Storytelling with Shannen Moser
Shannen Moser | photo by Emily Dubin | courtesy of the artist

Some people move to places like Philadelphia for the appeal of city life — to leave the rural or suburban communities they came from far behind. That’s not the case for Shannen Moser. When the songwriter talks about growing up in the mountains of Berks County, Pennsylvania, her words spill out of her. Both her love for her hometown and the influence it’s had on her music are immediately evident; she speaks as passionately about the details of her rural former home as she does about her career as a musician. So if Moser’s songs make you think of back country roads, looming mountain ranges, and crisp fall days, then you’re on the right track.

After five years in the city — years spent becoming a key figure in a music scene that is full of heavier, louder music than her own — Moser still returns to the kind of music that has always come the most naturally to her. She’s back with her latest record, I’ll Sing, out now. It’s 15 tracks of what you could call folk, even country (though Moser herself prefers to just call it storytelling), but either way, it’s music that transports you to a different time, a different place. And yet it’s incredibly real — and proof that Philly music doesn’t have to sound like it comes from Philly.

The Key: I feel like you wrote the perfect fall album to be coming out this September.

Shannen Moser: I’m really psyched it’s coming out in the fall. When we first were talking about release dates, it was going to be earlier than September, and then we were all like oh, this is totally a colder weather record. So I’m really excited that it’s getting put out when it is.

TK: I wanted to talk about where you’re from a little bit, because I imagine fall in Berks County is not quite like fall in Philly.

SM: Oh my gosh, not at all, no. It’s so beautiful. All of the foliage is so dense and so bright and beautiful and, I mean, I’m super biased because I grew up there, but it’s truly one of the most beautiful places outside of the Philadelphia area. A lot of the culture in Berks County, like the historically rich parts of that area, really come alive in the cooler months. There’s small-town stuff like county fairs or whatever, but there’s also old covered bridges that are a huge thing in Berks County, and they have all these festivals around these hundred-year-old bridges, and all of the really old farming communitiesalso come alive during that time of year. Everything feels really awesome in the fall in Berks County. Last time I went on tour, I did a fall tour, and it was really interesting to see the summer-to-fall season change in other parts of the country that I’ve never seen it in before. It hammered it down for me that PA in the fall is still the best. It just doesn’t feel the same anywhere else.

TK: I imagine you’re surrounded by mountains and stuff out there, too.

SM: I’m from a place in Berks County called the Oley Valley. The center of the town is like a huge valley and if you’re up outside of Oley in Berks County, you can see down into it. It’s really neat. It’s very cartoony, almost. Around the valley there’s all these big mountain ranges, and I grew up on one of those mountain ranges, able to see down into the valley. The house that I grew up in was so high up on this mountain — I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Limerick Power Plant? It’s like a chill hour and a half from where I grew up, but you could see the Limerick Power Plant.There’s also a bunch of orchards in the fall. I feel really connected to that part of Berks County. Growing up as a kid and being able to explore it, everything felt really really magical. It’s a feeling that I wish I could experience as an adult still. I think that’s why I love the cooler months. It brings back these feelings of being childlike and it’s a little bit whimsy. Like, Halloween is whimsy as hell, and it’s awesome. I love it.

TK: What kind of music did you grow up with? And what influenced your own songwriting the most?

SM: Growing up in a more isolated area, DIY and punk weren’t super readily available for me. So I grew up listening to what my parents were listening to. A lot of Joni Mitchell and a lot of Jackson Browne and a lot of Townes Van Zandt, and my dad loves pop country, like radio country music, so I grew up listening to a lot of that. And then as I got older, I was introduced to other types of music that were less mom- and dad-core and more like 15-year-old listening to Big Star for the first time type of stuff. In high school I made a bunch of friends who were wildly cooler than I [was], and they introduced me to a lot of really awesome music that I still listen to today. But it wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia where I started to listen to local Philly bands, more DIY, more punk, more hardcore, stuff like that, just because it literally just did not exist in my world for so long.

I think largely that’s why I write the way I do. Hop Along is actually the one band that I had listened to pretty closely before I moved to Philly. I think Frances Quinlan is one of my biggest inspirations musically. Also Jenny Lewis, her solo stuff and her stuff in Rilo Kiley drives me super hard. And folkier artists like Vashti Bunyan and Joanna Newsom, things like that. So I think it’s pretty eclectic in a way but it also makes a lot of sense for me, just looking at the things that I grew up with and then the things that I was introduced later in life. But it’s wild because all of my peers in the city have this really lengthy background in DIY and I’ve only been in Philly for five years. It’s a little different now, but when I first moved here I was like, this is wild, all of you kind of grew up together in DIY. But I’m super thankful for the experiences that I’ve had here, and I’ve gotten to listen to a lot of really awesome music that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

TK: Did you always know what kind of music you wanted to make or did you ever think you might be one of those people in a punk band?

SM: I still would love to be in a punk band. I always talk about it and I haven’t actually given it a fair shot. But I always talk to my friends about wanting to be in a really fun band that’s not my brainchild and just something fun to do, and be loud and be angry or whatever. I started playing music when I was 13 or 14, and that was just learning how to play a guitar and being really bad at playing the guitar.

TK: Did you teach yourself?

SM: Yeah. My brother is a musician and he’s incredibly talented, he’s a guitar teacher and an awesome composer. But he would try to teach me and just didn’t connect to me. We have very different musical brains. So I ended up teaching myself. And then when I started writing songs seriously, it’s always kind of been in the same wheelhouse, but it was never a conscious effort. I was never like, alright, I’m gonna play this type of music and it’s gonna feel this type of way. It kind of just happened pretty organically, and I think as time has gone on and I’ve explored my ability in singing and songwriting, I’ve been able to narrow down the sound and the aesthetic and all the parts of the whole to be what I want to be doing.

It definitely took a while and sometimes it feels like a little bit of a novelty. I mean, alt country’s really hot right now, but I think the nature of being first of all, a woman — and then being a woman who plays primarily acoustic singer/songwriter-y music can be a little tokenizing sometimes. But I think the thing that I really love about that is that it’s super organic and it’s really real to me and it’s not this calculated thing. I’m super comfortable where I am with my sound and in the songs I’m writing, but I would love to be in a loud band. And I’ve never done that before. I’ve done a bunch of cover bands with my friends throughout the years, like Halloween shows and Christmas parties and stuff, and that’s always super fun. But it would be really awesome to not take it so seriously.

TK: What first made you want to move to Philly?

SM: Berks County is like an hour and a half, two hours outside of Philly. I graduated high school and I went to college in Northern California and I spent two years out there. It was beautiful, it was awesome, but I didn’t know what I was really doing with my life. I didn’t really want to be going to college and I wanted to move back home to the east coast. The west coast is awesome, but it’s definitely a different world. I was really missing home. But I was like 19, so I didn’t want to move home with my my mom and I was like, I don’t know what to do. I had a bunch of friends living in Philly and I would go hang out with them after I moved home, and the more time I spent there the more I was like, oh, this could also be my home, without even the music being attached to the idea of living there. I just kind of fell in love with the city from visiting and hanging out. So then I moved to Philly, met some people who had me do some session vocal work and stuff, and that was really awesome. And then I started playing shows and then everything naturally progressed from there. I feel crazy lucky that I get to do what I do because it’s like, you know, everybody moves to Philly for something, and it just depends on how welcomed you are, and I’ve felt super lucky to have met the best friends. Philadelphia is awesome.

TK: How has being part of the music community in Philly shaped the way you approach songwriting?

SM: I think that just naturally once I realized people were kind of paying attention —  because for so long music was just for me, and it still is just for me, but now people are listening. So I think it’s a pretty natural reaction to that situation to be like, well, there’s people and they’re expecting this and so I’m going to write like this and I’m going to do this, and it seems a little bit more calculated. But I try to not let myself get to thinking that way too much because the reason that I get to play the music I play for people is because I just did it for myself. I just try to keep doing what I feel and not let the variables of what is happening around me affect that too much, which can totally be hard, and especially once there’s other people involved it gets a little tricky. Keeping your feet on the ground and trying to just make the art that you want to make I think at the end of the day is the most important thing. I think that at the end of it, just feeling good and proud of the work you do is totally the most important thing.

TK: Do you have a way of describing your own sound? I don’t want to just go by the definitions that other people use.

SM: Yeah, it’s kind of a funny one for me because it’s really interesting the things that you could be labeled, but definitely folk and definitely singer/songwriter. On this new record there’s some straight-up country songs, so I think alt-country is also a good way to explain it. But they’re all just stories. It’s all just songwriting and storytelling and I think that is probably how I would describe my music the best, just storytelling. I know that’s not a popular genre of music, but that’s exactly what I would call it, for sure.

TK: I know you had said the songs on your last record were really personal. Is I’ll Sing similar in that way?

SM: Oh yeah, for sure. Big time. More so this time around, I think. Music for me, and I think this is another type of origin story of music for me, is that music has always kind of been a coping mechanism. That’s not even a fair word for it. It’s the thing that I’ve just done for myself that makes me feel good and better about the stuff going on in my life. I think that being able to take your personal experiences and write a song about them in a way that is personal to you, but also kind of a universal feeling for whoever might be listening, is really cool. And it’s really neat to play a song where I know exactly what it’s about and exactly how I felt or am feeling about the events in the story, but then having somebody be like, yo, me too. That’s a really cool feeling because it’s like the universal experience of being human and hurting or feeling or being happy, whatever it is. And I think that’s a very cool part of playing music. [I’ll Sing] is a breakup record for sure, but it’s also a record about growing older and navigating what it means to be getting older. But you know, I’m 24, so I’m not old at all. But I think it explores themes of relationships, but also a relationship that you have with yourself and how that changes through time.

TK: How do you think your creative process has changed with this record? You used to self-record, right?

SM: Yeah, for a really long time. The last one, Oh My Heart, I recorded a little bit more collaboratively than just doing things by myself. But this record was 100% a collaborative effort from all of the people that I worked with. My friends Cameron Konner and Eric Muth recorded and produced the record for me; it was a collaborative effort between the three of us. I brought songs to them that I had a baseline of and then we kind of built it up together, so it was incredibly collaborative and really an intimate experience. Every time it gets easier to let go of that creative control. I get to work with people that I trust a lot and that have the most brilliant ideas. I’ve been playing music with my friend Julia Peters, who plays cello, for three years now, and she’s all over the record. My friend Jon from Timeshares is all over the record. It’s cool in that way to have your friends involved, even if they can’t be part of the live band. Just to have them on the record is really really awesome.

TK: One of the first things I noticed about I’ll Sing is that it’s 15 tracks, which is pretty long. Is writing songs a constant process for you?

SM: After Oh My Heart had come out I already had songs in my back pocket ready to go for the next one. It was also kind of a turbulent time in my personal life. I think songs just kind of fall out of me when things feel like that. That’s definitely a blessing. But what ended up happening is that when we were finished with [I’ll Sing], or thought we were finished with it, it was like 10 tracks. And then we went in to do auxiliary recording, just finishing up loose ends on all of the songs and I was like, yo, I have two more songs, and then after that it was like, I have two more songs, and then it was I have one more song.

So it took a long, long time to finish and Eric and Cam were super patient with me. I’m super glad that we were able to finish the record and add the songs that were written during the months that we were also recording. And now the record is 46 minutes long, but I think that’s really cool for me personally to put out something that’s such a large piece of work, because historically all of my records have been — I mean, Oh My Heart was barely 20 minutes long but everything before that was like a 10-minute record. I’m really excited to have this out and be as long as it is.

I’ll Sing is out now via Lame-O Records. Shannen Moser will celebrate the record release with a co-headlining show with Thin Lips at the First Unitarian Church on September 22; she also performs solo opening for Okkervil River at Underground Arts on September 15th. Details on both shows can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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