John Shakespear has come a long way since choir school and his post-punk-meets-the-Chili-Peppers high school band. And while his solo material revolves around acoustic guitar and lo-fi sounds – quite different from his previous musical endeavors – some things haven’t changed.
His classical and choral studies return in the form of vocal layering, his kindergarten friend Parker Crane (with whom he formed that post-punk high school band, The Deloreans) produced and plays drums on songs on the No Wires EP, which is packaged in the warm, lo-fi sound – “hiss and all” – of the tape machines and older mics of Boca Studios. Even the album art is a return to the past: a local artist’s rendition of a hike Shakespear took in Northern Thailand.
Though his musical education began early at St. Paul’s Choir School, it wasn’t until Shakespear was living in Cambodia that he began seriously pursuing music as a career as part of a funk band called Durian. “We played rooftop bars, hostels, docks that were sinking into the Mekong. I was hooked,” he tells me.
Certainly, he must be; now back in Boston, Shakespear is a member of three other local bands: Atlas Lab, Dr. Fidelity, and Good Harbor, with other collaborations in the works. And, though he still plays funk music as a member of Cambridge-based Dr. Fidelity, his solo material takes on a softer, folkier sound. The lyrics, too, address more personal issues: “There are some things I don’t feel comfortable putting in somebody else’s mouth, in case they don’t want to be saying them.”
When asked to describe his music without using genre names, Shakespear offered a detailed narrative: “It’s early spring in the mid 1960’s, and a drifter drifts into a bar. It’s raining lightly outside, but the air going in from the street isn’t cold. He orders a black coffee and opens an old book.”
“I tried,” he says with a laugh, but the description is pretty spot-on. There’s a loneliness to the music, perhaps amplified by the hint of Damien Jurado in his sound, or the shadowy, scattered characters of the album art. Like the drifter in the unnamed bar, the EP deals with “a search for purpose – for that Philippe Petitit feeling, where you know exactly what you want.”
Philippe Pettit is the French high-wire walker from the documentary “Man On Wire” whose wild dreams inspires the first track, “No Wires.” But the song is less about dizzying feats of gravitational defiance than it is about the sheer will and devotion to that dream– or more accurately, “the longing for a clear purpose.”
“We chase that feeling in different ways: in people (“Lost in California”), in jobs (Craigslist), in foreign places (“Expatriates”), in homes (“Settle In”),” Shakespear tells me.
But there’s still a light-heartedness to the songs, highlighted by the cheeky rhymes about resume bullet points and Lunchables on “Craigslist.” And once in a while, hope winks at us from behind lines like “I was lost in California when I finally found a way, between the trash along the shoreline and the beauty of the bay.”
You can hear Shakespear perform at his album release show at the Middle East on March 30th – you’ll catch a smile or two whenever he eagerly looks out at the crowd, looking quite content to be on stage. Until then, take a listen to his songs below: