Shannon & The Clams Are Coloring Grief Piece By Piece

Shannon Shaw discusses how gathering with her band on the farm where her fiancé passed away led to their newest album, the triumphant, unfiltered, beautiful and brutal The Moon Is In The Wrong Place.

Music Features Shannon and The Clams
Shannon & The Clams Are Coloring Grief Piece By Piece

When I showed up to the Agora Theatre on Cleveland, Ohio’s east side in March 2018 to watch Dan Auerbach perform a solo set, I didn’t know a lick about Shannon & The Clams. But being the kind of person I was—and still am—I listened to all five of the band’s albums to get hip before the gig so I could jam along with the opening act. Little did I know that it was a perfect time to get into Shannon & The Clams, given that, a month prior to the show, the four-piece from Oakland’s LP Onion (produced by Auerbach for his Easy Eye label), had been released and the group was slowly gathering more momentum. Onion was Shannon & The Clams’ fist big swing, a massive level-up their previous albums Dreams in the Rat House and Gone by the Dawn—with songs calling to mind the oddball, greaser sock-hop anthems of Hollywood prom bands and counterculture-era club nights, existing like some great, twisting, lucid, yesteryear progeny of the Shangri-La’s and the Music Explosion, or Spaghetti Western pan flashes. They had the name, they had the producer and they had the sound to back it up.

And when Shannon Shaw, Cody Blanchard, Nate Mahan and Will Sprott took that Agora stage, they looked like they’d just stepped out of a time capsule—as Mahan wore a full cowboy getup and Sprott and Blanchard each donned colorful, patterned two-tone suits. And then there was Shaw, who sported an outfit caught someplace in-between that of a diner waitress and a private school student. It felt like a four-layer rendition of Americana, and their sound only backed up the look. Ripping through rockabilly tracks with doo-wop bloodlines, tunes like “The Boy,” “Onion” and “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” Shannon & The Clams appeared before the Cleveland crowd as a perfect emblem of Auerbach’s label—a band with a timeless sound embedded so deeply within their own that they could flourish in any decade in the last 60 years. Luckily for the rest of us, they’re making music during this lifetime that we’re in—their songs as evocative of the garage bands scoring one-hit wonders in the 1960s as they are of the waves of punk and surf rock that spawned on the West Coast between 1963 and 1983. It’s a delicious cocktail of all that is right in rock ‘n’ roll, delivered through pristine recordings captured at Easy Eye Sound in the heart of Nashville.

Since linking up with Auerbach more than six years ago, Shannon & The Clams have now made three albums with the Black Keys frontman (Shaw also made a solo album, Shannon in Nashville, with Auerbach in 2018) on his label. While Auerbach is well-known and revered for his guitar-playing in the blues- and garage-rock revivals of the 2000s, Shaw puts a crucial emphasis on just how good his ear is in the studio, how his production talents leave an imprint on the music long before it’s heard by anyone else. “Dan’s really good at editing the tracks we’ve recorded down to their most powerful form,” she says. “There’s some songs where I feel crushed at first, like I don’t want to let go of coming back to that refrain. I love that refrain, it’s so powerful. But Dan’s like, ‘Less is more.’ Maybe that’s unexpected, but I actually do agree with him [when he says] ‘Well, if you love that refrain so much and it’s so powerful, imagine only getting to hear it once. It’s gonna make you want to listen to the song again and again.’ And that is really true. I feel like, any time he’s ever told me ‘Do it one more time,’ he’s always been totally right.”

In 2021, Shannon & The Clams released Year of the Spider, a record built on the band’s responses to tragedies—namely the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, Napa wildfires, Shaw’s father’s cancer diagnosis and treatment right before COVID hit and her having to exile her apartment (which she’d lived in for 14 years) because of a peeping tom. It was a cathartic album written in a home Shaw no longer has and released into a world full of uncertainty, and yet it came out beautifully, despite the Clams not being able to tour it. Year of the Spider was still as raw and tonally sprawling as anything the band had done prior—perhaps even more so, leaning further into metallic blues chords and girl-group-style vocals. “Midnight Wine,” “Leaves Fall Again” and “Mary, Don’t Go” were such personal, emotive dedications wrapped up in romping, groovy ecstasies. It was a picture-perfect album for COVID’s second summer.

But now, the band’s latest LP, The Moon Is In The Wrong Place, is, without question, the best record Easy Eye has ever released. From the moment Shaw’s voice drops in on “The Vow,” it’s clear that Shannon & The Clams are operating, sonically, on a level they’ve never reached before—and she wasn’t even totally sure that her singing was working while she, Blanchard, Mahan and Sprott were recording. “I did so few takes of my vocal leads, and I thought it was because no one was paying attention when I was in the studio,” Shaw explains. “It’s hard, when you’re in the studio, you gotta stay engaged, because you can get fatigued by songs. I can’t imagine what it’s like for an actual engineer but, just as band members, you’re in there in the studio playing the same thing over and over again. And then you go out to the control board and you’re watching your bandmate try to play something—it’s important to keep your ears fresh and stay really engaged.”

“So, when it was my turn to record my leads, I just thought no one was paying any attention to me,” she continues. “I was like, ‘No one cares, no one’s paying attention’—because I would sing a lead once or twice and Dan would be like, ‘Great!’ and move on. Eventually I was like, ‘Are you guys even paying attention? I only did that twice.’ And everyone was like, ‘Well, you’re actually completely crushing it.’ That made me feel really good, because I know that Dan would not let me get away with doing a lead vocal that was not great.”

How The Moon Is In The Wrong Place became Shannon & The Clams’ best recorded work began with the trust and comfort Shaw felt when she returned to Tennessee in 2023 to record 14 new tracks. “It’s taken me, personally, a long time to get comfortable—just because [Easy Eye Sound] is such a special place,” she says. “I used to not have any confidence in a studio, but I will say, over the last couple of albums, I got way more comfortable. And now, doing this album when I’m in such a fragile place, I felt very comfortable there and very supported. It feels like a home away from home. I look forward to the smell of the studio when I open the door. I know where everything is, and it was a nice place to go make this record.”

But the album, too, arrived after immeasurable grief and loss struck Shaw in August 2022, when her fiancé Joe Haener was involved in a fatal car crash mere yards from his family’s farm in Aurora, Oregon. Their wedding was only a few months away, and Shaw explained in an Instagram post that they’d spent their final days together performing music and planning their honeymoon. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you,” she wrote. Shannon & The Clams cancelled all of their upcoming tour dates, and Shaw retreated to Oregon from her home in Oakland to be at Haener’s family’s farm in the immediate aftermath. “ I didn’t feel ready to play for people,” she says. “I was not in good shape and did not feel like I could share anything with anyone—share in the sense of playing, because I feel like, when I’m playing on stage, it’s a mutual exchange. And I want to be in a place where I feel like I have something to offer the audience that they can take home and feel good about. I was absolutely just so far away from that for the first couple of months.”

But Shaw began writing music immediately. “[Songs] started coming to me right away—melodies, lyrics, concepts,” she notes. “It was kind of obsessive, the velocity in which these ideas were coming to me was so powerful that I needed to start getting the ideas down.” While at the Haeners’ farm, at first, Shaw had nothing but the clothes on her back, her wallet and her phone—recording memos of herself singing until her friends finally retrieved belongings from her home in California and brought them to Oregon. In early January 2023, Blanchard, Mahan and Sprott joined Shaw at the farm and shared new ideas with each other, which led to Shaw stepping out of her comfort zone. “We actually did something different this time—we jammed as a band, which is not something I ever do,” she says. “I am more open-minded to it after that experience, but jamming is just hard for me. I’m not the technical musical whiz. I typically don’t have a good time, because I feel too in my head. I like to write and work stuff out by myself. But since Joe passed, I’m not as afraid of new experiences. I’m down to just try and do things.”

One of the first songs Shaw wrote on the farm was “Bean Fields,” a strong contender for one of the best pop-rock tracks of the year. Seriously, it’s a splendid, baroque-garage romp that’s so catchy that the absolute punch of the “Meet me in the bean fields in the shank of the evening / Gonna bring bouquets and bottles of wine, talkin’ bout you all the time” chorus might not hit your gut immediately. The titular setting holds a lot of meaning for Shaw, as Haener’s accident occurred quite close to the bean fields on the farm, and the Clams set up their rehearsal camp there.

“At first, we were just sitting in the plants—in the rows of crops—and then, eventually, I brought out my camping mat so we could sit on it. And then, people dragged out chairs. And then we brought out a table and then we brought out Christmas lights and lanterns and speakers and flowers and photos. It became the gathering place,” Shaw says. “That time is—was—so precious to me. As painful and fucked up as that location is, it felt so loving and warm to be together in this place of extreme tragedy, to gather there, of all places, and not let that specific place become just an endless source of pain. His parents have to look out the window at that area every single day for the rest of their lives; all his siblings have to drive by it. I’m really pleased that we turned that painful black hole in the earth into a place of comfort, a place to feel close to Joe, a place to gather and be together—that is so meaningful to me.”

Any mentions of nature on The Moon Is In The Wrong Place, be it flowers (“In the Grass”), bathing in rivers (“Golden Brown”), bees (“Life Is Unfair”), sunsets (“Oh So Close, Yet So Far”) or berries turning into wine (“What You’re Missing”), are direct nods to epiphanies had while Shaw was on the Haeners’ “beautiful, massive farm.” “While I was there those first couple of weeks after [Joe’s] death, I just was constantly overwhelmed and in awe of the beauty of nature,” she says. “That might not mean much to someone that hasn’t felt speechless, but there were so many times where I was crying from looking at a sunset, or just overwhelmed by the power of the sunrise or sitting and hearing the bees buzzing and the crickets chirping and hearing the breeze in the crops.”

While Shaw was in Oregon, Haener’s family kept debating where he was. “[His family is] very Catholic, and I’m not religious, so it stressed them out and made them feel so worried,” she explains. “They really wanted to know where I thought Joe was. I think that it gives them such great comfort knowing that he’s in Heaven. For me, I don’t think he’s in this place right above us, on a cloud behind some gates. I kept feeling like he was everywhere that’s beautiful, natural and real. I just couldn’t help but feel like Joe really was a part of everything now.” Haener’s presence in everything is obvious, as the title The Moon Is In The Wrong Place is a reference to one of the last things he ever said to Shaw before he passed, when he couldn’t remember the phrase “Mercury in retrograde.”

“The sentiment is really bittersweet,” Shaw says. “It’s this shared, cute, funny moment I had with Joe right before we lost him, that was him really trying to understand things that are really hard to understand. And I loved it so much. I wrote it down and was like ‘I’m never forgetting that you said that.’ And it’s true, I will never, ever forget that moment of him asking me that. And then the reality that came after, of losing him, that’s signifying this moment where everything changed: He was asking me what was going on in the universe, because everything felt off and things were falling apart and nothing felt right anymore. That’s what he was asking me. ‘What is that? The moon is in the wrong place?’ So, when he died, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the fact that, yeah, nothing’s right without you. Everything has gone wrong.”

Shaw remembers being overjoyed and laughing immediately after hearing Haener ask the question. “He was saying it lightly, he wasn’t super upset by it—he was basically talking about work on the farm and was like, ‘What’s going on? You and Amy [Blanchard] are always talking about how when everything’s going wrong and nothing feels right, communication is breaking down and nothing makes sense, that the moon is in the wrong place, or whatever?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I love that. I am never forgetting that you said this. I’m writing it down right now. Yes, the moon is in the wrong place. You’re right. That sums it up really beautifully, Joe.’ And he was like, ‘No, no, no, but what’s it called? It’s not called that, right?’ I was like, ‘Well, I like “the moon is in the wrong place.” Let’s just call it that.’ And he really wanted to know what it’s actually called, so I was like ‘Well, maybe you’re referring to “Mercury in retrograde.”’” Whether or not Mercury was in retrograde at that moment, Shaw can’t remember, but she does know that the Harvest Moon was coming soon. “Apparently, a little bit before a serious full moon, a lot of crazy stuff can happen,” she continues.

Though The Moon Is In The Wrong Place is a record anchored by a still-fresh wound of lifelong grief, Shaw has always processed the spectrum of her emotions through creation. “You’re emotionally congested, I think, when you’re going through something,” she says. “To me, music is medicine. The way that I use it for myself, and for others—I feel that I’ve got to get this stuff out of me by removing all of that congestion that’s in your mind and body and being able to turn it into something outside of yourself, like a song or a piece of art, I feel like that is a big relief. And you learn so much in that process. That’s always how I’ve handled making music.”

“When I was a little kid, probably four or five, and I’d get in trouble and get sent to my room, I would self-soothe by singing to myself and making up songs about my situation. I didn’t actually write songs until I was 24, 25, but that really was always a part of how I handled hard things,” she continues. “When I was a kid, I would draw pictures of my situation, where I had to be victorious in some way in the end. I was being picked on by all my brothers and I would draw these intricate comic-type drawings of me taking each of them one by one in a karate dojo and beating them all up separately. That’s how I’ve always written music and how I’ve always dealt with pain and stress and extreme joy, too. It’s like a way of capturing it and being able to look at it and remember it.”

Though Shaw claims that it’s a “signature Shannon move to, throughout all of my albums, deal with sad or hard things and [the songs] then having a feeling that doesn’t match the lyrics,” making a record like The Moon Is In The Wrong Place required her to trust her intuition and write songs that are brutally solemn. “There were moments where I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do what I want because I don’t care if people are put off by this or not,’” she says. “I worried about ‘Bean Fields.’ I was like, ‘Is this too fucked up, to put out a song that is this joyous and so celebratory in the wake of this insane tragedy?’ I did worry about that. And then I was like, ‘Actually, I don’t give a fuck, because this is what I need and that is the truth. This place makes me feel this way.’”

“Real or Magic” was the last song Shaw brought to her bandmates, because she wasn’t convinced that releasing a song “so sad and so horrible and so open and so literal” was the right decision. (“You kissed my eyes and disappear, oh, my God, you shined. You’ve shown your love light one last time” is an achingly beautiful pre-chorus.) But Blanchard, Mahan and Sprott felt inspired by the track and encouraged her to move forward with it. “They had all these great ideas about using a drum machine and having it be really stripped down and really raw, and that terrified me,” Shaw admits. “And then it made it worse when everyone wanted it to be a single, because I was like ‘Aren’t I just torturing people by having a song that’s this sad and this real? And then I’m torturing myself, because I’m gonna have to talk about it all the time and I’m gonna have to perform it all the time?’ I can’t phone shit in. I’m not a ‘phone it in’ person. I’m a ‘well now I gotta channel the feelings I had when I wrote this song, because if I don’t, I won’t be giving it a genuine performance’ person. I was afraid of having to channel it over and over and over again. I felt like I was burdening our fans.”

But the most gutting move for Shaw was sequencing “The Vow” and “The Hourglass” together at the beginning of the album. The former was the only song written before it came out, and Shaw wrote most of it as a surprising wedding gift for Haener. “Something I was fixating on right after he passed away was the fact that we weren’t going to get to have our wedding, grieving the life we were going to have,” she explains. “We weren’t going to get to have the big family that we both wanted. We weren’t gonna get to have this wedding that had so many cool plans—we were gonna have Leroy, my friend’s donkey, walking around with this big saddle full of beers, because he loves people.”

“I was sad I wasn’t gonna get to share with all our family and friends all the hard work that was going to represent me and Joe together, something we truly created together,” Shaw continues. “I was bitter that he was never gonna get to hear this song that I wrote for him, and I wrote it using the chords that he taught me on guitar. It was really meaningful. I was like, ‘I wonder if I should put the song on the album? Or is that too much? Is that too sad, or is that too painful for other people?’ I can’t help but worry about other people’s hearts.” The “Beautiful guy with the sun in your eyes, I’ve been waiting for your love, now you’re all mine for all time” opening of “The Vow” slowly unravels. The “Somebody pinch me, has it been a dream?” line gashes the listener quickly, before falling, eventually, into a stand-still ending written after Haener’s death: “I wish to have those vows, but I can’t,” Shaw sings. “But I can feel your hands sliding into mine, see your eyes twinkle like a chime. Lips to lips, it was so divine. Yes, it seems like it’s over, but forever you’re mine.”

Shaw took a chance on “The Vow” and turned “the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and just wanting to celebrate my love and affection for Joe, and then getting the news and trying to immediately resolve being without him forever” into “when shit starts feeling really real” on “The Hourglass.” “Someone stole our time away, left me with Dali’s clock,” she sings on the latter. “It’s ticking in the dark, turning me inside out. If I was a wizard, I’d flip the hourglass, but I don’t think I’d find you anywhere. There’s no beating time.” All of The Moon Is In The Wrong Place spawned from a very literal place, and its title-track’s opening verse encapsulates the grievous life Shaw was asked to live. “The sun burned down when you left,” she sings, to Haener and no one else.

Shaw, Blanchard, Mahan and Sprott capture the “agony and the confusion and the bargaining when reality was starting to set in” with the madness of losing a soulmate. These 14 songs encompass and encapsulate grief unlike any record of its kind that’s arrived in the last handful of years. In the past, Shaw and Blanchard have traded lead vocal duties (Blanchard’s “The Boy” and “Snakes Crawl” are two of the band’s best), but The Moon Is In The Wrong Place is Shaw’s story to tell. And, as Shannon & The Clams would have it, the album ends with Shaw delivering a small gesture of resolve and assurance to her late, departed love: “Life is unfair yet beautiful, only ‘cause you were here.”

Watch Shannon & The Clams’ Paste Session at our 2024 East Austin Block Party, presented by Ilegal Mezcal, below.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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