Wright of Passage

Juggling pain, loss, hope and rage, Shannon Wright just wants a little truth.

They tend to think I'm some kind of crazy lady," says Shannon Wright with a laugh. "As far as things I've heard through the grapevine, I guess people think I'm angry, or they think the music is depressing."

It's not hard to see how folks might get the wrong impression. Live, the 31-year-old troubadour's booming voice sometimes causes her to maintain a safe distance of three feet or so from the microphone, especially when she's howling like a wounded animal. And her gut-driven songs deal with unsettling topics like violence, rape and death. By phone from Atlanta, however, Wright is quick to laugh and exudes genuine warmth. She is surprisingly soft-spoken, stifling an occasional yawn after a day spent painting the house.

Neither riot grrrl nor strident folkie, the talented songstress has lived on her own since she was fifteen, but she didn't begin writing her own music until her mid-twenties, after teaching herself guitar and piano. Recently handpicked by Nick Cave and Sleater-Kinney to open several U.S. tour dates, Wright has garnered favorable press as a solo artist from day one -- along with endless comparisons to Cat Power's Chan Marshall. Most pundits also seem ready to commit her to the nearest trauma ward.

Home alone: Singer-songwriter Shannon Wright.
Home alone: Singer-songwriter Shannon Wright.

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"I've gotten depressed in my life, of course," Wright admits. "But for the most part, I'm a very hopeful, optimistic person. I think I'm just a very sensitive person, so I tend to write about things that bother me, or that I wish could be better. Not just for me, but for everyone."

Without specifying too many hardships beyond poverty and the death of her best friend, Wright keeps her darkest personal demons close to the vest. From a moderate vocabulary of stark, figurative language (she cites Dorothy Parker and Frank O'Hara as her two favorite poets), the tunesmith creates worlds in which light boils, air dives, hours bow, tongues turn to charcoal and love is a mockingbird.

"Nature is so thrilling," Wright says. "And you can either say the sky is pretty, or you can describe it in a poetic manner. And that's how I identify with nature; I use metaphors to make it more alive in my mind.

"People say my music is very confessional, but it's not," she adds. "I think I leave it open for interpretation and leave it open for the listener to identify and make it their own."

Lyrical flexibility aside, Wright's compelling instrumentation features lines of funereal piano and raw electric guitar built over drums in spacious arrangements. Staggering waltz tempos and angular cabaret stylings eclipse anything resembling predictable, status-quo rock. Her vocal range can vacillate from a shivering whisper to a sweet warble to an intimidating caterwaul. In live settings, she further confounds listeners' senses with the otherworldly tones of a Wurlitzer and its accompanying "visualizer."

"It's a teacher's model from the '60s," Wright explains. "So there was a light-up board that went with it that was at the front of the class, and the students would watch the keys light up and try to emulate that on their keys. But it's gotten really frail over the years, and I'm very protective of it, so I don't tour with it as much."

Road-weary herself, Wright got her first taste of crisscrossing the country as a teen, when her mother moved to Los Angeles from Jacksonville, where her father worked for the railroad. "I kind of lived all over the place," she says. "I lived a number of years in the South, but I've traveled all over the world, so I don't really feel quite like a Southerner."

While fronting New York-based pop outfit Crowsdell, the nomadic balladeer released Dreamette in 1995 and Within the Curve of an Arm in 1997 before her indie label, Big Cat, merged with V2, scattering an eclectic roster that also included the Dirty Three, Giant Sand, Pavement, Blumfeld and the Palace Brothers. Disgusted with the music business, Wright sold all of her belongings and moved to a vacant guest house in rural North Carolina to record a series of deeply personal albums.

Her gentle 1999 solo debut, Flightsafety, caught the attention of Chicago's Quarterstick and paved the way for a much more aggressive offering the following year. Maps of Tacit, mastered at the world-famous Abbey Road Studios, remains the songwriter's personal favorite to date. "I think it's just a time capsule of creativity," Wright says. "It's a very intimate record, and it's very special to me."

With the help of bassist/recording engineer Andy Baker and drummer Brian Teasley (Man...Or Astro-Man?), Wright released 2001's Dyed in the Wool, her third full-length. Ranging from introspective to downright harrowing, the twelve-song cycle is steeped in cinematic intrigue ("Method of Sleeping" and "Surly Demise") and blends melancholy string and piano textures with thudding backbeats. Listening to the tortured heroine rattle off the indignities of "vast decay," "nausea" and "boorish racket" can make for an endurance test -- one that damn near makes Sylvia Plath seem like Mary Sunshine by comparison. But for every bombastic moment, there's an equally tender one, fleshed out by supporting players from the Glands, Rachel's, Rock*A*Teens, Boxhead Ensemble and Japancakes. An album to sit with and absorb, Wool is dedicated to Wright's childhood pal, Lizzie Dye Hyman, who lost a battle with lupus in 1995.

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