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INTERVIEW: Shawnee Kilgore

Hi Shawnee, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Thanks so much! I’ve been well. I had a family of armadillos show up in our backyard this week and the four babies are the most adorable things I’ve ever seen. The sheer joy factor in my daily life has definitely gone up. It’s gotten plenty hot in Texas so we’re back to the warm nights, which continue to be so magical to a girl who grew up in western Washington.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Back to Eden”?

When my mom asked me what the new song was about I said, “Well mom, it’s a really dark drinking song…” It was the fourth song Joss and I wrote together. After several months of near radio silence he sent me the lyrics, and my pesky ego wanted to impress yet again with my quick turnaround time so I kind of forced out chords and a melody before they felt right. He was unsure about it too, but it grew on both of us. Apparently we work well enough together that even the wrong song was the right song! He might say it’s about drinking yourself to death but there’s a lot more there. My spin on it is that it’s crushingly hard being human sometimes and there’s a tragic kind of grace in seeking beauty wherever you can find it, wherever you recognize it and it recognizes you.

What was it like to work with Joss Whedon and how did he come on board?

Joss backed my Kickstarter campaign back on 2014, and I knew I knew his name but had to be reminded of who he was. His reward was a personalized song written for him so when the campaign was over we started emailing ideas and I got to work. A few days later he emailed to say my song had gotten in his head and inspired a new set of lyrics, and he wondered if I might want to put music to them. I sent Big Giant Me back 24 hours later and we both loved it enough to wonder what we should do with it. We decided to put it out as a single and keep writing together, just to see what happened.

Working with him was such a surreally comfortable thing, I was somewhat surprised at the lack of intimidation, or self doubt about my ability to write, or cowrite, which I had done very little of at the time. I actually didn’t know what he looked like the first few weeks we were corresponding, he was words on a page and I think there was a lot of comfort and trust built from that. We were in, and coming from, such completely different worlds and where we overlapped was a very safe and organically creative space. He was filming Avengers II and I didn’t know what country he was in half the time. It didn’t matter, we just wrote. He had things he wanted to say and we both trusted that I could help him say them. If I had to sum up Joss in one word it would just be human. He’s so damn human.

How was the film experience?

Sooooooo amazing. Oh my god. I had NO idea what I was walking into when I showed up on set. I had gotten to meet Richard Jenkins and Ashley Johnson the night before, and Joss had talked some about the story we were trying to convey, but even though it was him, and it was his music video debut, I somehow still wasn’t prepared for the scale of production. Richard and Ashley were just breath taking together and I somehow managed to silently mime a wordy 5 minute song while watching them play out a scene that broke my heart again and again. It was all I could do to not cry every time.

There were other challenges too, like acting sexy! Oof. There were a lot of eyes on me and I kept worrying and asking Joss if I was doing ok. I finally understood that if he wasn’t talking to me that was a good thing! It was fun to watch him direct. After working in the studio where I was in my element we got to work with him in his. I didn’t find out about the cameras until we wrapped on the hillside at sundown and someone mentioned it to me. Apparently only a handful of these cameras exist, and they shot Rogue 1 and The Revenant, and he had two of them shipped over to shoot our video. That’s bonkers. I just stared at him with my jaw dropped and my eyes wide. “What?” he said with a smile and a humble shrug. I just cried and watched the sun go down. It was one of the biggest moments my heart has ever felt.

Why naming the EP after this track in particular?

It was Joss’s pick and I found no reason to disagree. Looking back I’m grateful because it lent itself to some truly gorgeous album photography by Alex Tinsman, but I don’t think that was part of the decision.

How was the recording and writing process?

The easiest of the writing came with Joss sending me lyrics and me putting music to them. Four of the six songs happened that way. I recorded Big Giant Me in Austin and we released it before he and I ever even spoke on the phone, let alone met. Unforgiven was a long winded and beautiful beast. It took the better part of two years to finish, and we had some pretty ridiculous arguments over lyrics. That was fun. We tried writing in the same room together once and that was an amazing failure. The last song we wrote was Break the Skin, the only one that originated from me. I left the verses blank for him and by the time we were in the studio we still didn’t have them. We wrote them together on the last day just in time for me to record them reading from my phone.

The studio was an amazing experience, super challenging and rewarding. We did the bulk of recording at Ocean Studios in Burbank. It was fun having people call me boss, including Joss. One highlight was definitely having Sara Watkins in to play fiddle and sing on Unforgiven. What an angel of a powerhouse of a human being. I had no direction for her as far as singing went and her harmony line left me curled up on the couch crying it was so beautiful. Another highlight was having Janeen Rae Heller bring her musical saw(s) in. I told her to bring as many as she could comfortably carry just to freak the guys out. It was great. The saw absolutely makes Back to Eden. It gives it that sort of eerie and beautiful somewhere-completely-outside-of-the-realm-of-life-or-death feel.

What aspect of your life did you get to explore on this record?

The collaborative exploration was a big thing in and of itself, because I had done so little of it before. Writing has always been a very personal endeavor and with the first song I was a little worried about the small chance that I wouldn’t like Joss’s lyrics. I got Big Giant Me and that was quickly put to rest! People kept telling me how much it sounded like my song. It came easy, and it was really fulfilling for both of us to connect on such an intimate level with someone we had never actually met and make art that was so true to each of us, despite the seemingly vast differences between our worlds. It was so good for me to open up, to offer ideas, to ask questions, to have instincts and feel safe enough to share them with him. I was standing on set for the video and it really struck me, that HOLY SHIT WE MADE THIS THING… and it’s real, and it’s beautiful. The empowerment that has come from all of this has really changed my relationship with myself, and the world, and I’m so grateful for that.

Any plans to hit the road?

I’ll be in LA and the Northwest in August, and Northeast in September. (I’m supposing my armadillos with be grown by then and it won’t be so hard to leave them!)

What else is happening next in Shawnee Kilgore’s world?

I’m about to celebrate my 100th week on Patreon, which is bonkers. That means 100 weeks (and counting) of posting a brand new song every week. The writing addiction is real! My next milestone is where I learn cover songs by request, which I’m actually really excited about. I learned how to play 20 years ago by writing my own songs and I so rarely learn anyone else’s. So many possibilities! You can tap into my weird cross section of weekly creations at www.patreon.com/shawneekilgore. I’m also looking ahead to the next record and have some big ideas brewing for that. And raising armadillos.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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