“I don’t want to ruin everyone’s afternoon, but I think this helped me,” singer-songwriter Leah Shaw reveals to me. She has just released her debut LP, Play Beautifully, on which she works through phases of love, loss, and healing with a pitch-perfect voice and candid lyrics centered on her mother’s diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“Play beautifully” was a phrase often said by her mother, as she dropped her children off to their music lessons. Indeed played beautifully, on piano and guitar with added orchestral features, the full-length album serves as a stunning tribute to her best friend — shining a special light on the unconditional love the two shared.
The emotional anguish Shaw experienced caring for her mother for the decade she lived with the disease would eventually encompass the global grief. When Shaw was writing this music, she felt alone. But as the year of pandemic and protest unfolded, she felt connected to the world around her and emboldened to share her story.
Frustrated with prior experiences, Shaw decided to take the reins in the studio herself by pursuing a career in audio production. She went on to teach music technology at Brooklyn College, where she graduated. The recent Philadelphia transplant also now composes music for films and podcasts, among other types of media such as virtual reality.
ABS: Were you done writing by the time the pandemic had been declared?
I was done, actually. In fact, the last day that my co-producer and I were in the studio was the day that our school studio was closed because of the pandemic. So we ran out of there with mixes done backed up to our hard drive, and to send things off to get mastered.
I was in grad school for the three years leading up to that time. And then I was still working as a lab tech in the studio when it closed down. It was sort of wild to see things shape up the way they did in the school studio. I graduated school for audio production back in 2016, because I had tried to record with a couple of other producers in New York that just couldn’t speak the language of what I want. This album is personal, so I wanted it to be done the right way.
I thought, I have musical training. I majored in classical music. I have a good ear. I should just go for it and make music a bigger part of my life. So I went back to graduate school and I was able to meet a classmate who became my co-producer. I was able to get a job on the weekends, supervising student projects and doing inventory for the recording studios at the school. I did my album in the crevices of graduate school.
Specifically, what was frustrating about past studio experiences?
Two things: one had to do with me not understanding how to prepare to go into the recording studio as that time was so precious. It was expensive. I understood the players needed to know my music. But do they need chord charts, or is it helpful if I also have descriptive words? or how to even write out a song and say, well, I want it to go down lower in this part. I didn’t know how to really prepare. Also, I was living in New York and I was trying to get my bills paid, working full-time and busking in the subway and just busy. I was kind of flailing.
I had some good experiences. My very first EP was an awesome experience. I still work with the guy who did it. He’s a composer. He did some composing work that I’m still doing, but in New York I found that I couldn’t always trust people.One producer moved to Europe with my music and never came back.I had to take it on myself, because I didn’t really know how to vet a producer because I didn’t know anything about audio production. I felt like I had to know. One time I sent the song off and I wanted it to sound in a certain mood. Now I know that he put a ton of reverb and it was just the wrong reverb.
I was going to ask you about reverb. I was interested in knowing more about the title track, because I think it really is played beautifully, pun intended. I think it has a classical, resounding echo. I feel the same way about “Love Comes,” in that it’s reverberant. I’d like to know more about your recording process, because it sounds tremendous.
Thank you. I’m really proud of how it sounds. I’m not only giving credit, but some co-publishing with my classmate and co-producer, Teo Blake. He came into the program one semester after I started in January of 2017. We heard each other’s music in the class. And I was like, that guy has a cool perspective and vice versa. So he’s like, “Are you working on anything?” And I was like, “Actually, I really want to record this album.” I sent him probably 15 or 16 demos of different songs. And it turned out, he came back with notes on what he thought and what was cohesive. We worked together for three years on the album, side by side. And we were taking advanced recording classes at the same time with Angela Piva, who has a special credit on the album. She’s this storied New York engineer and a professor.
The demos were guitar and voice or they would be piano and voice. In fact, there’s one song called, “Where Are You?” That was just a voice memo. I was walking around when I wrote it outside. A lot of the songs come to me when I’m in transit. What we did as a first step was take the songs, open up a recording session and say, “What speed is this song? Let’s set a metronome beat. Let’s just lay down some rough chords. Let’s do some scratch vocals.
When we roughed out “Love Comes,” it was just guitar and I knew I wanted bass. So once we had kind of a metronome beat and the guitar chords and the bass chords, it was like, okay, this song has drums. “Love Comes” is really hopeful, and I wanted it to have an uplift. I don’t think I realized at the time how heavy the rest of the record was going to be. It’s pretty heavy for people. As we were going through the process, it was like, this song has this kind of angelic idea.
And a Joni Mitchell sound, too. What were your vocal influences, if you had any?
Judee Sill is a big one. She was a California folk singer. There’s one song called “Emerald River Dance” that I covered, up on Bandcamp. I do love Joni Mitchell, and I have a church music background for sure. But I also have a classical background, and there’s a bunch of classical instruments that are on there. To me, trumpets are hopeful and a chorale is hopeful.
You capture the gloom and make it hopeful at the same time.
I hope that’s kind of the whole album.
It is. Absolutely. What were the most valuable lessons you learned while studying, and how do they apply to making and recording music now?
I think the takeaway for me was taking my music seriously and slowing down. So before school, there was this rush and kind of anxiety to produce something. Once I got to school, it was like, okay, I want to become an artist. I want to spend a week figuring out which reverb is right for the song. Because when you put a chorale into a song, what reverb you choose can take it to church or it can take you to this experimental place. Taking the time to be detail-oriented — I learned that’s the key to being an artist. My personality has sort of been to take everything head on and just keep moving.
Sometimes you just need to stop, which is actually what “Love Comes” is about. My mom died the week I started grad school and three months before I started recording the record. So I was just in this kind of recovery period. I think I needed to take a break from the music after I made it. I did my first live show with it about three weeks ago. I was like, this is cool. I don’t have to feel only sad or only grieving, I can actually put any emotion into this music.
The title track, that is my mom and I playing at the piano. It sounds a little bit like a dream. That was just phone footage.
It sounds classical. I imagine this grand ballroom with high-vaulted ceilings.
That’s good. It’s supposed to kind of take you into that space. My mom had early onset Alzheimer’s, and this song was recorded pretty late where she wasn’t really verbal. I’d done guitar with her a lot, where she might sing along, maybe strum the chords, but she never really played it. And then we’d sit down at piano one day. All those high notes you hear, that’s her playing. She still remembered that; she had the muscle memory for it. So that’s our duet. I feel like the whole album would be so different without that song.
I know you’re a multi-instrumentalist — I wanted to ask about the fiddle on the final track, “Pretty Mama.”
So I was able to grab students from the music conservatory to record on this album. It was either people I’d played with in my band or in a bunch of people I had gigs with, in different bands since I’ve played for other people’s bands and they played for me. Anything that’s an instrument is a fellow student. There’s cello and fiddle, and the fiddle is this guy named Timothy Barrus. Alyssa Jackson is my cellist. She’s on almost half the album.
They were undergraduates when I met them. I went to an orchestra concert and I was really impressed. And I asked them “Would you mind coming for a recording session? I’m doing an album.” And they got it right away. He wasn’t pressing too hard and he wasn’t doing too much bravado. It was like he was singing. And then Alyssa is the lower tone that you hear. It sounds like it’s a viola, but it’s actually two different cellos. There’s two cello tracks, two violin tracks, but it’s just two players. Her energy reminds me of my mother. It’s very interesting. She ended up going through the media scoring program with me, so she ended up becoming a cellist on all these film scores. She played on another film score that I recorded.
I got to do a short film called ‘Bob & Dale’ as part of my grad programs. I’ve done some composing work since then. I got to do a cool project with Hulu recently, celebrating women. There are monuments that are getting built to three women: Coretta, Scott King, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. It’s called ‘Made By Her.’ It’s a really cool project, because basically the premise is that there are so fewer statues to women than men.
They created this virtual website where you can sort of virtually visit these statues, and they wanted an all-female team. So I’ve been doing the sound design and the music.
It’ll be on Hulu to watch?
Yes. So right now, the thing that’s up is the teaser. There’s a composition, and it has some French horn, which is actually my brother-in-law who also recorded on the album for me, too.
My now husband was my first bass player on my first EP. Everything that’s happened to me that’s been important, happened through music.
What would your advice be for someone who is grappling with grief?
I’ve gotten to experience a really big range of unhealthy to healthy ways of coping. When I was applying for graduate school, my mom had not passed away, but I’d been taking care of her for a while. That was a bit of a low point. I think I would say to people, on the very practical side, “Go ahead and just be ok with the fact that you have some mental health issues or you’re in a dark place. Just take a look at it and see what might be going on.” I did end up getting treated for clinical depression, anxiety. Maybe it’s because of my mom. Maybe it’s in the genes. Maybe it’s both. But embracing that and then being in therapy and being able to say more openly that this is something I struggle with helped me.
That’s not my family’s way. My mom didn’t necessarily want to talk about her diagnosis. It was hard for us as a family to talk about it. I wish that I could go back and push the 23-year-old me into therapy, in a group, and just getting some help. Because I really was isolated. I did that to myself, and I don’t think I knew better.
During the pandemic, my now husband had moved in with me. And then about four months later I ended up in the ER with this seizure condition. For a few years he had been dealing with a concussion that took him out of work for a couple years. So he understood. I had a sense when I was writing this music that I needed support, but it was subconscious.
It’s been so healing to just have someone say, “We’re going to get off the couch and make some music.” I think finding people that can draw you out of yourself — and just being able to say “I’m not ok.” That’s the lesson I’ve learned. I’m not sure I could have learned it sooner. I try to be open with my students about that kind of stuff. I had a class during the pandemic; we went from in-person to online. And it seemed like they just needed someone to show up and be like, “It’s okay if you’re like going through stuff.” I think the other lesson, creatively, has to do with anxiety, which of course really linked to depression. You don’t need to do everything; there’s not urgency all the time.