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1: someone who has to learn what it means to be grown up.
Crouching in her backyard garden, Shannon Stephens is poised for greatness. Although she ran from music for almost a decade, she’s not hiding now. Recorded in her living room over the last year, The Breadwinner belies its humble roots; with themes of love, home, family, and a vision of the end of the world, the lush and exquisite sound of this album is anything but domestic.
Shannon was born into a musical family. As a baby she would crawl under the piano as her mother played old church hymns; her father, on his sunburst Gibson, would host “hootenannys” for family friends with their guitars and banjos. Shannon tried the piano, but preferred her kid-sized guitar. By the time she was a teenager she was a prolific songwriter, focusing mainly on “cheesy, romantic songs for boys [she] liked.” In her late teens, Shannon survived the inability to “jam” and the trauma of her 80’s guitar-hero style instructor by chucking her “ax” across the room.
Then, one night at a concert in college, Shannon Stephens met Sufjan Stevens (no relation), who quickly invited her to play guitar in a band he had started pulling together. Soon, along with Matt Haseltine and Jamie Kempkers, they had formed Marzuki. Shannon says, “It was the most fun I’d ever had with music—and friends! We stayed up late in the dorms, recording our jam sessions with an old boombox and goofing around.” Marzuki started playing local shows, and recorded an album with Matt’s uncle in Nashville. After meeting Emil Adler while opening for his band October Project, they moved to New Jersey to record in his studio, which became part of their second album.
After returning to Michigan, the band drifted apart; however, the group partially re-formed to help Shannon finish her first solo record. After that recording, Shannon moved to Seattle, where she had the opportunity to play with Rosie Thomas, Damien Jurado, Denison Witmer and others. But the Bush years were hard for Shannon – in addition to the political climate, the realities of managing the business side of her career began to kill her joy in performing and she soon burned out.
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During her hiatus, Shannon tended to her responsibilities as a wife, a mother, a provider and a human being. Eventually she realized she wanted music back in her life. She took a year to remember how to write, play, sing and enjoy making music again. The time off seems to have reaped its own benefits: “This second album was a real effort – we have a child now and bills to pay – but I think those pressures may have actually made it better”.
Although she tried to disappear from the music scene completely, Shannon stayed relevant over the years in spite of herself. On Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s recent album Lie Down in the Light (Drag City, 2008), Will Oldham closes his critically acclaimed album with a cover of Shannon’s “I’ll Be Glad”. Many reviewers took note of this cover, admiring its sincerity and poignancy. And Will Oldham isn’t alone. Recently Josh Jackson, editor-in-chief of Paste Magazine, included her first album in his blog post “Five Amazing Albums in My iTunes You’ve Never Heard Of” in which he celebrates Shannon’s “gut-punch” lyricism.
The Breadwinner was recorded on a laptop with rented mics and a silk undershirt on a hanger as a pop filter. Shannon also had the privilege to play into “Greedy” Greg Williamson’s coveted, home-made Pez-dispenser clown mic. Shannon provides vocals and guitar (a sunburst Gibson, of course) and is very excited to have worked with some amazing talent on this album. Nathan Smurthwaite (The Marrying Type, The Abodox) contributes on guitars, Steve Moore on trombone, Edd Key (Spittin’ Image) on stand up bass, James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens, Richard Swift, Ester Drang) on drums. The album is filled out with reeds, horns and strings, including Grammy-nominated composer Phil Peterson (Nada Surf, Mastodon, Chronicles of Narnia Soundtrack) on cello. And one must not forget Hilary, one of Shannon’s three hens, on the cluck.
Maybe one day Shannon will get a well-deserved rest, but until then, as she sings so beautifully in “Come To My Table”, she’ll be a breadwinner with “one crazy bloodshot eye and no relief in sight.”