We spoke with Shawn Amos about questioning reality when exposed to mental illness, meditating on insect life, finding common ground in art and how to transport a listener.
There’s something inherently selfish about social media. Some beautiful expression happens, but the blatant narcissism and consumerism is a drag.
I personally work in a bunch of different areas of music, including publicity, music criticism and writing my own songs. Thus, I’m pretty interested in how you work both as a musician and as a marketing entrepreneur. Can you tell me the story at how you arrived in those dual worlds, in both creating and managing the consumption of art?
For my entire life, I’ve been attempting to let my creative and business minds happily coexist. For a long time, I felt like one side needed to win. I spent a lot of time being an apologetic artist in front of businesspeople and a repentant entrepreneur in the midst of artists. At some point, I forgave myself for enjoying both and became grateful that I could draw upon both parts of my brain with equal comfort. I also came to realize that everything is a creative exercise. Once that hit me, it made it easy to just be myself in any circumstance. I see everything as a creative challenge to be solved: writing a song, booking a tour, cracking a marketing message, finding the perfect harmonica tone. How can I communicate effectively? How can I help others communicate effectively? I’m in love with ideas.
As someone who works extensively in publicity and marketing, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the almost brutal competition that all “content” faces on the Web. Have you observed this in the realm of marketing, that feeling that everyone’s exhaustedly battling for attention?
God, yes! We are all in a constant state of bragging. It’s exhausting, numbing, and deflating. I’ve been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. He talks about the damage we are doing to ourselves by continually dividing our attention and staying plugged into a billion different social media, text, email inputs. I feel like a new normal might be coming — one where we recognize these platforms as a broadcast only rather than a means of true social interaction.
This is why I so love performing. It’s communal. It’s shared in real time. There is giving and receiving on a level that goes beyond just, “Look at me.” I know that may seem odd coming from someone who stands on stage to gain attention. But music performance is really a shared communal thing at its best. Audience and performer create something together that fills the space and leaves everyone liberated — for a moment, at least. Selfies can’t get you there. There’s something inherently selfish about social media. Some beautiful expression happens, of course. But overall, the blatant narcissism and consumerism is a drag. I work hard to temper my time on social media. And I never take selfies.
I understand that you gain a lot of creative momentum from early American roots music, that amazing turn-of-the-century primordial soup that begat jazz, folk, blues and country music. I personally find it so fascinating that musical forms that now have countless subgenres were once indistinguishable from each other. What are your feelings about that, e.g. the point where concepts, forms, idioms or ideas blur?
It’s really a function of marketing, isn’t it? Salesmen sell. They need to find a way to brand products in order to get you to buy them. Music is no exception. I also think the insane rise of subgenres matches the tribalization that social media has created. We divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups to feel unique, surround ourselves with like-minded people and avoid discomfort. I struggle with this. I call myself a “blues” musician as a point of pride and under the arrogant belief that I can somehow make the word “blues” feel relevant to a generation of people who view it as archaic and irrelevant to their day-to-day life. Yet, am I boxing myself into a corner? Am I a really a soul singer? A roots singer? Just a singer? For every blues fan I pick up or convert, am I scaring off another five people who are turned off by the word “blues” and therefore never give me a chance? More questions than answers, I know. Sorry.
When I meditate on the whole online competition, for beauty or fame or likes, my mind wanders to the opposite side of that coin — actions done purely in the service of others, rather than one’s own vanity. When you hear the word “sacrifice,” what do you think of?
Oh man, that’s the beautiful flipside. There is so much generosity and selflessness that exists online. The trolls get a lot of attention but beauty is everywhere. I couldn’t get out of bed otherwise.
I think there is tremendous dignity and honor in being able to help people find joy, but art also has a responsibility to hold a mirror up to the times.
How do you process humanity’s need for entertainment? To me, the need to constantly be absorbed in a screen or a diversion is putting something in first place that should be gained as a reward, like eating without working. Do you think there’s power or meaning in being bored, or is that feeling best avoided?
Well, there are so many types of entertainment, aren’t they? They all provide value. When I started making this new album, I was very self-conscious of the fact that up until now, my blues life had been about pure joy and a bit of escapism. I’ve taken a tremendous amount of pride in being about to entertain people, to make them forget about their troubles for a couple of hours. I think there is tremendous dignity and honor in being able to help people find joy. Cab Calloway, Britney Spears, Bo Diddley, Taylor Swift — so many pure entertainers who are insanely skilled at transporting people to some version of Candyland. But on the other hand, art also has a responsibility to hold up a mirror to the times. Art exists to provide comfort and distress. As my producer, James Saez, told me, “It’s okay to give people some vegetables with their ice cream.”
What’s your knowledge of biology and physics like? Do you ever feel mystified or intrigued wondering about the subatomic world? What about the realm way out there, the untouched universe?
My knowledge is very thin. However, I love watching insects up close. I find it very meditative. Anything smaller hurts my brain to think about. I am getting a deeper appreciation of sound as I get older. I used to put all of my focus on songwriting and think of recording as an afterthought — a necessary evil. I now am really enamored with how sound washes over us. How we self-identify with sound as much as visuals. When I listen to this new album, I get as much joy from the variations in sound waves that hit me as much as the songs themselves. It’s made me appreciate emo, hip hop and trance music — the construction of sound waves along with songcraft. Harmonica playing probably played a role in this. Pushing and pulling air in and out your body. It’s pretty primal stuff, a wonder of physics. All of the tiny particles vibrating on our bodies and in our ears.
I most value the healthy brain’s ability to regulate our emotions and perceptions and keep the majority of us in agreement on the same version of reality.
Finally, please tell me everything you know about the human brain.
My 17-year-old daughter wants to be a pediatric neurologist. There’s a great deal of mental illness in my family, so I’m fascinated by perception and reality and how tenuous it is. My mother had schizoaffective disorder. She was delusional a lot of the time. She lived in fear of all sorts of elaborately imagined threats. I most value the healthy brain’s ability to regulate our emotions and perceptions and keep the majority of us in agreement on the same version of reality. It’s kind of a miracle, really — the small acts of trust we display every day because our brain tells us what is safe and what is not.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: January 9, 2018
Total questions: 7
Word count: 1323
Reading time: Five minutes
Speaker parts: 8
20th century, awe, beauty, blues, Bo Diddley, braggadocio, brain, Britney Spears, Cab Calloway, Cal Newport, Candyland, consumerism, David Bowie, deflation, dignity, elaboration, email, entrepreneur, health, honor, ice cream, illness, imagination, insects, meditation, narcissism, platform, psychology, schizoaffective disorder, Shawn Amos, singing, songwriting, soul, sound waves, Taylor Swift, The Reverend Shawn Amos, threat, vegetable
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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