Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Shannon Puts the Fun in Funchess

Written by Michally Diamond
 Active Image      A couple times in my life I have gotten what I like to call a “talent crush” on a fellow musician. That’s when someone is so talented that your stomach feels fluttery and your mouth goes dry when you’re around them. Sometimes this person is your friend and things can get a little bit awkward. Enter the good people of Sadie Magazine who asked me to interview one such talent crush—my dear friend Shannon Funchess.

 Photos by Jason Rodgers
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A couple times in my life I have gotten what I like to call a “talent crush” on a fellow musician. That’s when someone is so talented that your stomach feels fluttery and your mouth goes dry when you’re around them. Sometimes this person is your friend and things can get a little bit awkward. Enter the good people of Sadie Magazine who asked me to interview one such talent crush—my dear friend Shannon Funchess.
Under the guise of said interview, I was given the perfect opportunity to pick her brain on her process in hopes of maybe tapping into some of her magic. Her transcendent voice is almost indescribable. Deep and throaty, at times lilting and gentle, then soaring and shattering, it's all soul and all woman. Like mother of the earth womanly. Like a sound before sound.

If you have never heard her sing, that probably sounds ridiculous. If you have, then it makes sense. When she performs it’s like she is barfing out her soul; her honesty is incredibly captivating. If I had a voice like that, I probably wouldn’t be shy either, but not many people do.

She is well aware of the gift she has and does it service. She is prolific and unstoppable. Over the last few years, she has sung with Telepathe, TV on the Radio, !!!, and TK Webb, among countless others. Funchess is currently performing in her own projects Light Asylum and A Rose Parade.  We met up in my Brooklyn apartment over pizza and had a little chat. With microphones. And tequila.

Michal: What are your first memories of music?
{mosimage width=400}Shannon: I would have to say, being in church. My parents were members of a Southern Baptist Church in Spokane, Washington in the ’70s. I went to that church until I was about thirteen.

Michal: Was music an important part of your family life? Are there other musicians in your family?

Shannon: My brother played music—he is older, four years older—and tortured me the way an older sibling in that situation would. [With] the TV, it was like I wanted to watch something and he wanted to watch something else. It was the same situation with the stereo. I hated all [the] bands [he liked] because of it. He would listen to the Rolling Stones and a lot of punk music, so he turned me on to a lot of that. But it took a while because he was forcing me into, not listening to our parents records like James Brown, Ohio Players, or Redd Foxx —he would put on this god-awful punk music. But I’m really glad, in hindsight, that he did. Maybe those were my earliest memories of actually realizing and forming my own opinions of what my tastes were.

Michal: When did you become aware of your desire to make music?

Shannon: I became aware of that fact pretty early on in my life. I decided that, Yeah, I want to be a singer and make music that moves people or touches people so they love it or hate it, just as long as they aren’t indifferent to it. I would say pretty early, like, I don’t know, nine or ten. I was in my first band when I was twelve and a half. It was a punk band called Inebriated Arsonists . . .

Michal: Did you have a moment where you “found” your voice? Is it something that always came naturally or was letting go and being honest [in your singing] something you had to work at?

Shannon: I’m still working on it. I thought I found my voice a few times. It’s definitely a process for me. And then very literally I have lost a lot of my high range just screaming over guitars and loud bands. So there’s that, and having to work with what you got. And just as of late, in Light Aslyum, I’ve been singing really low. That just came out of almost half joking, but also trying to get across this feeling of majestic-ness with all this reverb. And kind of, not hidden, but underlying religious and spiritual connotations, [with] the music as well, and that vocal styling fit what I was writing at the time. I’m always experimenting and growing and I think that’s the best thing for an artist to do. And if you stop doing that, then you stop growing; then there is no more music to make.

Michal: Is that why you play with so many bands? I’ve always been curious, because you play with SO many people and projects and I’ve always wondered if that actually drove you—if you felt working in a bunch of different styles made you more whole?

Shannon: I think it’s kind of like doing vocal calisthenics, running around. Almost going back to that last question, I don’t feel like I have one style I am completely attached to that defines me as a vocalist—I don’t want to be pigeonholed. The first project I sang on in New York was with TV on the Radio for their Young Liars EP, and that was awesome. I was like, OK, yeah! I got one thing down it had taken a couple years of living here before I found anyone to do anything musical with. So that got the ball rolling.

And there was the Durty Nanas, and TK Webb —I played live with TK for a year. [I played] a tambourine that I turned upside down, on my lap. And I constructed a makeshift mallot [using] a drumstick [that was] leather-bound on one side to make a soft tapping [noise] instead of a sticky sound.

I’ve [also] done more ethereal and sweeter, softer stuff. I love to harmonize, and that’s what happened with Telepathe on the Dance Mother LP, which came out in 2009. I love to do it all. I was singing with !!!, rocking stages all around the world with Nick Offer after John Pugh left the band in late 2006 or early 2007. I’ve always wanted to do different styles and I’ve never been afraid to do anything different than something I’ve done before. I like to harmonize and I like to scream. The screaming is kind of harder to do now—I’ve already screamed a lot but [your throat has] muscles and you exercise [them].

Even now with A Rose Parade, a project which Gerard Smith (bassist for TV on the Radio) and I started two years ago in between me touring with !!!, I joke about this project being adult contemporary. I think the hardest thing I’ve ever done is to sing where you can hear me and there aren’t loud guitars and the music is quiet and features the voice a lot.

Michal: At what point in the process do you feel closest to your songs—writing, recording, or performing?

Shannon: It’s during the writing process that I get really excited when it’s coming together. And also performing it live—sometimes it’s different. It depends on what happened that day. When you perform . . . you bring different energy every time. I try to practice for consistency because I’m not up there as a solo artist. There are other factors, someone else’s energy to work with, and we are in it together. I really enjoy performing live, and not only does it make me feel close to my music, it makes me feel close to people and closer to the reality of why I’m on the planet. I feel like this is really my calling.

Michal: One of the first times I met you, I ran into you at a restaurant [after having seen] you perform with the Durty Nanas. I couldn’t control myself and I went up to you and said, I hope you know your voice is a gift from God!

You have a real gift that [is strongly rooted] in soul music and blues music, where you hear your soul when you are singing. I think that’s why people react so strongly to your music, because it feels so honest . . . There is a deeper thing happening there. When you are performing do you feel strong, exposed, transcendent? Does it make you feel whole to sing?

Shannon: Absolutely. Everybody needs an outlet, a creative outlet to be exact. Without it I wouldn’t even know what I was supposed to be doing on this planet. I mean, maybe I would find other ways to reach people and help people—and I would still like to do that, get involved in the community and do some service. But as far as vulnerability and daily issues of facing an audience or presenting music to an audience whether it’s live or [from] recordings—it’s a constant need to expose myself and to share with other people my experiences and my perception of life through a creative vein.

I do feel vulnerable at times and I try to be constructive and tell a story and take people somewhere, take them on a journey, whether it’s the set list, the cadence, the flow. [I try] to be conscious of what I put out there . . . With Light Asylum, we started working together, period. We got together one day in May 2009 and in a matter of months, we had already played so many shows. We had only been playing together for maybe two weeks before we played our first show. That right there is vulnerability and exposing oneself.

Anybody who makes music or is a perfectionist would know, wow, they have only been together for a hot second! I surprised myself by being able to pull that off, being vulnerable. I wish more people would. I think there would be a lot better music and art in the world if people exposed their true selves, [their] multifaceted selves. There is not [only] one side to oneself, I don’t think. I don’t want to get stuck in any particular genre or categorize myself or anyone else. It’s important to keep it sexy. Sexy Sadie!

Michal: Do you feel like your level of musical honesty or the way you write has changed as you’ve gotten older? Do you feel like now that you have been doing it for more than two thirds of your life there is a different approach, a different energy?

Shannon: Yes, it has been a while! Twelve to . . . I don’t know if we are going to expose that! Definitely confidence ensues after you have performed a thousand times—it comes naturally. The energy is still pretty high, depending on what the project is like. Like A Rose Parade is a little more subdued, or adult contemporary, jk! It’s the calmest thing I've done.

Light Asylum can be loud and abrasive. The energy is still like grrr. I still have that teenage angst—I’m reliving my teenage years through that vicariously, and loving it. My lyrics are probably a little more adult. And maybe even X-rated in a metaphoric sense. I mean, I’m not swearing. When I was younger I would probably say fuck or goddamnit to get my point across, where now it’s more about writing skills and subtlety and leaving room for people’s imaginations so they can feel a part of a song and make up their own mind about what the song is about. I think it’s more poetic.

I was really into “poetry” when I was younger. Everything had to rhyme and it was really simple—I don’t know if simple is the correct term. It was really boring almost. A B A B; I’m just gonna go here; the lines are going to be so long; can’t color outside the lines too much. Now I can do whatever. There is still structure to my writing but it's freer.

Michal: When you write lyrics, what’s your process like? Does something happen and you have to write about it, or does the music come first?

Shannon: I think it’s more of a subconscious [thing]. Usually, I like to write in the studio. Basically working side by side with someone, they have a guitar or something, maybe three chords, and I say play those four times and then change here and then let’s make a bridge . . . In that process I’ll hear a melody in my head and start singing the melody—sometimes the words don’t automatically come. There was a point for like five years where I didn’t do anything and it was driving me crazy. I was just blocked. No words were coming, no melodies—or if they were coming I wasn’t satisfied with them or I wasn’t going to sit with them. They were not worthy of sharing with anyone. I was just BLOCKED. It sucked!

Light Asylum [has] been the most amaaaazing project. Things just come between the two of us. A keyboard part, a drum part—whoosh—just comes. We’ll be in the middle of a practice and Bruno will be, "Check this out" and I’ll be like, "Rad!" And I’m all, "Check this out," and I’ll start playing my little synth drum pad and then I’ll start singing and it’s like BAM—the phrasing, everything is there, pretty much. [We] just have to go back and structure it a little bit and it’s a song. The feeling is there. Usually the first impression is the core of the song. The first thing right off the bat, I usually latch onto that. I don’t know why—it makes it harder when you go into the studio cuz you get attached to stuff. It’s been working out this year [though].

Michal: What do you think about the scene/community in New York right now? Do you feel like there is a “scene”?

Shannon: Definitely. I think people realized after the economy bombed, and the record industry changed so much, and no one is really selling CDs, people have nothing to lose now. As far as the independent, non-mainstream pop music world is concerned, just your local artist with Logic on their laptop or access to Pro Tools or GarageBand even, everyone is free now to make music. There is an affordable {mosimage width=500}medium out there for people to record and listen to their own music and share their own music on MySpace, or even sell their own music on iTunes or CD Baby. So people are just going for it I think. Especially after the economy got really limp and record labels aren’t doing much for artists these days. It’s changing so much that it can go up or down and right now it’s kind of down so people are like, OK, I’m still a musician, economy or no economy, label or no label, and I have these tools at my fingertips and I can blog about [my music] and share it with so many more people very quickly. People have decided that they don’t have anything to lose instead of making music to get signed or to get money, because seemingly there is no money. So people are making music they want to make instead of music they think people want to hear. And that has been great for the “community” or the “scene.”

[Personally] I don’t feel like I’m part of any scene, but I do feel that [with] the particular kind of music I’m making in Light Asylum, there is a rebirth of sorts for dark music, a penchant for music with a message, music with flair. You know, you can go to a show [where] people are really getting into it, instead of just standing around looking all cool. Though I don’t think the live audience has changed terribly in a particular genre.

I think there is something on the rise in a particular sound, with synthesizers—’80s synths and drum machines. [Bands] that came out in the late ’70s hated [this music] because they thought, that’s not music, there are no guitars, there are no acoustic drums, this music is for sissies, this music is totally gay. Though, that music, in particular—’80s new wave, romantic, post-punk—is on the rise again and I’m really stoked to be playing this kind of music. It’s the music I grew up with.

The first time I went to a nightclub to go dancing it was the Cure, Sisters of Mercy, the Smiths, Kate Bush, Thompson Twins, all that ’80s gay stuff. I’m stoked to be making that music in my own time and that people like it. I think it’s been revisited before but people are doing it really well right now, and mixing it up with psych, like Mirror Mirror. They have guitars and drums—it’s not strictly anything I wouldn’t think of as goth or industrial—but they have synths and drum machines, as well, and it sounds beautiful. It makes me want to move and dance and think romantic thoughts, you know? Sweet thoughts about life and accepting life and growing.

I’m really excited about the music here—the Nasties, Living Days, totally bro’d out, screaming, fraternal Wild Yaks, there’s Gang Gang Dance keeping you moving and keeping the beat—the world in indie, experimental music not being so Eurocentric or US-centric. And then there are dance bands like !!!—I was a fan before I ever played with them. It’s hard, driving, dance, post-punk, funk, new wave circa 1982 NYC a la Liquid Liquid or Afrika Bambaataa or Tuxedomoon. So many bands! LCD Soundsystem keeping it indie and keeping it indie on top, but with synths and guitars and high-energy vocals . . . the Juan Maclean keeping it in the club.

Michal: I had a super New York day today. Sometimes I get down on it here because it’s so hard—you have to work so hard just to have nothing. And sometimes I get jealous of my friends back home [in Minneapolis] who get to play music and barely work but get paid well to play, and own houses—it gets frustrating. But today I was walking around and saw so many different people, heard so many different languages, saw so many different ways of moving—everyone was so different from the next—and I was just in Union Square area, or riding the train, or running an errand in Midtown, whatever it was, I just had this moment where I [was reminded] that it was a huge dream of mine to come here, and to be a part of this, and this is a really inspiring place to be because it’s wild ass here. What did moving here mean to you? Does it inspire you? I mean, you’re a lesbian . . .

Shannon: [Laughing] Am I?

Michal: I mean, I feel like you’re a lesbian . . . [more laughter] Anyway, I’ve noticed from the different places I’ve lived that in New York, you’re this, you’re that, but we are all just people and we all hang out together and it’s not an issue. People are able to be really free here because we all are different and we are all choosing to be here and to struggle. Do you feel like being in New York, maybe being different, maybe being the same, is important to who you are as a musician?

Shannon: New York is definitely inspirational. I came here needing, hoping and aspiring to be a “real” musician, a career musician. And life is what happens while you are making plans. I moved here three days after the World Trade Center attack. My fallback was going to be DJing to make money—I had been DJing for ten years. There was no work; no one was making money DJing cuz no one was going out. The whole “I’m gonna start a band” got put on the back burner while I tried to figure out how to stay here and not get crushed. That totally made me who I am—after living here for eight years—it’s definitely a building block in my music, struggling. Like I said I was blocked for a long time, there was a lot to take in—I think I was just processing. I ripped up my roots after living in Seattle, leaving my family and everything. Moving to New York was a rite of passage—I had to pay my dues all over again. I had an established musical foot in the door in Washington—it was a small pond. And I could feel it. I was running out of water there, ha. It’s surrounded by water literally, but the pond was too small and I was sleeping in Seattle! It was tiring and there was a ceiling and I had hit it and I needed to go somewhere to keep growing, so I came to New York.

I believe that success is doing what you love. In New York if you can manage to keep a roof over your head and feed yourself then you’ve made it. Anything after that is a plus plus. If you have a job that you love and friends and you know a few people and every once in a while [you] go to a bar and get a free drink, you’re set! I feel like I’ve already made it here. I didn’t share musically with the people I met in New York for at least six years. I feel like I wasn’t out there performing or doing anything really—it just wasn’t coming to me.

Then I felt like a door opened and I’m just kicking it open now. I'm trying to kick it off the hinges so it will never close again. I feel like I’m just rushing out now. It’s good. I came here with these aspirations, you know, but I wasn’t fully prepared with demo reels and songs in my pocket. I just came here on faith that I would find the people I needed to work with. I just came here like a wild ass—I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna bring it, and I hoped I [wouldn’t] end up crushed and crawling back to Seattle. So yeah, I got lucky.

Michal: What do you think it was that opened that door? Was there a moment where your confidence got upped or was it a final straw where you just said “I'm sick of this”?

{mosimage width=500}Shannon: It was the latter. I was just fed up with my lack of sharing cuz that’s what I’m here to do so I felt like I was squandering my gift to the point where I was scared that it would be taken away from me. So I figured I better use it cuz that’s what I’m here to do. But as far as the gates opening, it was somehow maybe accepting things for the way they are and being like, OK this is what I have to work with. I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t have a lot of gear. After working with so many people, I’m hungry for this, I want this to work really badly, and to be able to share this with people. So I got a little fire under me and I ran with it.

I had been playing with Telepathe, which reminded me of the music I grew up dancing to, so that was really inspiring. I got to sing the music I love and perform it and realize there’s an audience for it, and I realized I can do this. Finally. [After seeing] people be open to it, boom. That was the dawning. And performing with !!!, traveling all over the world, I was like I wanna keep doing this, whatever it takes. Let me go form my own thing so I don’t have to wait for someone to call me so I can go back to Europe or wherever.

Michal: In the years of performing are there any shows that stick out? Have you had any transcendent performances?

Shannon: It was the Fourth of July 2006 on the roof of the sugar factory in Brooklyn with TK Webb. The other bands were pissed cuz we were just two people performing at midnight, but there were fireworks, and it was the most beautiful clear July night, and the fireworks over the East River, it felt like they were right above us. We were on this huge roof—it was so big that it made it look like no one was there but there were like eight hundred people there. And we started singing beautifully and the fireworks were going off and I was elated, I was shaking with joy, I felt like God was there. The world was a vibration and I could feel it. I felt really close to the music even though it was another artist’s music. I was in there with him and we were traversing the universe; it totally transformed me. It was a height that I want to experience in any performance. Just being outside—I love playing outside at night. It’s really beautiful.

Also Light Asylum played at the Wierd party—it’s a dark wave party in New York, on 9/9/9 at Home Sweet Home. That was on fire; people are still talking about that. The promoter wrote me and said it was the best night he had witnessed in five years of throwing the party. People were jacking their bodies—they were going insane—and that’s in a dark basement with like six-foot ceilings, and with a fog machine going out of control and lights. New York vibes.

It can be outside with a thousand people or fifty people in a basement—you can transform people’s lives in an instant. That’s the kind of power performing has; that’s the best thing about it for me.

Michal: When you have those moments, do you have a benchmark or a goal?

Shannon: I want to make timeless music as long as I’m alive and able-bodied. I want people to come to a show and feel connection and [feel] connected to the music. In a fantasy world, it would be great if something orgiastic happened and people let go and didn’t just stand and watch the show but actually participated in the performance.

Michal: Do you feel like people in other parts of the world are more free to get into it at shows?

Shannon: Well New York, it’s the height of cool or whatever—you can be rocking with your cock out, or your clitoris out, whatever, and you can see people want to get into it, but they are just standing there. In Europe, musicians and artists are supported by the government; it’s a covenant. That’s a fundamental difference between the United States and a lot of the Europe. That’s a huge deal. You show up to play and they have made you food with their hands; they want to show you their town; they appreciate that you have come so far.

Michal: OK, just because this is a ladies magazine . . .

Shannon: You gonna ask me about the lesbian shit again?

Michal: Ha, no! Do you feel . . .

Shannon: It still isn’t any easier, getting any. I still haven’t hit my “rock star” people throwing themselves at me because my band is awesome. YET. I don’t know what it is! You wanna know the real reason why I started [playing music]? I wanted unlimited booty! It still isn’t working and now I’m just a damn musician and you know, that’s OK. I got a gift, I gotta roll with it. But it would be nice if people would holler back. Holler back, shorty!

Michal: I don’t even remember my question now.

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