By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
No one was really interested in Sarah Shannon anymore. That much was clear to her. The interest ended in 1997, as far as she could tell, when her band, Velocity Girl, splintered apart. When Shannon decided to resume her career as a full-time musician, it wasn't long before she realized her new solo career would be just that. She wasn't going to get help from anyone to record what would become her recently released self-titled debut. At least no help from anyone with a checkbook and a pen.
Part of the problem: Shannon wasn't a proven songwriter, and she admits this. "In Velocity Girl, I only ever wrote some vocal melodies, here and there, over stuff that the guys had written," Shannon says, on the phone from her Seattle home. "And it wasn't a lot, you know. It was only a few songs on each record probably." Even she had some doubts about her abilities as a songwriter, especially since she was just getting started, figuring it all out: "You start writing stuff, and one day, you'll think it's just the greatest thing since sliced bread. And the next day, you're like, 'What the crap was I thinking? This is awful.'" Not only that, but she only had to turn to her stereo to hear herself sing a good song.
Background: Velocity Girl had a good run for the better part of the 1990s, no denying it. The group recorded four acclaimed albums of star-spangled guitar pop, three for respected Seattle label Sub Pop (1993's Copacetic, 1994's Simpatico and 1996's Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts), before going separate ways. After the muddy buzz of grunge washed away, Velocity Girl was the heart and soul of Sub Pop's second act, the solid foothold the label scrambled for after major labels sent it tumbling, cherry-picking Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and pretty much everyone else from its roster. Sub Pop, in fact, sold more copies of Copacetic than any other release in its history, save for Nirvana's Bleach.
Sure, the group was never really as big as Nirvana, never asked to fill in as groundskeeper for the cultural landscape the way Kurt Cobain uncomfortably was, but that's not really the point. Of course, it isn't. Velocity Girl was big in a small way, never making the leap from the art house into the multiplex, so to speak. While their breakup was unfortunate, it wasn't exactly the end of an era. It was the case of another band--a good one, but still--growing and blowing apart. Happens all the time.
The point--and there is one--is that Shannon's voice may not have been that of a generation, but it was the voice of a successful band in the not-so-distant past, and you'd think that would count for something. Yet, in 1999, when Shannon chose to pick up where she left off and step behind a microphone again, it was as though her résumé had been wiped clean, as if Velocity Girl and all it had achieved didn't matter. Maybe they all had short memories, or maybe they thought she was just the pretty face for her former bandmates' songs. Whatever the case, even Sub Pop, Velocity Girl's former champion, didn't want to help her. No one did. Well, except for one person: Blake Wescott.
More background: A few years ago, Wescott played drums with Seattle's Pedro the Lion, a sort of what-would-Jesus-do answer to Bedhead's rolling rock, until that group became a one-man pursuit under the guidance of songwriter David Bazan. Since then, Wescott has lent his talents as a musician (he can play pretty much anything you put in front of him) and skill as a producer and engineer to recordings by The Posies and singer-songwriters Damien Jurado and Jen Wood, to name but a few. He's one of those guys who lives in studios and liner notes, always out of the spotlight by a few feet.
Not that there's much of a spotlight shining on the people Wescott works with; some of them would be lucky enough to be under the flicker of a cigarette lighter. Which made him the perfect partner for Shannon. Other than a brief stint in 1997 singing with Starry Eyes (basically Velocity Girl minus two members, Brian Nelson and Archie Moore), she had kept a low profile since the band ended, "regrouping," as she puts it.
"I wanted to record some songs, and I was working on the first tunes I'd ever written, really," Shannon says. "Actually, I put out this kind of lame EP the year before." She laughs, recalling the almost invisible Estheraho EP, released on her own Marzipan label in early 1999. "That was really my first foray into songwriting, but I don't think it was very successful. So I wanted to start from scratch, and I had these new songs, and I wanted to record them, and I knew that Ken Stringfellow [of the Posies] had a little setup and had done some producing. So I contacted him, but he was too busy, so he steered me toward Blake, who, at the time, was in a band with him called Saltine. So I hooked up with Blake and we recorded the songs at his studio, and it just sort of snowballed from there. We just started brainstorming on music we'd like to make and music we'd like to put out, and just decided to jump into it."
Jumping into it led to Shannon's first solo full-length, as well as the label (Casa Recording Co.) that released the self-titled album in late January. But it took some work to get there. Shannon began writing songs in earnest in 1999 ("I think it took a little boredom to get my ass in gear and start writing songs," she says, laughing), slowly gathering material over the next few months until she had around 17 finished songs and fragments, which she began weeding through with Wescott.
"I had never really written songs on my own before, so they were kind of not very focused," Shannon says. "They were kind of all over the place. There were some pop songs, there were some indie-rock songs, and there were some folksy, alt-country songs. Blake and I decided that the straightforward pop songs were the strongest. So we went with those, which left us with about seven songs or pieces of songs."
Besides helping Shannon finish up some of the songs she had already written for the album, Wescott also contributed three of his own tunes and helped get a band together to record them all. And it's not the standard two guitars, drums and bass lineup you might expect, given Shannon's discography. "As things started coming together and we decided that the focus was going to be kind of straightforward pop music, it became more apparent that these songs needed an old-school pop treatment," Shannon says. With that in mind, the disc is full of horn lines and string sections, Wurlitzer and Hammond organs, flutes and high harmonies--pretty much everything except the fuzzy guitar sounds that marked most Velocity Girl records.
As a result, Shannon comes off as the Dusty Springfield to Wescott's Burt Bacharach, leaving her indie-rock past on the CD shelf where it belongs. Her songs are simple and classic, never thinking too much, since the words come from her heart instead of her head; "I'll run away," the chorus to the song of the same name, pretty much says it all, at least when it's being said in Shannon's strong voice. Running (or walking) away seems to be the theme of the album, whether she's doing it or someone else is. "Nothing could ever satisfy your ambitious eyes," she sings on the organ-fueled "Heaven Got Wider," "so now I'm walking away." "Go on and run away, sweetheart," she sings, at it again on "Are You Far Enough," "but you won't find your peace of mind." "What if I try to stop you from leaving," goes Wescott's "When You Live Life Alone." You'd say goodbye and I'd stop believing." Thankfully, the melodies balance the maladies, Shannon flashing a smile through tears.
Toward the end of the disc--on "Are You Far Enough," especially--her rock roots start to show through, but there's a difference: Now her voice doesn't have to share top billing when the music gets louder. Then again, everything is different now. Shannon is her own boss, a job she took because she had to, but one she's gradually growing into. In 1999, she decided to become a musician again. In 2002, she's realized she can do that and so much more. As long as she's getting music out into the world, it doesn't matter whether it's hers or someone else's. Getting music out there is all that matters.
"It was just necessity, and also I thought it would be...fun," Shannon says, laughing at the thought of that much heartache and that many headaches being considered "fun." "Back then I thought it would be fun. It's turned out to be a lot of work, of course. But, also, there's a chance to put out other music, which is a big appeal. We've put out an EP by this band Seldom that's been received pretty well. They went on tour with Pedro the Lion. And we also put out a live acoustic album by The Posies, called In Case You Didn't Feel Like Plugging In. So, I mean, it was necessity, in that I wanted to put out my own music and nobody seemed interested in doing it. I wanted to put out music in general, not just my own."