On god, voice and whimsy with Shannen Moser - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Shannen Moser’s most disarming songs deal with acute feelings and fraught experiences over and over again — dread, heartbreak, longing, reconciliation — and their new album bares all those feelings more tenderly than ever. The Sun Still Seems To Move, out today, is a record of Moser’s last four years living between Philadelphia and Berks County, PA while caring for their family, confronting their hometown, remembering good friends and moving the past into the past. Emotionally, the album gets brutal as they carry all these challenges at once on their voice, always forward even at a whisper, but roaring-fierce on songs like “Two Eyes.” Overwhelming, overlapping feelings of pain and freedom clang like bells at the autumn album’s astonishing peaks.

According to Moser, this music was a joy to record over the last two years with their longtime engineer Alex Melendez and their whole crew of longtime friends who supplied strings, clarinet, slide guitar. Taking their time to build a soundscape that felt true to their story, Moser constructed the record slower than any of their previous work, across different sessions in different cities, with different crews, keeping close to the joy in tight corners between overwork and emotional exhaustion, finally completing their proudest work yet.

Last week, I spoke with Shannen Moser on the phone about how this whole process felt, and how their new album feels now. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Shannen Moser - Two Eyes

Thomas Hagen: To you, what are the important differences between your new album The Sun Still Seems To Move and your previous two, I’ll Sing and Oh, My Heart

Shannen Moser: Just looking back on the timeline of these records — Oh, My Heart was my first record I ever made that wasn’t just a Garageband-computer-microphone record, and I feel like that record is special in that there wasn’t a lot of intentionality, I just wanted to make a record and no one was listening then. It felt like this open-world map in that I could do anything without having any preconceived thoughts about the music, and that felt great and I’m really proud of that record; even though it was five years ago now, I still love those songs. And then I’ll Sing was more like, “I’m gonna get a full band, and I’m gonna make these arrangements in this very structured, four-piece rock band.” And I explored that, and I love that record and love those songs but I found that it didn’t reflect what was in my heart and what I wanted to make. I’ll Sing came out almost four years ago to the day. So then with The Sun Still Seems To Move, I had all this time to make stuff without a timeline, and I could go back to creating in a free open-world kind of space, so that when it came time to start thinking about recording, I really knew what I wanted everything to sound like. I knew the aesthetic shift that I wanted to take.

To me, this new record is very collaborative in a way that the others were not. The last two records I made with the same group of people, the same people I’ve been playing music with forever, and they were on this record as well but we kind of opened up this door: I knew that I wanted to make a really orchestral, soundscape type of record, and that I would need help doing that cause I’m just one guy. All the time I had and all the patience I was able to give this project, the record reflects that in the shift sonically; it was super collaborative, we took a really long time to make it. And there’s a little bit of guilt and shame when you’re working on a project and it takes four years to make, but I don’t think I would have been able to make it in any other capacity. The last two records I made in short periods of time; I think they each took about a year to make, and that’s with life happening and a job and all that. And with COVID happening now, that allowed me to explore music while not spending as much time on anything else, which was, in a way, a huge blessing.

But I think the biggest difference between this new record and the last two is the content of the record. It’s a bit heavier in material, and because of that I wanted to be intentional about making it sonically a little whimsical, and more geared toward this escapism — and less forward-facing in the way like, “here’s a bunch of songs about trauma” — and have it be a listening experience, like a real headphone experience. I love all of these records a lot, but I feel the most myself in this new one.

TH: How did you meet the whole crowd of musicians who recorded instruments on this album? 

SM: Some are the same people that I did the other two records with. My cello player Julia Peters, we’ve been playing music together for seven or eight years now and that’s been consistent; my friend Eric Muth, we’ve been playing almost ten years together, so they’ve been these staples in my musical community. Philadelphia is so special in that you’re so surrounded by these talented people, everyone is so accessible and everyone is a friend of a friend. I’ve never spent too much time in any other cities, but I’ve never felt so supported by such a strong music community as I have in Philadelphia for the last ten years.

Some of them were my old roommates: Mark Nestman who plays clarinets and some other woodwinds, he was my roommate a couple years ago and he’s just this awesome jazz musician and session guy. Tyler Bussey, who plays in Thank You Thank You and Strange Ranger, he’s been a friend for a while and is just so talented. There was just one person who I hadn’t met in a friend capacity prior to recording, but we quickly got along and it felt like—another friend! [laughs] It’s quite nice to have that pre-existing relationship with someone when you’re arranging these songs, cause there’s a kind of built-in intuition and trust that makes it feel safe and special to explore whatever kind of creative avenue that you want to. Hearing those parts for the first time live with my music was an incredible experience. I’ve been playing with my friend Julia forever and that’s beautiful, but to hear all of these instruments that I wish I could play, and I’ve always dreamed of having my music reflected in that way was really, really awesome, really special.

Shannen Moser - Paint by #

TH: Did writing and recording the album feel serious all the time, or did you get to feel silly, too?

SM: I’ve thought about this a lot because we were recording for two-and-a-half years, and that’s a huge window of time and a lot of things happened, the state of the world and personal grievances. The exploration of sound and arranging was such a blast. Really, you’re just hangin’ out with your friends being silly, and also my mind being blown watching them play all these fantastic instruments, so that part was so fun. And my engineer Alex Melendez, another friend of mine, we worked together for the last two-and-a-half years and we saw a lot of each other. We traveled a bunch for the record too: we went on this little trip to upstate New York and the Hudson Valley, rented an AirBnb and it was really special. We recorded up there, and we brought some folks up there, and it was like music vacation — even though we were working really hard, in the in-between time it was really fun, and I have a lot of memories of fun and feeling loose and relaxed.

But there is definitely the other side of that, you know, having fun and creating this whimsical space, and the other side being the content of the lyrics, all of that being a heavier deal. We recorded vocals all at once, and those were the days when it did feel taxing. There’s this song on the record called “Two Eyes”, and it’s probably the most difficult song to get through because of the content. But there was a moment when we were recording — and it was one of those if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry situations in recognizing the hilarity. No one else can hear the track in the headphones, so you’re just sing-screaming these over-the-top ridiculous things knowing that the only thing anyone else can hear is your voice. I think it takes a specific personality type to recognize the hilarity, and I think that stuff is so funny. And then you go home after doing that for ten hours and you’re like, “I am f***ing exhausted, my brain is melting,” and it took a minute to figure out what was happening there. I had just had these really fun days in the studio, and I come home and I’m feeling low and exhausted. Not to be too on-the-nose about it, but your body knows what’s going on before you do. And I honestly think  this record is dramatic in a way that speaks to truth; it’s a real storytelling that’s going on, very autobiographical and all of that. But that also made it fun, where we were doing this psychotic thing together and if we can’t laugh about it then this isn’t gonna work — and I am able to laugh about it.

TH: Do you identify with emo or screamo music? Sometimes I hear your songs working in a way that fits with those styles for me, especially on your older albums, but on the new one too.

SM: Yeah, when I was young, young young, like middle school, I loved emo music. And I never had a screamo phase — mmm no, I did like Underoath as a kid. [laughs] I phased out of that, but I still love that stuff, emo in all of its forms, not just the twinkly guitar stuff. I think emo is a big umbrella term, there’s a lot of stuff that fits into it. The idea of emoting these extreme feelings, I super identify with that. Sonically, maybe not, but lyrically I wouldn’t say you’re too far off the mark here. And you’re not the first person to say that! I remember a few years ago, I was on tour and played Rough Trade in Brooklyn, just me and an acoustic guitar playing these finger-picky sad-guy songs, and someone asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you remind them of Midwest emo?” And I was so taken back, but then I thought about it and I thought, “No, he’s onto something. This makes a lot of sense.” It’s just a different type of emo, for sure.

TH: On the new album, you confront a lot of infinities, deaths, futures, and existential doubt. Are these things you have been grappling with often lately? Has writing them into lyrics affected the way you confront challenges like these?

SM: Yeah. I don’t know if other people do this, but when I go to write something, I don’t sit down and say, “I’m gonna write this song about this thing.” It kind of all just happens at once, and if I’m writing a song by myself, it’s just guitar playing and you start singing in tongues until something comes out of you, right? And like I said before, I feel like our bodies know before we do, so writing music that way makes a lot of sense to me. But these themes of existential doubt, and religion and death and trauma, even on the other records these are the things I’m writing about. With this new record, it’s just at the forefront and something I’m comfortable addressing now.

I had gone home two summers ago; I was back in Berks County where I grew up, and there’s not much left there. My family live other places, I graduated in 2012, and it’s a very, very different place now, but still the natural world out there is incredible. It’s this old farming community, and while I was home taking care of the stuff I needed to take care of, I was working on these greenhouses and on these farms—and in Philly I work in music venues [laughs] so it was a very different experience. I grew up on a horse farm and had been doing that since my earliest memory, then once I left that area I didn’t do it again. So it was nice in those ways but I think it also created the blueprint for this record to be what it is, this kind of nostalgia-tourism through a tough past, reconciliation with all the things you kind of push out of your mind when you’re out of that physical space. The object permanence of pain, what do they say — “location is irrelevant, your things will follow you.” When I found myself back in that space, it opened the door for me to write really honestly about things I was feeling. And as far as religion goes, organized religion is not something I have a fondness for, but I consider myself to be pretty spiritual. I grew up singing Sacred Harp, Shape Note singing, and that’s always been a huge influence on my music that I write today, and I was able to do that while I was home — it happens in Philly, but it’s very different back home, the connection with god. And I sometimes will attend Quaker services; those are really beautiful because it’s basically an hour-long meditation and if you feel compelled to share whatever’s in your heart, you can share. Then it’s over and you eat a big meal with a bunch of people, and I don’t think it gets much more beautiful or spiritual than that.

All of those things compounding really brought me to a space where I could honestly look at my life in a way that’s more difficult when you’re further from the stuff that shapes you, you know? And the rest is the trauma and the death songs [laughs] and all of that. It’s easy to write about because it’s something present and something you’ve experienced (that’s the general you) and also a really important way to unpack whatever you have going on. Sometimes I’ll write a song and I won’t really know what it’s about, and then some time will pass and it all becomes very apparent; I can trace it all the way back to the feeling and the circumstance. I think songwriting is beautiful and cool in that way, where it allows you a different lens to what you’re experiencing, before you even recognize it.

Shannen Moser | photo by Veronica Mendez

TH: “If there really was a god, there’s no way I would be me.” Can you describe what you mean in this line from “Oh My God”?

SM: Totally. Where I’m from in Berks County — specifically the Oley Valley, Kutztown region — there’s a really strong Evangelical Christian community there. I would never fault anyone for this — you know, when you go through a struggle, things don’t quite make sense and someone presents you with religion, sometimes it makes sense. I would never fault anyone for that — like, “I can’t explain these seriously troubled happenings, so maybe this is why.” There was a brief period of time when I was participating in that, as a kid, in a very fragile time. I remember as a kid just feeling like, “I don’t belong here, the people I’m surrounded by are so much different than I am.” No one that I had known in Berks County in like 2006 was an ‘alt’ kid loving the things that I loved. Then in high school I found people I’m still friends with who loved the same music and the same passions, but at the time it was extremely isolating being this strange alt kid with a public troubled family situation. So that line is a wink at the idea of those really organized religions and the damage they do. And there’s another line in that song that plays off that theme: “I was working on that farm, when I thought I had met god / it was just the sunset setting / watch the colors run.” And that’s another wink at this trapped-in-time community of conservative Christian neo-fascism-type-stuff. It’s kinda cheeky, kind of funny. Some lines are funny; it really is about that specific place and how beautiful it is, but how disorienting it was coming back as an adult and having a different appreciation for it, but recognizing the kind of harm those places inflict on people.

TH: How would you describe the relationship between the prevalent religious beliefs and the natural beauty in the region? Does that landscape often bring people to god? And do you see that differently now that you no longer live there?

SM: I think there’s all types, but for me personally, I am moved by the natural world in a way that, that IS god. The fact that these things exist, that something can be so beautiful and exist for hundreds and thousands of years is just so mind-blowing that that to me is the practice of religion. That makes a lot of sense to me. But to some of the more conservative folks that live in that area—and it’s not all like that anymore, there is a healthy split now, but it still is very prevalent — I think it’s just different; I have a hard time imagining what that is like. For me, it’s deeply connected in that, how could one exist without the other? The magic of the world exists in all of these beautiful things around us and the connectedness of it all. I don’t want to pigeonhole anyone, but for me they are deeply connected. Growing up there and spending the first eighteen years of my life in that place, I think it’s why I write the songs that I write, and musically why I love the songs I love. I love country music, I love folk music, I love church music, I love Shape Note stuff. My favorite thing about Shape Note — it’s become pretty popular all over America, but specifically the East coast and the Southeast — is that you don’t have to be a religious person or devoted to god to participate, and I think that’s beautiful and that reflects the kind of connectedness of music and space.

TH: I’ve heard a bit about Shape Note music before, but can you describe what it sounds like? And how does it feel to learn?

SM: It is this practice of singing in one old room (and a lot of these happen in Quaker meeting houses), sometimes they’re pretty big, and acoustically they sound so beautiful, so open, and the ceilings are high and the sound flies around the room. You sing out of this book called The Sacred Harp — actually I have it in front of me right now — it is exactly five hundred and seventy-three pages long. [laughs] I think it’s only ever been revised one time, and this book has been around since the eighteen-hundreds so it’s pretty old school. You’re all singing out of this book in this room, facing each other in a square, and the four lines of the square are all broken up by the different voice parts of the music. But the thing that makes it so special and cool, and I think is honestly an intimidating factor for people, is that on a sheet of music, instead of all the notes having a circle at the end, they’re different shapes. So there’s a flag shape and a circle and a square, and they are all connected in solfege. You sing the song according to the solfege part first and then you sing whatever verses they call, and it’s this incredible sound; it’s really unlike any other singing I’ve ever been part of. And you don’t have to be good at singing — it’s mostly people yelling. [laughs] Well, not yelling, but it’s very loud and beautiful. If you listen to Appalachian folk music, the way those vowel sounds are so peculiar and specific to that region of singing, it’s like that. There’s a lot of great singing recorded from the seventies; I love that it’s becoming more popular among young people because it really is one of the practices that could phase out since the folks are older and it’s a very old type of singing.

So that affected the way I sing in a huge way. I feel like I have this vocal-throw type of thing, and I can sing sometimes very loudly, and it’s all connected. The intention of my performance is that the vocals are at the front; I think your voice is an instrument just like a guitar and you can manipulate it in ways that create a cool dynamic experience. I’ve worked really hard trying to explore that in a live setting, cause it’s so much different than recording a record where you have this unlimited capacity like, “we’ll do it again, we’ll do it again, we’ll do it again.” So I’ve worked a lot at that, and only on this last record am I finally like, “yeah, I did that!” and I’m excited about that. I’m deeply influenced by the Sacred Harp, Appalachian folk, country and all of that.

Shannen Moser - Ben

TH: “Ben” is such a gorgeous and heartbreaking song. Could you share about the process for writing its lyrics?

SM: Yeah of course, and thank you. I wrote that song in 2016, a really long time ago. The song is extremely autobiographical: I had this friend and we spent a lot of time together in school, and you move away and you lose touch with people, and life is all the stuff that happens in between. So when I learned of Ben’s passing it was just one of those things — I dunno, you ever just fall out of touch with someone that was very important to you, and then something like that happens and it’s just this cataclysmic, “Wow, the fragility of life? And why don’t I spend all of my time thinking about this kind of stuff?” And no one should ever spend all of their time thinking about that kind of thing; it’s never on your mind until it happens. It took me a while to write that. But when I wrote it, I wasn’t even like, “I am going to write a song about my old friend Ben,” I just wanted to tell this story because it was so influential on my life. And I feel like you never forget your first public school friend; that’s a huge, universal experience at least in the area I grew up in. I really wanted to tell that story, and I thought it would be a disservice to not put it on the record. There was a moment when I wasn’t gonna put it on the record just because of the nature of it, but I’m proud of it and proud to tell that story.

It was another one like we were talking about earlier, like some songs are difficult to get through. And I remember [laughs] with my engineer it was one of those laugh-or-don’t situations — we were doing vocals, and I just look over at him and Alex, my engineer, is just crying and I’m like, “Dude, what’s going on” and he’s like, “I don’t know.” [laughs] But I don’t think there was a process for writing that song, and I would assume that for most people writing that kind of stuff, there is no process, it just kinda falls out of you. With Townes Van Zandt, there’s this interview of his I really love listening to where he talks about “sky songs,” when you sit down and start writing and they just fall out of you all at once and there’s no thought, and you just write a song in ten minutes and that’s the song. With songs like [“Ben,”] I think about sky songs, and how the good ones just kinda come out when they come out.

The Sun Still Seems To Move is out today on the local Lame-O Records. Shannen Moser plays tonight at Johnny Brenda’s with Greg Mendez and Yours Are The Only Ears, then next Friday in NYC at Purgatory. They play Champagne Jam with The Front Bottoms in Philadelphia on December 17.

Here, find their Folkadelphia session from all the way back in 2017, after the release of their album Oh, My Heart! And below, find a video of Shannen performing “Oh My God” from 2021 with bandmates Tyler Bussey and Max Stern, who both appear on the new record.

Shannen Moser - Oh My God (Cemetery Tapes Session)
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