By: Jim Villanueva
Raised on the scenic shores of the Golden State in the city of Monterey, singer-songwriter Lauren Shera grew up over 300 miles from the Sixties-Seventies California folk scene center of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Yet despite a generation and the geography that separated her from the plethora of groundbreaking artists that emerged from that era and area, Shera shares a great deal of the spirit of the music created in that canyon on her third studio set, Gold and Rust.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Joni Mitchell is foremost among Shera’s list of heroes who once called the Hollywood Hills home. Much more on Mitchell in a minute, but much closer to Shera’s own home, she was raised on rock and roll by a father who was in the music business; a luxury she took full advantage of in her youth. “I grew up going to a lot of shows,” Shera says. “I remember being on tour buses as a child, I remember being backstage a lot, I remember watching music from the side of the stage. It was nontraditional, I suppose, but it definitely worked for our family and it provided a lot of really unique experiences for us kids growing up. It was pretty neat.”
Shera, who is now based in Nashville, continues to spend a lot of time on tour buses and backstage, only these days she’s not watching music from the side of the stage, she’s onstage and on tour in support of Gold and Rust. Her upcoming run of 10 dates gets underway on March 6 in Grass Valley, CA and includes shows in Santa Cruz – in the shadows of her former shoreline hometown – as well as San Diego, Santa Fe, NM and Dallas, TX before wrapping up on April 18 at the Old Settler’s Music Festival in Driftwood, TX. Visit Laurenshera.com or Facebook.com/laurenshera for more details.
You’ve made no secret of the fact that Joni Mitchell’s music has played a major role in guiding your musical direction. What is it about Joni’s music that serves as your musical compass?
I just think that to this day there’s nobody like her. Nobody sings the way that she sings; nobody writes the way that she writes. Her guitar playing is just so unique and it’s super approachable, but it’s so different. I don’t know it just makes me speechless; it’s kind of hard for me to talk about (laughs) because it’s just hard to put into a sentence. It’s like just something that speaks to me on a really deep level. I’ve just always been very inspired by her. I love listening to her interviews, I love reading about her; I think she’s led a very interesting and fascinating life and she just seems to be a good person to kind of try and follow in the footsteps of because I really love the path that she carved.
Joni aside, let’s talk about additional current and classic influences you have. Can you share some of the more current acts that you enjoy?
Sure. I really love what [Swedish sibling folk duo] First Aid Kit is doing. They’ve got this really neat take on folk music and I love the sister harmonies; you can’t beat that. I’m a big fan of Feist and Neko Case. I’ve been listening to Beck’s record [Grammy Album of the Year winner Morning Phase], so those are a couple.
Your father was in the business, so you grew up around music, but looking back, was there a moment that you can point to now and say that that was the moment you knew music was going to play as important a role in your life as it obviously has?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if there was so much one big moment; it seems like it was more of an accumulation of moments like songs that I heard driving in the car with my mom. I remember my mom playing James Taylor when she drove me to kindergarten and I remember my dad singing John Prine songs to us as kids. I remember the first time I heard Nanci Griffith covering a Bob Dylan song; things like that that kind of added up and sparked my interest over the years.
And speaking of “sparks,” sorry, I can’t help making the segue, it’s an occupational hazard (laughs), so I’ll mention Court and Spark and we’re back to Joni Mitchell.
Let’s get into your new record, Gold and Rust. It serves as your swansong – or songs – to your native Golden State of California. Why did you decide to leave a place that provided you with so much inspiration?
It was really a mix of things. There were some logistical reason, like I felt like Nashville would be easier for me to tour out of. I like the location. I liked that there are a few major cities that are just a day’s drive away and not feeling quite as isolated as I did at times living in California and specifically where we were in Monterey which is beautiful but it’s a haul just to get to an airport. I was commuting a lot; for music it would be either three hours to San Francisco or six-plus to L.A. So I just felt there had to be some other place that might make it a little bit easier. And then I just think it’s important to leave home at some point, even if you’ve grown up in an amazing place. I think it’s kind of a skill set, a life skill to learn how to pack up and go and set your roots down somewhere else and meet new people and figure it out. I think it’s an important learning experience and one I was definitely ready to embrace at that point.
Well you went to Music City itself, so that’s certainly a mecca. Let’s talk about a couple of songs. The opening track “Light & Dust” had me connecting the musical dots to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wasted on the Way.”
Do you think that is a fair comparison, and if so, is this song – your song – a prime example of that “California Folk” you’ve spoken about?
Yeah, that is definitely the sound that I was going for, and that’s the first time I’ve thought of that comparison, and I like it a lot. That’s how I like to write, that’s what inspires me still, even in Nashville, and even while I’m fusing my roots and how I’ve been writing over the years. I’m in a new city, but California folk songs are still what are nearest and dearest to my heart and what makes me really happy.
Songs like “Coastlands” and “The Crashing Sea” conjure up images of the beautiful Northern California coastline that you and I know very well but that most tourists don’t experience. Would you paint the picture for us about the writing of “The Crashing Sea.”
Sure. “The Crashing Sea” was one of the last songs I wrote before we recorded everything. The recording process was like leading up to my move to Nashville. We literally finished recording a few hours before I left to start driving to Nashville from California. “The Crashing Sea” was really brought on by a lot of feelings of nostalgia and like, kind of mourning leaving my home. And then I started playing around with this really random idea of how weird it would be if you couldn’t tell the difference between having déjà vu and losing your mind.
Talk to me a little bit about “Coastlands” and the writing of that one.
I love that song, it’s a sweet song. There’s a verse in there for probably the most important people that I met while I was in California. I kind of wrote a verse for each one, so there’s a verse for my two best childhood friends, there’s a verse for my boyfriend at the time, who is now my fiancé, and then the chorus is kind of tying it altogether; those relationships and connections.
Again Lauren, I have to thank you for the segue; you mentioned childhood friends so let’s segue into “Hell’s Bells,” which is a helluva song and its video is attention grabbing, to say the least. It’s mesmerizing beyond belief. The first time I watched it I was thinking to myself, okay I really like this mini movie.
Thanks for saying that. I appreciate it.
Talk about the tune and then give folks who haven’t had a chance to see the video a sneak peek about the clip.
Making the video was really fun and it did feel like making a mini movie. It was my first experience doing anything like that so it was really challenging but super rewarding. I think it turned out really lovely. The director did a fantastic job. The song “Hell’s Bells” is probably about as angsty as you’ll hear me get in my little folk songs. It’s definitely a song about betrayal, the loss of friendship, hurt feelings and so much of what I think so many songs are inspired by. I was definitely feeling all of that at the time; I was very hurt and confused and that’s what I wrote the song about.
I often say that so many of the most personal songs are actually very universal because everyone goes through stuff that’s in this song and so many others.
That’s exactly right.
Do you wanna give just a little bit about what the video is about, or would you rather folks just check it out?
Oh, I’m happy to talk about it. The basic thing that happened was just that I lost a best friend; that I had this person that completely turned on me and it wasn’t so much of a love triangle, it was really just a betrayal of trust. And that’s what the song was written about and then when we made the video we decided to add another character and make it a little bit more interesting that way.
So you had the guts – or perhaps the gall – to turn down a record deal offered to you following the release of your first EP. Who or what told you that would be the right decision to make?
Gosh, sometime I forget that that even happened (laughs). I was just so young and I think that’s where my decision came from. I just didn’t really know what I was doing still; I just thought that writing songs was fun. I definitely hadn’t considered making a career out of it; I just knew that in the moment it was something that I really liked to do. As soon as things like co-writing sessions and going to L.A. started coming up in conversations, as a thirteen year old I was completely freaked out by that. That didn’t feel like the reason that I had started writing songs in the first place and so maybe it seems like this fantastic opportunity squandered but at the time it seemed really clear that, no, that’s not what I want to do; I wanna be at home with my family and reading books and making things up on the guitar like I’ve been doing. It was definitely the right choice for me at the time, even though it was a huge honor and pretty neat that it happened (laughs). And then of course on the flipside I went and chased record labels for so many years once I got older and decided that that was in fact what I wanted to do. Then it all turned around and it was me trying desperately to find someone to release my record (laughs).
Let me ask you about [the song] “Howl.” To me, that has a bit of a Fleetwood Mac vibe, especially as it builds towards the end. Am I making too much of a possible Northern California connection here, or were Stevie [Nicks] and Lindsey [Buckingham] a bit influential on this one?
Yeah, yeah, that’s a good one; I like that, for sure. I’m a huge Fleetwood Mac fan as well and that song is one of my favorites. I loved recording it and I love playing it live, but only if I have a band behind me because I think that does it the best justice; I kind of wrote it as a whole band arrangement kind of song. I’m really excited with the way that it turned out, and it’s also kind of about betrayal and abandonment, but it’s also kind of empowered. I like “Howl.”
You’ve shared stages with heavyweights like Robert Plant, Ray LaMontagne, Shawn Colvin and Billy Bragg. What have you learned from them about stagecraft?
I guess some of my favorite experiences have been really learning how artists carry themselves onstage. I have a hard time sometimes just figuring out how I want to come across onstage. Sometimes I feel like I just wanna be very composed and reserved and just stay in one space, and then other times I feel compelled to move around more. I know those things are very important when you’re presenting yourself to an audience. I know it’s important to be really authentic. You said Ray LaMontagne; I opened for him when he was playing solo acoustic and it was absolutely amazing to see how confident he was standing up there; how uninhibited he was, just him and his guitar and it felt like you were watching a whole band and he was so in control and that really stuck with me.
Finally, back to Joni; what one thing might you ask her if you had the opportunity?
(Gasp; nervous laughter) Oh my God! Could I just ask her if she’d like to have a cup of coffee with me and take it from there (laughs)?
You may not have been asked a tougher question.
That is a really tough one and I almost feel like I would almost want to take it in a completely non-musical direction, because I might get overwhelmed and die or something. Maybe I would ask her if she could teach me how to paint, you know. (laughs).
**To hear audio of my conversation with Lauren and the song “Howl” off Gold and Rust, check out Episode 20 of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.