When Shannon Shaw and Cody Blanchard of Shannon & the Clams sat down, separately, to write songs for their band's fifth LP in October 2016, they felt compelled to interrogate themselves. Shaw had always treated songwriting as a form of problem-solving, a way to separate herself from an issue and analyze it from a distance. But now, after years of avoiding it, she had started to attend therapy sessions. She was, she says, "trying to get to the bottom of something."
Blanchard was nearing a self-critical cliff-edge, too. "I don't know if you can relate to those time periods when you stop seeing yourself as you think you are," he says, "and start actually looking at what you're doing and your dysfunctions."
Onion, premiering in full below ahead of its February 16 release on Easy Eye Sound, was always going to be the band's most introspective album.
Then, on December 2, a fire broke out at the Ghost Ship, a warehouse venue in Oakland, California. Thirty-six people died. It shattered Shaw and Blanchard, who came up through warehouses and underground venues in the Bay Area and lost friends that night. Immediately, Onion became a eulogy, a tribute to the families and friends left behind, and a document of Shaw and Blanchard's first thoughts in the fire's aftermath.
Over the phone from Portland, Oregon—where their US tour begins tonight—the two take careful turns to talk, building on each other's ideas; Blanchard finishes a thought, then Shaw jumps in to offer a slightly different angle. They both had a compulsion to write that December—"there was no way to write about about it not happening," Blanchard says—but they each had their own way of processing things in their music.
Those two perspectives come though clearly on Onion. "Backstreets," written and sung by Blanchard, is built out of a cantering floor-tom and a jangling organ, but it opens into a wide-open, half-paced chorus. It's a story, told in the first-person, about the type of outsider who would have found a home at a venue like the Ghost Ship: "I am a runaway, makeup upon my face / I find a place to hide, inside a stranger's ride."
Blanchard says that there was a subconscious element to his writing. On "Backstreets," he played with words and phrases without fully realizing them; then he refined things after the tragedy. "It was just a really personal feeling that I think most people from that community can relate to, being an artist and not feeling like you have a place in the community or in a bigger society," he says. "You have to go down this other creepy way that you find on your own, because there's no way provided for you, there's no template or path to supporting yourself. Just chaos."
Shaw's most direct response comes on the album's last song, "Don't Close Your Eyes." Like all of her band's best tracks, it plays with girl group melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and echoing surf guitars. But, here more than ever, Shaw's voice is in a different universe, opening near a rich bass and cracking into a soft falsetto within a couple of seconds. It's steeped in pain, but written to console. "Don’t close your eyes if it blocks all the light out," she sings. "And don’t close your eyes if you’ll just see that night / Do what you must to grasp every feeling / Now open those eyes and take in that light."
"Everyone around us was hurting so bad and not really knowing what to do with their pain," she says. "I felt this need to sort of mama bear or something, to send the message that it's okay to feel everything. I kind of just need to comfort people instead of…" She trails off for a second. "That was how I was dealing with my own grief and fear, was to try and come up with a way to make other people feel good."
The band flew to Nashville in January 2017 to record the record with The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach at his Easy Eye Studios. But the precise ideas behind the songs didn't come up. "I don't remember ever talking about the content are meaning of songs that we'd written with Dan," Shaw says. "I think that he's pretty instinctive. He can feel what you're going for. He could tell that 'Don't Close Your Eyes' was just totally tragic, but it's about trying to find moments where you can lift people up." In fact, the studio sessions turned out to be strangely ecstatic. "You know, when you get really emotional in any direction, any other emotions that you have to tap into are equally extreme. Like on a rollercoaster. You're terrified, and then as soon as your safe again, you're laughing so hard." She remembers recording backup vocals—holding oohs and aahs, mostly—as a moment of complete release, "instantly having that same amount of intensity, but in humor—just feeling really alive."
Shannon & the Clams' live shows are famously vibrant and celebratory—sweaty, all-inclusive singalongs. They played a memorial fundraiser at Eli's Mile High Club a week after the Ghost Ship fire; the grief translated into something else that night, and they hope that will happen again when they take Onion out on the road. "It's like you all your all in one place and together to recognize like something really tragic that happened," Blanchard says, "but you just end up getting into almost a manic celebratory place, just because you're all together and you just don't know what else to do with all your emotions. It just gets really heightened. Um, I don't, I can't, I feel you can't quite articulate it."
Shaw tries: "I love that you think of our performances as celebrations because that's how I feel every time we perform," she says. "I hope we never lose that. I think that's so important and that's what's kept making people feel good and coming back for more." She stops for a second and all three phone lines are quiet. "It's what makes me feel good and makes me keep coming back for more."
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