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Shawn Jones

Talking with Shawn Jones

A brand new roots album arrives, recommended by one of our top contacts, so we listen and then get on the line to the States, to talk about the music and background of SHAWN JONES whose ‘Struggle Makes You Stronger’ shows a songwriter making his mark and attaining a style that blends all manner of influences…

Hearing this new HighDrive Records release prompts a few questions, who better to ask but the artist himself. Armed with a cup of Clipper tea, I call California at the agreed time and :

FH : Hi Shawn – tell me where you are and what time of day it is… We have to mess with our clocks over here

SJ: Right now I’m in Fornia (?) California which is about an hour and a half south of where I live in Ventura. It is a beautiful sunny day as usual… it’s two in the afternoon.

Rub it in why don’t you. We’ve had a cloudy day in the London suburbs. Now our mutual friend DC has flown your flag in my face and provided your new album so I offered to give you a call. So thank you for this.  On our side we are rawn to many formas of music and we don’t for instance have any preference for say the 12 bar straight John Mayall blues we go for  all of pretty much roots and Americana and RnB as we used to know it. Having heard your record I’m itching to play it to people who like John Hiatt and Delbert McClinton.

(Surprised) Oh my gosh! Are you kidding! I’m a huge fan of both of those guys and I’ve done shows with John. The thing about both those artists is that they both have groovy music but its songs first for those guys. There’s good licks flying around and great performances but it’s all about the songs.

You are obviously a deft player and I understand you’ve got quite a collection of guitars but you seem to make the song come to life rather than throw everything you’ve got into each number. Is that a fair comment?

Well, I would say it is. In fact, when I first started making CDs there was this producer I worked with that taught me a lot of things about studio; no matter what you put in, the speakers will tell you what’s coming back out! Either its right or it isn’t and my co- writer I worked with Jeff Silbar who wrote hits for Jonny Lang and so forth and he also said there’s always all these different options and possibilities. Or there’s nothing. So I think what I’m really trying to say is when you’re writing a song or when your recording something, performing or whatever, you are trying to find that thing and nail ‘that thing’. You can sling everything and the kitchen sink into your tune.

Well obviously, much as I enjoy deft players like Walter Trout, I’m always orienting towards songs because I can enjoy songs over and over again. With a few exceptions, I don’t usually play records for the playing as much as the quality of the songs. The exception I make is frank Zappa who still scares the **** out of me as a player. I mean how can you ever get near what that guy did. Let’s run through the tracks because I have been listening to this closely. It’s got a very confident sound and when the first track starts ‘life is for the living’, there’s echoes of Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’ with the chord change and then it goes into this lovely relaxed tune with a Hammond and the lyric seems very philosophical. That seems to be one of your hallmarks?

I write songs from personal experience more than anything that would be contrived. More from a common place that people can relate to or a situation or a story. For instance, on that particular song, so many of us have gone to see a friend or someone that we’ve loved and you think how unfortunate that person might be in their circumstances. All they could do was work, and just the pursuit of work and never took the time to take a moment and just appreciate the here and now.

I’m absolutely in synch with that. There are times in this record when you’ve got the raspy but tuneful voice and there are times when I’m put in mind of Levon Helm… who perhaps had a similar outlook, I don’t know…

(Laughs out loud) Do you know Deana Carter, the country singer?  I play guitar for her and she grew up with Levon Helm being ‘Uncle Levon’! Her father was Greg Carter Jnr who was one of my godfathers and his best friend was Levon Helm. So, he actually put out an album a few years back that had ‘The Weight’ on it and I play guitar on her version of the song.

I didn’t know this, sorry – it just came through the tone of the record.

I was a huge The Band/Levon Helm fan because I just like the backside of the beat where he puts the groove and the sound of his voice and just the storytelling coming from a real common place not trying to be to lofty or heady about it. Something that people can relate to. I like writing songs people can identify with.

Let’s talk here about ‘Struggle Makes you Stronger’ which is definitely in that category. It’s got a nice acoustic slide mix and maybe a dobro…

Yeah it’s a 1932 National.

It’s got a lovely splayed middle eight with biting guitar inserts. It sounds like a song for our times. Again, it’s more than a song saying ‘hey baby let’s dance’. It’s actually reflective of where life can take you isn’t it ?

Deana Carter’s brother, Jeff Carter who is my best friend but he’s also one of my writing buddies. He and I wrote that song before his father passed away. Fred Carter is one of the most recorded guitarists in country music of all time. I’m such a fan of his. That was the first song that Jeff Carter and I wrote together and when we played it to Fred he said ‘that’s a hit boys, keep going, keep writing. It’s that song when I realised it had a kind of timeless message. Especially in today’s day and age when we have so much we have to endure with the recession and everything else.

Well that’s universal. That’s just as much in Europe as the States. Therefore, it means the music can travel. The next track’s called ‘She Don’t Know – about her own Mojo’, that’s the bluesiest track on there with the curling guitar runs. Who’s the female response vocalist on this?

There’s a couple of female vocalists on there…

Is it Brenda Harp on there?

Yeah she is and Margaret Abrahams but the more wilder response stuff is a girl called Josie Aiello in fact, she’s fine part of the chemistry of putting together the musicians on this record. The previous record I put out featured Bekka Bramlett. The song’s about this hot woman who doesn’t realize her own attractiveness. I encouraged her to go for it, on the session.

Gives a kind of Merry Clayton vibe, to my ears. That Stones era where they got the best out of several female vocalists. The next track is ‘Day Without Rain’ and that seemed very much to me John Hiatt territory. But again, it’s pretty poetic and I believe that Jeff Carter is co- writer on that one too.

He’ll start something and I’ll finish it off or vice versa…we trade lines and all that. We are on the same plain as each other. We write a lot of songs about how worse things were. We’re coming from a place of – in essence -wouldn’t it be great, if things were better. I just wanted to have songs that weren’t so much down in the doldrums as inspiring or reaching for a time of hope.

This is thing – it always sounded to me like The Band had left one funeral and were heading to the next. But this set of yours has got a much more upbeat overall tone to it. ‘Running Water’ is steady rolling country rock with the juiced solos. Again you do this great splayed chord sound. When I play those sort of chords I play diagonally, across the strings over about four or five inches. How do you get the splayed sound on your playing?

On the guitar, it’s a linear instrument and you can find the same things in different spots on the neck. I’m not an overly educated musician. But maybe I know my way around the wires pretty well.

Great musicians have the skill to accompany others. Not just always be upfront. A great musician can make someone else sound very good.

That’s helped me more than anything I think. Being a guitarist for other people. It’s a different guise for me. I have to put on a different suit as it were, where I get to be more of a guitarist and step away from being the front guy. I love tone textures and hearing swells and accents.

But also you’re kind of framing a picture aren’t you? The picture is the singing and I’m going to frame this the best I can. I mean you don’t get a beautiful subtle painting and put a lime green neon frame on it do you?

(Laughs) Exactly! It’s great to make someone else shine. A lot of times it’s what you don’t play that makes the musical moment

‘Sweet Victoria’ has a lovely Dylanesque sort of melody. I wonder if there is someone that you don’t quite realize has influenced your singing and phrasing? And that is Steve Winwood of Traffic.

(Pause) Wow!! …I have had people mention that to me before. I never really thought about it. Maybe our voice boxes have similar construction.

The other thing is you do pick the right keys to sing in. you do a song and it’s obvious you’ve worked around it and chosen exactly the right key. That’s something that comes across to another player.

There’s a thing that David Z the producer…

I know him – Jonny Lang !

Well, he’s the one that produced my last album and I learned in the studio a lot from him about selecting keys.

Track ten ‘Yours to Lose’ and it does sound as though you have a Telecaster in there playing with a twelve string. Now that interests me I’ll tell you why -  I saw the Byrds with Clarence White and Roger McGuinn and they had exactly that. It’s an interesting tonal mix isn’t it ?

Well they both have jingle jangle quality to them. They have a twang and a shimmer and combine well together.

It’s the toppy sound – and they sound quite celestial when they weave.

That twelve string and Telecaster has indeedbeen used on some of my favourite records.

Do you know ‘Chestnut Mare’ by the Byrds ? That’s a classic track with those guitars.

Yeah. Now about twenty years ago I was in a band with a guy called John Yorke.

Oh ‘Dr Byrds’ era…

That’s when I learnt the magic of the twelve…playing with him against his basslines

Can I ask you about ‘Learn to be Strong’ because again it has a little bit of a Traffic-y side to it but as far as I’m aware, you are nodding to George Harrison on this?

Well I say that’s my tribute to George and he’s one of the most underrated guitarists ever in regard to his soulful melodic playing. His melodic slide work, his singing, his writing…

The thing is, his slide sound is actually quite dead, its not slick or ‘right’, its behind the note isn’t it? Like he’s catching up with himself on the slide.

That’s very true I think.

It’s a dreamy sound isn’t it ?

Yes, dreamy and also kind of sorrowful. His slide work is timeless. I can listen to itanytime, anywhere, Pete

It’s almost like a viola to me.


Not many people have ever talked to me about this – but a lot of his guitar lines you could play on the viola and it would be perfect. ‘My Sweet Lord’ has got this very sleepy, dreamy element.

That’s a great example actually. I remember sitting in my mum’s car listening to that on the radio. Must have been dozens of times, that song

(We next trade names of famous left handed guitar players as Jones is a leftie : he knows all the ones I do including Elliot Easton of the Cars but I get him on Al of EWF)

What are you doing live to promote this record, Shawn ?

I’m gonna come over around May time… Hopefully play for Paul Jones and Bob Harris, do some shows

Come and have dinner with us when you’re over.

I would really like to do that, thank you very much.

Well it’s a great record and thanks for talking to me.

Guitar roots music in fine hands and steering away from the moody – quite refreshing, too

Pete Sargeant

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