by Mia Hughes
photo: Emily Dubin
Shannen Moser can stop time. Or at least, that’s what happened the first time I heard ‘Haircut Song’. I was watching her open a show in her hometown of Philadelphia – yet when she played that song, I wasn’t. I was in some other undefined place, somewhere that feelings and memories and places that weren’t mine belonged to me and only me, as if I had stepped into someone else’s body and felt perfectly at home there. Or maybe I was nowhere at all, because it’s entirely possible that trying to ground what I felt then to anything or anyone or anywhere in particular is futile in the face of storytelling that makes one feel timeless and placeless and nameless, as all the best of it does.
‘Haircut Song’ is a beautifully painful reflection on heartbreak, via the memory of a simpler time: “Remember when I met you, your hair was long / You asked me to cut it for you, so I did an okay job”. It’s one of the fifteen tracks that make up Moser’s latest album, I’ll Sing, each one its own story, its own universe, enveloping, embracing. Thanks to her vivid, poignant storytelling, it feels that singular moments contain lifetimes, and that the mundane details – the banality of a haircut – mean everything. Yet the lyrics tell only half of each story. The other half lies in the music she writes, every song a masterstroke of folk-country songwriting that would be as welcome in 1968 as in 2018 (and likely will still be in 2068, such is its perfect anchorlessness), only serving to expand every universe her stories create.
That country influence stems from Shannen’s childhood in the small, rural town of Oley Valley, Pennsylvania, about an hour outside of Philadelphia. “It’s like an old farming community,” she explains. “And just the natural inclination there was a lot of people were into country music and folk music. I had a lot of friends growing up who are Sacred Harp singers, and all of these just really old-timey music kind of practices.” And so she grew up on a steady diet of Townes Van Zandt and Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne (and, thanks to a defective disc changer in her father’s truck, Toby Keith’s Greatest Hits. Constantly. “It was years that that happened,” she laughs). These days, she cites Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan amongst her chief influences, along with Joanna Newsom, Vashti Bunyan and Sybille Baier. “The music can get kind of boiled down to ‘sad girl with guitar’ types of acts. And one, it should never be boiled down to that. But also, just watching other women perform, and even watching videos and live comps of these people perform – it’s just so inspiring and it puts serious fire under my ass to do the thing I wanna do unapologetically. And use it, yes, totally as a coping mechanism and totally as a way to heal and kind of just survive. But also as a way to propel myself forward in my art and in my career, and not evaluate it in a way where it’s like ‘sad girl with guitar’ – ‘cause it’s so much more than that.”
But when Moser began writing songs in her early teens, there was no conscious attempt to make the kind of folk music she’d grown up with. “I didn’t know anything about the world, or how to write a song. But the way it progressed was just writing about my experiences, and that developed into writing anecdotal stories about my experiences. And then from there, I was able to find my place in my music, and I was able to find my tone – like, the speaking tone of my songs, and then also just the tone of my voice as I got older,” she recounts. “You got a song in your heart and you got a feeling, and it just kinda becomes what it becomes.”
After returning home from college in California, unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, she made the move to Philadelphia. The intention at that point wasn’t to pursue music, but within a few months she played her first show and was inducted into the city’s DIY scene. “It wasn’t until then that I was like, ‘Oh, playing shows is really fun, and people wanna hear this.’” A little later, she tells me, when some friends invited her to sing on the record they were recording, she decided, “This is it. This is all I wanna do now.” In 2017 she released her debut LP Oh, My Heart and, though signing to a label hadn’t crossed her mind at all, she was picked up soon after by Philly DIY stalwarts Lame-O Records.
“Writing music has always been for myself. So when I noticed that people were paying attention and coming to shows and listening to the silly Garageband laptop records I was making years and years ago, it definitely jogged my brain where I was like, there are people that have been listening to this and they expect it to sound a certain way, now that it’s sounded this way for so long,” she tells me. “But I think something that I’ve learned in the last year and a half is that people-pleasing, and pandering your art to other people in a way that doesn’t feel organic and doesn’t feel true to itself – it’s just always gonna end up being something that you can’t believe in yourself. ” It’s with that philosophy that she approached I’ll Sing: the result is fifteen songs that never feel like they were meant for anyone else’s consumption – they’re specific and singular, never dumbed down or smoothed out – yet happily find a home in you anyway (and vice versa). With deeply personal brushstrokes she conjures enormous, universal ideas – heartbreak, love, mortality – without needing to announce them. They’re the undertone, the pulse, just like they are in all of our lives.
Take ‘Your Window Seat’ – written, as Moser tells me, about a single drunken teenage conversation she had with her best friend. “It’s literally about this five, ten-minute moment that we had with each other, where it was kind of like… the first time you ever think about dying as this tangible thing, that doesn’t just happen to you when you are old, or when you are sick. It is this kind of looming idea that death can happen whenever, and by your own hand or not,” she explains. “A lot of these songs are very singular in that they take place in a moment, but that the feeling lasts… you know, that conversation was maybe the first of a thousand times I have talked with my friends about dying. And not just myself, but just the idea of death. And I think that that’s a big theme on the record, in a way.”
That looming idea of mortality comes to a head with the final and title track, ‘I’ll Sing’. On it, Moser sings: “If I do not wake before tomorrow’s rise / If I get struck down in the street / It is someone else who gets to live / And they’ll sing / But if it is I who gets to get on going on / I’ll have another chance, I’ll get to sing my song / If it’s really me who’s chosen, then / I will sing”. There’s a poignancy in the way this concludes a record full of past tense, full of stories and memories. This one is not a story, not a memory; it’s a declaration. If the world allows it, then there will be more stories. There will be more memories. There will be more songs.
“It wasn’t until the very last minute that that got added. And I think that it kind of changed the whole tone of the record, and what the whole record meant to me,” says Moser. “The song is about just surviving, and existing, and knowing that bad things will happen, and you will feel really bad and really alone. And for me, it’s just like… I’ll sing. That’s what I do. That’s what I’m gonna do to survive.”
It feels like an immutable fact – whether back in Oley Valley discovering Townes Van Zandt in her dad’s truck, or on stage in Philadelphia singing ‘Haircut Song’, or in every lifetime and story in between, Shannen Moser will sing. Not because anyone is listening, not because anyone is telling her to, but because that’s what she does. “At the end of the day,” she sums up, “my strongest feelings in music currently are just: make what you wanna make in the capacity that you wanna make it. Involve the people who uplift you and make you feel good. And fuck the rest. Because at the end of the day, this is… whatever you want it to be.”