Swimming in the Same Pool of Notes With Shane Parish

Photo by Courtney Chappell

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I don’t think there’s anything Shane Parish can’t do with a guitar and on his latest, Liverpool, his talent as a songwriter shines in full force. It’s a remarkable album, honestly, and one that continues to bear fresh fruit with each subsequent listen. Parish explores the furthest reaches of sea shanties on Liverpool, reworking their ageless melodies in imaginative, evocative new ways. Even more, how he carries the original spirit of this enduring music into original song forms and ideas is astonishing. Parish has released a lot of wonderful music through the years, but Liverpool is the best distillation of what makes him special as an artist. 

This interview was done in early March as Parish was on tour supporting the record. It’s out now on Dear Life Records. Shane can be reached through his website

So as 2022 gets rolling along here, how have you been holding up?

It’s been a rollercoaster, hasn’t it? In the midst of the lost time, isolation, and grief of the pandemic years, I have been blessed with some surprising silver linings. We moved to a new city that we love, I began teaching inspiring new students around the globe on zoom, I spend more time with my family. I’ve been somewhat of a news junky since my early 20s, so it’s easy to get down if I orient to the horror of it all. So, I try to focus on what I can impact in my own community with my skill set, and living in Athens, Georgia has provided me with many opportunities to reach a larger community as a music educator.

Alright, so what are some of your earliest and most formative music memories from when you were younger? Who made you want to play guitar?

My earliest music memories include dancing around to Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” in my Aunt’s living room, getting the Run DMC album Raising Hell on cassette in kindergarten, playing it on the school bus through a tiny boombox for the other kids to hear. I was a pretty serious metalhead by 9th grade, some of the kids I was playing D&D and video games with had started playing guitar, and I learned a couple riffs from them. Everyone was forming bands at this age and I wanted to write my own songs. My first guitar was a cheap strat knockoff, I think it was called a Striker.

When you eventually picked up a guitar, what was the feeling like for you? Were you taking lessons or self-taught or some combination of the two? 

It was a feeling of immediate immersion. I took 2 or 3 lessons from a couple different teachers, but the lessons were pretty lame and useless, and weirdly discouraging, so I became self-taught. I formed a band called Union Prayer Book with a singer friend and we wrote two albums worth of material and started playing open mic nights at coffee shops around Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Palm Beach, Florida. I was always an experimentalist from the get-go, just moving the fingers around until something sounded cool and evoked a feeling, and I would make structures for the parts to fit in. I was way into Pink Floyd and psychedelics at this point. I read somewhere that they were in university studying to be architects before going into rock and roll, and that’s how they structured the form of their songs like “Saucerful of Secrets”. That inspired me as a composer. I remember older guitar players disbelieving me when I would play little classical-sounding songs that I wrote, “There is no way you wrote that. There is a lie in there somewhere.” For me, it was about originality and voice first. Technique and theory and repertoire came along later when I wanted to be a professional musician and hopefully transition out of working in the service industry.

And now you’re an educator when it comes to guitar, giving guitar lessons and workshops and whatnot. How did you first get involved in the teaching side of things and what’s the most fulfilling part of it? What’s the most challenging?

I started by teaching friends one-off lessons here and there for little or no money. I graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville when I was 26 years old with a degree in philosophy and went right back to working in restaurants. I was also pushing my band Ahleuchatistas very hard at this time, writing, touring, releasing albums. A friend of mine mentioned that I taught guitar on a mom’s group on Facebook, and from that, I picked up my first long-term private student, Ayden, who was in 3rd grade. I taught him for years, and he actually recently passed away tragically at 20 years old. He was my first student. Word of mouth spread, and I started teaching lessons after school at a private school in Asheville. After a couple years, the teaching became my main income, along with working gigs, and sometimes shows and album sales.

It is so fulfilling to engage with people of all ages about music and overcoming challenges on this very difficult instrument. My longest-running student, Malcolm, started at age 5 and will be 18 this year. He is now a self-employed guitar teacher and about to go to college for music. He is still my student. It’s been 13 years. I have taught him from the absolute beginning to professional level. It’s unbelievable! I love the time I spend with kids in lessons because it is time focused on harnessing goodness and beauty in the world. Yes, it’s challenging, but I’ve been doing it long enough that I know how to make it easy with incremental progress. I view the lessons as part of the art form. I derive just as much satisfaction from an epic one-on-one guitar lesson as I do from an epic show in front of a packed house.  

Okay so let’s get to the main reason we’re here… your new album, Liverpool, is out now and this feels like such a monumental, culminating release. Over how long of a period were you working on it and what about your thinking and process for Liverpool has been different than some of your previous solo works?

I spent six months working on it in earnest. But, prior to that, I knew I was going to be making it and had been thinking about it and discussing it with the label, Dear Life Records. In some ways, there were similar approaches to the way I made my 2016 album, Undertaker Please Drive Slow, on Tzadik records. I selected the tunes, I transcribed the vocal melodies, I started to explore tunings and arrangement ideas based on those melodies, I improvised around in the material. I actually composed Liverpool for solo acoustic guitar and was rigorously practicing it when I got together with my longtime collaborator and friend Michael Libramento, who plays drums on the record. None of the intricate fingerstyle arrangements I had developed worked on electric guitar with drums. So, I re-arranged the whole album for electric guitar and effects pedals, which is perhaps more my wheelhouse than acoustic guitar, given my years as the guitarist/composer for Ahleuchatistas.  

As with some of your previous work, Liverpool adapts traditional music into something for solo guitar and also, to my ears, gives it a new more contemporary edge. I’m curious where this interest in adapting traditional works started and what it is about this approach that inspires you so much?

My first time playing folk music in this exploratory way is documented on the recording Ballad of an Unarmed Man, which became the de facto demo for Undertaker. I made that recording in early 2015. I was always a free improvisor, and when I started using the structures of ancient melodies combined with my improvisational tendencies I felt that it gave my playing a contour and narrative shape that was deeply expressive and more universally relatable. I am a lover of melody, among other things, and I think there are still endless possibilities for melody to be new and relevant, and humanizing. 

So this time, you dig into sea shanties and nautical songs as the source material, which – well, first is not a realm I know a ton about, but on the other hand that adds to the interest for me. Why did you go the nautical route this time?

I had performed some shanties when I recorded the entire Fireside Book of Folk Songs for my Bandcamp page in the summer of 2019. I also learned about the album Foc’sle Songs and Shanties, by Paul Clayton and the Foc’Sle Singers, from Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, Volume I, and I really fell in love with it. Additionally, my partner, Courtney Chappell, and I do a podcast about the band Echo & the Bunnymen, who are from Liverpool. We just released Episode 32 and even interviewed their guitarist Will Sergeant for episode 30. In episode 2 we did an investigation into the shanty history of Liverpool, which got me even more interested in this music. I learned that there is a Liverpool Sea Shanty Festival every August and I thought: what a dream it would be to take my family to Liverpool on vacation and go to the Shanty Festival. And what better way to do this than to get booked at the Festival. So, making this album was really a practical matter.

Photo by Courtney Chappell

What surprised you the most as you were adapting these songs and making the record?

I love how well they work in the various contexts I plugged them into. I love heavy music, jazz, ambient music, classical guitar, fingerstyle folk, etc. I always have the urge to scratch all these itches at the same time when I am playing. It doesn’t feel like a stretch when I am playing this material. I could just play it and not tell anyone that these are from the sea shanty repertoire, and people would enjoy it and just think that these are some really deep, moody, and memorable melodies.

I really love this statement from the album description: “These old melodies are timeless due to their physiological power to vibrate the human nervous system in just the right way, they are the code to resonance within the body, and thus a fantastic and magical part of our evolution.” It’s beautifully stated and says something I’ve been thinking about in a much more concise way than I’ve been able to, but I often wonder what music from recent times will be looked back on in this way and wonder if you have any thoughts on contemporary music that has this effect on you/us/etc?

We are still swimming in the same pool of notes when we talk about melodic music in a key, so no doubt that some songs will become universal imprints on our collective psychic evolution. A lot of what we hear today is about recording and production but stripped away, a melody can resonate through the body without any instrumentation, post-production, or recording techniques. And they live on as an organism, able to be repurposed again and again.    

Have you given much thought to what you might like to tackle next as far as traditional/folk music styles go?

I want to record an original instrumental folk guitar album. I have barely started, but I want to do that. I also have a collection of arrangements of ballads sung by John Jacob Niles sitting on the back burner that I keep meaning to get back to.

I also wanted to ask about your collaborations with Tatsuya Nakatani, who is a personal favorite. How did you get to know him and come to work together? Any future plans?

I met Tatsuya when I booked a show for him and Eugene Chadbourne in Asheville in the late 2000s. After that, he would come through each year and we would perform a duet. We have no future plans at the moment, but I am very stoked about the three recordings we have made together, one with bassist Zach Rowden. I’ll keep you posted!

You’re about to head out on the road for the first time in a while (at least, I imagine!). What are you most excited about?

I am excited to live in this music for a couple weeks and share it. Humans getting together is so important, especially around music, and I have missed that. 

What else are you working on for 2022?

A new Ahleuchatistas album is near finished. The new lineup features Trevor Dunn on bass and Danny Piechocki on drums. It is totally insane! Also, I plan to record my singer-songwriter album that I have been working on for years.  

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