Shannon & The Clams Are Making Music Medicine

Shannon & The Clams Are Making Music Medicine

BYErica CampbellApr 18, 2024

Shannon & The Clams’ “Big Wheel” spirals like its namesake, rolling in with a disorienting Moog synthesizer before guitarist Cody Blanchard’s vocals chime in over stuttering percussion and distorted guitars, driving towards the chorus. The song’s music video, premiering today on PAPER, mirrors the surreal nature of the track. The visuals suggest a silent-era film, with black-and-white scenes, eerie shadows and perspectives as staggering as the events that inspired to the song’s creation.

In August of 2022, just a few short weeks before their wedding, frontwoman Shannon Shaw’s fiancé, musician Joe Haener, died in a car accident. The tragedy rippled through the band, distorting their world as they faced the reality of the sudden loss of a loved one. “Big Wheel,” much like the rest of Shannon & The Clams’ latest album The Moon Is In The Wrong Place, meditates on this unfathomable happening, celebrating Haener’s life and honoring his memory by imbuing his energy into a visceral and vibrant celebration of songs and highlighting theevolution of their retro, rockabilly sound.

Following the release of their 2021 album Year of the Spider, the band toured in a world that was slowly opening up, dealing with COVID concert cancellations, band illness and protocols that made life on the road nearly impossible. Following Haener’s passing, the band was up against another unfeasible task, this time creating new music in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event — but the songs came easily.

“I’d only written one song between Year of the Spider and this album that made it onto this album. It’s the song, ‘The Vow,’ it was supposed to be performed at my wedding as a surprise,” Shaw tells me, her bandmates Blanchard, drummer Nate Mahan and keyboardist Will Sprott nodding quietly in agreement. “We were busy playing songs from Year of the Spider,” she adds.“We have an unusually long album cycle we’ve been told so we can tour for a long time off one album. But, I would say that music was coming to me right away the day he died. Making music is how I self-soothe.” By the time they were ready to record, Shaw already had a handful of songs to share. “I definitely felt lit up,” she says. “Full of this fire that needed to be focused somewhere. I felt like my dad says, ‘raring to go.’ I needed to put that energy somewhere. [It was] just a few months after.”

The album opens with “The Vow,” a timeless lullaby, a sugary doo-wop song, backed by bells under Shaw’s voice as she croons, “Beautiful guy with the sun in your eyes/ I’ve been waiting, waiting for your love/ Now you’re all mine for all time.” Just before the interview, I play it aloud in the living room. It’s optimism incarnate, an audible manifestation of the kind of big, true love you only read about. Without context, it’s the most joyous thing you could imagine. With context, it’s devastating.

“I can’t remember when the decision [to include ‘The Vow’ on the album] was made, but it was not right away,” Shaw says. “For a long time I couldn’t fathom that. It was just so tender. It felt like… the wedding didn’t happen. Joe doesn’t get to hear that song. It was something I didn’t think would ever get to see the light of day. Then it started to make me angry that no one was going to get a chance to experience that and that Joe wasn’t going to get to hear it.” They started working on the song at Sprott’s house, but there was still hesitancy around placing it on the album. “It wasn’t right away, like ‘This is going to go on the album,’ it was like, ‘Oh boy, that would be fucked up if I put this on this album,” Shaw says with a knowing grin. “Then, at some point I was like, ‘This needs to go first.’ I’m curious about how that will be received by everybody. I know it’s probably pretty jarring if you know the story.”

I tell her about the first time I played the song and that someone who didn’t know its backstory had overheard it. He asked If I’d play it again, calling it “fun” and “beautiful.” “I love that,” Shaw replies. “It was supposed to be a beautiful song, laying out our life together.”

At one point, Sprott poses his own question to Shannon about “The Vow.” “The end part is obviously written after the fact… I can’t remember when that part came into being?” he asks, wondering if she’d had all the lyrics written before bringing it to the rest of the band. “It’s crazy knowing what the song is and then knowing that you had to reassess and adjust the song to fit the whole story,” he says. Shaw recalls “The Vow” being “the first song I’d ever wrote on guitar, with chords that Joe taught me.” “Then when I got that Ominichord I figured out how to translate it,” she says. “It was then that I started to realize those other chords, because I didn’t have access to them.”

The band carefully chose “Hourglass” as the next song on The Moon Is In The Wrong Place, sonically building the full story of what they’d experienced. The bombastic track came to be during a jam session, juxtaposing “The Vow” with its emotional and aural explosions, building up with feverish organs and rapid drumming as it lurches forward at an unsettling pace. “I’m obsessed with that song,” Shaw says. “No song that I’ve ever experienced captures the feelings I’ve had dealing with that chaos and grief and trauma than that song. It’s a journey and it’s so intense and it’s kind of scary, ” Shaw adds, her voice cracking slightly as she wipes away tears. “It has these moments that are scary and intense and driving and these moments that feel like you were dropped and falling through space. That’s how I felt when I was trying to take in and accept my new life. Also, I’ve said this to Nate a few times, and I hope this makes you feel good, Nate. His drumming, towards the end of the song, he sounds like a machine gun, he sounds really badass. Nate’s always badass, but his drumming sounds like Joe coming through, it sounds like Joe’s drumming to me.”

Blanchard remembers talking about the combination of songs that open the album as being like The Wizard of Oz. “You have the family farm scene then there’s a fucking tornado and you’re in Munchkinland,” he says. To continue that analogy, there are technicolor moments on the album. “Real Or Magic,” sounds like a fantasy, with dreamy orchestration and lyrics that recall seeing a vision of Haener bathed in light. “So Lucky,” makes space for sadness and gratitude in equal measure, as Shaw sings steadily about memories and being thankful to experience a love that wasn’t too good to be true. There’s a joy that outlines the pain of the album, a celebration of the fact that even though that time was fleeting, they got to know Haener in this lifetime at all. As Sprott puts it, the album is not “a total bummer.” “There’s a lot of positivity and love in it,” he says. “It’s amazing to come through this and make something that’s going to make so many people happy.” The thought of sharing this experience live, however, is still daunting.

“For me, I’m doing a lot of work before I go out,” Shaw says. “Because, as you can see, I can just talk a little bit and start weeping. With the songs, I’m rehearsing them with my vocal coach and trying to get strong while doing them so I feel like I have armor on stage, so I don’t break down. It’s important for me to present them in the way that we made them. To me it’s important to show people these songs and all this hard emotional work. I think music is medicine, it’s good for me and us, and it’s good for people.”

Photography: Jim Herrington