Shannon Hawley is a singer-songwriter and poet based in Shelburne, Vermont. She just released her first full-length studio album, “A Different Kind of Progress,” a five-year project she finished on the exact day her second daughter was born. Shannon is hosting an album release party on Saturday, June 20 at Study Hall in Burlington, Vermont.
I recently sat down with her (more like followed her around) at our home in the middle of the day, which is pretty much the only free time we could find. Did I mention we have a two-year-old and a newborn?
What are some of your earliest musical memories and creative influences?
My father had severe dyslexia, so he didn’t read bedtime stories. But he was a really charismatic storyteller so he would basically animate adventure tales for my four younger sisters and me. Some of the stories I remember were about a Pegasus taking him for rides out of his bedroom window at night, and about mermaids saving him from circling sharks in the ocean. He was a surfer, and I grew up by the ocean, so there were lots of ocean-related tales.
My Mom was and is always singing. She can make a song out of anything. It’s amazing to watch kids watch her make up songs. She also has all of these sayings and quotes on wooden signs all over her house, which always reminded me of the power of words. It still does actually.
Do you think artists get their creative instincts from their parents, or in reaction to their parents?
I think it’s both. In social work school, a professor said something I’ve always remembered. He said that “we dance on the perimeters of our parents’ nightmares.” I like to think I am evolving what my parents started creatively, and I also think their life circumstances made me realize how important it is to use my voice.
My Dad actually lost his voice as a symptom of a malignant brain tumor, and it was heartbreaking that he couldn’t tell us his stories anymore. He died when I was 11 years old. About 8 years ago, my Mom almost lost her voice when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 throat cancer. She has been cancer-free for about five years now and still singing lots of songs to her grandchildren.
Even though I have struggled with terrible stage fright and at times am conflicted about pursuing artistic endeavors, I cannot ignore the lessons of my parents to find and use my own unique voice. In many ways, it’s an amazing gift that they’ve given me.
You finished your album the day your second child was born. First, that’s crazy. Second, how do those two very different creative acts compare in your experience?
It is wonderful – the album and my little girl are like twins (without all the diapers for my album, of course). The gestation period of this album took a lot longer than nine months. It took almost five years, and really longer when you think about what is really in a song and how long it takes to find its shape.
For me, songs are such a mash-up of my whole childhood and my whole life. The creation of a song can come from such seemingly random moments or thoughts or ideas. Then, the editing process is sort of a distillation. You kind of chisel away at what the song is really about. For me at least, the songs take a long time to write.
How do you stay creative as a parent?
How do you not? Parents have to be creative. You are in the creative trenches as a parent every day, every hour, every moment. It’s in the everyday multitasking – how to get a toddler to eat a healthy lunch, how to leave the playground without a meltdown, how to get them to go to bed on time – those are incredibly creative moments.
But that’s one kind of creativity. To keep that part of myself where I am able to express creativity in different ways, like through songs, can be a challenge.
I no longer have the luxury of waiting for the perfect time or perfect amount of time to do something, because there’s never a lot of time. While I’m talking to you, I’m breastfeeding and just finished changing a diaper. I’ve booked some of my gigs with a sleeping kid on my chest.
Having so little time reminds me to be open to trying new things. I recently took a memoir class at the Writers’ Barn in Shelburne, Vermont, and I did a Touch Drawing with Jennie Kristl of JourneyWorks. All of those things are important – writing in my journal even – because they all help me keep my creative personal life alive.
Rhetorical question – why don’t you write children’s songs? I mean, why don’t you try to integrate your parenthood with your creativity more?
Well, I hope some of these songs are family friendly! I can only write and pursue the questions that are truly in my heart. I love children’s songs that have integrity and that honor how bright and beautiful children are – like Mr. Chris does – Chris Dorman.
They are not easier to write in any way, and maybe I will write songs that will resonate with children more in the future, but as for what I have already written, I was just trying to be honest. As Rilke says, I was trying to “live the questions,” and to explore what I was drawn to.
One of the questions I was thinking about was about how much you can create your own world. The title track, “a different kind of progress’ is about falling in love, how scary it is to show your true self to someone else, but also how important it is to be vulnerable and how much it can heal a person. To me, that seems like a kind of progress that doesn’t get talked about since it happens in our private lives. But in many ways, it is the most important progress or “work” a person can do. I think parenthood and raising a family is another “different kind of progress.”
How is this album different from your previous work?
I used to write more traditional folk songs – stories about peoples’ lives. But when these songs started taking shape, it was right after taking care of my Mom during her treatment for throat cancer, and I didn’t want to write about cancer. I didn’t want to write about any other complicated human problem either. That’s why I started to write about the natural world – how it’s so beautiful in its order – especially after the messiness and disorder and insecurity of cancer.
To very loosely paraphrase something Anais Nin said, I was trying “to be free by transcending reality with imagination.” Really, I was delving deep into my own hopes and fears about what it means to create, to love, to be alive in this crazy world.
In many ways, you’re just beginning your music career. Why now? What is it about being a parent that seems to have enabled you in some ways?
The best part about being a parent is that I can’t get completely caught up in my own anxiety at all. There’s no time to. My fears of failing or people not liking my music – there’s just no time for that.
I’ve found it easier to collaborate recently too, even on the album art with [Vermont artist] Hllary Ann Love Glass, and with [multi-instrumentalist] Matt LaRocca. Those kinds of collaborations haven’t always come to me very easily for some reason.
Being a mom makes me want to pursue music and creativity even more. It makes me feel good and alive. It also makes me want that for my daughters – for them to follow what they’re passionate about. Following my creative bent is even more important than ever in that way. I’m learning how important it is to practice what I preach.
Do you see your kids being creative at all yet?
I see it all the time in my two-and-a-half year old, Maya. It’s a natural thing for kids to make up songs, about what they’re learning about and what they hear. She definitely does that. But being a songwriter makes it so fun to see her singing. It’s a good reminder to play and sing with her and not take myself so seriously.
And just hearing little Rumi, my newborn, doing her cooing call and response, you just remember how much we can communicate with our voices – not even with words, but just our voices. It’s amazing.
What’s your musical mission, and who are your influences?
It’s to continue to find and use my own unique voice, and to help others do the same. It’s really to open people’s hearts and inspire them to find their own unique voice.
My biggest influences are people who have really taken the time to know and accept themselves, and to be brave by doing the thing that makes them feel alive.
In terms of musical influences, I was listening to lots of Tom Waits when writing my album. He’s such a great songwriter, but he also uses sound as a tool to convey a story or a mood. Also, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday – all those beautiful old jazz singers.
And the whole album is also inspired by poets – Rumi, Rilke, Tagore, Mary Oliver. They’re completely wise. They’re not saying anything flippant. They have real reverence.
It’s not just poets and songwriters – I love strong women like Cheryl Strayed and Miranda July – people who are brave and doing their own brand of creative work inspire me a lot, people who are willing to confront their fears and then be vulnerable enough to share what they’ve learned.
I think everyone gravitates towards their hopes and their fears, but if you really try to pay attention and figure out the differences between them, something beautiful can come out of it.
Sounds a lot like parenthood. Thanks for your time! Where can people find out more about you and your music?
My pleasure. Check out www.shannonhawley.com to hear my music and to find out where and when to check out a live performance.