Earlier this month, Manhattan born baritone ukelele songstress, Francesca Shanks, released her sophomore LP titled, I Am Walking Away. The record is peppered with songs that are short in length but do not fall short of anything but genius. Her lyrics are witty, smart and honest, the melodic undertones are simple but the instrumental layering is complex. At 21, she picked up the baritone ukelele and never looked back. Francesca answered some questions regarding her musical childhood, what the nuts and bolts of a song are that keep her listening and why she has a natural knack for playing with words.
MFL: Your voice and your ukelele! Both are so gorgeous and standalone. How did you find your voice and discover your love for ukelele?
Francesca Shanks (FS): THANK YOU!
I was definitely one of those obnoxious kids who made up songs and sang them all the time. I was in chorus all through public school, and I have always loved performing—I made a very decent 8-year-old Miss Anna in my grade school’s production of “The King and I.” I think I was about 9 when I started daydreaming about being in bands.
I started playing baritone ukulele when I was 21. I was living in a house post-college with several roommates and someone had one that wasn’t getting daily use. I found a chord chart and went to town, and it just clicked. I started writing songs all the time.
MFL: When you listen to music, what aspects of the music keep you listening and drive the urge to listen to a song over and over again?
FS: It’s almost always lyrics—I really love a song that’s a quick dressing-down or punch in the gut, something that gives you pause at the end and makes you want to parse out everything that was just said. One of my favorite bands is Guided By Voices, who have about 1,000 songs that are 1-3 minutes in length. (Listen to “Wondering Boy Poet” and tell me that’s not a punch in the gut.) I also really like a simple, shimmery arrangement with keyboards, or a killer guitar solo. But both of those have to be in combination with knockout lyrics, really.
MFL: You have a way with words in addition to a natural musical ability. What sort of writing material is most inspirational to you?
FS: I try to read EVERYTHING. Recently I asked for recommendations for non-white, non-male poets and got back a lot of beautiful stuff to comb through. I am re-reading Carlos Casteneda’s books about the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan right now—those books have directly influenced my life for a long time. In terms of my own writing, I’m often prompted by overheard snippets of conversation, or a newspaper headline, or especially some kind of natural omeny thing—veins on a leaf, or stuff happening in my garden, or seeing a hawk or salamander while I’m on a hike, etc.
MFL: Where were you born and raised and how do you feel it has influenced your music?
FS: I was born in Manhattan but my salad-days-growing-up-period took place in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. I am deeply lucky to have grown up in an area with a thriving music scene (and just a train ride to NYC). I started going to shows a lot when I was 12 or 13. Being able to go to the city and see amazing bands I desperately loved, plus local DIY and small concert hall shows, was an incredible influence. I am lucky to have had pretty constant access to those spaces as a participant and as a performer.
MFL: What do you want your listeners to take away from your music?
FS: I think I just want them to hear it! It’s always nice if something you make resonates with someone. But I have no agency over how people interpret my music or my work in general, and I don’t like to put expectations on it.
MFL: You mention that I Am Walking Away was “the best collaboration you’ve ever done in your entire life.” What was it about this collaboration with Lance Monotone that was so powerful?
FS: Before IAWA I was never very concerned with production. I was enamored with lo-fi recording (still am). Lance actually also recorded my first LP, but it was all one-take, one-mic quick and dirty. In the year we worked on IAWA, something opened inside me. We swapped ideas and directions; I did research and made a “bigger sound” playlist as a guide to what I wanted; he heard some things I’d have never heard and added them and astounded me. Now I really think about arrangement and layering, and when I listen to music I hear it in a more whole, full way than I did before. I am way more interested in how to create a mood or a feeling now, and way more reverent when I hear other people doing that.
MFL: There is a whole slew of instruments that drift in and out on each of your songs. Who is responsible for playing these other instruments?
FS: I play all the sleigh bells, and there’s a part in “Wild Ponies Make Annual Swim to City” where I brushed a snare drum to make it sound like there was a little dreamy swimming in the background. The other stuff is Lance and our friend Brian Rose. Brian plays all the banjo and the nice surfy guitar parts, except for the guitar on “Ancient Heart,” which is Lance.
MFL: What current and/or past musicians inspire you personally and are they different than musicians that may influence your music?
FS: I am inspired by people like Buffy Sainte-Marie—she is so badass and beautiful, and is still playing shows in her 80s. I am romanced by that kind of thing—letting your gift and your artistic practice sort of keep you alive and fuel you and nurture you.
As for those who inspire my music: I can never listen to enough Okkervil River or Parquet Courts. Those guys are breaking the fourth wall. Every time I listen to them my heart is just jumping out of its skin.
I am also very inspired by the rest of the S&T (Sounds & Tones Records) roster. It’s wonderful to have a close community of musicians to conspire with and compete with. Everyone works their ass off for their art, and for each others’ art. It’s a sublime thing to be part of.
MFL: What was your album-release party like earlier this month? Name some highlights.
FS: Oh, my god, it was amazing. Many people came, which meant a lot. My friends Tyler Gomo and Frank McGinnis opened, which was wonderful. S&T held it in a gallery in North Adams, and it was just a white room when we had it for the show, so I set up a one-day “installation” with lights, a huge, long banner, a quilt I made, a little seating area and plastic jewels in the gallery windows.
The release show was also the first show I played with my new band mate! His name is Joe Aidonidis and he is the BEST. He plays a keyboard and a floor tom and sleigh bells, and it’s hugely different and better than me just playing solo ukulele, especially after this record. It is an excellent, rewarding partnership, and quite a sight to see live!
MFL: Finally, what is on the horizon for you in the coming year?
FS: Lots of writing, lots of shows. I am in a really good writing place at the moment, and Joe and I will probably have enough for an EP in 2017. Lots of travel. We are open to all well-reputed house show spaces, Elks lodges, VFWs, park benches, elevators, record stores, and structurally sound bridges, balconies, and barges in the contiguous United States and also Canada. I have a very practical vehicle.
Thank you, Francesca for taking time away from music to answer some questions and thank you to Chris Hantman of Sounds & Tones Records for linking Francesca and I. You can find I Am Walking Away for purchase on Bandcamp and can follow Francesca to all of her balcony, living room and barge concert venues via Facebook.