, sacred harp singing, and what songwriting means to her. 

JL: Where are you from and how old are you? 

SM: I am from Berks County, PA, about an hour and a half north of Philly. I’m 23.

JL: What other bands are from there?

SM: Kutztown is like the hub [of Berks County]. It’s a small college town. There’s a bunch of older bands like Frog Holler. My older friend that I went to high school with, his dad’s band is called Poor Luther’s Bones; they’re really cool and really weird, but there’s a lot of smaller stuff going on there. Bleeders are a band that’s really cool, and they’re younger people that are 20 year olds. They’re a queer, angry, apolitical band. It’s really cool. 

JL: Is that where you started getting into music?

SM: I have always been around music. Neither of my parents were ever musicians but my brother has always been a musician and he turned me onto the idea of music. Growing up and being around him when he was involved in music definitely inspired me. When I got into high school, I realized that was something I might be able to do and feel good about and pursue. I had a lot of friends that were much cooler than I and introduced me to a lot of cool music. I had one friend in particular that just showed me every band I still love today; I was heavily influenced in high school and kind of turned me into this, what I am right now.

JL: When did you move to Philly?

SM: Three and a half years ago. I’m pretty new to the area. A lot of the people I’m friends with have this rich, long relationship with the Philadelphia music scene. It’s interesting to hear about it prior to when I was here and how it is now- it just seems vastly different. It’s segmented into different neighborhoods in the city too; the joke in West Philly is that it’s where punks go to retire. South Philly is much different from the North Philly Temple scene. It’s all very different but falls under the same umbrella.

JL: So you mentioned some bands that you like from back home. What about bands that you like from Philly?

SM: Buster is a really cool band. They just released an album a few months ago. They’re weird. They’re cool though. I’m a long, diehard fan of this band Cool Points. They don’t play a lot and it’s always a surprise when they do play, but I got to play a show with them the other week and that was really fun. Pierce (Jordan) from Soul Glo is in that band. And I also really love Soul Glo. Loose Tooth and Clique are also great homies. People that inspire me around here are Abi Reimold- she’s absurdly talented. When I moved to Philly, she made me realize that the singer songwriter thing is not dead or overrated. People have this idea of what a singer-songwriter looks like or sounds like, but Abi was one of the first people where I was like, “Oh this could be like really cool.”

JL: Can you explain to me a little bit about your album title?

SM: The whole album is deeply personal. It's stories about my past life in Berks County and my present life here. The songwriting part for me is the emotional release of experience. Oh, My Heart, the name of the album, is presented in the songs of experience.

JL: A lot of your songs are pretty short. What do you like about writing short songs? Is it just something that happens?

SM: Ever since writing songs when I was in high school, they’ve always been very short. To present an idea in a short story is easier to remember to play as an artist, but also, for me, there’s more of an emotional impact to condense something that feels so big into something really small. So that it feels like the feeling. I also, up until recently, only played music by myself, and I felt limited in my ability as a musician instrument-wise. I would definitely consider myself a singer and a songwriter over a guitar player or pianist. So I’ve always felt really limited in instrumental parts. I feel moving forward that the songs are still short, but they’re more like instrument-heavy.

JL: So Julia Peters (formerly of TWIABP) is on the record, who else?

SM: My friend Julia plays cello and my friend Eric Muth plays second guitar for me. We recorded the record at his space. He and his friend Wyatt rented out a warehouse space, and they’re starting to do recordings and projects out of it. It’s really exciting. So he recorded and mixed and mastered it, with the help of a few other ears. My friend Joe Evers played keyboard for me, and this is the live setup as well, which it’ll be when we tour. My friend Wyatt did bass on a few songs. It’s mostly just me, Julia and Eric. 

JL: Do you think you’ll ever have a permanent live band behind you?

SM: Yeah! That’s what we’re working on right now. After the record was done, the next step was figuring out how to recreate that live. A lot of times I’ve made music in the past with more than just a guitar, and then playing it live you have to reconstruct it completely different to play it in front of people, which felt kind of like cheating. Moving forward we’re definitely practicing playing the songs like they are on the record. We’re starting to practice with a drummer, which is exciting. I’ve always been like really apprehensive about that because I feel like the loudness of those things take away from the emotional appeal of the songs. But we’re doing it in a way that’s neat and still reserved and quiet, but seeing the songs to fruition like they’re written on the album. 

JL: Who’s going to drum for you?

SM: Right now we’re practicing with Mike Walsh, who is the drummer for Caffeine and also did some drums for a few other bands. He’s really talented. I was in a Smiths cover band with him. It was really fun. Good dude. I feel like I’ve played with drummers in the past and it just didn’t feel right because it was just loud. I also wasn’t very communicative at that time about how I wanted everything to sound, but Mike’s primarily a jazz drummer and knows how to just sit on it and I’m really excited about that.

JL: I really like that sample in the first song, and I realize you repeat one of the lines in the next song, can you tell me about that?

SM: There’s a practice of singing called sacred harp singing or shape-note singing. It’s this really beautiful group that sings hymns out of the sacred harp, which is a book. There’s actually a few groups around here that do it, but where I’m from in Berks County a lot of my friends that had a very large part of my life growing up and influenced me were involved in sacred harp singing. And though I never really settled myself into that community, I go to singings occasionally and love it every time. It just had this profound impact on me and I think it absolutely captures the essence of the area. It translates the beauty of the area into song, which is the most synesthetic, coolest thing. I’m not religious myself, but I think that’s another cool thing about sacred harp is you don’t have to be. The songs, even out of context about being about religion, are just really beautiful songs about life and death, and there’s a lot of songs that are like very death-centric and kind of dark, but in a very hopeful way, and whether it’s about god or about life, it’s just very beautiful. 

So that opening song, and the second song is about my friend Alex in my hometown who was that person for me who turned me on to all that really great music. He right now is traveling across the country doing sacred harp. The really funny, kind of fucked up thing about all of that is we were doing tape layouts, and the album cover is a collage I made. Joe scanned it onto their computer, and one of the pages I had cut out to make the collage was page 28. That’s the page number of that sacred harp song, and it was this really creepy moment where we were like, “What the HECK this is so messed up,” but it was really cool and we felt like we were doing the right thing.

JL: All your stuff before this was self-recorded right? What does this record mean to you? Does it feel like an accomplishment?

SM: There’s a lot of reservations about recording with other people, only because I’d done music by myself before, but after I got over that hurdle of needing to let go, I worked with Eric on it, and he’s really good at what he does. It went really well and it was comfortable. I had the opportunity to do it in other spaces with other people. But this was definitely the right move and it feels like a huge accomplishment to be able to release something and to have worked on it for a long time in a real studio space and not just my room. 

JL: How long did you work on it?

SM: So the actual recording took a few months. We started it in upstate New York in this barn in Earlville, with a bunch of room mics and a four-track that we dumped to digital later. That was over the summer. We’ve just recently finished it the last time it snowed here, in January. We finished it in 3 days. It just needed to be done, but it felt a lot longer than that, because we were working out what worked and what didn’t work. I think once we realized what worked it was pretty quickly finished. And it’s amazing that these people still want to work with me after that because it literally took so long to make this record, but it was worth it. 

Recording is my least favorite part of the music thing. And then by the time it’s actually out and you’re still playing shows you get sick of the songs. By the time you need to tour the record you’re like I don’t want these songs anymore!

JL: What’s your favorite song on the album?

SM: Probably ‘Grower’. It wasn’t going to be on the record, and then I wrote it the night before we had our last day to record. It all happened really fast and I think one of the reasons why I like it is because it’s newer and I’m not sick of it yet. But it also feels a lot different than some of the other songs. My friend Joe plays keys on it and it was a really pretty key part and it just felt good to play.

JL: Did you do the tapes on a label?

SM: It’s a small label called Bald Spot Records. Nick Myers and Josh Lesr run it. They put out Buster’s record and they put out their own stuff. They’re just really good people. It was also Nick’s senior project. They have a store up online. The tapes came out really lovely. They made 100 to start.

Catch Shannen this summer as she tours with Sorority Noise, Forth Wanderers, and the Obsessives on four dates in mid-June, starting in DC and ending in Connecticut. Her sweet and melancholy songs will leave an impression on your heart for some time.