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.
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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.
"It's a disease that breaks down your immune system," Wright confirms. "Mostly women get it. It's not normally fatal, but it depends on what medication they put you on. Her heart swelled up three times its size in her chest and they didn't know it, and she had a heart attack."
After an extensive stateside and European tour in support of Wool, Wright gave her own ticker a rest and took a three-year hiatus from recording. "I was just spent, creatively, and needed to be a person again," she says. "I'm a very reflective writer. I need time to think about things and live as a normal person -- and then create. So I just worked construction and lived my life and then wrote songs. And once I was finished and felt like I had a record, I recorded it."
Hot off the griddle and well worth the wait, Over the Sun finds Wright stripping down her sound into a loud, primal two-piece. A terse and jagged affair recorded by the legendary Steve Albini, the album showcases Wright's commanding vocals and hypnotic guitar lines soaring over the halting drumbeats of formidable skinswoman Christina Files (Swirlies, Victory at Sea, Mary Timony). "It's more like the live show, I think," Wright says. "Less polished, more raw. There's more electric guitar."
Recalling the bouncy aggression of Gang of Four in spots, Sun packs a visceral punch from start to finish. In fact, it's the perfect remedy for the soft, fem-centric sounds of the Lilith Fair lineup year after year -- not that Wright pays much attention to that kind of stuff.
"I'm not part of that world, nor do I want to be," Wright declares. "I don't like to categorize myself and go on female festivals. It's just not my scene. I don't consider myself a female artist, anyway. I just consider myself a human being who plays music."
Does that mean Wright has to work twice as hard as a man does to get the same advantages?
"Maybe a long time ago," she says. "But if you don't think that way, you're not gonna have problems. You might come across somebody who's ignorant, but you come across people who are ignorant all the time in normal life. They're just the same in the music industry. There's bigger issues with women than just the music business. I still think it's a very sexist society that we live in. But I'm not dealing with more than anybody else is. I think all that really matters is the art that you produce. And that all stands the test of time, not the aches and pains you have to go through to deal with some stupid guy, you know. I definitely don't even think about it. I never have."
Perhaps more relevant is how Wright, a red-blooded Yankee in the world's current political climate, fared two weeks ago touring France, where she commands a sizable following.
"People wanted to talk about politics all the time," Wright says. "They wanted an American's opinion. It's very confusing to them why our country is the way it is. And being upset myself, I can understand how confused they are. But I think there's a time and a place for that, and at my shows, people were paying to be entertained.
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"I try to be open to questions," Wright goes on. "But sometimes it can be overwhelming. They want to point the finger at somebody, and I just happen to be American. But for the most part, when they're talking about George Bush -- who they can't stand -- then we all get along really well."
Meanwhile, back in the home of the brave, Wright tends to her own internal battles and mood swings, for better or worse.
"I'm very much at a tug-of-war with hope and sorrow," she admits. "I think I'll probably die that way. It's the only way I know how to be. I can't imagine I'd ever become completely without sorrow, because to me, happiness is partly things that are sorrowful. I feel I'm pretty happy with what I've got and who I have. I don't use music as therapy. I think any kind of art that touches you is therapeutic, just because it seems like an old friend. Or it's able to capture something you're feeling, so you feel close to it.
"That's the beauty of music," Wright adds. "If I'm writing about something I'm feeling very honest about, then I feel better when I play."