Skip to main content

Patchwork Magic and Music with Shannen James

Words by Erandhi Mendis // Photography by Ellena Paskevicius

When Shannen James was a teenager she dreamed of the Miley Cyrus pipeline: getting signed to Disney Channel, dropping out of school and performing every day.

“I laugh about it now – because sometimes you have to remind yourself that all of this is fun,” she smiles.

The sunny demeanor and warmth is immediately obvious from James, the Melbourne based singer-songwriter. In the same way that the character of Hannah Montana is bubbly and effervescent, it is easy to see why a younger James resonated with the fictional singer – her own disposition immediately comforting and familiar.

As this is our first meeting I’m probing to find out a bit more about who she is as a human being – separate from the performer. Equally reticent and forthcoming – she is almost hesitant to share a conversation at a recent New Years party.

“We were going around our friend group and doing word associations – mine was nice,” she laughs. “Which is so odd for me to say out loud about myself, but it’s comforting because I’ll always overthink interactions with people – knowing that my friends think that’s how I come across to others is lovely.”

The inherent kindness that radiates off James feels palpable in her music. The way she writes about relationships is equal parts deeply personal and outrageously relatable. It’s evident that her care for those around her comes out in her creative process.

“I love my friends and my family. They’re the most important thing in my life, and that’s what I write about: my relationships. It’s the thing that makes me feel like who I am – the people that I’m surrounded by.”

Artists often tend to be innately empathetic by design, James appears no different. But it is interesting to learn that long before she bared her inner world via songwriting – she previously only saw herself as a performer.

“Initially I always saw myself as a performer first because I danced for 15 years, so stages were associated with performing. A lot of the artists I loved when I was young were singers – I just thought other people write the songs and they get up and perform them. So I focused on singing and stagecraft for a long time. It wasn’t until I was maybe 16 with a singing teacher who asked if I’d ever written my own stuff.”

This gentle question paved a trajectory for James, culminating in her debut record, Patchwork – a sun-soaked expanse of acoustic nostalgia and shimmering pop anthems. She tells me it’s been a process, and that she “never considered herself a songwriter.” This admission feels strange given how polished the writing is on Patchwork. But practice makes perfect – and in the lead up to this record, James wrote thousands of songs.

“The oldest song on the album was written six or seven years ago, but there were some songs where I instantly knew were meant to be on it. And others, like Old Mixtapes were written right at the end of the process – that song wasn’t initially on the record.”

Old Mixtapes was how I discovered James’ new album campaign. A sucker for a confessional acoustic track, I remember feeling quite taken in the opening verse of the song. It’s a tender, gentle ballad that almost sounds like a love song while singing about love lost. There are songs in my life that I classify as “Sunday morning, records playing in the kitchen” kind of music. The ones you want soundtracking dappled sunlight and quiet moments. It’s rare that a sad song makes the cut, but Old Mixtapes proves that delivery is everything. Being wistful about love lost is very different from writing about a devastating heartbreak and James navigates the honest reality of how love can languish with painful precision.

However, this is only one side of the record – the opening track Headlights, also a favourite – could not be more different. While the subject matter is deceptively similar, punchier production and melodic groove lend Headlights a ‘dancing in the kitchen,’ title. This juxtaposition can be said for much of James’ debut: it traverses genre fluidity, explores sonic risk taking but holds steadfast to James’ voice and writing throughout. I suppose with a name like Patchwork, it told me that on the tin.

“They’re different textures, I guess,” she says of the tracklist. “And in a patchwork, it’s different colours, it’s different themes. But the thing that makes it all me is it all creates this one piece that’s is comforting and feels like it’s me.”

It’s as succinct and clear a metaphor as I could have hoped for in an album review, and it doesn’t feel on the nose at all to say there really is something for everyone on this record. James shares that the quilting metaphor extends to how tracks came together, she didn’t work with just one co-writer or producer, it was a true crucible of collaborators – something that solidifies the confidence that you will find something that resonates on Patchwork.

James herself, has varied influences. Growing up she loved big Mariah and Whitney moments, still does – but found a haven in Sarah Blasko, Dido and LeAnn Rimes.

“I listened to a lot of the big pop girlies but realised I couldn’t sing their songs, my voice just wasn’t in that place. But then I found LeAnn and others where I realised this [music] sits in my register. They all have amazing voices and it was this realisation of oh! You can sound like whatever you sound like. It doesn’t have to mimic someone. That’s how I found my sound, realising that it’s how you can make the best of your voice that’s important.”

Focusing on the best way to bring out her personality and unique sound in her music proved a useful skill during lockdown. Standout track Superstitious was produced and written during the pandemic.

“We forced ourselves to write something that was going to make us feel good and I think writing it over zoom, having lots of technical difficulties and trying to record in my room when I’ve never done that before – the finished product of that song, is something I’m most proud of because it was the most difficult.”

Embracing challenges feels palpable on Patchwork, the varied stories paint an image of an artist coming into her own and forging creative choices with confidence in a world that often seems built on mass produced sounds and transient trends.

“When I was beginning as a musician I was so worried about what people wanted to hear instead of what I wanted to say. As I’ve gotten older it’s more about accepting you don’t know what people want – you don’t know anything other than what you know yourself. If you’re doing this for anybody else it’s not going to come across the way you want it to. And its hard to follow what’s popular too because if everyone really knew if every trend would land, then everyone would be doing the same thing anyway.”

It always brings me joy to hear a young female musician speak so matter of factly about constructing their own path on their terms – James is a perfect example of this. What’s more, is that under a sparkling demeanour is immense self-awareness of how vulnerable and confronting it can be to work within this industry. It reminds me that we all make choices to pursue the things we love and it’s evident James’ passion for the craft outweighs any hard truths or challenges along the way.

“You know what you can put out there but the rest is literally up to luck and chance about what people like. For me, that has been one of the most challenging things: realising the hard work actually never ends. Things don’t just get easier when you get signed. Things don’t get easier when you play the biggest show you’ve ever played.”

It’s refreshing to hear an artist who obviously adores their work and is arguably in somewhat of a honeymoon from releasing a debut record, speak so candidly about grappling the actuality of a path often romanticised. Creation of art is often rightly labelled as emotional laborious, however the mundane parts of music careers – the “hustle,” in a saturated, unforgiving market requires a heightened level of resilience and unwavering commitment to finding joy and purpose despite the challenges.

For James, the joy seems obvious. While she acknowledges, “it [can be] a hard industry to be in,” her gratitude and love of connection brings her back to why she started all of this in the first place.

“It’s so rewarding getting to play shows or hearing people share that they loved your song – growing up you have all these ideas of what you’re going to do and then suddenly 10-15 years have passed and you’re still focused on making that happen. That feeling of connecting is everything – whenever [it’s hard], I do remind myself that I get to do this and it’s actually just really fun.”

Catch Shannen on tour this April.

Fri 12 Apr | Junk Bar | Brisbane, QLD
Sat 13 Apr | Low 302 | Sydney, NSW
Fri 19 Apr | The Bergy Seltzer | Melbourne, VIC

Leave a Reply