Musicians travel the world, right? Wrong. Most touring musicians travel the hotel circuit. They see a hundred identical hotel rooms and a hundred similar concert halls. You know who travels the world? Shane Palko. This independent musician is a true artist in every sense. The fine folks at Whiplash PR sent me some artist tracks, and a promise to send more. I listened to exactly two acts. The second was Shane, and I responded to them “You can stop right there, I found who I’m impressed with”. Knowing nothing about Palko’s background I was struck by his ability to shift from folksy chords to intricate fingerpicking. Shane’s lyrics transition from blatantly observational to sublimely metaphorical.
Shane Palko has performed on five continents, and his travels have been of the bohemian variety. He performs for free and stays with the locals, his adventures often being made possible by the generosity of strangers. Interacting with and playing with newly made friends with no language in common, they bonded over shared enthusiasm for music.
Shane’s new album “Pick Me Up” is a delight, and the intelligent and conscientious person I detected in the music was confirmed by my recent conversation with him. This is a fully-formed artist whose output is derived from inside himself, not outside inspirations, and those who listen to him and really hear it will be better for it.
Hey thanks for having me…
I was listening to your new album “Pick Me Up”, and it’s a great collection of songs. What is this, your ninth album?
Yes. Ninth official solo album.
This one seems, if not slicker, more produced and there is more going on with orchestration, etc. How did your recording process differ this time around?
I guess the last two albums I did were location albums. The last one “Madison Drive”, I did that in-house on Madison Drive. With friends Jon Elfers and Pat Mulrooney. Recording is their thing, they are super into it. This time we are back in the studio, and with the tricks I’ve learned it’s cool to be able to track individually.
It’s such a cool time to be making music, because there is so much you can do. It’s important I think to not lose sight of the heart of the music, but it’s also cool to say “look what I can do with this”.
You’ve done so much extensive traveling, it has to have impacted your songwriting. You weren’t traveling like a standard musician on tour would. You weren’t going from hotel room to hotel room, you were really immersing yourself in the cultures. After all this, has it changed the way you view the world and yourself?
For sure. It’s such an honor. I was trying to book shows with bands that are from those areas. When I would book shows I’d ask “Do you know anyone who is willing to let me stay with them?”, that way I could learn a little what life was like there. I’ve learned a lot about the world and myself that way. You need a lot of help when traveling. You don’t always know how to talk, and depending on what you ate you may have other problems. It’s a really cool way to see yourself out of context.
On your song “Juniper”, did you conceive that as an instrumental or did you work on lyrics that you didn’t end up using?
I’m trying to do a song for each person in my family. My family is growing all the time, which is a good thing because I’ve always got new music to make! Juniper is one of my nieces that lives in California. So far all nine of my songs I’ve made for family, I want to keep them instrumental. It would be somehow strange to sing about what I’m thinking, it gives it a time stamp.
Good point. With just a melody you can continue to interpret it different ways over the course of your life. Once you put words to it, you are giving it a certain definition.
So, when you have these songs with all this orchestration, like the string sections, when you are writing those songs is that all in your mind from the start? Are you envisioning that to begin with or are you adding that later once the body of the song is finished?
A lot of times I will write it on the guitar and I’ll have a thousand ideas while writing it, like “Oh this would sound good with my friend Alyssa singing a high part in the background, or a little cello”. I never actually studied music, so I will often hum parts to friends. But anytime you collaborate with other people, it becomes different. My friend Sam Nobles did the keys for this album, and he came up with this whole beautiful world. Joe Cheng did a lot of the strings, I had some ideas, but he’s an actual string player so he’s gonna change them and make them his own. It’s fun to give up a little control and make this whole new world together.
I can understand how it might be scary to give up control, but when working with others even a simple little twist they may do could be something that you would have never thought of.
Yeah, it’s beautiful. I have one song I wrote for this called “Jenny Wren” that is sort of an updated, adult take on an older song “Carolina Wren” which I wrote in 2011. Jon, who is our engineer said “what if we took the sound file from “Carolina Wren” and flipped it backwards and played it the whole time backwards?”. I never would have thought of that!
Ah, so it provides an under-current of that tonality. It reminds me of when a painter paints, they don’t paint on a white canvas. They will often paint the whole canvas a certain hue then paint over that, so it has a basic color value to it underneath.
Yeah, that’s a good analogy.
So I know on “Madison Drive” you recorded on an old 8-track cassette recorder. Was that a matter of necessity, or was it an artistic experimentation?
It was much more a case of “This is what we are doing”. We had plenty of crazy old recording gear. People will say “Oh you like music, here’s this stuff” because it’s America and that stuff happens. (laughs) But for “Madison Drive” that’s been sort of a legendary street for creative people for a long time. A bunch of people have recorded there, George Thorogood, lots of people.
Part of the process of using a tape recording was coming up with a couple takes, and saying “Ok, those are pretty good, I can keep one of them, and one will be lost forever”. So when I was done recording the album, I was done and walking out the door forever.
That’s a really cool approach. So part of your project of recording was the act of finishing the art and walking away. A sense of finality. It’s neat that you gave yourself that self-imposed limitation.
I love that you seem to enjoy the visual aspect of making videos for your songs. One video I especially liked was “Carolina Wren”. You had the camera inside the sound hole of your guitar. It’s a neat approach, but I almost think anyone else would have used it as a brief “effect”, you used that camera angle for the entire video…
That was just my idea, and it’s a live version of the song. I’ve always been fascinated with different views and ways of seeing things. It’s really hard to get the audio from the camera (inside the guitar). I ended up getting a condenser microphone that was battery powered and duct-taping it to the outside of the guitar. The video looks nice and tranquil, but I was walking around the woods like a robot trying to film it. At the beginning I tap the guitar three times, so I could later synch the camera to the separate audio. It was one of the first times that “Thinking Inside the Box” was the creative approach!
(laughs) That’s perfect! Now you said you didn’t take any lessons, so how naturally did the guitar come to you?
Well I learned the Kazoo first, much to the dismay of my whole family. Never had guitar lessons either, also much to the dismay of my family, ’cause I would just make up chords. I would just twist my hands around until it looked cool, and then move that around until it sounded cool too. I’ve followed that process for the last twenty years. If it sounds cool, do it again. If you mess up and it sounds cool, do it a lot more times, and that’s how you play guitar!
Did you start out fingerpicking on your own?
I always liked that fast picking stuff. Crosby ,Stills, Nash and Young, and my brothers got me into more political stuff.
Now, I know you are very environmentally conscious. When you are traveling, what were the promising things you saw around the world, and what was alarming? As far as environmental conservation, what stuck with you?
Hmm, I think the most alarming trend I’ve seen is that people are very distant and they don’t understand that we are part of this environment. We live inside these boxes, but that doesn’t make us not-natural or not part of the environment. I don’t think people intentionally do things to take more than their share, but if you are disconnected, you don’t know that you are.
I was swimming in this river in China with a friend, and we were having a lot of fun. People kept coming up and telling us to get out. So we eventually leave and just a quarter of a mile down there was this huge dam. There was so much trash, and a dead, bloated pig in this whirlpool by the dam. Just going around in circles. The amount of disconnection to just throw things in the river like that and think that it just disappears. That will all come back to us, eventually.
Yes, it’s alarming. That stuff doesn’t just disappear into the ether.
So when you start writing a song, the initial genesis of the idea, is it normally when you are messing around on guitar or does a melody pop into your head at random times?
There’s a lot of different ways. I’ve got a lot of pieces of songs that have been sitting around for seven or eight years and I finally find a place to use them. A lot of times I think a song will come to you if you are open to it and able to focus. It usually comes up at inconvenient times. If it’s good enough to remember, it should be a pretty good song, but you want to write it right when you come up with it.
Like you come up with a great song idea when you are on a roller-coaster?
Yeah, my best song ever, it goes…”AAAAAAHHHH!”.
So what’s next for you?
I’m going to try to do some dates with friends around here. We have a little festival we do called “The Hideaway Folk Fest”. More of what I’ve been doing is I hosted a musician named Maro from Uganda. We did a bunch of shows all over the coast. It was a fun way of introducing a musician I love to a bunch of people.
Some of these musicians and musical styles you admire, do you find yourself wanting to work some of that into your own music?
I’m very inspired, but I don’t want to appropriate things. It’s not part of where I’m from so I don’t want to steal that. I came up with what I do on my own, and just playing with my brother.
That makes sense. Your music came from within, and if I understand you, you don’t want to appropriate that music and have it come across as a “trick”?
Yeah. I love a lot of music but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the music I put out. I love going to town on a hand drum, but I’m not going to put out an album of me just going to town on a hand drum in the suburbs. That, said I have two albums coming out. One I recorded with Maro called “Home Places” and he wrote half and I wrote half of it. It has about five languages and it’s a mash up of our two styles.
Now that’s interesting!
Yeah, it’s really exciting! The other album I recorded in July in Tanzania. It’s a mobile folk album. It got funded by a parliament member there and they brought me over. I got help from a lot of people. We traveled across Tanzania, and we made crazy music with people that I could barely communicate with but we got it done. I’m excited for that one to come out as well.
What a great experience. You can’t be very creative in a vacuum.
Yeah then you end up with an album of a dozen pop songs about someone you thought was pretty.
Thanks again to Whiplash PR and Shane Palko for the opportunity to have this great conversation.