Leah Shaw on The Grief and Transformation Behind Debut LP “Play Beautifully”
Leah Shaw’s first full-length album, Play Beautifully, was released on July 30th, and represents the culmination of many years of work, but also major personal and professional shifts in her life. It spans and reflects on the time spent caring for her mother during her illness with early onset Alzheimer’s and her passing, but musically it also spans Shaw’s decision to embark on a graduate program in music that enabled her to experiment on and develop the album with new tools and fresh insights. The result is a powerhouse of carefully considered work and one that looks unflinchingly at relationships and connection while acknowledging human limits and human needs.
Shaw has been on a musical journey, one that split her time between caring for her mother in North Carolina and exploring musical directions in Brooklyn, New York, and she’s recently set off on a new adventure in Philadelphia, but with a greater sense of empowerment than ever before due to mentorship and collaboration. I spoke with Leah Shaw shortly after her move to Philadelphia about the course of her musical life and releasing Play Beautifully.
Americana Highways: Because this journey has spanned several years for you, now that the music is released, does it seem different to you than when you wrote it?
Leah Shaw: The title track is my mother and I playing music together. As the years have passed since she passed away, which was in 2016, that feels really different to me now than it did when I was making the songs. It was a really raw time. It’s also personal because I made the album myself, co-mixing it, co-engineering it, and performing a lot of it myself. My good friends perform on it. It’s the result of all these personal relationships before graduate school, and then I made it at my graduate school studio. That was a great experience. But my co-Producer and I left the school the day the pandemic dictated that we had to leave with the sessions as done as they could be. Then we sent them off from mastering and I really needed a break from the music. I didn’t want to feel that way but I felt really weird after doing it. When the pandemic hit, I kind of hid out. I only performed this album for the first time a few weeks ago, and it was really different. It’s changed a lot for me.
AH: I saw that you had played a virtual performance for the album in July. Did you play the whole thing?
LS: I played a good portion of it. I had decided that one way to help myself to get back to the music was to rearrange some of it. My partner makes Synth-Pop music and loves synthesizers so I rearranged some of the songs with synths and played five of the eight songs and three of them were redone with synthesizers and ukuleles.
AH: That is absolutely amazing. You have to do an EP of that version now.
LS: When I was at grad school, sometimes the stems got passed around for these songs. Some of the people were there to learn to produce and weren’t necessarily writing music, so they would need stems to do different mixes. I actually made an EP of covers because of that as part of a summer advanced mixing course.
AH: In some ways, the timeline of the album being long might be helpful because you have some sense of continuity from before and after the pandemic, though it must have been an incredibly frustrating hold up.
LS: I felt like I should be frustrated, but I felt like I really needed a break from the music, but it does help tie things up now. I feel like I have this body of work. It’s a little bit of a rediscovery. I released the single “Love Comes” in the middle of the pandemic, and it was so weird because I wrote this about one experience of illness, my mom’s illness, but when I released it, I realized that everyone was upset. It felt like it was time to put it out.
AH: What led you to doing grad school in producing and engineering? Is that something that has changed your direction at all?
LS: It is like a career transformation. I have always had trouble taking my ear for music seriously. When I was young, I had a lot of support for music lessons and training and I did every church music activity that I could. Then I also did a bunch of classical music in grade school. But I lost confidence in my voice during my teenage years, even though I’ve always wanted to sing and write. I wish I hadn’t. I originally wanted to go to Berklee in Boston and I didn’t even apply. I went to undergraduate for classical music even though I really wanted to be writing music. I even bought ProTools then sold it because the music industry had gone to streaming and my professors were freaking out that the music industry was dead. I don’t know why I listened to them.
But I moved up to New York in my mid-twenties to get out of my hometown and was doing all these jobs to make money. I decided I needed to take the music thing seriously, but it took a couple of years for me to decide to become a professional. It took a couple of frustrating experiences in studios where I was in a room with all these music guys but didn’t know what to ask for. I didn’t even know what “reverb” meant. I knew that I should go back to college for music. When Brooklyn College started a new MFA for Media Scoring, meaning film, that was right around the time I was having all these anxieties. I got in and I was terrified, but I did it. I cried a lot. But things got better. Now I teach students music technology.
AH: That’s an amazing way to have more agency over what you want to do.
LS: It is amazing. Film scoring is something I thought about when I was a kid, and I went to that specific program because I had thought about it before and I liked that it was really about storytelling. I don’t want to only be a film composer, but when I meet a director and connect with them, I will score their film.
AH: I’ve talked to a few people who made decisions like this and are now qualified to run their own companies and labels. That can be really important to concentrate your abilities.
LS: It really can. The guy running the program also taught us about contracts and licensing and how to get our shit together at the beginning of the project. That’s about agency because it teaches you how to retain your creative property and how to value things properly. I’m stepping into freelance for the first time very soon.
AH: That’s so awesome to hear. When you were doing the program, was recording and editing these songs part of your work there, or did you just learn skills there that enabled you to do it?
LS: I kind of worked it into my own curriculum. It was a three-year program and, for instance, there was a class on sequencing and sampling, with a track that needed drums. So I turned a song in as an assignment. It was also an ensemble class on how to prepare for a recording session. I submitted “Love Comes” to be one of the pieces that was recorded, so I got to conduct it and record it as part of the class. That ended up being a major part of the song that’s on the album. For my thesis, I did a fully orchestrated and live performance version of my album and we had about 25 musicians on stage. I got to rehearse and conduct the album.
AH: That is outstanding! What a great story. This is such emotional music, though. How was it for you allowing so many people access to your journey?
LS: I had some really good help. The one person without whom the album would not be what it is. That is Teo Blake, who is the co-producer. He was a classmate of mine. We linked up one semester in and as soon as we met and had heard each other’s music in class, he asked what I was working on. I sent him the demos and he connected with everything. He and I were also older than most of the students on the program and had both been out in the world working. We got the two Labtech jobs in the studio and so he was with me for basically every minute of it. There were also professors who provided really important encouragement at certain points when we wondered if we were ever going to get it done. Teo and I were just living in the studio making this work.
We made some other music. Teo released an album during the program which was really wonderful. We also helped other students with their work. But I did become closer with a lot of the other students on the program because I was putting songs in front of them and saying, “This is about my mom who died.” My mom passed away the first week of my program, and I missed orientation, but I really needed to keep moving. I knew that she would want me to do it.
AH: How does Play Beautifully relate to any previous music you’d created?
LS: I haven’t gone back and reevaluated that music, though it’s on my to-do list for this fall. There was a lot, but I had no perspective then on whether it was any good. Some of it was too Emo.
AH: You might be surprised! You’ll put on your producer hat and see things differently.
LS: That’s a big reason why I want to go freelance, so I’ll have space in my brain to look back. I thought it would be important, artistically, to take that time.
AH: I saw some ideas about the album that I found really interesting, for instance, pushing back at the social idea that you need to accept loss as quickly as possible and move on to be a productive human being. I can definitely relate to this. Do you think that we need more options as human beings?
LS: I do. It’s a tough line. When you see someone suffering with grief, you just want them to feel better. I think people are often trying to be helpful and are coming from a good place. I haven’t experienced a ton of loss, just this one big defining one, and it took a lot of care to bring my mom safely to the end of her life. Because it was a long process, I could then not be rushed through the back part. I was not really okay for a while. That being said, I wish I had some more mental health support sooner. I would definitely say to people that they should get support. As far as grief and the idea of moving on, I felt like there was a rush by other people in my life to move quickly on, as if to regain lost time.
The song “Where Are You” is really the song that says, “This is fucked up. I’m not okay with the fact that this person is gone.” She lived her life as a professional, a wife, and a mom, and she didn’t really get to see the end of it, so that wasn’t acceptable. Some of it was me pushing back against things. I was raised in the church, though I’m not a church-goer now, and that system wasn’t working for me. It wasn’t working, at least, in the way people proposed it. I wasn’t going to force myself to feel okay because I thought, arbitrarily, that she was in a better place. What I decided to do was to feel mad, and angry, and upset, and to hold onto things as long as I needed to. It’s hard to do that when there’s pressure to keep moving forward, especially from people who love you. We all have to find our way there. I am in a better place about it now, but that didn’t come from me forcing it.
The same thing happened with the music. I decided early-on in the pandemic that I was not going to go online and do a bunch of shows if I the way I was feeling was too hollow about it. I needed to go inward for a bit. I maintain that people have the right to do that. I feel that people should be empowered to do that. Sometimes we just need a rest.
Find more about Leah Shaw and her music here: https://www.leahshawmusic.com