The powerhouse composer, musician and producer talks about her process and making 'The First Move'
Shannon Chapman is a singer, instrumentalist and producer raised in Manitoba and currently based in Toronto. In spring 2020, Shannon released her debut self-produced EP ‘Ebb & Flow’, and began the rollout of her second project ‘Playing Games’ in fall 2022. Shannon’s brand of neo-soul balances personal, introspective topics with fun, feel-good jams. Lush harmony, slinky woodwinds and head-bobbing grooves support her soaring vocal melodies. She was recently a featured performer at Big Fam Jam Halftime Show (organized by Jackson Steinwall) and The Listening Party Music Producer Showcase (hosted by Lisa Patterson), and she is a member of the Good & Plenty Producer’s Club.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got started in music?
I grew up in a very rural, small town in northern Manitoba. Living there in the 90s and early 2000s, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to a wide variety of creative and performing arts, so I never really thought about music until I had the option of joining the school band program when I was about 12. I had basically no knowledge about instruments or the type of music I could play on them, so I arbitrarily chose tenor sax - it looked really cool and it meant I would be sitting far away from a particular group of sometimes mean girls who had all chosen flute and clarinet.
Saxophone, and music, turned out to be extremely intuitive to learn for me, and within a few weeks I was the Hermione Granger of band class, haha! Throughout high school, I took classical piano lessons, played sax in my school ensembles, sang in community choir groups, and attended music camps - I basically took part in as many music opportunities as I could access with the help of my parents.
Neither of my parents were involved in music, but they did listen to a lot of music at home (much more varied than what was on the radio at the time!). I was very fortunate because once I started showing an interest and aptitude for music, they made sure I had opportunities to see operas, ballets, and musical theatre productions in Winnipeg (660 km away).
I decided to study music in university and completed my Master’s degree in Jazz Performance on Saxophone at Brandon University, MB. Shortly after that, I moved to Toronto in 2015, and that’s when things really got going!
You're a powerhouse musician! You not only write and perform your own material but you also record and produce. What is your creative process and production process like and who have been some of your influences?
Thank you so much! There’s a lot to this question so the answer will be a bit long.
I periodically go through big waves of productivity and motivation (where I try and proactively set myself up for success and make space in my life for creating) and then long periods where I’m not really writing much (and I don’t beat myself up about it).
I used to use journalling as a means to writing lyrics, but nowadays lyrics come a little more freely - sometimes a random phrase will cross my mind and I’ll quickly go to my notes app or a notebook and jot down whatever associated words, rhymes, or phrases pop into my mind at the time, and then construct the rest of the song around that without the need to “workshop” as much as I used to. If I can put together 2-4 lines to establish the structure of the verse, and find another unique idea for a chorus or bridge, that’s enough for me to build the rest of the song on.
I always write music on the keyboard and sketch out chords on paper separately from lyrics, and then find ways to fit them together later. Once I have lyrics and music for a few verses, a chorus, and maybe a bridge or a pre-chorus, I can lay down scratch tracks in my DAW and begin fleshing out the rest of the arrangement.
My songs go through around 5 or 6 edits over a looooong simmering period. I start with scratch tracks of keys, vocals, bass and a beat (which I program from one-shot samples in the piano roll). Then I may add some additional keyboard layers or rough in some woodwind ideas. After that, I do several passes of “cleanups” where I’ll refine the performance of each part, before doing the final voice and horn takes, and beginning the final polish. That’s the part that takes me the longest to complete because it’s so detail-oriented and tiny changes can make or break the song.
The hardest part is deciding it’s done and ready to go out into the world!
When it comes to influences, I think I have two main sources of inspiration - the first is Steely Dan, particularly Donald Fagen. I took a deep dive into analyzing and studying Fagen’s solo album ‘The Nightfly’ way back in 2011. I really gained a higher understanding of harmony and piano voice-leading from that exercise, but I didn’t realize exactly how much until I started writing and started to see a clear influence on my work, especially on my first EP ‘Ebb & Flow’.
Shortly after I started writing, I was introduced by a friend to the band Moonchild and was immediately deeply inspired on many levels. For one, I learned that the three of them came from a similar academic background as me (we were all jazz horn majors), but had branched out into other instruments and skills, including production. This gave me the confidence to combine all the aspects of my musical identity - saxophonist, pianist, singer, and songwriter - and pursue the next stage of my career as a “generalist”. For another, all their music is entirely self-produced by the three of them (Amber, Max, and Andris). This made me think “If they can do it, maybe I can, too.” Listening super intently to their albums over and over (according to Spotify Wrapped, I’m in the top 0.1% of their listeners) has been like a masterclass in harmony, arranging, and production on every song.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and message behind the catchy new track, 'The First Move’?
For myself, it kind of represents my musical journey and the attitude I adopted in order to get where I am today in my career.
For listeners, I hope it inspires them to trust their instincts and take agency over that thing they’ve been wanting to do. I hope it pumps up their confidence to just go for it!
There are not many female producers. What advice would you give other women or aspiring female producers? What have been some lessons you've learnt along the way?
My piece of advice would be to find some sort of producing buddy or mentor. It feels a lot less daunting when you have a fresh pair of ears to bounce ideas off of, or just someone to hype you up from time to time! There are groups and clubs you can join (like the Good & Plenty Producer’s Club in Manitoba), but an informal friendship can work just as well!
The biggest lesson I have learned, and the technique I come back to over and over, is to learn through listening. The concepts I have learned through active listening and analysis have sometimes far outstripped what I learned in school, from a tutorial, or from masterclass. Also - it’s possible to start producing and get great results for not a lot of money. I used a lot of free plugins and samples on my first EP, and recorded everything with a fairly inexpensive interface and mic (I just rented a pro mic for a weekend to get the final voice and horn takes). You just have to start somewhere!
What's coming up for you in 2023? What can we expect?
Aside from releasing the remainder of my 2nd EP project ‘Playing Games’, I hope to jump back into live shows in a bigger way! One show that I’m really looking forward to is a feature in BSMT254’s Next Wave Jazz Series, curated by Toronto jazz drummer Jon Catanus, on August 12th. I’ll be performing my music in a quartet format for the first time in years, and I’ll be working hard to make it a great show!
As a magazine with a strong focus on music and food, we are curious: if your music could be represented by a drink or food item, what would it be and why?
This was a hard question! I think it would be citrus fruits - sometimes sour, sometimes sweet, but usually a little of both! Some of my songs are really introspective and expose concepts I often struggle with (the sour), and other songs are more laid back and about having a good time (the sweet). Most of my songs contain a little of both!
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