Award winning, Internationally touring, New Orleans-based drummer, Shawn Myers recently released The Silent Life, his debut album. Featuring 10 original compositions of Myers’ and a diverse line-up of some of New Orleans’ top musicians, Myers combines the sounds of African-American Music, Haitian Voudou, West African Voudou, and Electronic Ambience to create a unique sound.
Currently touring nationally and internationally with multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Leyla McCalla, Myers has also performed with many local and international luminaries, including Dave Liebman, Kenny Werner, Roland Guerin, Nduduzo Makhathini, Andrew Duhon, and Sarah Quintana. He has studied drums and percussion with Billy Hart, Jamey Haddad, Jason Marsalis, and in Ghana, Togo, Benin and Haiti. We sat down and asked him in-depth questions about his new album, musical inspirations, and the journey that has led him to the current success in his musical career.
Tell us about yourself, when did you get your start and how did you get to where you are today in your music career?
I grew up in Los Osos, California, a small town on the central coast about fifty miles south of Big Sur. My family was always going to the beach, surfing, swimming, hiking, and mountain biking. When we were home, we would be listening to old rock-and-roll, electronic music, or jazz depending on what my dad was in the mood for. He may still hold the torch for which of us has been to more concerts. I grew up hearing Art Blakey, Weather Report, Chick Corea, Steve Roach, Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, etc. We also would go to most of the local music festivals. At Avila Music Festival I remember hearing Airto Moreira with Flora Purim. His drum solo captivated me. My dad got me a drum set that Christmas.
I steadily increased my focus on the drums over the school years, studying privately, and playing in school bands. I went to an arts college fair at UCLA my sophomore year of high school and saw a booth for Interlochen Arts Academy. This idea of a focused arts high school blew my mind. I ended up going home, applying, auditioning, and getting accepted for my last two years. I was by far one of the worst percussionists when I arrived. It worked in my favor in the end as it enabled me to expand my musical awareness and practice a lot with so many people to look up to.
So much happened at Interlochen but a highlight moment was when drummer, Billy Hart (Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Dave Liebman), came and did a concert with a trio. I happened to be in the combo that they coached while they visited. He really spoke a profound clarity and gave so much great advice. I applied to Oberlin Conservatory where he is a professor. I was accepted and attended 2009-2013. It was there that I studied with Billy and Jamey Haddad (Paul Simon, Bokanté). Jamey hooked me up with a trip to study drumming and dancing in Ghana over a summer. That time in Ghana changed my life. My learning had been so focused on the western pedagogy up until that point. In addition, the connection the music has with the community was amazing to witness and participate in. I spent most of my time in the Volta region, where the Ewe community of Ghana resides.
I wanted to have more connection between the music and the community in my life. Jamey recommended I check New Orleans out. I am so thankful for his suggestion. It is the main reason I live there now. I have been playing music full time since getting a graduate degree at the University of New Orleans 2015. The community has been so good to me. Thanks to my time in Ghana, I found the Haitian community and voudou drumming. There are many many ties between Ewe voudou and Haitian voudou. I have been studying under a master-Haitian-voudou drummer, Damas “Fanfan” Louis, who initiated me into the voudou community in Port-au-Prince 2016. Fanfan is playing a petwo drum on a couple tracks on the album. He has been my biggest mentor in New Orleans.
Composing has been a constant thread through my whole life. My dad, being a huge music listener and fan, had some synthesizers that I had access to. He loves messing around with them. I would spend so much time developing an arpeggiator or playing a pad and twisting the many nobs. This has definitely affected my understanding of timbre and sound. It also enabled me to create in a different way than soloing or building rhythms on the drums.
Having so many different deep and meaningful connections has made me want to share and create. I try and write music that can honor a respect and feeling towards the world around us and maybe add some mystery too. All of my favorite bands and projects do that. I hope to do that in my own way. An artist that I used to play with a lot in New Orleans that has lived such a sincere life once told me: “I’m not a musician, I’m a magician.” That phrase means so much to me as it emphasizes the mystery and awe of creating sound to inspire and affect.
Who do you draw influences from?
Some artists that strongly influence me are Miguel Zenon, Gilad Hekselman, Brice Wassy, Marcus Gilmore, Gerald Clayton, Pat Metheny, Yosvanny Terry, Pedrito Martinez, Claude Debussy, Steve Roach and Dhafer Youssef. There are honestly so many but those individuals really stick out, at least right now. I also have so many peers that inspire me. Chase Jackson (a vibraphonist based in L.A.), Zaire Darden (amazing Drummer in Ohio), Sam Dickey (guitarist on the album currently headed to Europe for a project with Amadou and Miriam and the Blind Boys of Alabama), Noelle Tannen (New York based songwriter and performer), and so many others.
What inspires a song for you? What types of stories and ideas do you like to express?
If I feel like I’ve learned a lesson or gained insight, that material will probably spawn a song. Specifically, writing down a poem, or lyrics first, even if the song ends up being instrumental. There has to be context to the sound. I think we can all hear that context whether we know it or not. It’s easy for instrumentalists to forget that, as there is so much emphasis on technique of all kinds. In some ways, I feel lucky that I am a drummer. I have to hear what I want to do with confidence because I have such limited technique on piano when I am writing. I generally sing the lyrics to myself. I try and feel what they need and go from there.
Deep inspiration keeps coming back to the Pacific Ocean. I spend so much time thinking about the voracity of that deep blue. I spent so many days listening to the churning waters, the wildlife sounds floating over the low hum. It has informed my whole being and I am so thankful for that. That is my context underneath everything I think, relating back to that.
I generally avoid using human connection as an inspiration as well. That is personal and I have nothing against things focused on that. There are just so many songs and stories that focus on relationships between humans but touch little on the world around that. I want to create contrast in that regard. I want to focus on the natural world that so much of our culture and infrastructure pushes out of view. Trying to find creative ways to capture wind, snow, rain, water, etc. is such an exciting experience.
Tell us about the creative process behind The Silent Life…
There is a book called The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan. This book is actually part of a series of lecture-transcriptions Inayat Khan gave over his life. The chapter The Silent Life really changed how I think about everything. There are so many beautiful metaphors and ideas in this book that have helped me to look deeper in all things. This particular chapter in the book discusses the idea that everything comes from the stillness of nothing. It’s a beautiful idea! I don’t want to do too much paraphrasing because he is an incredibly eloquent human. Get the book! I am not Sufi, but I do enjoy learning about all kinds of connection to the world and spirit.
Through using Khan’s words and message as a foundation for this project, I hold the music to a very high degree of spirit. Ultimately, how you connect to the word spirit is personal and unique. No matter what your background and connection to “spirit” is, music of strong “spirit” affects and moves. The Silent Life is connecting to the natural world to bridge culture or stature. Relating to something deeper and more fundamental in all of us.
Favorite song off the album? Why?
I really like the way A Lone Beach came out. This song definitely exemplifies The Silent Life. “Sol Le Leve” is Haitian Creole for the sun is rising and is a phrase that has caught my ear in a couple different voudou songs. It is the shedding of layers and being reborn through entering the ocean. The spirit I wanted to express is deeply conjured from all musicians. Everyone took what I wrote to a deeper place than I could have imagined.
How do you make yourself stand out as a drummer?
I think the way I make my voice heard is in owning who I am. Everyone on this planet stands out in their own way. Some of us get caught up in emulating and recreating. That is just a stop. And in the end, a great musician stands out ironically by getting out of the way. Listening first. Roles have to be known. Knowing how to morph your instrument’s role is huge and can lead to so many magical moments. I think having this awareness has enabled me to be a part of so many diverse projects. This is thanks to the African Drumming Diaspora, where every drum in the ensemble holds a different function. Hearing drums as melody, harmony and rhythm. Also more practically, but true to owning who you are, I play music that I KNOW. If someone hires me for a gig, I will study the music intensely as best as I can.
Where are you looking to go as an artist? What can fans expect from you next?
It has been an exciting ride so far. My primary gig right now is with an amazing artist, Leyla McCalla (Carolina Chocolate Drops). She is a Haitian-American multi-instrumentalist songwriter and mom of three. We travel all over the world! Her songwriting and life inspire me so much. She is so politically relevant and meaningful with her music. All the while bringing her twin babies on tour with us. A true role model and badass! With Leyla, we play art-centers, festivals and listening rooms. These spaces are engaging and create a dialogue between the musicians and the attendees. I hope to have success enough to engage with a community of listeners across the globe. To treat a concert as a space to share sound and idea in a meaningful way as we do with Leyla is the dream. I would love to get to a place where I am playing with some of the people I mentioned were influences.
Fans can expect to see me play with Leyla McCalla in Europe and across the states this fall. I will also be playing with different bands in New Orleans and playing Haitian events. I am hoping to put together the first tour for The Silent Life in the coming months. Recording is a little further off, but definitely in the works with many more songs ready to go.