“When you write a song that’s really close to you or really emotional, and then you play it a bunch of times and work on it, by the time you get to recording it, I feel like it’s not as heavy anymore,” guitarist Cody Blanchard of Shannon & the Clams tells SPIN in a video call. “It’s traveled from this crystal of painful…whatever’s going on,” Blanchard continues, “Then it’s been massaged into the craft of making the song. It becomes a little bit abstracted.”
At this point, a smiling Shannon Shaw, lead singer of the Oakland retro garage rock band, interjects from the other side of the screen, adding, “I love that metaphor.” I’d just asked them about their sixth album, Year of The Spider — trying to figure out how they transmuted its weighty themes into such buoyant tracks.
“By the time [you] get into the studio, for the most part, you’re so busy you don’t even really think about the song, or you’re not feeling it in the same way,” Blanchard shares, recalling the band’s sessions with producer Dan Auerbach at Nashville’s Easy Eye studios. “You kind of barrel over any sort of heavy feeling that was attached to it. That’s my experience anyway.” He pauses. “That’s not a very romantic answer.”
It may not be romantic, but it is, however, a scientific phenomenon. I explain to Shaw and Blanchard that someone recently introduced me to EFT tapping, a process where you tap meridian points on your body while calling to mind a stressful situation or traumatic event. The point is that tapping while repetitively exposing yourself to negative memories reduces your attachment to the negative event. It’s not something I’d ordinarily bring up — but in discussing the origin of the album, it felt relevant.
See, Shannon & the Clams have been through some shit. Five years ago, the Ghost Ship warehouse, a mainstay in the Oakland DIY community the band called home, was set ablaze in a deadly fire. A few years later, Shaw was forced to abandon her home of 14 years, avoiding the lurking and voyeuristic eyes of a peeping tom whose stalking ultimately made the space uninhabitable. Then, when the clouds finally seemed to clear, with the band set to embark on a tour with Greta Van Fleet and The Black Keys, Shaw’s father was diagnosed with cancer.
In an attempt to find direction, Shaw reached out to her astrologer. “She’s always told me what I need to focus on is stepping into my power,” Shaw says with a laugh. “Whatever that means.” The astrologer told Shaw to find a goddess as an example of such power — a deity she could summon whenever she felt powerless. That’s when she was introduced to the Hindu goddess Durga. Though Shaw is careful in speaking about her revelation (“I don’t want to appropriate anyone’s culture,” she tells me), you can hear her admiration for the avatar: “She’s got eight arms, and each hand is clutching a different weapon, and she was basically manifested by this village to slay this demon, demigod creature.” Shaw continues: “I took what [the astrologer] told me seriously — in moments of feeling powerlessness, to be like, ‘OK, I’m gonna try channeling Durga for a minute.’”
If their latest album is any evidence, embracing that power — even when it meant facing the destructive nature that defined their last half-decade — worked.
Year of The Spider opens with “Do I Wanna Stay,” a slow-burning rockabilly lullaby that sees Shaw’s voice raspy and reminiscent as she comes to terms with her situation and interrogates herself. Upbeat lead single “Midnight Wine” is a tale of addiction and escape, a song Blanchard wrote about a mythical psychoactive drink. Unlike Shaw, he leaned not into his personal experience, but the experience of those around him, to write the track. “You have to have done a lot of different things,” he shares about his process. “So when someone else is having some kind of personal tragedy, you know what that feels like. You had this similar thing happen. You can mine that, get into that, remember what it was like for you.”
There’s something to be said for exposing yourself to raw memories, illuminating dark corners, and embracing those monsters you once feared. Shaw, for instance, used to be terrified of spiders.
“At some point, I had an epiphany that was, ‘Holy shit, Durga has got eight arms,’” Shaw shares. “The thing I fear the most in the world is the spider. I’ve been haunted by a spider since I was a little kid — they’ve always been drawn to me. Eight legs; Durga has eight arms. Maybe I’m looking at the spider all wrong and I need to find a way to reframe these terrifying things. It was an interesting full-circle situation.”
Though the album’s subject matter is heavy, the band doesn’t revel in the sadness, instead bringing a lightness and levity to the tracks through vintage girl group melodies and Shaw’s doo-wop vocal harmonies. In tracks like the sonically bright pop-rock ballad “Year of The Spider,” where Shaw talks about receiving her dad’s diagnosis (he’s since recovered), or in the groovy guitar melodies of “All My Cryin’,” you can sense distance from those tumultuous events, almost like they’re looking at them from a higher perspective.
“I won’t even say [the titles], but every time I would play this one song or those two songs, I would cry,” Shaw says, detailing her cathartic creative process. “Occasionally I’ll still cry because it would just bring me back to tender moments I was able to turn into a song. But now I don’t. That person has no power over me. I don’t feel that longing. I don’t feel hurt anymore.”