Home Is Where the Heart Is
Ben Shaw records, releases new album in Eau Claire
From the beginning, Ben Shaw has understood the power of music. He was drawn from New York to Eau Claire to attend UW-Eau Claire, which, during the ’90s, was one of only two universities in the country offering a degree in music therapy. A self-proclaimed Dead Head, Shaw said he was inspired by the indie music scene here, and spent time exploring and developing his sound, which he now calls “a song-driven, modern folk where lyrical melodies are sung with barroom grit, embellished with psychedelic Americana.” He spent the next dozen or so years performing in the area, both as a solo artist and with various local bands, including The Embellishment.
Shaw eventually left Eau Claire with a psychology degree, but with his love for music intact. Bouncing around a bit in Seattle, where he worked as a recording engineer, he eventually became a lawyer in the music industry. Shaw now lives in Los Angeles as an intellectual property and contract law attorney.
About four years ago, after a long hiatus, Shaw was pulled back into composing and performing in LA. But, as Shaw puts it, his “musical heart” is in Eau Claire, so he’s been hanging around here this summer, preparing for the release of his second album, Bonita, which was recorded at Pine Hollow Studio earlier this year.
One thing that becomes abundantly clear when talking to Shaw is that the musical process is more important to him than the actual product. While many recording artists may have a firm final vision from the outset, Shaw surrounds himself with talented musicians, and then nurtures collaboration. Local talents Adam Harder-Nussbaum, Eric Thompson, Ben Lester, and Paul Brandt are all members of Shaw’s band, and Shaw credits them with helping shape the sound of the album. The Morton sisters of LASKA provided backup harmonies, and vocalist Hannah Morton confirms Shaw’s collaborative spirit, saying, “He really just let us develop our own harmonies.” Even the very end of the last track features what Shaw calls a “happy accident” when some local guy named Michael Perry stopped by the studio to chat and ended up closing out the album.
Underlying all the collaboration and flexibility, however, was a very deliberate search for processes that would ensure great tracks. Shaw worked closely with producer and recording engineer Evan Middlesworth for almost a year in preparation for the studio sessions, and the production of this album shines through every track. Balance and blend combine with effects to add texture and enhance the music.
As Shaw describes it, “It was a journey over eight months climaxing in eight days at Pine Hollow. The first step was a series of scratch demos of me and my guitar sent to Evan and the band so they could come up with ideas of how they thought the songs could be musically arranged and embellished. The next step was Evan and me sending each other songs where we liked the production, to help us mold an idea of what sound we were going for on this record.”
In addition to creating tunes, harmonies, and effects, Shaw’s love of language shows in his lyrics and even in track names. Song titles in French and Spanish, like “Eau Claire Fou” (“Clear Water Crazy”) and “Bonita” (“Pretty”) stand alongside “Marrakech” (on this album) and “Istanbul” (from his previous album, Feet to the Fire). Lyrics like “Every sound has a color when she closes her eyes,” from the song “Colors,” carry their own weight within the music. He once described the songwriting process as something deeply personal, saying, “It’s like something has to speak from inside me.”
On his website, TheBenShaw.com, there’s a copy of an old UWEC Spectator article by Jason Becker from Shaw’s sophomore year in college. The opening sentence states, “It’s a refreshing change when an artist generates his music through pure emotion.” Today Shaw’s music remains emotional, yet aged by the richness of his life experiences and musical influences. All of this is reflected in Bonita, where both the music and the words are so powerful that it’s as if his original goal of doing music therapy is accomplished with every listen of this album.
The Eau Claire release of Bonita will be 8pm Aug. 24 at The Stones Throw. According to Shaw, Local legend Caleb Bue is flying in from Seattle to open.