Interview with Shawn Lee
"Rides Again" is Shawn Lee's first vocal and songwriter album since 2005, and a very personal journey into the world of soul-inspired Country music. LATE NIGHT DREAM talked with the American born and London based singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and “Silver Fox” about his new album, musical role models, his love for classic Country music, ageing and the importance of authentic guitar sounds.
* Shawn, "Rides Again" had been in the making for a few years. Why is now the right time to release this album?
The song “Wichita” was written and recorded over ten years ago. The rest of the album was written and recorded quite quickly a few months ago. With every passing year I would vow to write my “Rides Again” album and I would get busy doing other things and time would just disappear! I decided that 2019 was THE year and the songs just flowed!
* The song title "Yesterday, Tomorrow, Today" sums up the essence of the album well. You let us participate in your childhood and youth memories, where you stand today and how you look into the future. Did "Rides Again" become your most intimate and reflective album from your point of view?
Yes I’d say it is my most personal and reflective solo album. It was very much a case of the right album at the right time in my life. I’m proud of the end result.
* You recorded most of the album by yourself, accompanied by some exclusive guests and your long time engineer Pierre Duplan. Tell us a little bit about the recording process. Who did you invite this time to the studio?
I really wanted some pedal steel on the album and there is a great young player named Joe Harvey Whyte. I had to work with him, because he can play over anything, he’s phenomenal! My super talented buddy Carwyn Ellis put a touch of piano on two songs and Andy Ross who I’ve worked with for years plays sax on “Farmer Brown”. Otherwise I’m playing and singing everything.
* Shawn, "Rides Again" is not least a great guitar album. You captured on this album this warm, organic 70s guitar sound in the best way. How important was this authentic sound to you?
Thank you Thomas. I really enjoyed laying down the acoustic guitars particularly. Getting proper tones is extremely important to me. I do favour vintage gear and instruments. They sound and look better and they have history-SOUL.
* As sources of inspiration for the album you have named artists like Tony Joe White, JJ Cale and Glen Campbell. What makes their music special for you?
I love the use of the drum machine on JJ’s “Naturally” album. I started every song on my record with an analog drum machine. They have serious magic.
* You played with Tony Joe White in the early 90s. How did you experience him as a musician and a person?
Tony Joe White’s daughter Michelle has been a good friend of mine since 1989. I met Tony around then and played with him a few times. He was totally unique and badass! I love that Country Soul axis that he so embodies.
* Glen Campell is another artist you admire very much. Already in 2004 you covered his classic "Wichita Lineman” on your album "Soul Visa". The opening track "Wichita" also seems to have been influenced by him. Is he one of your musical role models?
I grew up with Glen Campbell’s music. He was such a great singer and guitarist. I stood next to him in the Wichita airport in the 1970’s. He made a strong impression on me. He was Country but so much more than that. “Wichita Lineman” is one of my favourite songs of all time so that’s enough of a reason alone!
* Many know that you came from L.A. to London, but you grew up in a rural area on the outskirts of Wichita, Kansas. What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think about your home town?
Well, Wichita gave me the deep American roots. I grew up hearing Country, Soul, Rock, Blues, Jazz and Gospel music all around me. There are a lot of great musicians that come from Wichita like Mike Finnigan, who played with Jimi Hendrix, CSN, Bobby Womack and tons of other greats. He is a huge inspiration to me. His son Kelly Finnigan is a friend of mine and has a great solo album out now and also is in The Monophonics. Talented family. It all started there...
* What role did Country & Western music play in your parents' house?
I used to watch a show on TV called “Hee-Haw”. It had people on it like Buck Owens, Roy Clark and the great Jerry Reed. I experienced a lot from that. My Dad had records by Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Charlie Rich which also had an effect. At the same, artists like Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers were crossing over to Pop radio so that was another influence. I love the guitars, the pedal steel. There were great voices too.
* Early on you also discovered your love for Soul and R&B. Do you think Country and Soul music share common vocabulary?
Country guitar and Soul/ R&B guitar share a lot of the same kind of licks. Them Southern boys are funky!
* In the opening song "Wichita" you sing “I had to leave this town”. What made you go to L.A. in 1988?
I had to leave Wichita if I wanted to “make it” in music. I chose L.A. because my Mom moved there after my parents divorced. I was going to Southern California since the late 60’s because I have family there. I love California!
* In the song "Wherever The Wind Blows" you have a kind of Brian Wilson momentum when you sing “54 and still alive no one knows just how it ends”. What role does ageing play for you?
There is a bit of a Beach Boys thing in that song! Glad you heard that Thomas. With age you gain perspective and that really informed my lyrics on this record.
* Shawn, you will also present the new album on stage. Where will you perform? And what can the audience expect?
I have some shows coming up in February. We are playing in Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. I have a really great live band. I’ll have Joe Harvey Whyte on pedal steel, Carwyn Ellis on keys/bass, Dave Page on electric guitar and bass and Adrian Meehan on drums who both play with me in Young Gun Silver Fox. It’s going to sound good!!!!
* Shawn, a last question: In 1995, you moved to London. After more than 20 years in Great Britain, do you feel today more like an American in London or a Londoner with American roots?
I feel like a Londoner with a funny accent and an American passport!
Shawn, thank you very much for the interview!