Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Love Me or Let Me Be”?
‘Love Me or Let Me Be’ is Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ turned on its head – complete with breezy pop sensibility, a floating falsetto chorus, and an unforgettable hip-hop tribute during the interlude. The song is about recognizing the risks in the game of love and choosing to play along, putting the cards on the table and preparing to call the listener’s bluff.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
There are grains of truth in everything we write, but this song is truly a patchwork effort, with pieces of it being written over many months and in response to many real events. About 95% of the lyrics in the verses come directly from an abandoned song of Andrew’s called ‘I Like You Now, But I Love You When You Walk Away,’ most of which was written in summer of 2015 during several trips back and forth between Chicago and New Jersey. The falsetto hook in the chorus was inspired over a year later by Phil, who introduced the song’s primary chord progression to the group. The final piece of the puzzle is Mark’s rap verse, which he typed out feverishly on his phone while Andrew and Phil debated over how to fit in a guitar solo before the last chorus. Mark, always the mediator, had the final word – you’ll notice the guitar solo never made the cut.
The single comes off your new album DRAW – what’s the story behind the title?
We love a good double entendre. The title in particular comes from a song lyric off the album – draw the shades – which to listeners, could either pertain to the closure of window curtains, or the physical drawing of our band. That double meaning inspired us to collaborate with local Chicago artist, Shayne Taylor, to sketch out many of the thematic elements in our song lyrics and visually explore that duality. These drawings are featured as the artwork for the album cover and for each of the singles, too.
How was the recording and writing process?
The Shades are uniquely democratic songwriters, almost out of necessity. Because vocal harmonies are so central to who we are, all three of us must be present and involved in order to create something that we truly own. Our songs typically start with a chord progression idea and end with a few lyric overhauls, with hours of collaborative background vocal and harmonic arranging in between.
The upcoming record, ‘DRAW’, is a four-song project recorded over four days at Gravity Studios in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. We got close with several Gravity engineers and staff members following the release of our first record, and really felt at home in their space. To add to that feeling, we were also able to fly in Andrew’s brother, Luke, to serve as the chief recording engineer on this project. We were also fortunate to welcome our full-band lineup to Gravity to lay down the four tracks with us. To us, music is a social activity, and it was refreshing to be present in the studio with so many fantastically artistic minds to bounce ideas off of.
How has Johnnyswim and Gavin Degraw influenced your writing?
Phil: I first listened to Gavin DeGraw back in 2003. It was the summer before my senior year of high school when a friend of mine introduced me to the “Chariot” record. It was so good that I’m pretty sure I went to Target and bought the CD for myself later that day. One of the things I love most about Gavin is his storytelling, which I definitely tried to emulate that in my early years as a songwriter. Finding your own voice as a writer is important, but it takes learning from others who you admire in order to get you there. Gavin was one of the songwriters who helped me do that. I remember spending hours at a time in a practice room trying to learn his songs on piano while I was studying music at the University of Miami. It’s a huge compliment to know our music is reminiscent of his and who knows, maybe we’ll have an opportunity to share the stage or write together in the future!
Andrew: Johnnyswim is a truly dynamic duo who I first saw live onstage at a ‘Chicago Ideas Week’ presentation which was focused on keeping songwriting in the family. Given my work writing songs with Mark and Phil, I found this TED-style talk to be both intriguing and relatable. Add to that the fact that Amanda and Abner are uniquely gifted singers and songwriters, and you’ve got a recipe for excellence. In fact, not long after hearing a particularly moving rendition of their song ‘Diamonds’ that night, I sat down with The Shades to write ‘Only For a Moment’, which was conceived in a very similar light. Swim, Johnny, swim!
What role does Chicago play in your music?
Chicago is, without question, the reason The Shades exist. We may have started jamming with one another during our time at University of Miami, but it wasn’t until we all relocated to the midwest that we really considered our power as a singing, songwriting trio. In 2012, Andrew started his first teaching job on Chicago’s west side, while Phil and Mark returned to their roots in the Northwest suburbs to be closer to family and explore Chicago’s music scene. One of our first regular gigs was at the Elbo Room in Lincoln Park, where we held a monthly residency that helped us fine-tune our live act and start to build our local fanbase. Several of our original songs are inspired by Chicago’s vibrant culture, weather, struggles and triumphs.
Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
While there’s plenty in the world that inspires us, nothing motivates us more than the middle and high school-aged students we mentor through the Guitars Over Guns Organization (GOGO). We have the unique privilege of providing young people with a platform to share their stories in a way that matters to them. Their optimism, wit, and unapologetic realness all help to keep our lyrics smart, relatable, and even humorous at times. In addition, we take inspiration from our families and friends who continue to teach us a great deal about love, loss, and everything in-between.
Any plans to hit the road?
Nothing formally announced just yet, but we are hoping to get out on the road before the end of the year.
What else is happening next in The Shades’ world?
We are putting together a very special live show at Uncommon Ground in Chicago for the release of our album on Friday, October 25th. The show will have an intimate acoustic vibe and will be split into two sets: covers that inspired the album, and a live performance of the EP from cover to cover. It promises to be a fantastic evening full of great music and some surprises, too. Tickets are very limited, and available here: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4334270