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Shannon McNally

Shannon McNally's Ghost Music

"What happens is I'm living the songs as I'm singing, which is part of how you remember it. I'm not reciting something I've memorized, I'm having a conversation. You don't memorize a conversation before you have it. One of the things Bob Dylan does that I like is that he'll rewrite his own songs, it almost doesn't matter. What I realized going to see that band live and getting to know Charlie Sexton, he told Charlie, 'You can listen to the records and learn all the chords and stuff but it's not gonna help you.' Can you imagine having to learn 500 songs that every night are played different? With different words? It's brilliant because the songs are alive... I can do it a little bit, I can't do it on that level. When the songs are about something, it keeps becoming clearer in my mind the more times I play them. It's like people say to me, 'Why'd you call the album Geronimo? Why would you care about the Native American experience if you're not a Native American?'

"To me, that doesn't make any sense. I'm an American, therefore Native Americans are part of my history. Part of all of our histories. It's an extremely poignant, old, textured history. The history of the Americas didn't start in 1500.  It was going on for 10,000 years before that. That was just the year the first lost white guy got here, that's all. The genocide and slavery, that's my history. You can't just pretend it didn't happen. I'm expected to vote. It's my history, regardless of where my blood originally came from, I'm an American citizen now. Geronimo, Sitting Bull, it's part of my history as a citizen of this country. It's about singing about the world around me and what I see and feel. It's all part of it.

Because I'm feeling it, I can't always explain it verbally. That's where the tone of your voice when you're singing comes in, the sound of your voice, the rhythm, it also communicates. It's a multi-level thing, not just can you hear the lyrics. The songs get honed as they get performed. I'm really working to find the right words. That's one of the big illnesses of society right now. Words have lost their meaning. People use words without thinking of what they mean. All day long you hear people use words like 'God,' 'freedom,' 'war,' but so few people really focus what those words actually mean. They get thrown out there and everyone's supposed to understand the vague meaning of it. Maybe it's coded, but I still don't know what it means. When this administration uses the word 'freedom' I don't have the foggiest idea of what they mean. What does the word 'freedom' mean? Geronimo was free. He woke up in the morning, he went about his day. He was the king of his universe. That's freedom. Freedom isn't waiting in lines and filling out forms and getting searched, or being lied to."

McNally, 32, grew up as part of the MTV generation watching her classmates become imprinted by such culture classics as Madonna's "Dress You Up," which created the charming fad of 12-year-old girls masquerading as hookers. The young Irish-American Long Islander was already in full rebellion at that point.

"MTV just didn't take," she recalled. "In high school I liked U2, that's about as much as I participated as far as bands that were popular. I didn't like television itself, forget the quality of shows, its something about the box itself, I find it very jarring. I hated Madonna. I hated all of it. Even in the fourth grade I remember being 10 years old and there was this huge radio contest where everybody wanted Duran Duran to come to their school. I couldn't stand Duran Duran, I couldn't stand Madonna, I couldn't stand any of it, I just hated it, I thought 'What's wrong with you people?' I didn't participate well in the mainstream, I mean I went to school and classes and was on teams but I didn't have much to do with most of my peers after school. I read a lot. I found dealing with my peers at school very stressful.

"My uncle gave me a J.J. Cale record for my 12th birthday and a guitar. It was slow and simple and I could hear all the notes, what he was playing, so I was able to pick it up. Classic rock radio was big, too, on Long Island, so I heard that. And of course I heard Bruce Springsteen on the radio every day so there were things of substance. And being into U2, Bono wrote real lyrics... I was also very into Irish music in general. Live Aid made sense to me. I was 14 when Joshua Tree came out so that to me was sort of my Beatles experience. Those were the first live concerts I went to. I listened to Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, I saw them all at Nassau Coliseum and I heard a lot of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd on the radio and I read a lot. Naturalists, a lot of English women writers from the Victorian age. Jane Eyre... if I could go find that big window with the seat behind the curtain... that's what I was into."

At college McNally was surrounded by peers ambitious to line up jobs in the corporate world, but music kept a strong hold on her. In her junior year she went to Paris as an exchange student, determined to return as a musician who could play and sing original material. She brought her guitar and a handful of Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin records, took lessons and busked in the Paris subways. When she returned home for her senior year McNally was ready to become a professional singer-songwriter.

"I didn't know how you made money at it," she admitted. "When I graduated I made a demo. For a year after college I played coffee shop gigs, there was a band in Pennsylvania called Once Fish, a Grateful Dead cover band, they played constantly and I opened up for them. I was doing Emmylou Harris stuff, I was listening to Ry Cooder's Into the Purple Valley and Bop Till You Drop and the Los Lobos record Kiko. I kept playing and got better. I realized the other day I gave myself 10 years, not exactly knowing what was supposed to happen in 10 years, just that I was supposed to have some measure of success and if not then I'll move on. And I think it's...10 years. I was 22, I'm 32 now, it was in the summertime, I'd just graduated.

"I had met this guy who managed the 10,000 Maniacs and the Cowboy Junkies, he'd heard my demo tape. He called me up and said, 'What are you doing?' I'm playing coffee shops. Waiting tables. He was in L.A. and said I should come out there. I went out there, found someplace to start gigging and went from there. The guy had no idea how to make recordings, so I worked with these songwriter producers. He got me signed to Capitol. He went on to manage Dido. He thought I should be making some kind of [British accent] 'hip hop, you know like the Sneaker Pimps.' He would call me up after listening to something I did and say 'It was en-TIRE-ly too country.' What does too country mean, like the Grand Canyon? What was he fucking talking about, too country? It was horrible, the whole process was excruciating and sad and I got beat up all the time and I could only argue what I liked and what I didn't like."  continue

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