Photo by Trish Badger
On February 28, Houston’s Shellee Coley will be releasing her new album Where It Began.
I recently caught up with the rootsy, “Texas pop” singer via e-mail to discuss her how music can be a form of prayer, how her love songs differ from many you hear on the radio, and if her approach to teaching songwriting changes when one of her students is an aspiring hip hop artist.
Bonus trivia: Shellee sang a guest feature on Houston Christian rapper CY’s album last year after the two met at one of her local “house show” concerts.
Shellee: People have asked me, "If you are a folk singer songwriter, why would you want to participate on a rap project?" I think it's funny in today's vast collection of available music that someone would ask me something like that. If you look at anyone’s iPod library, nobody listens to just one genre anymore.
We have the freedom to download just one song form an artist without committing to their whole record. So as a musician, I love being a part of other genres and pushing myself out of my comfort zone so that I can grow as an artist and not get bored.
I would even prefer not to label myself in a particular genre, but iTunes has a little box that says I have to.
Sketch: On “Cotton Dress” you have a line that says “music is the way I pray.” Can you expound upon that a little bit?
Shellee: “Cotton Dress” started out as a song that was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend of mine about him buying a record player from a pawn shop and people starting to listen to vinyl again.
On my drive home after that talk I was flooded with the memories of lying on the floor listening to records over and over again and loving the feeling I had when I successfully got the needle into the right grove of the song I was looking for on the record. Vinyl listening is such an aesthetic experience and I thought that was what the song was going to be about.
But as the song came to life over the next few weeks, I realized how throughout my life music has been such a "healer" to me on so many occasions. Especially through my toughest times of questioning my own beliefs and personal spirituality, music was a steady for me, a way to feel God, even when I had a hard time believing in him.
That is how the "music is the way I pray" line showed up in the song. Because even when I could not muster up the desire to pray, music filled my ears and my soul and I believe kept me connected to God in a way that nothing tangible could have done.
Sketch: You teach songwriting classes and I know that one of your students is an aspiring rapper. How different is your approach to teaching the craft for hip hop as opposed to other genres of music?
Shellee: Well, I just want an honest story. I don't care what my students write about as long as it is honest to them. They roll their eyes at me a lot, when I won't let them just rhyme stuff for the sake of rhyming, but I have a 13-year-old so I am used to that!
I approach rap lyrics the same way I approach lyrics with my students that love Taylor Swift - with honesty and a good hook. We began by spending a lot of time talking about his story and how he wanted to be perceived as a story teller and then we put it to music.
Also, I am a big fan of having a "team" of people around you that supports you in your process. So if I can't give my students the direction I need then I will bring in other people in that field of expertise or genre to help them. So since I am a white girl with not much rhythm, I called in some help on this one with my friend and co-teacher, Gerritt Tisdale.
Sketch: You provide a lot of detail (lyrics & story background) in the liner notes to your new album. In the era of mp3s, why did you decide to include that as part of your packaging?
Shellee: Because I am a story teller and I have to jam the overview of the story into two verses and a chorus, but if I was sitting and talking to a friend and telling the story, they would see and hear and feel so much more of what I went through to get to the end of that story.
I enjoy telling people the “why” behind the song, because I think it connects me to my listeners and gives them a sense of "me too" and allows them to relate on a different level. I want people to feel like I am in a conversation with them, not talking AT them.
Sketch: Your love songs appear to be about relationships and the realities of that emotion while love songs on the radio and in pop culture seem to be almost exclusively about sex. Why is that? Do you perceive it as an imbalance?
Shellee: I just think that most songs on the radio are one extreme to another, of either "I love you" or "I hate you." There is a lot of life that goes on in between those really big emotions and though I did not set out to write songs about the "in between", apparently that is what I do.
I think the space in between the big stuff is where we learn all the lessons and then grow and change from there. I like music that moves me and makes me feel identified with, so that is what I tend to write.
But there is nothing wrong with a fun pop song that you roll the windows down to and sing at the top of your lungs just because it feel good. Like I said though, I have kids and they are listening to music for themselves and learning what they like and don't like, so I gotta roll with the punches when Selena Gomez and Skrillex dominate my car. I just always tell my kids, that for every one song they pick, they have to trade me for Bob Dylan tune...which they HATE!
Sketch: I recently read an interview with Lyle Lovett where he said: “I’ve always thought that writing isn’t really that hard. It’s having a good idea that’s hard.” As a singer/songwriter would you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?
Shellee: Hhmmm..that question makes my brain hurt, Sketch! It's kinda chicken/egg-esque.
But I would have to say that I am not the type of writer who sits around thinking of ideas to write songs about. I do have writer friends like that and they will say, "I have this idea for a song..." But I think writing is a lot like therapy for me and when there is something to write about, I write about it. And honestly, I don't really care if it is a "good idea", as much as if it is a story people can relate to.
But in the early stages, I never think about if it is a good idea or if people will like it. I just start writing and see where it goes. Then when I am close to finished, I start asking myself about how other will perceive this and relate to it.
Shellee Coley’s Where It Began will hit digital outlets like iTunes on Tuesday, February 28. She has has two CD release concerts scheduled. The first will be on March 2 at Warehouse Live. The second will at Sparkle Event Hall in Conroe, Texas on March 3. For more information visit shelleecoley.com.