By: William Clark
Daryl Shawn is one of modern day music’s most unique and creative acoustic guitarists to step out into the scene. He possesses the ability to be able to take a nylon string guitar and make it roar with dynamic precision and raging power, a talent that many upcoming guitarists would just kill to have.
Throughout his time as the frontman of the critically acclaimed San Francisco band, Maxwell Horse, and as a constantly evolving musical force throughout his solo career, Daryl has proven to be one of today’s brightest undiscovered stars. Before his recent release, In Place, Daryl issued a few fine albums of tunes that include: Rentintwain, In Descant, As Promised, and Body of a Poet.
I recently managed to track the man down to talk about his new album, his musical influences, his sojourn South of the Border, and his history in the music buisness.
William Clark: What are some of your strangest musical influences?
Daryl Shawn: Strangest? Well, I listen to all kinds of music, and I always have. I listen to everything from hardcore punk and black metal, to mellow songwriters and classic jazz.
I think probably one of my biggest influences is Bob Mould. He played in the bands Husker Du and Sugar, and is known for having a real noisy, real aggressive guitar approach. And I found that his guitar approach, as noisy as it is, has really influenced my acoustic guitar playing. He uses a lot of open strings and just creates a really massive, pummeling war horse-kind of guitar sound.
Even when I feel I’m playing quieter stuff on a nylon string guitar, I still bring that kind of energy, along with the punk and even metal energies. All of that I think is what fuels my acoustic guitar playing.
William: When were you first inspired to pick up the guitar?
Daryl: I was 16. I had already been playing bass, and been playing the drum kit and I was having fun with those. But, the guitar always sort of appealed. When I was really young, my dad had a classical guitar sitting around. My hands were pretty small, and a classical guitar neck is pretty wide, and so when my dad tried to show me how to make a C chord, I couldn’t do it, and I just thought, “Oh well! I can’t play guitar!” [Laughs].
I just thought my physique was not built to play the guitar! So, I didn’t pursue it. But finally, my parents bought me a guitar that was more suited for my hands when I was 16, and right away I just really started enjoying it. It just really seemed like the instrument for me.
William: How would you describe your own sound?
Daryl: Well right now, it really just a mix of stuff. The songs that I write tend to fit the normal song structure. You know, what we’ve come to know as song structure, with verses, and choruses, and bridges, that kind of thing.
But, the influences from my jazz studies, when I studied at Berklee College of Music for about a year, have definitely influenced my harmonics vocabulary and the chords that I like to use.
Also the chamber music that I listen to, which is known as minimalist music, by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Their use of sort of evolution through repetition, I think that’s influenced me quite a bit. I’d call my sound a blend of classical and jazz elements, as well as some techniques borrowed from the flamenco-style of playing that helps fit the song structure.
William: How was your time in Maxwell Horse.
Daryl: Okay! Well that was a band that was together for about four or five years when I lived in San Francisco, and that was the first time I really stepped out in front as a bandleader and a primary songwriter. I really wanted to create sort of my own sound with that band, and I always wanted to break out of the training that I had in jazz and classical.
I re-tuned my guitar to D-A-D-G-C-F, it’s sort of a D-minor 11th chord, and all the songs I wrote in that band are in that tuning. It was a way of breaking away from all the chord shapes that I’d known, and creating this, sort of really oblique sound on the guitar. I found it sounded very powerful, very different, but that was the whole concept. I wanted to have a different sound. We eventually set into the indie-rock scene in San Francisco, and we had some success.
We did a number of tours, released four albums including a 7” vinyl release which I still have a couple of copies lying around. I like being on vinyl! But anyway, it was a good experience. But toward the end I was tired of the rock scene. So, I dissolved that band and moved to Mexico.
William: That was actually my next question! If things were going so well in the band, why did you suddenly decide to move to Oaxaca, Mexico?
Daryl: Yeah, you know, I just didn’t feel entirely happy in the rock scene. Things were going well, but I just kept thinking about the improvisational aspects of jazz that I was really missing. I wasn’t really interested in that sort-of jam band scene, and I just kept picturing something else. It didn’t sit with me, just to be a rock guy! [Laughs] You know?
I can’t put my finger on it other than that. But our last tour, we were going to Texas and back, and it was a good tour and all, but for some reason I just wasn’t entirely happy. I sort of just realized that there had to be something else out there better for me.
I wanted to make a big change, so I ended up going to Mexico, and it ended up being a good way for me to explore myself and find exactly what it is I wanted to do.
William: Did you find what you were looking for?
Daryl: Yeah, I really did! It was really from being outside of the scene, and having a lot of time to spend on the instrument. I wasn’t having to go about rushing to shows, but instead just staying at home and composing stuff on the guitar, and that’s how it all really came together.
William: What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to face so far in your musical career?
Daryl: Hmm, that’s a great question. I think for me it was just figuring out what I wanted to do. You know, there are some people who figure out at 16 or earlier, they know that playing the guitar is right for them. Then you have the childhood prodigies who pick up the violin at age four or five and they just know that this is what they want to dedicate their life to. I discovered that the guitar was my instrument later than a lot of people, when I was 16, and it took a number of years after that for me to figure out that I wanted to play the acoustic guitar as a solo artist.
I guess finding my own voice and way of playing took a while, and it took a lot of experimentation in a lot of different genres, a lot of different band experiences, and it even took moving to Mexico to really figure that out! I think all of that has been the biggest challenge, but it’s been totally rewarding.
I feel really strong about what I’m doing at this point. But, it took a lot of years for me to get here.
William: Talk to me a little about your upcoming instrumental album, In Place.
Daryl: Yep! Well it’s actually just been released, I really need to update my website! [Laughs]
I just released it about three weeks ago, and it’s really sort of a concept album. Except for two traditional folk songs, “Shenandoah” and “500 Miles”, and “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, which is a very popular South African tune, the pieces that I wrote really work into the theme of change, movement, and sort of finding one’s home. These pieces came about during the last of my time in Mexico, when I realized that Mexico really wasn’t the place I wanted to be permanently, and I wanted to find somewhere else that was right for me.
So I was writing a lot of these tunes on the road after I left Mexico in 2009, and I basically just traveled around for the next two years, with a fair amount of gigging and traveling around the United State.
I was sort of bopping around between friends and relatives and trying to figure out where I wanted to be. Did I want a home at all? Did I just want to be a hobo, a musician for the road? I spent a lot of time thinking about what home is, and these songs were all written during that period. They’re all about coming to terms about what you want, thinking about the change that needs to be made, and finally finding out where you need to be.
William: What’s your take on the song “Waiting In The Rain”?
Daryl: “Waiting In The Rain”? Well that’s a vocal tune, and that was actually written as a challenge. It was a local contest to write a song about the local subway in New York! And I thought you know, this is an opportunity to write something with a specific theme, and I wanted to come up with something poppy. I wanted to see what it was like to really have a goal and come up with a song with a traditional pop melody and make it a bit of a challenge for myself.
With these kinds of restraints, come up with something that I’m happy with. And I like what I came up with! It’s pretty different from my other stuff, but it was an experiment and I enjoyed the tune!
William: In Place will be your 6th solo album overall. Is it challenging to keep coming up with new music, or do you find music a passion that just flows through you?
Daryl: You know, the songs just kinda come! I’ve actually got a whole lot of other material that I’m looking forward to releasing. It’s never been a challenge for me to write new stuff, the challenge is really finding the time just to bring the tunes to fruition. You know, to practice them well and finish them up. But I’m really excited about always writing new music. I love it! It’s a process of discovering new things on the guitar, discovering new sounds, and then discovering new songs to express things.
I’ve got a whole lot of new stuff lined up and I’m continuing to write new things all the time, both instrumental and vocal. And I’m lucky enough that these songs keep coming, and they’re songs that I like!
William: Do you think it’s possible to write interesting – meaning great – music if you lead a boring life?
Daryl: Interesting question. I think it is! I know that some people feel like you need to have a life full of angst and accomplish challenges, and that’s where you draw music from. Some people even go as far as to say that you need to be in misery! [Laughs]
They say you can’t be in happiness and find great music! And I don’t really share that. I think it’s all about devoting yourself to your instrument and trying to express something that’s really valid and really honest with yourself.
A lot of the classical folks that have been a great influence to me and many musicians who have come after them, they lived lives for the government or the church, they had families, but at the same time wrote this fantastic music that says so much and has lasted for hundreds of years.
I think that what you experience in life does feed your music, for sure, but I think that experiencing things through listening and even experiencing things that some people call boring, like raising a family and tending a garden, and you experience that in a very deep and authentic way, I think you definitely have the capability of writing really great music.
William: Will fans be able to find you on tour in support of this new CD?
Daryl: You know, I just got back from two weeks on the road, I did 10 dates starting in San Francisco and going all the way up into Vancouver and Chicago.
Yes, I’m going to be touring all throughout 2013. I’m focusing on the east coast a bit more, I know I’m going to be playing three or four dates up in the New York area, then to Boston and down to D.C., and then I’ll be heading down into the southern and western areas. Yeah, I’ll be out there!