Q&A with Madison based singer/songwriter Shawndell Marks
by Teri Barr
Madison based singer/songwriter Shawndell Marks
photo by Nissa Brehmer
Inspiration—good and bad—can run deep.
Shawndell Marks makes no excuses and uses both to her advantage. She can turn pride or pain into an outstanding song. And as I quickly learned, she would rather do that than an interview, any day!
Marks has been on the area scene for a long time, though you may only recognize her outstanding skills as part of an ensemble or tribute band. She’s solo now, and this tiny but mighty woman’s new album is just out. Look for it, along with December show dates on her website and keep reading for more on her surprising music roots, and why it would be ok if she didn’t like Elvis.
Maximum Ink: Let’s start with one of my favorite questions—when did music become an interest? Every person I’ve talked with has a very different story. What’s yours?
Shawndell Marks: I was in 2nd grade, and my family moved into an apartment that had an old, out-of-tune upright piano stashed in the back of it. I would sit with an open hymnal in front of me and pretend to play. I had no idea what I was doing, but felt confident it sounded STELLAR. It was instant love for those black & white keys. My grandmother eventually bought me my own piano after our family moved out of the apartment. I played organ and piano in church through middle school, and in high school auditioned for “The Wisconsin Opry,” a music theater in the Dells offering nightly country-western shows to tourists. I worked there for three summers (performing Patsy Cline’s Crazy), and at the age of 18, I met my future husband who asked me to join his cover band, Thunder Road. We opened for George Jones, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and also played clubs and festivals.
Songwriting didn’t fully take root until after I lost my father to mental illness.
I was 23. Writing music was a way to process and heal. My first album, Remnants of Crazy (2005), reflects this. After the release of Remnants, a few members of Thunder Road became my original band, and we played art centers throughout the state.
My next album, Little Things (2011), an EP, features simple piano/vocal melodies, ethereal synth sounds, and a cover of Over the Rainbow, which has become a fan favorite.
In 2013 I took a music hiatus, which turned out to be a very good idea. The break allowed room for creative energy to ferment and eventually become fuel to drive the desire to be more involved than ever before.
Since then, I’ve been involved with several projects including backup singer and keyboardist for Artists Alive, Inc’s Tear Down the Wall, a multi-media concert featuring a live performance of the iconic Pink Floyd album The Wall; also, the house band keyboardist for Chick Singer Night Madison, in a Fleetwood Mac tribute band Gold Dust Women, an Alanis Morisette tribute band Jagged Little Pills, the pop-rock vocal trio Gin, Chocolate & Bottle Rockets, and a new Shawndell Marks Band.
MI: So, you are involved in a lot of projects, and you’ve had some incredible musical influences?
SM: Music is actually in my blood! Family gatherings on my mother’s side would include several guitars and gorgeous extended harmonies of old gospel tunes. My grandfather had his own WIBA radio program in the early 1950’s in Madison, and my mother performed on the Orpheum stage in Madison when she was 12. Music is such a special medium—inspiring others while being inspired, bringing social opportunities, friendships, the freedom to indulge and develop a personal style and sensuality. It is communication through a very unique language, and it impacts the brain differently than any other language. With music, the options are endless and can be forever fresh if you keep your mind open to it.
MI: You kept your mind open during the work on your new album. Why is it so different than anything else you’ve done?
SM: This album has grown and stretched me in ways I never anticipated. “Broken Dam” is a reflection of what can happen when you break out of comfort zones, speak arduous truths, make controversial decisions, and do things not everyone understands: all hell can break loose and you think you’re drowning. My material has been relatively heavy and ballad-ish for most of my career, so this time I wanted the influence of others to shape something new. I invited several Madison powerhouse musicians to co-create, and fortunately Dan Kennedy, Meghan Rose, Emily Mills, and Beth Kille agreed. Producer Jake Johnson of Paradyme Productions, turned out to be the perfect cohort to help me break out of my old mold, and here I am with a full album of new music! I am now planning a large release celebration after the new year, and cannot wait to share it with everyone!
MI: Along with your current solo effort, you are still in a few ensembles and a couple of tribute groups; plus, you are an instructor at Girls and Ladies Rock Camp Madison, and you have a brand new band. Why do all of this?
SM: Well, I just pulled together a new Shawndell Marks Band with Madison musicians John Christiensen (jazz-inspired upright bass), Dan Kennedy (tasty guitar licks), and brilliant beatboxer Anthony Lamarr. I really love everything I do, and every group I am a part of, even if the material is not my absolute favorite style. I am just grateful to learn, and contribute to other projects. Teaching students of all ages through my studio in Reedsburg and also Ladies/Girls Rock Camp is another example. Empowering girls and women to raise their voices, be loud, and creative is especially compelling. Perhaps it has something to do with being raised in a conservative, religious home—where women were discouraged from expressing themselves.
MI: Well, we are lucky to have you share your skills. But what makes you proud of what you’ve done so far, and what’s next for you as a musician?
SM: I am so happy and grateful to be doing what I love! Here’s my next big projects: 1) Music Videos 2) The Blue Piano Trailer (a trailer I designed that houses a blue piano and folds out to form a stage, complete with generator, allowing for amplified performances in beautiful country landscapes). What makes me proud right now? It sounds cliche, but my kids! They are growing into delightful human beings. And also, my students. They continue to make me proud, the way they bravely create.
MI: Let’s end on a lighter note. Is there something funny we may be surprised to learn about you?
SM: When I was 19, I worked for a summer backing up an Elvis impersonator at a Wisconsin Dell music theater. But, this was not the young, sexy Elvis. He was old, wore jumpsuits and massive amounts of Polo cologne, and he sweated all over my keyboard. Eww. But honestly? Even after that, I still love Elvis.