With democracy you never know who you might end up with and when Rift embarked on its 100 Days of Local Music I had no idea who might land in the Top 5. Ultimately, the popular vote would place me across the table from this unknown quotient conducting an interview. The top 5 were chosen by the number of views that Rift’s audience gave their music and in that way I was totally at their mercy. The people spoke and as luck would have it, one of the Top 5 was Shawn Stelton. Being a fan of Stelton’s I was pretty happy to hang out and talk shop with him.
Shawn why do you think that you did so well and ended up in the Top 5 of Rift’s 100 Days of Local Music?
I did an email campaign essentially. I messaged a bunch of people through FB that might be willing to share and told them that I might have an opportunity to be interviewed and let people know about Rift magazine, too. I basically just pasted and copied the same message and did that. I have a lot of support from people that I’ve known over the years, people who are generally willing to share my music. It was fun to see some of the kind comments that people said. Overall, it was a fun experience to have had over those couple of days.
Even if that isn’t the end all be all to create and play music–that feedback had to have felt good?
Oh absolutely, I mean that is part of why you do it in some way. Obviously it is a lot of fun to create and make music, but a big part of it is–do people actually like it? I can be really bad about that: “Oh no, what are people thinking?” On FB you have people from all walks of your life, so it was pretty cool to see people that I haven’t seen in a long time sharing my music. That was really fun.
An affirmation that might give you a little push to keep creating? Maybe like the push that taking songwriting lessons from Jeremy Messersmith gave you?
Yes, I did that three years ago at Jillian Rae’s music school (Music Lab). My wife actually caught it because she is better at catching these things than I am. She had noticed on FB that Messersmith was doing songwriting lessons and she suggested that I should do it, and I was like “Sure, might as well.” So I emailed and got hooked up with it. I took lessons for about a year and a half. It was fantastic.
Did working with Jeremy Messersmith refine how your wrote?
Yes. The biggest thing going into it was I felt good about being able to create the structure of a song and different melodies. That part was okay, but lyrics have always been an area where I get self conscious about it or feel like “that stinks” or “how could I make this better?” So, that is what we focused on the most. Whether it was ways to generate ideas: keeping note cards…little things like that. It added up to finding different ways to focus on the lyrics. One of the biggest things that I struggle with and still am working on, is how do I tell a story with a song? It was fun to approach it in the way of that I can put little bits of myself in it, but it can be whatever I want it to be. Kind of liberating in that regards because I had always thought songwriting had to be about your deepest, darkest feelings. They can still be in there, but it doesn’t have to be so raw all of the time.
You don’t always have to draw blood to have good lyrics.
Absolutely. I still struggle with that because you do see people that you respect who do write that way…so raw, so powerfully. It’s so great, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. So that was the fun part, looking at it and now we have this character in a story and how do you make them likable even if they aren’t supposed to be likable? By adding setting to it and a bunch of little things like that we got down to the nitty gritty stuff. I’d come in with a song and then do rewrites and different drafts of it until we got to the point where I’d think it was ready. It would be little things like that one line doesn’t really work, how do we structure it or add a word to it? It is laughable now but I used to collect a list of words that I thought were cool like “cacophony” or whatever. Jeremy was like “Yeah…maybe make it a little more simple, we can make it sound a little bit more natural.” Which is really important, people need to be able to relate to it. Even looking at a chord structure, three chords are great. People can latch onto that or relate to it. There is no saying that you can’t go beyond that, but just try to keep it simple.
It’s possible to alienate people with music, but that wouldn’t be an issue with your music because your style is honestly really accessible. I think part of the reason that you landed in the top 5 is down to your beautiful melodies and your vocals which are honestly refreshing and pleasant to listen to. Your voice isn’t one that has to grow on a person. Having said that, music isn’t your day job?
I teach seventh grade Language Arts in Bloomington. It’s a crazy and fun age, and what’s nice is that I get to incorporate things that I do outside of class. Kind of like we don’t have to always make it just about writing a paragraph. It is fun to be a little bit of an example to show that writing has different angles. When we work with figurative language and poetry there’s a Message in Music project that we do. The final project is being able to pick a song and go over what the song means, find some figurative language in it and then create a little art project about it as well. It’s really fun for the kids that love music. There are the kids that struggle with finding a song, or keeping it classroom appropriate too. Like the use of the F–word, or sexually explicit content that the kids might not even pick up on.
What a great project to work with that age on because that is the age where the bond with music can really be strong, teen angst and all!
A lot of the students or even the ones that might find it hard to fit in with their fellow classmates all share some connection with music. It’s kind of cool that we can connect on that level. Middle School stinks for a lot of kids and we try to find ways to help them along.
In addition to having a busy day job you put out The Vault this year and Wallflower’s Lament last year, are you working on a new album?
Yes, a follow up of Wallflower’s Lament. All originals and some that are left over from the songwriting with Jeremy Messersmith that I couldn’t get a good recording of before, or wasn’t ready to record I guess? A bunch of new stuff too which I am excited about. I did all the instrumentation on the previous recordings, but this time I really wanted to work more with my friend Chris Brueske. He’s a great drummer and that makes it so much easier. I am not a very good drummer and I had to do it in parts; a verse and then a fill and then I’d have to stop and then pick up from there, which took a while. So it really streamlined the process and now with the baby if he is napping I can quick do a guitar part. A lot of it is finished and the goal is to have it done by October which coincides with my 40th birthday. We are trying to make a little event out of it.
You seem to really embrace the DIY ethic–recording at home…
Yes, I have been doing it since the early nineties with many different bands. I was never the one to have ownership of booking shows, but Jeremy Messersmith gave me some great encouragement and advice on that including a suggestion to check out The Hoot (The Mad Ripple Hootenanny).
That’s how we met, through The Hoot.
Absolutely. I’d had a few years of trying to meet other musicians and find a community and didn’t really know how to do that. I went to a Hoot after they’d had a hiatus, and it was a beautiful day at Harriet Brewing and after a few times of going I talked to Jim Walsh and got involved. For me I had performed a lot but had mostly done a lot of covers. My originals hadn’t been heard publicly so I wondered how people would react. It was huge to see people’s reactions and talk to them about what they thought.
Also the feedback from fellow Hoot musicians is really great and so supportive–like a family.
Absolutely, you didn’t see people being hyper critical or making fun of others, it led to a lot of connections for me as well as leading to playing shows with other musicians. I play with Jim Walsh and his band (Jim Walsh and the Dog Day Cicadas) now, too. Now we have a baby so I have had to slow it down a bit.
Yep, the new songs have been rather lullaby-ish. I haven’t written as much, the subject matter has changed and the album will have one of those songs on it. Maybe the next one will be totally lullaby…
Shawn Stelton’s Toddler Years?
Yes! A childhood box set maybe…
I have a question from a fan who wanted to know the backstory of the song “I Wanna Be Your Gal” off of Wallflower’s Lament?
So, I was in the thick of my songwriting lessons with Jeremy and was really working to latch onto something that worked. I had a Judy Garland song that didn’t work and all of the sudden Caitlyn Jenner was on the front page. In my mind I was wondering what it felt like to not be comfortable in the skin that you’re in and I pictured a guy that is all alone a lot–kind of like myself in the summertime. What would it be like to have such a heavy secret from the world? I did know someone years ago that felt that way but I didn’t know it at the time. He didn’t come out until many years later. So, with the song I just kind of set the scene…wife’s gone, I pour myself a drink, but then at the end she comes in to find me in her clothing. At first I wrote it as this tragedy, but then I decided to keep it positive. The wife ends up smiling and is accepting of it. That is the genesis of the song.
Now I have students that are transgender and it is such a hard thing for a twelve year old to cope with as they are trying to just survive Middle School. Students and even other teacher may struggle with accepting it, which is another reason that I wanted to focus on the positive outcome.
A timely song topic. Do you think that any of your students are aware of your music?
I think so, I usually let them know at the beginning of the year. I use Distrokid (Only $20/year & they don’t take a cut when you sell your music digitally-Shawn told me) and get updates on Spotify and what not and one kid even asked me why I still taught if I was on those platforms! I stay with teaching for the kids, I could pursue fame (Stelton laughs heartily) but…A couple of parents have commented on my music and have been very supportive.
That’s so great! What’s coming up for you?
Finishing the album and releasing it by my birthday in October and once a month shows at Studio 2. I did the Stone Arch Festival and would like to do more of that, radio play would be great too. I’d like to produce one song well enough to get air time on The Current. That is my little pipe dream. The last time that I had radio play was in 1994! My friends said they heard a song of mine on Radio K just before they entered the Lowry Tunnel but they lost reception when they got in the tunnel!
Sounds like you need to muster those legions of loyal fans to request your music on The Current!
In the meantime, you can hear Shawn Stelton for yourself when he pays tribute to Elvis Presley on August 16th (once a month on Fridays) at The Viking Bar–details at https://www.shawnstelton.com/ or hear him at Studio 2 on September 15th.
By Rebecca Marx
Photo Credit Jennifer Ebert