Little Orange Room Sessions is a one-take, one-shot, “living-room”-style performance video series recorded in Eugene, Oregon. Each two-song session is recorded in the 125 square feet that I use for mixing, producing, and sometimes even recording entire albums. Little Orange Room Sessions grew out of my crazy love of music and mixing, a growing curiosity about film and cameras, and a deep-seated passion for performance and the art of song.
Session #2: John Shipe
John Shipe is a Eugene based singer/songwriter who has shared the stage with the likes of Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Blind Melon, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Keb Mo, Cake, Tower of Power, Jerry Joseph, Jimmy Cliff, Derek Trucks, Los Lobos, Tony Furtado, Hootie & The Blowfish, and more. With 25 years of touring under his belt he is just finishing up work on his 11th studio album. John recently answered some of my questions via email.
LORS: It’s been almost a decade since your last album. What is the motivation/inspiration behind your new album? Did you reach a boiling point of sorts where you felt like these songs just had to get out?
JS: This album is more plainly autobiographical than what I’ve done before. And the material itself explains the long wait. It’s about all the life challenges I’ve been confronting that precluded the difficult labor of releasing albums at my formerly prolific rate. And it’s also about reckoning & resolution that finally allowed me to work again. Some of these songs were born a decade ago, but remained in a larval stage while I only had an inkling of what they were about. My last two years are characterized by deeper, clearer understandings, both as songwriter and a genuine human being. To be honest, I’m always “at a boiling point” with a huge body of material just dying to be recorded. I could have made 4 albums, but they would likely have been unfulfilling.
LORS: How does a John Shipe song get written? At this point of your career is there a trusted approach or do you find it varies from song to song?
JS: I have no formalized approach to songwriting. (Lyrics first, melody first, etc.) What brings a song to fruition for me is being able to embody a character, and beyond that. Even if the song is in third person, the narrator, too, is a character — with a gender, an age, and an attitude. I’ve taken some acting workshops which helped me develop a skill that I call “slipping into my imagination.” If you can settle into a character, “the dialogue comes out like butter” (as the instructor used to say). The idea is to stop being John Shipe-the-Songwriter who has to agonize line-by-line, verse-by-verse over “what ought to go here and what ought to go there.” To become a character who feels and reacts to situations as if they’re really happening. (This method can be emotionally overwhelming, whether or not the results are super impacting to an audience.) Meanwhile, I keep a notebook in my pocket at all times, filling it daily with every observation, epiphany, and singable turn-of-phrase that occurs to me. I assign myself slots of time to write full verses and chorus and bridges, which I put away to be revisited later when I’m “slipping into my imagination.” Some songs take 20 years. These days, I don’t “write songs” so much as “finish them.” And then, of course, there are the days when a song “happens to you,” and it’s fully written and composed practically in the time it takes to sing it. This almost always begins when I am away from my instrument. (Which reminds me: I often get up and walk away from instrument while writing a song, so that the habits of my physicality and chops don’t dominate my direction. Keep in mind that listeners will not be sitting at at guitar staring down their laps when the song reaches their ears.)
LORS: I see you describe your music as “Freeform Americana.” What is that exactly?
JS: “Freeform Americana” as I understand it, is an independent radio term for almost any kind of music that leans on conventional forms without having to sound exactly like the pure conventional genres. Country music without twang. Or pop without synthesizers. Wilco probably defines the genre — or lack thereof. It’s perfect for me, because I write a lot of simple country-like verses, but I indulge in fancier composition influenced by the Beatles and even Progressive ArtRock.
LORS: I asked this question in the previous interview I did with Dead Horses but I like the quote so much I might just make it a reoccurring thing. Guy Clark sings, “Some days you write the song / some days the song writes you.” Which line best describes you?
JS: As I was saying, intense acting workshops have shown me that “getting songs to write you” might be a teachable, learnable skill. What we refer to as profoundly spiritual, mountaintop songwriting experiences are what actors go through every time they go to work. That feeling of being an ego-less vessel for the story is what we’re after. But we seem to only give it credit when it’s with us through the entirety of a song’s process — from inkling to completion. Most every song only gets finished because we’re open to the process for at least part of it. And a lot of songs begin with that feeling, which is lost for a while, only to return when we are available to it. We seem to think that if there is a stretch of left-brained prep and struggle throughout the process, it doesn’t qualify as a “song that writes you.”
LORS: Any music you’re listening to (old or new) that I should put in my ear holes? Or any good books you’re currently reading or just finished?
JS: I was gonna ask you the same thing. Currently, I’m following a twitter account called Dust-to-Digital. Every morning, they post footage of music from anywhere around the world from anywhere in history — including the porches, sidewalks, backyards, temples and alleyways of all countries. I follow up on those artists (or those world music traditions) for my day’s listening. But, to answer your question properly: Homer’s Odyssey to read. And I recommend 80’s music as a pleasantly surprising antidote to the 90’s music sensibilities I was immersed in during my formative years.