“High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in biweekly installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.
A little over a year ago, Philly folk singer Shannen Moser released a debut studio full-length, Oh My Heart, on Philly-based indie record label Lame-O.
Moser is open about how emotional attachment affected everything from the approach to recording it to stagecraft. While her first tour in support of the material last summer was with a full band, her set at last fall’s Philly Music Fest — where we conducted this interview — was stripped down to herself and cellist Julia Peters, who’s worked closely with Moser since Peters moved to the area a few years ago.
“Julia and I will write things and then will have friends or former bandmates come in and rip on a little part,” explains the singer, adding, “that’s really comfortable for me. Especially having something that is so deeply personal. I feel like if it were a loud, fun rock band I wouldn’t be so neurotic about it. But I think this is a really comfortable way for everybody to make something together. The whole jump from making a record by myself in my room to working with lots of people was definitely intimidating for a few months,” Moser reflects. “Even still I have trouble letting go of some of that creative control as far how as the record sounds or whatever, but I’ve been really lucky to work with really awesome people and people that let me do things the way I want to do them, and have been incredibly supportive of that.”
Late last Fall, Moser supported label mates and fellow-Philly compatriots Slaughter Beach, Dog on a full US tour. “Big shout-out for Lame-O Records, right here! They’re great,” proclaimed the 24-year-old songwriter, at an interview with her and Peters backstage at Philly Music Fest last September. “And Eric Osman is the best label mom ever. A-Plus!”
The two artists spoke with candor and an endearing affection for their community in the city, which had been adopted for both of them. They talk over each other frequently — not in a dismissive or a competitive way, but in more of a complementary, sharp-witted exchange, with each contributing details to a story. They often finish each other’s sentences, or simultaneously recall the same same details of their shared experience, and it’s easy to see how their musical contributions to a project synthesize a whole greater than the sum.
You can catch them at Everybody Hits on May 14th.
THE KEY: Are you guys from Philly, originally?
SHANNEN MOSER: So, I grew up an hour outside of the city, but spent a lotta time here as a kid, so. Not from Philadelphia but close enough.
TK: What part of PA?
SM: Reading, Pennsylvania. But, even more specifically Oley, Pennsylvania. Super rural area of Reading.
TK: Like Oley Valley?
SM: Oley Valley! You are the first person that I’ve said “Oley” to say “Oley Valley,” that’s great..
TK: So what was it like growing up there?
SM: …compared to living in the city? Super isolated, as far as things to do. But a pretty good place to grow up, being a kid. Really beautiful, like aesthetically really nice. As far as music stuff goes, there’s not a lot going on there. There’s a small scene that revolves around the Kutztown area. There’s a college there, so it’s a little more populated. But while all of my peers in Philadelphia have a really rich, deep background with music — growing up doing music in bands and stuff — I definitely feel like a late-bloomer, in comparison, because of where I grew up. But good place. A-plus place to grow up, for sure.
TK: And when did you move here again?
SM: The end of 2012.
TK: Not for high school, or anything in particular, right?
SM: Oh, no no..
TK: Did you go to school up there or anything?
SM: I went to school in Northern California for like a year. Again really beautiful, not a lot going on. Pretty expensive, too. Came home, moved to the city.
TK: And Julia, where are you from?
JULIA PETERS: I’m from Northern Virginia, like outside of D.C., but moved here from Brooklyn.
TK: Philly-by-way-of-Brooklyn, fair enough.
JP: [laughs] Typical, nowadays.
TK: How did you both first get connected to the Philly music scene?
SM: So I had a bunch of friends that lived here, saw them doing music. I’ve been playing music my whole life, and thought that this would be a really neat place to put my feet in, like literally everybody else. [laughs] But yeah so I started playing small shows around the city, and then met more people through there. And then, Julia and I met…
JP: …it was like a week after I moved to Philly…
SM: …yeah…two years ago?…
JP: …yeah. On 4th of July.
SM: We had a mutual friend who was like, “y’all would dig each other, you guys would like what you [each] do…” And then we started playing music together and it’s been really great!
TK: When you first hear that from a mutual friend, isn’t the first response to sort of dismiss it? Like, yeah, whatever..
SM: Yeah, totally! Absolutely.
JP: Before I even moved here — it was probably a month or two beforehand — it was actually a different mutual friend, it was AT one of Shannen’s shows, who was like, “you have to play with this girl.” She was like, “I’m really drunk. And I know this sounds crazy. But you need to meet her when you move here.” And I was like “ooookay.. We’ll see about that.” And then of course it was like a week after I moved here that we met.
SM: [laughs] And what was kind of cool and different is that, Julia plays the cello. So normally when people are like, “oh you have to play with this person,” it’s like, another guitar player! You know, whatever, something that you can find a lot of places. But what’s really cool about the thing that Julia does is that there’s like one or two other people in the city that do that very special thing, and it just kind of added so much to what I was already doing that it was pretty undeniably connected right away.
TK: Were there certain people, did you have any mentors, did you feel included when you first moved to Philly?
SM: Totally. For me personally, I was really lucky, and I feel I met a really welcoming group of people. One of my first friends in the city were the boys from that band Clique, and I feel like they included me a lot in their social circles. And also they asked me to sing on some of their stuff in the city. That was really neat, so I started singing at shows with them before I really was doing anything. And then from there it just kind of evolved. Everything is so tightly knit in the city, I feel like, while there’s definitely different sub-groups under the umbrella of the DIY scene. So I feel especially pretty lucky. And Ruben Polo, who books a bunch of shows, really really did me so many favors, being new to the city, and set me up with a bunch of shows, and I definitely credit him for a lot of that. Yeah, I don’t know about you [Julia], I felt really cozy, moving into the city…
JP: Yeah. I guess I knew a lotta people, from touring with my old band. I guess I really only play with Shannen, I guess I ride the coattails. [laughs] But yeah, I feel like Philly more so than other places has an actual community, and once you know one friendly person…
SM: … you know everybody!… [laughs]
TK: What do you guys remember from your first Philly show?
SM: The first show we played together was not in Philly, it was in…
BOTH: Flemington, New Jersey! [both laugh]
SM: …which was a funny place…
JP: …cute, though.
SM: So… we don’t have to talk about that… [confers with Julia to recall first show]… the timeline is messy — but I feel like, since we started playing shows together — it depends on the bill — but the type of music that I think we play is definitely acoustic, and pretty emotive, and not loud. So, if there’s a bill that’s mostly loud and fast, it’s a little harder to connect. But I feel for the most part that people have been really receptive and interested. And it’s also hard as a singer-songwriter — and especially a woman singer-songwriter, because that in the eyes of a city or of music in general is really done so much — to get attention for doing that is pretty cool. But also I’ve tried to beat that out of my brain because so many awesome women are doing the singer-songwriter thing in Philly. And it’s never the same, and it’s never boring. It’s really cool.
JP: But I think that is one of the downsides to having a scene that’s so social, especially bigger shows can sometimes be like a social event. Which is awesome, because you can see all your friends in one place…
SM: …we’ve played so many shows…
JP: …where it’s people yelling…
JP: …drunk in the back.. you know, it’s not like a jammy rock band where you can do that…
SM: …I guess just the intensity of the nature of the songs — and maybe that’s just how I perceive it because it’s so deeply personal to me — but there have definitely been shows where people have [laughs] screamed over most of it and I just felt really defeated. But, luckily we’ve been pretty fortunate that that’s not the case anymore really.
JP: And also how you command a room. Like at the end of a set you can hear a pin drop. [laughs]
TK: What’s your favorite Philly venue to play?
SM: I think Everybody Hits is a really good space. Also I back David [Gavigan] so hard, he does so much for us as a community. He runs that place as a business and then just like opens it up at night for us to play shows. And he totally doesn’t have to do that, but he does it, and he does it a lot. So that’s really cool.
JP: I would agree. I think it sounds awful in there. Like it sounds like shit, but it’s so much fun so it doesn’t matter.
SM: All Night Diner, is another one. It’s in West Philly, it’s 47th and Baltimore, basically. Just a really awesome, inclusive space. They book a lot of touring bands. And a lot of touring bands that there isn’t a large amount of hype over, because I feel like that’s another thing in this city is that a lot of the same bands get booked. Which is great, and they’re awesome. But there’s something to be said about a space that tries to lift other bands up, and so they do a really good job of doing that. It’s really cool.
TK: I love the tone of your new record Oh, My Heart, I was wondering where you got the idea to use the opening hymn?
SM: Yeah, cool. It’s a Sacred Harp except. Are you familiar with Sacred Harp singing, at all? It’s really popular in the South. Also pretty popular in the Northeast. I haven’t seen it out West, or anything. It’s just a practice of singing out of the Sacred Harp, it’s a hymn book. And if you can picture a sheet of music, on the staff, on the stem are shapes, instead of just a circle, and every shape is a different solfege vowel. So you sing the first verse through solfege, and then you sing the whole song with the words. It’s really religiously bound, but it’s awesome, because the Sacred Harps — as least around here — you don’t have to be religious. I think it’s really popular out of the Quaker practice.
It’s really great, and the community of people are really awesome, and it’s just really empowering. The way you do it is there’s a square, and everybody faces each other, and then there’s one person in the middle that will lead the song. And honestly, the first time I heard it, I was like, this sounds cultish, almost! [laughs] Like it’s very, very intense. But there’s something really beautiful about people singing with no inhibitions. It’s very loud, it’s very powerful. It’s not really about how particularly well you can sing. And that’s really something I love. And that particular hymn is just about the idea of death, and letting go of the idea that death is scary. Which is something that I have struggled with a lot, so that particular sentiment was really cool, and I also think tied into different themes of the record in itself.
TK: It’s really cool how you took a line of that into your first song on the album. I hadn’t been familiar with that form of singing except for the movie Cold Mountain, where they use that song in the scene where Jude Law’s character Inman first hears about the Civil War starting while they’re singing it in church…
SM: Yeah! Totally.
TK: Who are you favorite Philly artists, or which ones influenced you the most?
SM: Oof. Do you wanna start? ‘Cause I got to think… [laughs] There’s just so many…
JP: There are a lot. I love Spirit Of The Beehive. A lot. And Sun Organ. I play Sun Organ all the time at work, and I don’t think enough people ask me what it is. Those are the first two that come to mind.
SM: I love those bands also. Spirit Of The Beehive is one of the most creatively driven bands I’ve ever heard of in my life. Never cease to amaze me. When I first moved here, Abi Reimold was a big one for me, that I was like, wow, somebody doing what I wanna be doing, and also doing it so well, and is so commanding. She’s really great. And then my friends in Clique. I really like that band, and obviously have an emotional relationship with them. My friend Cam Konner does this project called Lode Card, which is mostly an electronic project — and I don’t really mess with that stuff too much, like I don’t find myself listening to that kind of music — but it’s such smart music, and it’s so thoughtful, and just really arranged in such a way that’s just kind of mind-blowing. And he records bands also — he recorded the Fourth Wanderers new record, they’re a band from New Jersey — but yeah he does a lot of great things. There’s just so much, it’s just endless.
JP: Now that I’m sitting here thinking about it, I’m like well, I’ve been listening to a lot, well Hop Along. Obviously.
SM: Oh yeah, that’s the one I always forget about because it’s so in-front-of-you. Yeah. I could go on for months about how that band has influenced me. But I won’t, because that’s embarrassing.
SM: But yeah, really, they really hit it every time.
TK: What do you guys feel are the benefits of being an artist in Philadelphia, and on the flipside what if anything do you find most frustrating about that?
SM: I feel like I’ve gained a lot of confidence in this city. Not even within myself musically, but just in my day-to-day life. Moving here, I’ve been playing music for a long time, but never realized it to be something I could share with people. I always felt like, you know, this is just something I do to just do, and it’s not for anybody except for myself, and then I started playing shows and then realized that people did wanna hear it. And I guess it just helped me recognize a lot of other things in my life that were similar to that. Having just a platform to do what you wanna do is really a very lucky thing to get, and I also realize that there are tons of people making really wonderful art that don’t get that platform. So I think it’s also helped me be more aware of lifting up other people with you that you feel deserve the same amount of recognition that you get, whether it’s asking them to play shows with you, or sharing their stuff through your social media, whatever. And the most frustrating part, ooh… that’s a tough one. It’s small. The city is small.
TK: In terms of being insular?
SM: Yes. And at times gated. And there are a lot of heads of the scene — maybe it’s not intentional, I’m sure it’s not intentional — but there’s a lot of gatekeeping that goes on, and it almost feels like, you know, you could be doing something really wonderful or beautiful or innovative, but sometimes it’s like if you don’t meet the right people or if you don’t go out enough… That’s something I struggle with, is being active or very social, and [I] definitely would rather be home all of the time. [laughs] So for people that don’t have that social ability, I definitely feel like there’s less opportunity for people like that, and that’s kind of shitty. But on the flipside of that, there are people doing things to counteract that, so. I don’t know, that’s what I would say.
JP: I was gonna say the same thing for being frustrated. I think there’s a lotta groups of people that I’ve been lucky enough — I’ve known them for a very long time, not that that makes a difference — but other people have told me, “oh I feel like it’s really insular, and there’s a brick wall that surrounds this part of the city.” Or like going to different types of shows feeling really alienated. But the great thing about living here is it’s so easy to stay inspired all time. Because it is so small. So you meet people constantly. I was just saying earlier that one of my favorite regulars at work was saying he might come to the show tonight, and he’s a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And he was like asking me about Augusta [Koch] from Cayetana, he was like, “oh she’s playing the day before, right?” [laughs] I struggle with balancing my life a lot as far as art and work and my regular life, and seeing other people that are able to break that boundary and just work on stuff constantly is really inspiring and inspires me most.
TK: Julia what did you do with do with cello before you met Shannen?
JP: I was classically trained. I wanted to go to music school. I did for a year, and then didn’t drop out of school entirely but didn’t end up getting a performance degree. I played with The World Is A Beautiful Place & I’m No Longer Afraid To Die — [laughs] it’s a mouthful, always has been — for a couple years, and since then I’ve done session stuff.
TK: Where do you guys live in Philly, and how do you feel about your neighborhood?
SM: I’ve lived all over. When I first moved here I lived in South Philly, like Point Breeze-area. And then I moved to West Philly, the Cedar Park neighborhood, and those are two very different neighborhoods. And now I’m in Brewerytown, which is kind of being completely rolled over by gentrification right now, it’s a pretty intense period of time in that neighborhood. It’s great though, I love living there. I expected to move in there and just kind of like do my thing, but the neighborhood is so welcoming. Like all of my neighbors are really really warm and have been really great. And even in the face of such a fucked up time in that neighborhood, I have nothing but good things to say about it up there. And it’s also really close to my work, so. [laughs] Love it!
JP: When I first moved here — two-and-a-half years ago, something like that — I was living in West Philly, on like 52nd and Cedar. [Shannen and I] were very close. Ended up moving to like 5th and Jefferson a year after that, and now I live on Norris Square Park, which I love. Like I have an old neighbor who invites us over to eat empanadas, all the time, and will make us a full meal, and we’ll just sit and talk to her and her granddaughter. Definitely feel like it’s the favorite neighborhood I’ve lived in.
SM: I feel like everybody moves around until they find a neighborhood that feels like the most “home” to them.
JP: Yeah because West Philly was not for me…
SM: I loved West Philly. I thought West Philly was really chill, but it’s really very expensive now, to live.
TK: That’s interesting Julia, what didn’t you like about it?
JP: Um, I felt like I wasn’t “granola” enough, and I wasn’t “punk” enough at the same time…
SM: …there’s definitely a “denim-punk” vs. “leather-punk” out in that part of West Philly, for sure. It’s so true! And when I first hear that I was like wow, that’s like, real! ‘Cause there’s like a lot of like crusts, out there, but there’s also a bunch of like…
JP: …kids that went to like, pop-punk shows in Drexel basements. You know.
SM: Yeah yeah. But [West Philly] doesn’t feel like you live in a city. There’s trees everywhere, which I really liked about that, like it reminded me a little bit of home. And I think if it weren’t for music stuff and how many beautiful friends I have here I probably wouldn’t live in the city. I’m not really “city-slicker.” But yeah. Everywhere feels pretty good.
Shannen Moser plays Everybody Hits on May 14th with Lifted Bells, By Surprise and En Route. Tickets and more information on the concert can be found at its Facebook event page.
Shannen Moser, The High Key Portrait Series