Interview: Shawn William Clarke, “Topaz”

Shawn William Clarke - Topaz

This Friday, Shawn William Clarke releases his latest album, the gorgeous “Topaz.”  This terrific album starts with the lovely instrumental “Back to Breath,” rolls into “Autumn in New Brunswick” (which Shawn describes as an “homage to finding windows of solace amidst the chaos of life”), and features Abigail Lapell on background vocals for “Young in Love (At the End of the World)'” – just a few of the treasures found on this project.

While Shawn explores a more electrified sound on several of the album’s songs, you’ll also find plenty of acoustic guitar to satisfy long-time fans’ tastes.  The album was produced by producer/performer James Bunton, who has also worked with artists such as Joshua Van Tassel, Donovan Woods, and the Hidden Cameras.

We are excited that Shawn agreed to talk with us about his new album – and we hope you’ll pick up a copy of this lovely album, which we recommend!

Where do you find the inspiration for the stories you tell in your songs? What I particularly enjoyed about the songs on the album was their rootedness in what I would consider real life (both the highs, like love, and the lows, like bugs).

I find a lot of inspiration in traveling.  Seeing new places.  I write a lot of songs about Canadian places, because I find a real emotional connection with them, they are part of my experiences.  I’m always confused when people write songs about places they don’t know, or cliches like a blues song about the Mason/Dixon line or something.  That being said, I wrote a song about New York, and there sure are a lot of those!  But I’ve always been interested in writing from real life, it just makes more sense to me.  I find writing in metaphors can be pretty lazy, and when I hear that kind of thing, it doesn’t usually affect me on an emotional level.

Do you have poor tourist experiences everywhere, or just in New York? 🙂 (Ed. note: this question is in reference to the song “The Tourists.”)

Luckily my travel experiences have been pretty great!  And even that experience, though all of it is true, was actually a lot of fun.  I was in Brooklyn with a bunch of my close friends, so we looked at most of those things as minor inconveniences.  Plus those bed bugs got us a free Air B&B stay, so I can’t complain too much!

How challenging is it to incorporate orchestral instrumentation into your songs? It plays a significant role throughout the album.

It’s not all that challenging when you surround yourself with the right people.  Alexis Marsh, who composed and performed all the woodwind parts is one of my closest friends, I gave her very little direction, and she was able to exceed anything I could have thought up myself.  My producer James Bunton has a big hand in that as well, and again, he’s so talented I don’t mind leaving things in his hands from time to time.

You mentioned in your blog that this album represented a switch for you, to playing much more electric guitar than acoustic. How has that shift felt for you?

It’s been pretty natural, I think.  I definitely wanted this album to be different from my last album “William”, and the sound of chorus-y electric guitar with synths that I heard on Gordon Lightfoot’s 80’s albums was stuck in my head.  I really felt the need to explore that.  When I found the right musicians (Kristian Pedersen’s synth playing was so essential to this project), it all felt really great.

Shawn William Clarke

The end of “Anxiety” reminds me strongly of the middle part of Carole King’s “Music” (the song, not the album) – that same kind of horn interlude. What are some of the musical influences that shaped your work when you went to write the album?

I wasn’t familiar with that song!  Looked it up after you mentioned it. Curtis Amy is the horn player on it, he played the solo on “Touch Me” by the Doors!  Nice tune.  Generally speaking I listen to a lot of different types of music, and on this album I wasn’t as worried about letting those different genres lead my writing on “TOPAZ”.  “William” was pretty focused on Folk music, and different styles that sit under that umbrella, mostly 70’s British Folk, as well as the 80’s Lightfoot mentioned earlier, I was listening to a lot of Ambient and New Age music leading up to the recordings.  In a past life (my early 20’s) I was a jazz musician, and a lot of that came up when I was approaching the ending of “Anxiety.”  Miles Davis recordings form 68-75 have been a huge influence on me for a long time.  Other than that there are hints of Loudon Wainwright, The Pursuit of Happiness, The Blue Nile, Paul Simon… lots of fun stuff.

Am I correct in thinking that you’re releasing the album yourself? If so, how does that process work? And would you choose to do it this way, over the traditional method of signing with a label, if you had the option?

Yeah doing this all myself unfortunately.  I would rather have some help, that’s for sure.  It’s sort of hard to explain the process, because it’s so scattered.  There is no “right” way to do things.  And every day I’m learning more, and the more you learn the less you know.  I’m trying not to be too stressed out, because it can really take hold of you.  On my last album, I lost a patch of hair from the back of my head from stress, I don’t need to repeat that.  I’d sign with a label right away if they offered to take some of the PR, booking, what-have-you off of my shoulders!

You have several dates lined up in Ontario over the next few weeks – what are your plans beyond that to tour with the new material?

After the Ontario dates, me and my friend Abigail Lapell are heading to Europe!  We will be touring Germany, Netherlands and Belgium, late September to Mid October.  If you know anyone who lives in those countries, send them my way!  I don’t know a lot of people there.

~ L

Photo credit: Laura Proctor

Upcoming Tour Dates:

SEP 1 FRI – Bar Robo, Ottawa, Canada
SEP 2 SAT – Musiikki Cafe, Kingston, Canada
SEP 6 WED – The Garnet, Peterborough, Canada
SEP 7 THU – St Paul’s Church, Orillia, Canada
SEP 14 THU – Phog Lounge, Windsor, Canada
SEP 15 FRI – Paddy O’flahertys, Sarnia, Canada
SEP 16 SAT – Burdock, Toronto, Canada

Visit Shawn William Clarke’s website.

Listen to Shawn’s previous album, “William,” on Spotify.

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