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Michael R. Shaw - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 26 / 5 / 2023

Michael R. Shaw - Interview

Manchester musician Michael R. Shaw has just released his solo debut album, ‘How Is This Helping?’ after more than twenty years of making music. The brooding and introspective ‘How Is This Helping?’ matches Shaw’s lush yet often enigmatic vocals with sublime production from James Youngjohns (Last Harbour, Anna Kashfi, Lammerjeiers). Shaw and Youngjohns play over fifteen instruments between them including acoustic and electric guitars, piano, violin, viola, Hammond organ, mellotron and cello, each one distinctive in the album’s clean and crystal sound. The beautiful packaging makes the album worth buying on its own, combining black-and-white photos taken in both Romania and Manchester with Shaw’s handwritten, sometimes scored-out lyrics. Intrigued, Pennyblackmusic spoke to both Michael R. Shaw and James Youngjohns about ‘How is This Helping?’ PB: Mike, you have been making music for a long time and writing songs for over two decades. Why has it taken so long for you to put out this debut album? MICHAEL R. SHAW: It’s a bloody good question. Honestly I don’t know. The main focus of my own musical endeavours has been the band fishonastick for over twenty years. Lockdown shift1ed my focus to the recordings that I had already started, some years earlier on my own, but never got anywhere with. It all came from one track, ‘Freeze’. I sent James the recording with a vague request for input really to get it to sound like a proper tune with a professional recording standard. I got that and more. PB: James, what was the appeal to you of that song? What were you able to bring to it? JAMES YOUNGJOHNS: To be honest it was more about timing. I’ve known Mike a long time and he’s asked me a few times to do something with him but it was always bad timing in relation to other commitments I had going on - this time he approached me in the middle of the first lockdown when I was desperate to have things to occupy myself and it sounded fun. Initially he just asked me to score a string arrangement for it, but I did a mix of what he’d done already before working on the strings and he really liked the mix as well. MRS: Once we did one it kind of avalanched into an album. We ended up with fourteen tracks and picked the best eleven. JY: I don’t think he had a particular plan for an album, or perhaps he did and he just didn’t want to pull on the line until the hook was firmly in my mouth… but initially it was presented as could I have a listen to some of his demos and explain how to make them sound more like finished pieces, then it was mixing the demos and adding a few overdubs, and eventually fully overhauling them into something that was release quality. I’m a big believer in having goals and targets though, because I think it helps to keep focus and not lose interest and leave things half done, so I think I would have said fairly early on let’s do something with this PB: Mike, why have you called it ‘How Is This Helping?’ MRS: Because it’s both a phrase that is almost an accusation as well as a question. It also means something ‘out there’ but to me in terms of the album itself, and writing in general. And it has the potential to sound significant but actually could also be utterly devoid of content. It is a phrase that is entirely in the ear of the beholder. PB: What does that title imply to you? MRS: A search for answers as opposed to a prescription of commandments. PB: What do you think James brought to the recording? MRS: It really is hard to overplay what James has brought. It’s cohesive. His experience of putting out quality recordings before out current collaboration (he did play on a recording with fishonastick some years ago) has given me the confidence to focus on the overall sound and to allow the lyrics to breathe. This is even more true in the project we have been working on since this album (but that’s enough of that for now). The words and melodies were all written four or more years ago over a period of as much as fifteen years. In reality, compared to James, I’ve practically done bugger all on this project for months. JY: I think my main achievement with ‘How Is This Helping?’ was being able to work out what Mike has in his head and bring it to life for him. That and I crack a whip better than your average dominatrix. PB: You both play a large number of instruments between you on this album. It sounds like the work of a full band, but there is just the two of you. How much of this recording came out of improvisation in James’ studio and how much of it was carefully structured? MRS: Well, in reality, most of the material was recorded and worked on as a song prior to James’s involvement. That’s, however, only half the tale. I would say that most of the recorded sounds you are listening to (apart from the vocals) were either added or changed by James. There are tracks where he changed a couple of things and some where he practically had to strip it all off and start again apart from a guide vocal. ‘Sinner’s Charter’ is one that had a particularly difficult birth. We got to a point where neither of us really knew if it was any good. I think I once got a version of it from James with the messaage “Is this good? I think it’s good. Please tell me it’s good”. He’d tried that many variations and I’d vacillated so violently and often that it got lost. I honestly can’t tell you how it got resolved. Usually it’s just see what you think but we disappeared down a rabbit hole for a while. Then, on ‘Lord of All’, I sent the song one day and it was finished the next. Without any subsequent change. JY: Because this was born out of a lockdown project it was much more working solo than improvising together. The standard pattern was that Mike would send me a demo that was fairly well developed already, then I would mix it and replace any parts that I thought could be improved, then start to add my own ideas to fill out the arrangement. Mike’s demos were really good in that they laid out pretty clearly what his vision for the song was, so I might be replacing some keyboard string pads with real strings or playing a lead guitar where he’d just laid down a few rough notes on the demo but it was usually pretty easy to figure out where to go with it. Every time I added something I’d fire it over to Mike for approval/feedback so it was fairly interactive, not just sending him a finished song a few weeks later. I think ‘Sinner’s Charter’ was the exception. That came with instructions to throw away everything except the vocal. It was definitely the hardest to do and it went through numerous major reworks with parts being added and thrown away, although I loved the eventual version. PB: Mike, you sing, “We just wanted one more kiss” you sing on the final track ‘Goodnight Swetheart’. A lot of the songs on this album – ‘Matter’, ‘Sinner’s Charter’, ‘My Friend’ and ‘Giving It Away’ – deal in one form or other with the impermanence of things, that everything is temporary. Do you see that as the album’s central theme? MRS: I had not considered that but by definition, but if most of the tunes are about impermanence then it must be a theme I guess. However I’m not sure they are. I think that’s a theme for ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ but there are headlines about each song which I hope point me and the listener in a particular direction rather than set out a complete road map to the destination. Overall you have to listen a few times I hope to get a coherent message. Even then, there is ambiguity in all of it, and that is deliberate. So, I could just say that ‘Sinner’s Charter’ is about the lack of depth and quality in the information transferred in a social media post but I want to say more. I don’t want to just trot it all out here though, because I keep getting told that my songs are about this and wondering why I haven’t seen that. What you can say about all of them is that they are reactions to deep seated, largely unexpressed feelings. Yes, it’s a kind of tawdry therapy and, yes, I know that’s a cliche. PB: ‘The Unelectable Liar’ is directed at “the king that nobody wanted.” Which of our political leaders is that aimed at? MRS: Two words. Jeremy Corbyn. It did have a working title of ‘Jeremy’. I am a fan and the song is a reaction to how his political enemies used the media and pure emotion to dismantle his leadership. I think if he had been honest about his own opinion on Brexit then he would have been PM for a time. I’m not a fan of Brexit (see ‘Proud of a Rock’) but he was and I was/am a fan of him, his politics and his lack of corporate schizzle. I loved all the jam making and cardigan wearing stuff that was a PR man’s nightmare! PB: The packaging of the CD features lots of gorgeous black and white photos, including two of a man with his taxi. Where were those photos taken? Why did you want to use them? MRS: Two more words - John Booth. All the photo’s (not of lyrics) were taken by him. They are mostly from Manchester and post revolutionary Romania in the early 1990s. The cameraman on the back of the album is John with some Romanian orphans (taken by John’s mate) and the group of young girls on the inside, under the CD is another group of orphans from Romania. I wanted to use them because of John. Myself and John have been friends for donkeys and he never told me that he was into photography. He just showed me a couple on his phone one day (about three or four years ago) and I was just very taken with them. John is, shall we say, not a man without a story to tell. He’s got loads of ‘em. He wouldn’t mind me saying that you can’t shut him up sometimes. So, each one of these has a story attached to it and that story lives in John. I can’t do justice to them here, but one story. The man with his taxi is taken in Manchester in Albert Square. Just after that John Booth got a pic of Public Enemy (who just happened to be walking past at the time - this is what happens all the time in John Booth world). PB: The lyrics appear on the packaging but are handwritten with various scoring outs and do not appear in the order of the track listings. You have to work hard to both find and read them. Was that a conscious decision? MRS: Well, firstly, it wasn’t my idea. James decided to take some of my handwritten lyrics, photograph them and see how they looked next to John’s photographs. And as you can see it looks amazing. Well it does to me anyway. It’s a complete stroke of genius or a happy accident. Again, maybe they are one and the same. JY: I’m personally never that convinced about lyrics on sleeves, but Mike wanted it so I was trying to suggest ways of doing it that would be more artistic than just a wall of text. I think it’s a good compromise, the lyrics are there for people who want them but it’s an interesting looking sleeve either way. MRS: II’ve had to re-write a couple because they didn’t exist but most of them are the originals. The fact that they are almost illegible adds to it. They carry the same vagueness and ambiguity as the meanings within them. Working hard to find both is a good way of putting it I think. PB: Will yoube playing dates to promote this album? MRS: We plan to. I’m not a massive fan of playing live because I get stage fright but it has to be done and it’s great to here the tunes in human form. There will be an album launch gig too when I can find an appropriate venue. JY: We’ve done a low key one to test the water that was fun to do. I think Mike wants to play more, and I’m up for it if so but we’ll see. It’d be nice to get a few shows set up. It’s been a while. PB: Now that you have got one album out, are you planning on doing a second album? MRS: Most definitely!! I really can’t wait for the next one because it already has a real personality of its own and a much more coherent feel. We’ve pretty much finished the recordings. To show that I’m not a complete Luddite I think the lyrics on this one are gong to be done all posh by someone called Lucy Nyman who is into calligraphy (who also happens to have the singing voice of angel - she probably hates that cliche by now) on parchment, with a quill, in a cave!!! She’s going to be singing with us shortly live and on the recording too, which is very exciting. PB: Thank you.

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Michael R. Shaw - Interview

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How Is This Helping?

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Manchester musician Michael R. Shaw with producer James Youngjohns talks to John Clarkson about his brooding and enigmatic solo debut album, 'How Is This Helping?'

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