And Introducing a New Music Column… by Joy Shannon
I have never separated the arts into sections. The music I make sounds like how my visual art looks and vice versa. For my bachelors degree, I created a specialized major which included visual art, theatre, and music because I could not choose just one of the arts to focus on. So, somehow it makes sense that I’ve been asked to create a new music column for the OC Art Blog, to expand their focus from solely the visual arts into more of the performing arts.
I feel privileged to be the first “music editor” to establish this new column and I’m excited to see how it evolves! For my very first music blog, I will share a little about myself so you all know who I am as an artist and musician. I have never written a music column before, but I always wanted to be like Patti Smith- doing music, visual art and writing- so this is such an exciting prospect to me. After this, I promise not to talk so much about me and focus on the other artists and music events I will be covering!
Now, I might not separate the arts into sections in my mind, but if pressed to choose just one art form as my medium, if I was on a desert island and for some odd reason could not do anything else, I would always choose music. (Hopefully that desert island would have a state of the art music studio on it.) Music has been my freedom. Music has healed me in so many ways by helping me learn self-confidence and courage to be myself. Music is the way I first learned that truthful emotional expression could be safe, beautiful and bring people together rather than tear us apart. When speaking in interviews about my band “Joy Shannon and the Beauty Marks,” I have never hidden the fact that I come from an abusive background which made music so important to me in the first place. I know I am not alone in this, as the arts have been a saving grace for so many lost and angry kids to find a place where it is not only ok to be themselves, it is encouraged. This is why I am an arts teacher at the high school and college levels to this day and I speak openly about where I have come from. I feel like it is part of my soul’s purpose to encourage others find their voices through the freedom of the arts, much like I did when I was a kid.
The world of all the arts can be a place where, once your career gets going as an adult, and you’re cool, busy, and insulated, you can forget where you can from and why you started creating in the first place. I never want to forget the very first moments I realized what I needed to do with my life because it keeps me grounded, focused, and humble. I ask every artist I come across why they originally decided to do what they do, because I like to know where the rubber meets the road. A wonderful thing usually happens when artists share about their humble beginnings- we share our basic and beautifully vulnerable humanity… and isn’t that what making, sharing and experiencing the arts is about?
I remember two very important moments that occurred early in my childhood that made me know that I had to be a musician. I was five years old in 1987 when U2’s The Joshua Tree came out. I remember hearing the album being played very loudly from our next door neighbor’s house. I couldn’t exactly make out all the words or notes of the music, but what translated through the wall was the sheer passion behind the sound. I was living in a house where no one talked about feelings or expressed real human experiences in safe ways, so that music was such a refreshingly honest deviation. I remember thinking very clearly “I don’t know what that is but I want to do that when I grow up.”
My father was a folk singer and guitarist in the 70s and 80s and, probably around the same time as I heard The Joshua Tree, I went with him to a recording studio where he was recording a song he had written. I vividly remember sitting on the ground and being fascinated with everything from the turning analog tapes to the consul to the cords coiling around me. I knew then that I just had to record music.
By the time I was in junior high, playing cello in orchestra and messing about with starting my first punk band which we called “the Virgin Marys” (but we never performed), my dad had given up on his music and his dreams and become a drug addict. I had to find my own way to pursue my dreams without my parents’ support then, which is why I started out playing music that was pretty dark and angry. I began painting and drawing through high school and recording my constant song ideas on a 1980s purple radio on which, as a little girl, I had recorded spoken-word stories I wrote (complete with sound effects). By the end of high school, I began recording on a Tascam 4-track that was kindly given to me by a drummer friend who would later drum in the first line up of my band “The Beauty Marks”. I recorded at first with a mic that I got- no joke- from the 99 cent store and then I painted a bunch of murals for a neighborhood toy store to save up to buy a $100 Shure sm57.
My first official band that performed was a goth band called “The Deathblossoms” that I formed in 2000 with a friend named Doomie (who now owns a vegan restaurant in Hollywood called “Doomie’s Home Cookin'”). We recorded “haunted house” music on a digital 8-track and a good-old Shure sm57 mic with an out-of-tune upright piano, hammer dulcimer, guitar, bells made out of metal plumbing pipes we got at Home Depot, and me on vocals, cello, and accordion. I am proud of that project to this day, because it was the first time I had ever sung for an audience and recorded a full-length album. The project also embodied something I believe in deeply- to not worry about perfection, but just make art out of whatever you have at the time… or can make from supplies at Home Depot.
Over the years on occasion, it warms my heart to run into someone who loves the Deathblossoms and is excited to discover I was one of the people behind the project. My favorite story where this happened was when I first started teaching visual art and I had a student in my class who was a very angry kid and did not respect anyone in authority. My principle had purposefully given this student to me, because she thought if anyone could reach him, me- the young purple-haired teacher- could. This student made awesome art, so I always told him specifically what I liked about it, but he never said a word back. Until one day after about three months, he must have looked me up online, and he came over to my desk and the first full sentence he said to me was “You were in the Deathblossoms?”
After the Deathblossoms, I worked with various bands while I was getting my undergraduate degree and I started playing and writing solo music the Celtic harp. I battled with intense stage fright, especially around singing, and tended to hide behind a band even though I was writing all the songs. Despite my struggles, I was determined to do my music because I knew somehow I was supposed to… and the songs just kept coming. I also had the belief that sometimes what we were most scared of is the most beneficial thing for us to pursue in life.
My last semester before I graduated, I studied theatre abroad at Trinity College in Wales. In my theatre classes, I was invited to play harp and sing to create the soundtracks for the plays we produced. That was a freeing experience for me to perform my original music solo without a band. When I came back to the US in 2004, I set my goal to keep writing, recording and performing my original music on Celtic harp, cello, accordion and vocals. I performed just as my name Joy Shannon and it scared the shit out of me, but I gradually gained confidence.
As I started adding musicians to my band in 2005 and 2006, I called us “Joy Shannon and the Beauty Marks”. The “Beauty Marks” name came from a poem I wrote about turning my “scars into beauty marks”, which is what I believe art can do with anything difficult we personally experience. Through the act of creation, we take our power back in situations we might have been powerless in, and can turn even the ugliest of experiences into a poignant piece of truthful art… which is my definition of beauty.
Now it’s 2012 and I have released four studio albums as Joy Shannon and the Beauty Marks and have shown my printmaking visual art throughout Southern California and Europe. I have a band of amazing musicians I love to play with and community of recording engineers, producers, filmmakers, photographers, visual artists and musical side-projects I love to collaborate with. While I still don’t make much money doing my music, I’ll never stop making it. I love everything that goes into making music from the personal journey of writing and recording it, to playing live with my awesomely talented band and collaborating with my filmmaker and visual artist friends to create music videos and album art. My band has really supportive followings that have sprung up in patches throughout Europe in Germany, Spain and France… and, of course, right here in Southern California, which always gives me hope that people are actually listening to my music. Every time someone somewhere tells me my music touched them, it heals a piece of my heart.
After years of working way too many jobs to make ends meet from restaurant work to painting commissions to doing wardrobe and makeup backstage for theatre and music shows, I finally have a more balanced schedule teaching visual art, theatre, and music at the high school and college levels, while I make my own visual art and music. I earned my masters degree in 2011 in American Studies from Cal State Fullerton, for which I focused on what I love to make my art and music about: how the arts interact with culture. I ended up publishing my thesis called The First Counterculture Celebrity: Oscar Wilde’s 1882 North American Tour as a full-length non-fiction book- which I never expected to be able to do- but now I can call myself an author too.
That’s my story. I share it in hopes that it might help or inspire someone to be themselves and pursue their own dreams. I always tell my students that if I can do what I love to do with my life- with all the obstacles I had in my way- then there truly is a path for us all. I’m not cut-throat, I’m not competitive, and I firmly believe there is enough room in this world for all the artists who ever wanted to make art to do what they love to do, without trying to get in each other’s way. So if I have a bias in my music column, it’s just that: that I love music and I believe that if you have a desire in your heart and soul to do something in the arts, just fucking do it! It might entail you facing your fears and putting your heart out there pretty vulnerably into the world, but you never know where it might lead.
My Top Ten Most Influential Albums (that made me want to make music):
The Cure, Disintegration, 1989
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967
Gavin Friday, Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves, 1989
The Virgin Prunes, …If I Die, I Die, 1982
David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, 1972
Radiohead, The Bends, 1995
Opeth, Blackwater Park, 2001
U2, The Joshua Tree, 1987
PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love, 1995
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Let Love In, 1994
My Favorite Piece of Music Equipment:
Dusty Strings FH36B Celtic Harp
Joy Shannon is a visual artist, writer, and the mutli-instrumentalist singer of Joy Shannon and the Beauty Marks.
Joy’s music: www.joyshannonandthebeautymarks.com
Joy’s art and writing: www.joyshannon.com
Joy’s music videos/short films: http://www.youtube.com/user/joyshannon?feature=mhee