INTERVIEW: Tai Shan

On her new album Traveling Show, Tai Shan turns the stories she’s heard into music and lyrics you can live with, like a trusted companion who knows just when to talk and when to listen. Fusing soul, jazz, and pop, she creates an intimate space for reflection. Traveling Show is soulful, surprising, and uplifting even when Shan writes about the difficulties and disappointments that everyone undergoes that, by contrast, shine a light on what makes us happy.

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

Very lucky to be safe and healthy – but also worried about what the future holds.

Can you talk to us more about your song “Burn it Down”?

“My goal was to acknowledge and recognize how women’s anger inspired them to rally for change. I wanted to talk about how it’s OK to be angry, OK to be frustrated and deal with it. One thing I find very fascinating is women make up two-thirds of the activist community; When you look at all these marching videos, you’re seeing all these women out there speaking their mind, saying what they believe in. I wanted to really trumpet those efforts.”

Did any event, in particular, inspire you to write this song?

Originally it was inspired by a friend who was having an affair with a married man. She was ready to leave the relationship but found herself caught with wanting to stay with him and knowing it was wrong, she said: “I want to just burn it all down.” She was angry with the whole situation. Her struggle led me to write about the struggles all women face with anger. We are told to be quiet and work out our problems and not act crazy. We don’t need permission to be frustrated, to be angry. It’s part of who we are. When a man gets angry he is seen as strong and in charge, when a woman gets angry she is seen as out of control and crazy. I wanted to write about that and hold space for those who are frustrated.

What can you tell us about your new album Traveling Show?

This album is based on the stories I have heard and advice I have received while traveling the United States, Mexico and Canada for 2 years while living in a 13ft vintage trailer with my husband. After putting 70,000 miles on our van and performing in the living rooms of people all over North America I began to weave the stories into songs. “8:45” is the true story of a Seattle woman who was in a dangerous car accident. “Wishing You Were Here” is based on the advice of a friend when I was in California who said, “The only reason we do anything is out of love or out of fear.”  “Lay it Down” was written for a Canadian man who fell off a ladder and permanently damaged his back. “You Look Like Love” was co-written with a 2nd-grade elementary class when asked, “what is love?” A shy boy responded: “love is a flower that blooms in your heart.”

Each song in my album Traveling Show is a reflection of the people I have met while on my journeys.

How was the recording and writing process?

The recording process was made possible from a grant from the Jack Straw Cultural Center. They offered 40 hours of recording time and I was able to track half of the album with those hours and the other half with producer Mark Blasco. Several of the songs (Trouble Sleeping, and Remember When) feature Josh Rawlings, pianist for Macklemore’s “Same Love” and “Downtown.” The rest of the album was done with the help of electronica drummer Devin Bews, jazz bassist Marina Christopher, funk keyboardist Joey Walbaum. The backup vocals for the song were performed by my husband Austin Garrison.

The writing process happened on the road. We traveled in a Toyota Sienna van we call “Lady” and lived in a 13 ft trailer called a Scamp so its “Lady and the Scamp.” Austin, my husband, built a wooden console that had a dresser on one side and a work station on the other side so that I could sit back there to write and have a place for my laptop to sit. Most of the songs were written in the back of the van while we rolled from town to town.

How did the process of putting together this LP differ from your previous releases?

At the time I began working on this album, we were getting priced out of Seattle. Our rent for our 2 bedroom apartment went form $1300 to $2400. We had to make a choice: continue to struggle in a town where living as a working musician was getting more difficult or move to Nashville, a city I had dreamed of living in since I was a kid. I even had a jar labeled “Someday Nashville.” So in the midst of recording this album, we packed up, moved our stuff into storage, and began booking an epic tour through the country. I worked on this album when I came back on tour stops, working for a week at a time before leaving again. We had no home, no rent, there were days I would wake up to the sunshine streaming through the window of our tiny trailer and look out onto a land unoccupied with no houses, no people just us in our little trailer.

My other albums were written when I lived and worked in Seattle and focused more on themes. Tiny Planet was an environmental focus and I raised money for People for Puget Sound to help the local Salmon and Orca populations. Living Fiction was a collection of songs inspired by books from my time working with Seattle group Bushwick Book Club, and Meet in the Middle focused on Women from literature that inspired me. Traveling Show was different, it came from real-life interactions with people, weaving their stories into song.

What role does Nashville play in your music?

Nashville is all about the craft of songwriting. Each of these songs was taken to songwriting groups such as East Nashville Song Salon (founded by Amy Speace who has been featured in Rolling Stone and took home the best Americana song award from Americana Fest UK). I would bring in a song, then bring it in again with a few tweaked lines for the group to listen to and give suggestions. It was such a joy to rework the songs until they felt clear. It was truly a blessing to have the help of the songwriter communities here in Nashville.

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

I wanted to capture the small moments of life that we may overlook. “Traveling Show” is about going to the fair and is inspired by the transient nature of moving town to town performing house concerts. Ripe on the Vine is about cuddling on the couch with our lifetime lover. “Remember When” is about the weekly jam sessions I used to attend and when we would talk loudly while smoking in the parking lot. “8:45” is about realizing how fragile life is. These moments make up the fabric of our life.

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

I rarely use my own life to draw from; frequently I use the words of others, the stories, books, articles to write from. I am a huge history buff and love drawing inspiration from places like Smithsonian Magazine. I also adore working with kids and writing with them through songwriting “artist in residencies” and through our private lessons. Lastly working with Bushwick Book Club who focuses on writing songs inspired by books has lead me to write and perform over 50 songs with them.

What’s the hardest part about being a full-time touring musician?

The smallest hardship is where to use the restroom. Places like LA or Los Vegas can be tricky. But on the hardest side is making sure you watch your budget so you don’t spend all the money you make. In August of this year, I gave birth to a girl, Sequoia Garrison, and I can now say that the hardest part of touring with her, is just the fun of having a baby on a plane, at someone’s house when she starts crying or having her cry while we are driving to a gig and I have to stop on the side of the road to change her, knowing I will be late to load in. Life is always changing and its normally always a bit tough. That’s how I know I am challenging myself when its a bit tough and I have a bit of stage fright, I know I am in the right place.

What else is happening next in Tai Shan’s world?

I have a new baby girl who is joining the band. She joins us on our weekly live shows. I also recently opened TaiShanMusicSchool.com to offer students online classes in Songwriting, Uke, Voice, and Guitar. My students have gone from learning the guitar to releasing albums, getting signed to record labels and my student Asta Wylie recently won Songwriter of the Year for IMA.

Stream Traveling Show

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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