A Q&A with Shelly Bhushan

Six years ago, I was started a stint as a freelance music journalist for the now-defunct Astoria, NY/Long island City-based publication, Ins&Outs Magazine. As a result of publishing a review of Interpol‘s Antics, I was invited to the magazine’s 10th anniversary party/holiday party. The magazine invited a few locally-based artists including Shelly Bhushan. Unfortunately, at the time, I somehow only caught a small part of her set but she had given away several download cards of the album she had just released, Picking Daisies. Thankfully, I promptly downloaded the album shortly after the party and I was impressed by her soulful vocals. 

A couple of years later, I saw Bhushan perform at the LIC Bar’s annual Queens of Queens singer/songwriter showcase. At the time, she had begun to establish herself in a very talented and (sadly) unheralded singer/songwriter scene in Long Island City, Queens which includes the likes of Little Embers, Jeneen Terrana, Gus Rodriguez, Jeanne Marie Boes, and others. 

May 5th marks the CD release of Bhushan’s latest full-length album, Something Out of Nothing (the album sees a much larger release in June), and the album itself reveals an artist who has grown remarkably. Sonically, the material is a bit of a departure from both Picking Daises or Make Believe as the compositions on the album are simpler, allowing room for Bhushan’s vocals and lyrics, while creating a very intimate feel – as though you were catching Bhushan and her backing band in a local venue downtown. Lyrically, the songs capture the profundity within the mundane and daily experiences of her life, and those of others. And she does so with an unvarnished, unflinching honesty. In her songs, you hear the messiness of average, everyday life, as well as the simple triumphs – such as being deeply (and honestly) in love. 

Also, May 5th is Bhushan’s album release show at Rockwood Music Hall. You’ll hear her and her backing band perform the songs from the new album live, in an intimate setting, and it’ll be worth your time. 

In this Q&A, the unflinchingly honest Bhushan speaks about the observations and experiences that influenced Something Out of Nothing; the songwriting and recording process of the album; how it is to record, write and create with her husband in her backing band; her advice for artists attempting to make a name for themselves; and of course, much more. 

 

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WRH: How did you get into music and when did you know that was the only thing you wanted to do?  

SB: I have been singing since the day I started breathing. Its just part of who I am.  My parents are immigrants (My dad is from India and my mom is from Mexico), and not particularly musical, so “singing” professionally has never been in their idea of what a child should do. So I didn’t have a show biz parent nurturing my talent or anything.    However, my dad loves music and was happy about me loving music too and would take me to choir rehearsals after-school and was supportive that way.  That’s how I got into singing.  I went through various incarnations in my singing life… a choral singer, a karaoke singer, a singing waitress, a jazz singer and then what I am today which is a singer songwriter. I always wanted to sing, but honestly I always thought I didn’t have the “look” to be a singer.  I have never thought of myself as this gorgeous, skinny pop-tart so I kind of assumed it would never be for me. But I decided to pursue it despite my insecurities because every time I walked away from music it would find me… in a very aggressive way.  I love music, it’s a part of me, its my DNA… I live for music and making music… so I couldn’t deny who I was. 

WRH: You’re originally from the Dallas, TX area, if I’m not mistaken. How long have you been in NYC? And what brought you to our fair city? 

SB: Yes, from a suburb of Dallas. I have been in NYC going on 13 years. I moved to NY to front a Soul-Rock band.  I found the ad for a lead singer in the Village Voice when I was visiting in the Spring of 2000, I auditioned by sending in a tape with my vocals on top of their songs.  They asked me to come to NY to audition, I auditioned.  They told me I was the one.  I sold everything I owned, bought a one way ticket… no job, no place to live, etc., and moved here.  It feels like a billion years ago; a memory of me that I can’t even grasp.  Sometimes I’m like, what the hell was I thinking?  But I made the right choice for me. I love NYC and this is now my home. 

WRH: Who are your influences?  

SB: My influences are vast… I grew up listening to a ton of pop music; Michael Jackson was huge for me, so was Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis, the Police, the Carpenters. I was a slave to top 40.  But as I got older, I started listening to a ton of 90’s alternative rock: Red Hot Chili Peppers, NIN, No Doubt, Alanis Morrissette, Nirvana, Pearl Jam.  Then I got very into old school soul.  I always had a thing for soul music, it just feels so natural to me.  It’s physical and emotional so I spent a very longtime in a soul immersion: Aretha, Donny [Hathaway], Etta [James], Michael, Sly [Stone], you name it.  My bandmates (John Celentano and Harry Cordew) have had a huge influence on me.  John’s been influenced by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, classic Rock ‘n Roll.  Harry has played with some of the great funk and soul legends of our time (James Brown, Roberta Flack, many others).  So, he’s got a deep influence in soul and funk. I feel like musically I’m a mid-point between Harry and John and together we make a perfect sonic mix. 

WRH: How would you describe your sound?  

SB: I hate this question, as all artists do because they want to be unique. Indie/Soul/Rock/Pop?  Art Pop? I don’t know.  I have a tough time describing the sound because it’s a mélange of things.  I know I liked my moniker of AltSoul, but I don’t know if it’s as soulful as it used to be.  I like ArtPop because it feels like taking chances.  Our mastering engineer told me he heard lots of Pink Floyd in it, which I thought was insanity and awesome.  Someone said I was a female Bruno Mars? Another said I was like a soulful White Stripes, which I found cool.  I heard we sounded British, which is good because I can fake a good British accent. But we are all American. 

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

SB: Living in NY it’s hard for me to listen to popular music because I don’t drive that much and I must admit, I’m not all that in love with top 40 anymore; although, I’ve heard some real gems lately.  I think Bruno Mars is an incredible singer and I was introduced Jessie Ware, and thought she was cool. I went through a huge Beatles immersion at the end of 2012.  I was listening to a ton of Supertramp and Foreigner.  I find Grizzly Bear and Sharon Van Etten very interesting, I was obsessed with her song “Serpents” for 6 months.  On repeat, everyday.  The indie music scene is really interesting to me, although I’m not sure I’m that cool.  I’m not ironic at all, at least not in my music. Now more than ever music is constantly changing and breeding with other genres.  It’s cool and amazing.  However, the other day I heard a funk/slap bass in a few new “indie” tracks and I was like, WTF?  I wasn’t sure if it was meant as a joke or because they really loved it.  

WRH: How did you meet your backing band? 

SB: My backing band consists of me on guitar, John Celentano on Drums and Harry Cordew on Bass.  I met John (who is now my husband) at a networking event.  I was trying to get my solo project started and I already had band members in mind.  I started playing with those folks, but had a very challenging time leading the project. I had no idea what I was doing.  Meanwhile, John and I started dating and he offered to help.  I was reluctant to have my love interest involved in my business as I believed in a serious division of church and state; however, a friend convinced me it was the right thing to do.  It was the best move I ever made.  Harry was brought in by a friend.  We were looking for a bassist desperately.  Harry had taken a hiatus from playing for a short time before he came to us.  I remember the day he showed up to our rehearsal we were floored and he’s been with us ever since.  Occasionally my friend Ben Hoffstein will play with us when he has time, but he hasn’t played with us consistently in almost 2 years.  I met him through John when John and some other guys were putting together a funk and soul cover band called Spank.  We sometimes have other guests joining us like: Anthony Lanni from Os Clavelitos who plays additional guitar.  I met him through the LIC scene.  But for the most part it’s the 3 of us and we have a good time with it.  I love playing the guitar now, it’s brought me so much joy.  Never thought that would happen. 

WRH: Something Out of Nothing will be dropping in early May. How does the new album differ from your previously released efforts, such as the Make Believe EP and Picking Daisies 

SB: It’s being released in hard form on May 5, but more like June for the rest of the world.Unlike Picking Daisies, most of the material was written by me alone.  John (who produced the album and I) spent a lot of time arranging the songs on Something Out of Nothing whereas on Picking Daisies, we had played these arrangements and developed the arrangements with the band we kind of went in, played the songs, added some strings and horns and were done.  I think Something Out of Nothing is a little less “soulful”… a little more rock skewing.  In addition,  we have some interesting synth parts whereas I was a purist about organic instruments on Picking Daisies.  I also feel like Picking Daisies was intentionally more old school sounding.  I feel like Something Out of Nothing really establishes my sound.  I think I’ve finally achieved the kind of sound that I’ve always wanted.  A true blend of all the music I love and loved. The writing is clear, I have a point of view.  I’m proud of this album. 

WRH: How did you come up with the album name? Did you know that you Something Out of Nothing was going to be the album name when you went into the studio? 

SB: The album name actually started off being Anthropomorphic … even earlier, it was Feather, but as I continued to work on material and continued to write for the album it became clearer that Something Out of Nothing was the right name for this record.  Something Out of Nothing started off as an angry song.  I wrote it in response to someone making me feel bad about myself.  I loved the chorus, but I hated the verses.  I felt they were angry and immature and had nothing to do with the POV I was coming from.  I spent months trying to figure out how to solve this problem. One afternoon, I was looking at this plant that was on the ledge in the apartment and I thought…. “Isn’t it incredible… this little plant that I grew out of a seed?  The entire world is against this little thing and yet it thrives.  And I thought, we are all like this plant.  Us versus the world.”  

Additionally, much of the material was created by observing daily things, objects, etc and relating them back to the human experience or to be more specific, my human experience. I did this with “Feather,” “Flickering,” “Unrequited Love Song”… everything about this album was about being an observer of the world and of myself and relating it back out there.  Making something bigger out of the mundane or potentially unnoticed; something out of nothing.  I also thought it was a much less literal way of saying anthropomorphic. 

I guess I also have always had this sort of underdog complex and feel like I created me… something out of nothing. 

WRH: On Something Out of Nothing, there are of course funky and soulful songs such as “Never Let You Go” and “Who Do You Think You Are” but there are a fair number of songs on the album where the arrangements are hauntingly sparse, ballads such as “Blinded,” and album closer, “Unrequited Love Song”. And even on the funkier songs, there’s more of a stripped down, band playing in a local little venue downtown sort of feel. Was this an intentional decision when you and your band got to the studio to record the material? And what inspired it?   

SB: I think this time around I was really focused on clarity and celebrating the songs. I was also determined to make a “beautiful” album above all else.  John, Harry and I were playing as a trio for awhile which gave me the opportunity to listen to the songs breathe and add detail and color where I saw fit.  These songs were not improvised or designed by the band like they had been in the past.   

On songs like “Blinded” and “Moon,” we didn’t want to muck up the songs by adding things for additions sake.  I didn’t want to take the cheesy route of adding strings just because strings go on ballads. On “Intoxication” I wanted to sound lazy and drunk and slightly sloppy and sexy. On “Moon,” I wanted people to hear the longing in my vocal with the prosody of the lyrics.  I feel like I’ve never been raw on tape before, only live.  I feel like I’m most me when raw and alone. It celebrates the song and I like that.

However, I think there are some songs on the album that are really not stripped at all: “Something Out of Nothing,” “Flickering,” “Feather,” “Digging In Deep,” “Never Let You Go” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” are pretty huge.  But again, they do center around the song and vocal.  There’s more guitar which I didn’t really have in the past.  Vocally, I didn’t feel it necessary to do some of the money shots I’d been known to do.  I felt like I didn’t have to. 

We took a very different approach to recording this album.  We recorded the drums in an old rehearsal space that wasn’t meant for recording with 3 microphones, which is pretty unorthodox nowadays.  I recorded all my vocals on a hand-held 58.  I tried different condensers, but I really wanted to have control over my vocals.  I’ve blown up so many condenser mics before that we had to compress my vocals in post too much.  It wasn’t natural. I wanted to have as little compression as possible.  I want the listener to hear me..  We did all the guitars, bass and key/synth stuff at home.  Harry would come over and we’d just spend hours trying things. The only thing we did in studio was the piano and vocals on “Moon” and “Blinded.” We had done all our previous records in studios before, but this just felt like a more personal record.  We could hear the birds chirping out our window and could sit in our chairs and stare at the sessions all night. This album feels mature to me. I feel it’s my best work yet.  I wanted to tell a story this time.  I wanted to leave my ego at the door. I hope the listener feels that way. 

WRH: Lyrically both Something Out of Nothing and Make Believe come from a very personal place: the speaker of “Digging in Deep” talks about their own personal demons; “Blinded” is fairly accurate description of the commitment and complicated array of emotions that come up within a marriage. There’s a couple of touching lines where the speaker of the song talks about getting older – through wrinkles and noticing grey hairs. How much of the material is based on the events, circumstances and observations of your own life?  

SB: The material was based on observation and then internalizing them.  “Digging in Deep” is talking about struggling and feeling very judged by the outside world in addition to trying to understand my artistic relevance in this place. When I play the song, I get really embarrassed, it’s really honest and really scary to just say to people that you feel like you’re failing, but even still you’ll keep going.  I think I struggle with that a lot, specifically with my music career. It’s hard to keep going, but I feel like I still have something to say. I think when I no longer do then I’ll reevaluate. “Blinded” came to me when my brother was getting married.  I remember being on the train and thinking about him and his wife and what it meant to be in a long term, committed relationship. I started thinking about my own marriage and thinking about how it’s amazing how someone can love you so much even when you’re flawed.  It’s about the guise of being blind by love, even though we’re not really blind.   I read an OP/ED by David Brooks in the New York Times recently talking about the phrase “suffer fools gladly”… I had no idea what that meant, but there was a quote by G.K. Chesterton that said something like  (and I’m paraphrasing a bit), a couple cannot live together without having against each other a kind of everlasting joke. Each has discovered that the other is a fool, but a great fool. This largeness, this grossness and gorgeousness of folly is the thing which we all find about those with whom we are in intimate contact; and it is the one enduring basis of affection, and even of respect.”  I thought that summed it up perfectly.

WRH: How does the songwriting process work for you? Do you come into the studio with a demo and you and the band flesh out the song until it’s complete – or do you come into the studio with a fully formed song? 

SB: Well, it’s been different every time.  I’ve written alone, with another person, with my band.  This time, for S.O.O.N., we (John/Ben/Harry) collaborated on 3 songs: “Feather,” “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Something Out of Nothing.”  The rest I wrote alone, on guitar or piano.  On “Intoxication” we basically re-recorded my demo,[and] we just added drums.  “Moon,” “Unrequited Love Song,” and “Blinded” were pretty much as they came. We added the guitars to “Blinded” and added the treated piano to “Moon.”

WRH: On the “About” section of your webpage, you jokingly mention the fact that your sound bends genres and resists easy categorization – sonically it’s easy to hear elements of soul, neo-soul, country music and indie rock within your songs. Have you had any moment where someone just hasn’t quite gotten you or your sound?

SB: I’ve definitely had moments where people haven’t gotten my sound. But at the same time, I can’t imagine making another “sound.” Anything else would be disingenuous.  One of my favorite stories is after gig at the Shrine in Harlem a woman walked up to me and she looked at me and said, “I’m a former A&R person from Atlantic, You are a Star!  Do you know what your problem is? People don’t know where to put you. They don’t know what you are.”  She proceeded to say, “You know what I think you should do? You should look like a Kardashian girl…”  She was trying to trouble shoot how to make me more marketable. She didn’t understand how I could be soulful and yet so unrecognizable in a look sense. It really perplexed her. Obviously, I still haven’t made myself look like a Kardashian girl.  I do think I’m hard to pin down and that’s tough for me, because I’d like to be successful at this.  People like to categorize because it’s safe.  But I think innovation has never been found through comfort.  I wish I could make it easier for people to understand, but then I’d be making music that doesn’t feel like me and why bother? Maybe I just like things the hard way.  I’m what the Italian Americans refer to as stunad.  But seriously, I want to make music that feels like me, sounds like me, lyrically would come out of this mouth.  I’ve never really been thought of as conventional in any way. Someone once called me an aberration. I took it as a compliment.

WRH: I’ve been aware of you as an artist for quite some time – I can remember catching you perform songs from your Picking Daisies album at Ins&Outs Magazine’s Holiday Party at this loft in the West 30s. This had to be around 2006, I guess. (Yeah, seriously.) A few years later, I caught you play a set one year at the LIC Bar’s annual Queens of Queens singer/songwriter showcase. You perform at the LIC Bar regularly and have been part of a scene of some really talented singer/songwriters based in and around Long Island City. So how exactly did you get involved in this particular scene? 

SB: Well,I met Gus Rodriguez who’s basically the nucleus for the scene at my first open mic and he introduced me to some people.  He asked me to join a bill on LIC summer event like the Queens of Queens or their outdoor Memorial Day event.  I was introduced to a lot of different people and organically I made connections and he kept asking me back.  I started collaborating in different ways with some of the singer songwriters like Ryan O’Toole from Amateur Blonde, Jeneen Terrana and Little Embers.  I feel like I carved a little place for me there.  I had never been part of a scene before. It’s nice to be around creative and like minded people.  LIC is a nurturing, artistic environment.  I feel like I’ve really opened up as an artist because of it. 

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? And is there any advice you’d have in particular to women, especially since they can traditionally have a tougher time making a name for themselves?

SB: I think the best advice I can give someone is to not give up if they feel they still have something to say. It’s so easy to hang it up, because it’s hard. But I think it’s harder and hurts more to live in silence versus making music; especially if it’s in you.  I think you also have to be honest about what you want out of music.  This business is extremely hard and I certainly haven’t cracked it, I think you have to be honest about the music you make.  Stay true.  On the flip, when it comes to the business, leave your emotion out of it and use your head. Fight to be heard! I don’t know.  I’m not sure I should be giving anyone any advice.