Hype, bio, genre-labeling, and name-dropping are a dirty business, but someone’s gotta do it. And writing one’s own promo is a questionable chore. But here we are: October 2020 marks my
Hype, bio, genre-labeling, and name-dropping are a dirty business, but someone’s gotta do it. And writing one’s own promo is a questionable chore. But here we are:
October 2020 marks my 30th year in the Biz with the release of my dozenth project, a double album – The Beast Is Back. It has been a baffling decade of struggle since my last release, Villain (which went damn well). Personal & material resources were a frustrating puzzle until my life-partner/graphic designer (Katie) and producer (Tyler Fortier) focused me into making the album of my life. Now, I’m in my best period of work. (My peers and early reviewers seem to agree. Click on my One-Sheet for glimpses into what they’re saying.)
The Beast reveals 18 of my 75-plus unreleased songs about: secrets, sacrifice, friendship, rejection, redemption, parenthood, subjection, repentance, faith, doubt, reckoning, grace, forgiveness, goodbyes, surrender, violence, loss, and triumph. All from a lived-in, grown-up vista.
Meanwhile, my publicists at Public Display PR have encouraged me to be forthcoming about the role of alcohol recovery in my process. “You’re the real-deal as an artist,” they said. “Tell your story.” Honestly, it’s not that big of a deal, but, yeah… Suffice it to say; the things you do to beat addiction are the same things you do to be a good artist, which explains the current flow I’m enjoying.
The aforementioned Villain, produced by Ehren Ebbage, was hard to beat. It was a step-up in my production standards – slick with an array of my best session-cat pals for maximum Americana versatility. Accolades followed, starting in my home town of Eugene, OR. The Register Guard honored “Hard to Believe” as one of the Best Local Songs of 2011. This was a duet with Jazz-Americana singer Halie Loren, reminding some reviewers of the classic country duets of Lee Hazelwood & Nancy Sinatra. Elsewhere in the music-journo world, I was compared favorably to Elvis Costello, Jeff Buckley, John Hiatt, and both Joshes (Ritter & Rouse.) None of whom do I imitate on purpose, so I come by it honestly, and I’m flattered.
I hit a number of top ten playlists on American & international chart-reporting radio, sidling up to releases by folks like Mavis Staples & Gregg Allman. (“Love Belongs to Everyone” beat R.E.M. and Radiohead for 2 weeks on Radio Marabu in Germany.) Here are some kind words uttered by champions of Independent Music at the time:
“I have found my favorite Americana CD…superb lyrics & melody.” – Lee Williams, CMR Nashville.
“All these good songs and catching melodies… quality & integrity beyond words.” – Mike Penard, ISA Radio France.
“Hands down among the top ten…” – Andrew Fickes, Northwest Indie Music News
“You will fall into the velvet embrace of John Shipe’s lush collection of highly descriptive tales of love and woe… beautiful and harmonically sensual combination of musical dexterity and lyrical erudition.” – Rich Quinlan, Jersey Beat.
With a project so well-received in 2011, I had ample opportunity to tour abroad, but I didn’t have it in me. I needed to rest and reconnect with my Willamette Valley community after an intriguing but derailing stint in Hollywood. I was spiritually exhausted, and I had some drinking to do… which I don’t do anymore.
Before Villain was Yellow House, my first true Americana-genre effort, which earned the praise and airplay that paved the way for Villain. It, too, had all the instrumental enrichment, played mostly by me. But it was more… “domestic.” I recorded it in my living room, with homemade charms. I was also evolving new, folkier lyricism. Much of my previous work was heavy-laden with nebulous poetry and darkness. Yellow House was populated by vivid characters with smaller, tauter stories. Two things were at work in my songwriting. 1) I was harkening back to my creative writing studies at the University of Oregon, under Appalachian/Midwestern poet Maggie Anderson – the closest thing to a mentor I ever had. 2) I was taking intensive acting classes from David Livingston, slipping into my imagination to create characters.
Yellow House set me on the creative and professional course that landed me where I am now. It measured up enough to enter 3rd Coast Music’s Freeform Americana Roots Chart at #16, tied with Chuck Prophet. The Missoula Independent said that my little homemade project amounted to “more than what you hear from the majors these days.”
By the end of the Twenty-aughts, I was opening for acts like Derek Trucks, Taj Mahal & Keb Mo’, Tower of Power, Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, and Jerry Joseph (who remains one of my most immediate all-time influences.)
I can’t fail to mention: I owe my modest success in the late Twenty-Aughts to fellow songster Rachel Harrington, whose side hustle, Emerging Artist Resources planted me firmly into the acoustic Americana wing of Biz. And also to my first publicist, Leona Laurie, who said, “You’re gonna do what I say, and triple your income, so I can put you in my portfolio.”
Before that turning point, I made louder, rock-ish music, with a lot more help. By the turn of the century, I knew I could always put together an enthusiastic lineup, grind out a couple hundred gigs and record a good album on a dime-budget – including a 32-song double-CD called Pollyanna Loves Cassandra. (“An explosion of creativity,” as the Eugene Weekly called it.) “Better off Without You” damn near became a hit, but it was bit behind it’s time, written 4 years prior.
It was then that I began working with Tim McLaughlin, the genius behind Eleven Eyes, and Eugene, Oregon’s best all-around musician. (It is my good fortune to be a part of his labor of love, Music’s Edge Rock Camp, 14 years running.) Tim was one of my crew for 2005 John Shipe & The Blue Rebekahs, a superlatively imaginative project that I could not keep together, because the players were in such demand. (Drummer Scott Headrick, known as the ideal bandmate for his work ethic, moved on to play with doom-metal maestro Mike Scheidt of Yob.) The album is, of course, my least commercially successful, but the most musically imaginative.
Somewhere in those years, I quietly released a humble all-acoustic album called The John Shipe Song Clearance, with a novelty tune called “Pit Bull Blues,” which got legs on the internet (millions of YouTube views). I became an unlikely advocate for the Pit Bull Rescue community, traveling the country, performing and emceeing at events. In a professional turn one couldn’t possibly predict or plan for, that goofy song appeared in the 2009 AOF award-winning Vicktory to the Underdog, nominated for Best Soundtrack. This further fueled to established me as a solo act just when I was embracing my scaled-down acoustic self.
(Speaking of movies, my songs are in a lot of independent films and shorts.)
Going back even further, to the 90’s, whence did I go solo? It was as a renegade from a band called The Renegade Saints. The irony, as I look back on it, is that I went solo to make music louder, harder, and darker, while my fellow Saints pursued more conventional Americana-rock. I made Sudden & Merciless Joy with Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ producer Billy Barnett. (A couple of Saints helped out, too.) The creative success was beyond expectation, getting me on the road again with positive press & airplay. (Including Belgium of all places… I should have gone there; I speak a little French.)
Side note: I subsequently released a live “Unplugged” version of the SMJ repertoire, with cello, called A Stealthy Portion. It was praised by Performing Songwriter Magazine – a sign of acoustic things to come. But I had noise to make, and would not heed the acoustic calling for another half-decade.
And what about The Renegade Saints ‘91-95? My big, viable reach for brass ring. My education. The musical blood still pumping through my heart. 5 guys with a record deal, living in a van, touring the country in promotion of a fine album called Fear of the Sky. Combining elements of Pacific Northwest Medium Grunge & Southern Rock into a unique not-exactly-hippy-jam kind of music called “Northern Rock”… The guys who opened for Bob Dylan, Blind Melon, Los Lobos, Hootie & The Blowfish, Cake, Jimmy Cliff, and god knows who else… The guys who turned down a tour with R.E.O. Speedwagon, because they wanted to pound their own pavement.
We’re still close friends, and still play music together when the occasion inspires. There was a satisfying live album in 2006 called Mercy Saints Alive! Saints fans said that it was the album that represents what they most love about us. (In retrospect, it turned out to be the perfect Electro-Americana bridge — both timing-wise & creative-wise — between my old Hard-Rock indulgences and my current Acousto-Americana.)
Holy smokes! After all this recollection, I’d venture to say that I’ve put in a good adulthood’s worth of toil. If I quit now, I could call it a worthy run. But I’ve got another 50 unreleased songs. So I expect to be recording again in the Spring of 2021.
(Sunday) 6:00 pm - 9:00 pm