Interview with Shawna Caspi

Shawna Caspi Interview at the Folk Alliance International Conference, Westin Crown Center Hotel, February 17, 2018

Shawna Caspi: Okay, we're going. All right. Edit it so that I sound smart. (laughs)

Lee Herman: Oh, I will. That’s the whole beauty of being able to edit stuff. So how did you get started in music?

SC: I’ve been playing music since I was a kid. I started with piano lessons as many kids do and then I was in a Children's Choir growing up when I lived in Ottawa and then from there I went to an arts high school in Ottawa where I studied vocal music and that led to me going to study music in university and so I got a music degree from York University in Toronto and I had been playing guitar throughout high school and I started learning classical guitar when I was in high school and that has led to the fingerstyle guitar style that I play in now and once I had moved to Toronto, I started playing around town and just gradually started expanding that to touring and at the time I was working a day job and I just kind of started tapering off that day job and increasing the touring until eventually, I was touring full time.  So, it's been an ongoing thing but just gradually playing music more and more. 

LH: That’s great. So, what's it like to be a touring musician?

SC: Oh man! It was unfathomable to me 10 years ago. It’s very tiring and very intense. It's amazing to me because before I was a touring musician, I hadn't done very much traveling so the travel and getting to see all these different places and all over the country and for me now I've been touring in Canada and the US and seeing just a lot of little towns that are tucked away that a lot of people don't get to see. I really feel privileged and honored to get to do that and to meet so many people. It's very obviously unstable and that was not a life I ever pictured for myself, but I think because I did it gradually I just kind of…it’s like the frog in the boiling water, you don't notice it until you're finally there and you’re like, how did I get here? how am I living this…this wild life? 

LH: Great. So, you write a lot of your own songs.

SC: I do, yeah.

LH: how does that work?

SC: It varies. Lately, I've been doing a lot of writing practice so for the past few years I’ve actually had more structure to my writing process… where instead of just waiting around hoping I'll get inspired, I did learn over the years that writing is very much like a muscle. So, if you flex that muscle every day and work it out even if you're not writing an actual song when it comes time to write that song, you're ready. So, for me most of the time the lyrics come before the music and so I always have a notebook around and I'll jot things down. But it when I get into a writing cycle I will actually get up every day and do a writing practice even if it doesn't turn into a song and for me, I can't write when I'm on the road, so it does really go in cycles. I can only write when I'm at home and I have the time to focus. 

LH: Cool. Okay, here's the hard one.

SC: (laughs)

LH: How would you describe your music?

SC: I describe my genre as singer-songwriter. Which sounds very vague, but I think [people] have a picture of what that is and I'm more than happy to have that be associated with me. I feel like that is what I do. I'm a solo artist most of the time and so I say that I play folk music, but it comes with a fingerstyle and classically inspired guitar accompaniment which is a little different from what a lot of solo folk singers do.

LH: So, some of your songs have a definite at least activist if not somewhat political bent to them.

SC: Yes. Yes, so what I try to do is amplify quiet voices whether that be literally or, or just in general taking like a small snapshot of something that might have gone unnoticed and making it bigger and more brilliant and shining light on that. So, whether that is in a political or activist kind of way or if it's a love story or a more personal story.

LH: That's a great description.

SC: (big laugh) 

LH: So, what's an amazingly wonderful thing that's happened with your music? 

SC: Okay, Shawna, get out of the dark place (laughs) and remember all the good things that happened during this. Something amazing that’s happened with my music? I think it’s really the extent to which I've been able to travel and the people that I've gotten to meet as a result. Again, I just see it so different from the way my life used to be that I think it forced me to really become more open and more adaptive as a person. When you go on tour you have to throw complete control out the window and be really able to go with the flow and that wasn't my personality before so I think it has really changed me. 

LH: So, is there some dark thing you want to talk about? (laughs)

SC: (laughs) I mean, (laughs) only what’s clear day to day, it’s hard to get gigs, it’s hard to make money, it's a hard job because every day you're judged on the contents of your heart, and it's hard enough in any job, say you make cardboard boxes for a living and you know you’re not making them so well and your boss comes and yells at you, you know, you'd make a good cardboard box and here it's like everything you just pulled out of your soul is not good enough and that's the feeling that I think a lot of us have. Whether or not it’s true, those thoughts can creep in and you have to be really careful with it. (deep laughs) … going to Shawna’s dark places.

LH: (laughs) So what's the craziest thing that ever happened on tour?

SC: Oh, man, I'm sure I could think of something better if I had more time but…so many things are crazy. I should think of a good one. I always think of like the worst places that I've stayed in. 

And how I dealt with it. Like, most of the time, I don't usually get to stay in nice hotels like the one we’re in right now. Usually I’m just staying wherever someone will put me up. And most of the time, honestly, they're beautiful, they’re palatial, beautiful homes that I get to stay in. There was one particular place where it was kind of a rustic, very remote area that I was staying in and they put me up in kind of a cabin but the cabin didn't have any running water so you could go to the outhouse in the woods and the place was just infested with mice and I didn't sleep at all but I could swear that there was a dead snake under my bed. (laughs) And I couldn’t do anything about it. You just have to kind of wait until the night was over. I don’t know if that’s a great story. Something amazing, really cool that happened, would be a better story. I can’t think of anything at the moment. What was the question again? What’s the most amazing thing that's happened?

LH: Craziest.

SC: Craziest thing that’s happened. I'm sure there's a great story but. Yeah, just…again all of these experiences are so new to me like for example only a few years ago I went camping for the first time in my life. And most people go camping growing up and they’re used to it, but I didn't get to do that. And so, I played a festival, a really beautiful festival called Blue Skies in Ontario and they’re fairly extensively a camping Festival. You could probably get out of it but it's like if you're playing, you’re probably camping and so I said sure, set me up with a tent (laughs) it was just such a new experience for me, taking a freezing cold shower in a campsite. Yes, it is probably related to what I said before about all these little things to me are really significant.

LH: So, you must have grown up as kind of a city girl?

SC: Oh, yes! I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, which is the capital of Canada and it's a very big city and now I live in Toronto which is a very big city. Getting to go outside of a big city especially in Canada, it’s probably similar in the States most of our country is not people who live in big cities. And I think that when you don't get out of that city environment you don't realize what your country is really made up of and particularly in terms of how to have a unified country it's great to meet other people who are not like you. 

LH: So anything else that you want to talk about?

SC: I will mention that I am also a painter. That's sometimes interesting to people. I've been painting for a number of years and I paint these little landscapes in places that I see when I'm on tour so depending on…I never really know what I'm going to have with me on tour but if I have some available will be on sale at the show and I have a new album called Forest Fire which also has my paintings on the front and back. 

LH: Thanks very much.

SC: I hope that was useful. (laughs)

LH: That was great!

SC: What’s the craziest thing that’s happened? I’m going to think about that. If I come up with something better, I’ll let you know.

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