Some birds aren’t meant to be caged — not by tiny steel bars and not by tiny forced narratives woven around their lives like intricate vines with pointy sharp thorns. As I listened to multidisciplinary artist Shontina Vernon tell me about her art — and by extension her life — during our telephone interview, I thought about how society’s carefully woven metastories threaten to confine us all like beautiful but trapped birds with very few of us daring an escape. Shontina Vernon is the one who got away.
In love is an easy state to tumble into with Shontina Vernon’s music. Perhaps it’s because you can’t quite figure out what genre along the musical spectrum lays claim to her inimitable sound. Folk? Rock? Jazz? Blues? Soul? All season the flavoring of her melodious entree. Or, it could be that her lyrics, layered with so much meaning, provide a sharp counter to those currently being spewed from our radios – which seem to be directly rehashed from the dialogue of Green, Eggs, and Ham. Or, it might just be because her songbook spans such a wide range of human experience that it becomes nigh impossible for your ears to be infected by one of her tunes without it causing you to harken back to a pivotal moment in your own life – whether love squandered, hopes realized, or dreams stalled. In any case, Vernon’s music, similar to the emotion it inspires, simply put, is just really damn good.
The Texas native and University of Washington educated playwright/singer-songwriter, returned to the city last year, making South Seattle her home. And though she travels back and forth to the East Coast and internationally, our novel area has served to reignite her creative embers, while providing her a much needed site of repose between projects. We were able to stop replaying her last album just long enough to catch up with Shontina in person, to discuss her own love for music, her upcoming projects, and life in South Seattle.
Emerald: Common wisdom suggests that you have to leave Seattle, especially the southern end of it, and go somewhere else in order to achieve success in most artistic endeavors. You’ve lived in pretty much every major city in the United States, what is it that continually brings you back to South Seattle?
Shontina Vernon: It’s a combination of things, but mainly timing. I’ve lived in Atlanta. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and New York, but Seattle is unique to me. It has a quaint small town vibe, yet feels like a great place to incubate new ideas. The pace here suits my life at the moment. I travel a lot, and re-entry here is always so easy. And the natural beauty could reawaken even the most dormant imagination. Being an alum of UW has also meant that I have access to a really solid artistic community. Seattle’s the kind of place where on one hand, I wish more people knew about it- and there were more people of color- but then again, I don’t always want to share it. Blame the introvert in me.
Emerald: The lyrics of your songs have so much depth and meaning behind them. They’re a welcome contrast to many that are currently produced by the music industry. How are you able to create songs that resonate so powerfully with the listener?
Shontina: I try to be a really good listener myself, to what my experiences at any given moment are trying to show/teach me. I had a very rich life growing up in Texas, so I pull from there a lot. I’m adopted, but my mother was born in 1917 and my father was born somewhere around 1893, so I had very old parents who were rooted in a time that is so not now. They were very much country people, very simple salt of the earth people. I think that the way that they lived their lives seeped into me, along with the way that I hear and experience music, so some of that root sound, blues sound in my music, comes from them. I’m also a theater artist, so I use what I know about playwriting/acting to help me get into different perspectives in terms of writing a song. It allows me to step into a character so to speak and write from that place. There’s so many ways to write music, and I employ them all, at least I try to.
Emerald: Would you say singer/songwriter is your primary occupation? You do so many other things.
Shontina: I would say my primary occupation is that I’m a storyteller. That is the one thing that is fundamental to all of the disciplines in which I work. As an artist, I have the unique vantage point of being aware of all the different stories for which I am the intersection, or the culminating event. Stories ask to be told in different ways, so I try to honor that and tell them with whatever form best suits the telling.
Emerald: Is it even possible to describe your creative process when working on musical project?
Shontina: No (laugher). It’s not. Because it’s so different depending on the thing I’m making.
Emerald: Okay, let’s isolate one of your works. The song Dreamer, which I think is absolutely amazing, how did you go about writing it?
Shontina: I don’t even remember writing the song (laughter). What I remember is where I was when I wrote it. That time in my life, who I was with, the conversations we were having. The conversations that I was having with myself. How I wrote it? I don’t really know. I just know what inspired it. I also seem to remember that the melody and the words came together. As of late, I’ve been experimenting with music and sounds, producing more tracks and allowing the lyrics to come as they come. My last song I released, “Snake Oil Man” was like that.
Emerald: So for you is art akin to that Ernest Hemingway quote that, “In order to write anything you have to live life first?” Essentially life itself is the muse for an artist?
Shontina: Yes, because life is everything, right? Everyone that shows up, every place that you live, every place that you visit, that is all fodder for what you write. But, how you will write about those things is always a surprise. You never know. I forget who the writer is, but there’s this quote about writing being as much of a process of discovering one’s self in what you write, because sometimes things about you are revealed to you right on paper that you weren’t quite consciously aware of, so there’s this relationship between you and the work all the time.
Music to me tends to reveal more about how I feel. I mean, I feel pretty intelligent in terms of what I’m thinking at any given moment. I do feel smart, but when I work in music, it all of a sudden becomes clear to me about how I felt about a situation rather than what I thought about a situation. Feelings are harder to get at.
Emerald: As an artist, how do you define a successful career? For some it’s monetary reward, for others it’s acclaim for what they do. What is it for you?
Shontina: For me it’s, “Does it feel good and am I happy doing it?” And I don’t mean that superficially either. If I’m making art, but unable to sustain a life for myself, then it doesn’t feel good. And it makes me worry for the kind of art I’m making from that place. It isn’t successful. Now, if I’m making tons of money, but my creative life is languishing and there is no art. Same. There is no joy in that either. It’s not about accolades or lots of money. I think those things are fine. I don’t personally have a judgment about those things, but at the end of the day, you still rest with you, and those just aren’t the things that I imagine will stand out on my deathbed. It’s got to feel good on all fronts or I’m just not doing it (laughter).
Emerald:. Your songs often mix tragedy and humor. Why is that?
Shontina: Life is just like that. And I think you see and understand things more clearly with contrast. Something is sadder if it follows something really, really joyful. It’s more joyful if it follows something really tragic and really sad. So I think that’s the musician in me that says that they have to play together. I’ve now lived long enough to see myself make decisions that I thought were really good, that farther down the line turned out to be bad, and I’ve made some decisions that I thought, “this is really bad,” and farther down the road they turned out to be the best thing, so the truth is that you don’t really know. You just have to include it all in the telling of a good story.
Emerald: I know that Joni Mitchell has been a major inspiration for you, but who else has played a role in your artistic development?
Shontina: So many! I’m a huge fan of Junot Diaz as a writer. When I first read his book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it sort of freed my writer’s mind me from some of its constraints. I think, because he is someone coming to the states from the Dominican Republic, he has an eye that peers into this world, and that world. Again, contrast. There is also Audre Lorde. I was here in Seattle, when I went into a bookstore and found an anthology of her work. Poetic, pointed and raw. I was just like, “Where has this person been my whole life!” Growing up in Texas there wasn’t a lot I was exposed to. I was dreaming a life for myself with no evidence that it was possible. Neither of my parents had much schooling, so there’s a lot that you’re like, “Well, how do I do this? Can it even be done?'”
Musically, I listen to everything. I’m a huge fan of the old jazz heads – Thelonius, Mingus. Abbey Lincoln was a revelation for me. Her compositions are so beautiful and wise. It’s funny, I love her music, but Joni Mitchell is more of a literary influence for me, because of the way she used words to paint pictures. She was a visual artist that approached music from that mind. Hearing her and Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading, a lot of them reminded me, that, “I’m a musician, and story is my way in.”
Emerald: What do you want people to say about you after seeing one of your performances?
Shontina: I want them to come out with the feeling of not wasting the hour or two, with the feeling of what’s possible. If their imaginations get stretched at all, if they come out with any questions, that’s good for me.
Emerald: So what’s next for you?
Shontina: Several things. I’m working on a collaboration called the Storyband Project, a kind of theatre lab for musicians to experiment with storytelling. I’m also expanding a new theatre piece that I presented here in March at CD Forum’s Creation Project. It’s called NOTE TO SELF: Postcards from Cuba and Beyond, and it takes a look at Black American identity against a global canvas. Of course I can’t wait to record some music. I’ve already started working on material for the next album. And finally, I’m collaborating with a group of writers on a web series being developed through Eclectic Brew Arts. It’s a story that follows a young church, and the evolution of some of its members. And it’s called BATTLE AXE.
Emerald: What advice do you have for any burgeoning artist from around this area? Especially for those who keep hitting a bump in the road? Shontina: The first thing is, don’t kid yourself about what you want or why you want it. I encourage people to really look inside themselves. If you’re pursuing capital A – ART, just to seek validation of your worth outside of yourself, that’s a dangerous place to begin. Not that some haven’t started there and found their way. But I say that because we have the kind of culture here in America that really knows how to exploit that individual. The machine is waiting to eat you. But If you’re committed to making art because you know you have something of value to give/to express, then make it. It will find its proper place if you are simply committed to the discipline required to make it. Take care of yourself. Fill your life with good people, take note of the beauty that is around you, and make a point to leave the world better than when you came.
For more information on Shontina, including upcoming shows and events, please visit: http://www.tinavernon.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @tinavmusic
Image Courtesy Shontina Vernon
Amplifying the Authentic Narratives of South Seattle