Conrad Shiner

Songwriter-Singer

The Lost Decade is home.

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I wrote some songs.
Then I sang them
while a bunch of fantastic people
sang and played instruments
and recorded the whole thing.

Now it's an album called The Lost Decade.

I want you to hear it.

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Westinghouse - Original Home Demo

Conrad Shiner

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This week, my song Westinghouse was named a finalist in the International Songwriting Competition, which places it in the top 1% of 19,000 entries, where it will now be judged by a panel of celebrity judges including most notably (for me, anyway) Tom Waits.  This is by far the coolest thing to happen to me since I released The Lost Decade last May.  You can listen to the track in full over at Soundcloud.

About a month ago, I was interviewed by the music journalist Fernando Navarro for a piece in his blog, La Ruta Norteamericana.  He asked where I was from, and I went on this tangent about my hometown:

"Though the area has gotten on, there was certainly a permanent loss when the last big steel mill closed. A lot of good jobs went away and really won’t ever come back.

Or maybe I’m just being cynical because I have a complicated relationship with my hometown – which is not a unique feeling, I’m sure.  Perhaps no matter how much it grows or how much time moves on, it will still feel stagnant for me, because it wasn’t a place where I feel I could ever grow, personally.

Some of these feelings are addressed in the song Westinghouse, which is the only track on the album I didn’t write 100% - the lyrics are adapted from a poem my sister wrote, actually.  She says I changed them enough to claim sole authorship, but the real soul of the material was created by her. There’s a lot more ground to cover there, in terms of musical inspiration, but I think every singer-songwriter needs to get that one song about their hometown out of the way early on.”

Fernando also asked about how the album came together:

"When I was 28 or so I had this idea that I wanted to go through everything I had ever written and find all the good songs once and for all, and maybe pull an album together. Luckily, the process of doing this opened up that creative part of my brain even wider and at that point I quickly wrote 8 of the 12 songs that would become The Lost Decade (the other 4 were the best of my earlier material), in addition to some others that didn’t make the cut."

In that mix was the song Westinghouse, which I wrote in a very short span of time in early 2009.  When I was cultivating my material, I remembered a poem that my sister had written and I emailed her about it.  Upon receipt, I was blown away by the language of the piece - it was simple and accessible, yet evocative and deep.  I was immediately inspired.  I sliced and diced the words into verses, a chorus, a bridge.  A melody for the chorus came quickly.  The bridge appropriated a previous idea that I remember was going through my head incessantly at the time. The melody for the verses came last. Within a week, I had completed the song (though of course it wouldn’t get recorded in its actual album form for another two plus years).  

For your listening pleasure (and my cringing, a bit), I have attached the recording I made of the song the first ever night I played it through, start to finish.  Obviously a few parts have been tweaked between then and now, but the soul of the material remains largely the same.

And for your reading pleasure, I have copied below the original poem (by my sister, remember!) that was the inspiration for the song.  This song has brought me a special sort of joy, as not only have I created something that I am proud of, but I got to transform a piece of art created by my sister and watch her joy at seeing it come to a second life.  To-date, this song remains my proudest musical accomplishment.

Westinghouse
By Erin Nelson

No one in New York
knows Sharon.
Northwest of Pittsburgh,
southwest of Erie,
down the West Hill from Ohio,
steeltown, place
where two railroads first met.

An uncle, usually refugee
in Belgium, California, anywhere
but here, won’t drive on State St.
at four o’clock, shift change.
He forgets the way
things are now, after
layoffs, divorce.

Both grandfathers worked there,
most uncles, cousins who quit
high school for double pay
on holidays. I didn’t know
this happened everywhere, then.

Whole chunks of corrugated metal
gone. The mill used to be
a solid mile long.
Driving past in late day,
light where light is not
supposed to be.

In the darkroom the double doors
develop, huge circled W rising
first from the tray, then reflections, then dust.
Look there, where no one goes
to work. Look at the character
of the sunlight, nobody
in its way. Grandfathers
underground at St. Rose’s.
Uncles selling software.
Cousins in night school.

Sharon, you’re a dot on the interstate,
a glance on the way to Youngstown, then Toledo,
Lansing, Ann Arbor, then another
country. Your best street is the one
between the stadium and the church.
Your voice was made from mourning doves.
I didn’t know their names,
then - didn’t even know
that what I heard were birds.

(Train whistles! Dusk!)
You carved summers
into hiding places for me.
Damp lawn, red garage,
I still can’t get inside you.

Framing My First Dollar

This past week, a little record shop in Madrid known as Rock and Roll Circus became the first store to ever carry a physical copy of The Lost Decade for sale.  I might have achieved something like this a tad earlier in the game had I actually produced some copies of the album instead of doing a digital release only, but given the relative expense and the fact that most folks listen to music via some type of device other than an actual CD player, I just didn’t make it a priority.

When the store’s owner, Joaquin Lopez Diaz, reached out to me a few weeks ago requesting copies to sell, I was empty-handed but didn’t want to leave him hanging.  So I purchased some materials and put together a small batch of handmade copies (collectors’ items, if we’re being generous) and sent them overseas.

Today I found out that they have sold out. This is big news! I don’t care if it’s only five copies - some people in a country I’ve never been to have spent actual money for a copy of my actual CD. Who does that? Some people still do, apparently.

So now I’ll make another batch, but in the interest of not developing carpal tunnel, I’ve started to work to finalize a design for an actual CD release. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, please enjoy these pictures of my first Spanish customers.  Consider it akin to a small business owner framing his first dollar.

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Interview Transcript Part 3 - I am asked questions about longing and simplicity

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Below is Part 3 (of 4) of my unedited interview with Eduardo Izquierdo for Ruta 66.  Visit Part 1 and Part 2.

5. I think you mix the irony with the longing or the sadness, do you agree?

Yes, but sometimes it’s only really apparent to me after I look back at something I’ve written.

In “You Really Turned My Weekend Around” for example, I wrote what I wanted to be a simple, upbeat song that conveyed the novel feeling of domestic bliss (which typically isn’t made up of Great Big Moments like you have early in relationships, but instead a bunch of wonderful little moments all strung together) instead of traversing all the sadness, anxiety, and confusion inherent in stories of love lost. So that’s what I thought I was writing, then going back and looking at the words, the whole thing is really hinting at depression and loneliness – I say I’m lost, can’t get out of bed, can’t get started, yet under it is this peppy beat and up-tempo piano solo.

“I Was Too Young” is one of the most upbeat songs on the album, but the lyrics are really about breaking somebody’s heart, and worse, in a very offhand kind of way. “Ice Gas Beer” seems like it’s about someone getting lost in music on the metaphorical open road, but the third verse is about being stuck in the driveway, and how only very few people can ever break free.

Honestly, until reading this question, I never really thought of some of this. But in going back now and thinking about the songs, you are definitely right. I think that no one feeling or moment is 100% one way or another. The interesting parts of life are probably lived in the gray areas between the black and white, and really, with being human, most of our lives are in the gray area.

The songs appear much different now, as the album is complete and I can look at it or think about it in terms of one package, versus when I was writing and recording it, where at times I could feel a bit lost in the forest. I had ways that I wanted the album to work in a thematic sense, and ways I wanted the songs to work together, so I certainly considered all of that, but it definitely seems different now that my perspective has changed.

I recently had to complete an exercise for my new publishing agency where I identified key moods and feelings for all of the songs. After taking the time to do this in earnest, I found that almost every song had in some way a theme of “longing” or “dreaming”.  This surprised me a bit, as I didn’t know, until looking back, how pervasive this emotion was in the music. Funny how some things just have a way of making themselves known.

6. I wrote some songs, Then I sang them, while a bunch of fantastic people, sang and played instruments, and recorded the whole thing, Now it’s an album called The Lost Decade, I want you to hear it…These are your words. Simple, no?

Simple for sure, and I think simple is good.

(Of course while I say I admire simplicity, I have also taken thousands of words to answer a short list of questions, so who knows.)

While working on this project, it wasn’t like I had some record deal or big publishing contract. I was (and remain) just a guy with some songs who recruited some musicians and went into a studio. That’s it. I did it simply because I had music that I wanted to create – that I had to create – and throughout the process I was asked by friends and family “why are you doing this? What do you want to accomplish?” (Not in a derogatory way, I should add, just in a normal, curious way).

So I thought up all these answers and went through all these long-winded explanations and tripped over my words and got all jumbled up and confused like I usually do, but in the end, it finally reduced to the simplest explanation – I want to take what’s in my head, cause it to exist in the real world, then share it with other people. And whether I have actively known it or not, there has never really been any other goal in mind.

Interview Transcript Part 2 - In which we rely on the few among us who have the gift of describing the indescribable and I confess an elementary knowledge of Dylan

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Below is Part 2 (of 4) of my unedited interview with Eduardo Izquierdo for Ruta 66.  Visit Part 1.

3. In the first song, you use a line from a Carson McCullers novel. Is literature an influence for you?

I feel influenced by anything that makes me think, I guess, and good books certainly fall into that category.  One thing a good author (or any sort of artist) can do is describe something that the reader formerly considered to be indescribable. 

This particular book that leaked into my lyrics – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – hit me at what must have been the perfect time in my creative process.  The novel centers on four different characters whose only confidante is a man who is (ironically, of course) a deaf mute.  All of the characters feel alone, isolated emotionally, detached from the world around them.  And McCullers wrote their feelings so well.  You could feel the yearning for life, for connection with others, but in the end they are fundamentally unable to outwardly communicate the feelings inside their heads in any satisfying way.

When I read this, I saw described in words for the first time all of the things that had frustrated me about my own shortcomings in writing music.  At the time, I was going through all of my old material, and also thinking about new songs, and I wrote “Present Day” as a demarcation between those two periods, the old and the new.  I wanted to have a snapshot of what I felt at that exact moment.  The first line of the song (“I got the Gospel in me and I need to tell someone”) was said by the character Jake Blount, an alcoholic who was convinced he knew some of life’s great truths but came across to others like a madman.

I sing word “Gospel” with a bit of irony, though (which I would guess is also the way McCullers intended her character saying it).  I’m not saying that I have this otherworldly knowledge – I’m saying that in this process of songwriting, I feel like my brain is a river being held back by a dam and every time I try to let some water out, it just rushes out and makes no sense and isn’t what I thought it would be.  I wanted to describe that feeling of being excited and anticipating something great yet being nervous and nauseous and afraid, all at the same time.  I thought that line – borrowed from the book – did a good job of communicating that message, and the rest of the song quickly grew from there.  If I didn’t write that one song, I don’t think that I ever would have made this album.

4. Tell me about your influences.

My number one (and first ever in my life) was and remains Paul Simon.  To me, no other songwriter has had the depth and breadth of a career that he has had, while evolving and getting better and taking risks and doing different things and being an absolute master at every since stage.  As a kid, I was limited to my parents’ record collection, and his “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”, “Hearts and Bones” and “Graceland” were on near constant repeat, every day after I got home from school. 

For whatever reason, my parents’ records had some gaping holes.  There was one copy of the White Album, but nothing else by the Beatles.  There wasn’t much rock, so I didn’t have Led Zeppelin, The Doors, or The Rolling Stones to listen to either (though I would of course “discover” all three as a teenager, as most kids do at some point or another).  But what they did have were singer-songwriters: Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Neil Young, Elton John, Cat Stevens, and Billy Joel, to name the most notable ones.  And so these folks formed the soundtrack to most of my childhood and have stuck with me more to this day than almost anyone else.

One name you may be surprised to not see on that list is Bob Dylan.  Again, for no particular reason, I just didn’t have access to any Dylan records while growing up.  When I got into my teens, I got away from the folksy stuff and more into classic rock bands.  In my late teens and early 20’s, I listened to a whole variety of things (this was about the time that Napster was invented, and everybody was sharing all sorts of music at a breakneck pace), but still no Dylan.  It really wasn’t until my late 20’s that I sat down and listened to Dylan in earnest, and really, I still have a long way to go as far as his catalogue is concerned.

Over the past five years, my favorite musicians have probably been Ryan Adams, Radiohead, Wilco, Josh Rouse, Jeff Buckley, and Springsteen, although more recently I have been obsessively listening to a long string of female singer-songwriters: Neko Case, Kathleen Edwards, Lucinda Williams, and Brandi Carlile most notably.

I don’t want to imply that all I listen to are the singer-songwriter types.  Like most people in this day and age (meaning, a time of unprecedented accessibility for music) when asked what I like, the honest answer is probably “everything, really”, and my listening habits cover almost every genre there is, but from a songwriting perspective, the few folks I named here stand out by far.

In which it becomes time to do some writing

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I am tempted to spend time discussing why I haven’t written yet and how I released the album back in May and I thought I would have done all this blogging by now, but doing that would be the sort of thing akin to writing in an actual written letter that one doesn’t have any more time to write and one has to go now, and goodbye, and perhaps signed with love, but with an ending like that, with wasted space where actual thoughts could be, you understand that the one on the other end of that letter that you so diligently awaited and eagerly opened, and over each word savored simply does not love you any more. True. So much to handle for an eighth grader.

My writing has been kick started by a recent interview I did that was published in Ruta 66, a Spanish music blog. Two problems.  Number one, the interview was translated into Spanish. Number two, upon being given a friendly set of questions from a very nice writer who enjoyed my music very much, my brain did what my brain usually does and produced no less than 3,700 words worth of replies.  Truthfully I’m not quite that vain, and it had more to do with the fact that I was being asked to tap into some wells that I had been interested in exploring in terms of writing about the songwriting experience and whatnot, and… and well there I go again.

In an effort to continue to move my writing efforts along, I am publishing the full-length, unedited answers I wrote, maybe one or two questions at a time, starting here.

  1. Hey Conrad, Who’s Conrad Shiner? Introduce yourself to the Spanish people.

 A few months back, I played a small acoustic show in San Francisco.  The producer of the event, who had been recently introduced to my music, described me to the crowd as “a kinder, gentler Bruce Springsteen”.  I laughed, but I haven’t heard or thought of a better description since.

I want to be very clear though that I am not comparing myself to one of the greatest musical artists of all time – it’s a bit more tongue-in-cheek than that.  The joke being that while someone like Bruce was paying his dues night after night playing in dive bars writing dozens of songs, and developing a reputation as an incredible guitarist, before becoming a superstar and producing one of the greatest albums of all time by the young age of 25, I went to college, got a job, started a family, and bought a quaint little house in a small town, all without ever going on tour or making an album – until now, of course.

Yet along the way I have fallen in love with – and have now made – music that suits my inner troubadour rock star.  If you saw me walking on the street, I probably look like a guy who would be better suited to being an accountant.  No tattoos, no stories about years spent on the road, no whiskey habit (though I have romanticized that as being an alternate lifeline of mine to some degree).

But what I lack in experience or looks I make up for in spirit.  I have had a love of music that has been burning in my heart for my entire life, and now, after years of starts and stops and frustrations at every point in the process, I’ve finally been able to record an album that I am letting myself be proud of, one that I feel says something that I’ve been trying to say for a long time.

For the biographical details, I’m a guy in my early 30’s from a small town north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Sometimes I have a beard, which is red.

  1. Why did you title your album “The Lost Decade”?

When I first started assembling songs for possible inclusion into an album, I did a home solo acoustic recording of each one and called the collection “The Lost Decade Mixtape”, which I shared with friends.  Throughout the recording process, several other titles and ideas came and went, but I couldn’t shake “The Lost Decade”.

I would be lying if I said that the title wasn’t a hat tip to Neil Young’s tremendous “Decade”, which I listened to on vinyl as a little boy and remains one of my favorite records.  But where Neil’s album references years of music he did make, mine references years of mine where music wasn’t made, or recorded at least. 

And of course I do have to acknowledge that the phrase wasn’t one I invented – it was born to describe times of economic crises, both in Latin America (in the 1980’s) and Japan (in the 1990’s).  Given the persisting global recession, I do find the title to be fitting in this time and place.

But the real impetus for the title is a bit more selfish.  In my teens and early 20’s (and perhaps for a lot of other people), my life felt infinite.  At that point, all you think about is what’s ahead, and you are full of dreams, and there is no limit to what you could accomplish.  Then, after getting just a bit older, you feel what it feels like to have five or ten years slide by like nothing, just like your parents told you they would.  Suddenly you don’t feel so invincible and you gain a better understanding of (and respect for) how fleeting your time on this earth is, and how important it is to live the life you want to live, actively, and not simply waiting for your dreams to happen.

In short, I spent many years thinking about making music, but not a lot of time actually making it, and that’s what this title is about – an ode to all the years the music was lost in my own head, lost in my dreams.  I also thought that the title captured the feeling of retrospective and nostalgia, which was certainly one of my goals for the overall musical feel of the album.

An irony of course is that a lot of wonderful things happened to me over the past decade as well.  What was lost were sort of the dreams of my youth, but along the path of growing up you start to realize new dreams that you never even though you’d have.  When I told my wife what I wanted to call the album, I was worried that she would be upset, like I thought my time had been wasted, but she understood what I meant completely.  It was comforting to hear that from her, to hear that someone else knew exactly what I meant.

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