Shirley Jackson: songwriting as cooperation, being open to inspiration and songwriting as transformation and self-therapy
Shirley Jackson is a songwriter, vocalist, tenor saxophonist and guitarist, based in Halifax Nova Scotia. She leads Shirley Jackson and the Good Rockin’ Daddys and Shirley Jackson and the SideCats, playing and writing a combination of Blues, Roots and Swing, with Jazz and Country influences.
(all photos by Sandi Little, courtesy of Shirley Jackson)
Note: for easier reading our conversation was edited slightly.
The 22 Takeaways at the end are my opinions, drawn from the conversation.
Shirley Jackson and the Good Rockin’ Daddys
Things Keep Looking Up (2017)
When The Money’s All Gone (2010)
Santa’s Back (2012)
Comfort Food (2007)
Careful What You Ask For (2001)
Shirley Jackson and the SideCats
Makin’ Tracks (2010)
Live at Yankeetown Studios (2005)
Appearing on Compilations
Ladies In Blues – 10th Anniversary (2009)
Blues From The East Coast – Red Cross Tsunami Relief Fund (2005)
Blues Brews Barbeques volume IV (2005)
2019 Music Educator of the Year (nominee) – Nova Scotia Music Awards
2019 The Best of The Coast placed Bronze for Best Blues Band
2018 Horn Player of the Year (recipient, Shirley Jackson) – Maple Blues Awards
2018 Blues Recording of the Year (nominee) – East Coast Music Awards
2018 Blues Recording of the Year (nominee) – Nova Scotia Music Awards
2017 Horn Player of the Year (nominee, Shirley Jackson) – Maple Blues Awards
2013 Maple Blues Award – Horn Player of the Year (nominee)
2013 ECMA Blues Recording of the Year (nominee)
2008 Real Blues Magazines top 100 list of Canadian Blues Cds
2008 ECMA Blues Recording of the Year (nominee)
2007 Nova Scotia Music Association – Blues Recording of the Year (nominee)
2003 Maple Blues Award – Horn Player of the Year (recipient, Shirley Jackson)
2003 ECMA Blues Recording of the Year (nominee)
Shirley, how do you describe your music and your songwriting style for someone who hasn’t heard you?
My writing style and music are influenced by Roots, Swing, Country, Blues and Jazz. My songs combine elements of all of them. I’m also strongly influenced by the musicians around me. I will play my songs for my band and we will transform it into something totally different… it’s great.
People have told me I sound like Patsy Cline… I don’t get it. I’m honoured, but I don’t hear it. The other day, someone told me I sound like Etta James… again, I don’t get it, but what a comparison!
Shirley, what is your musical training and background?
I started playing guitar at 9 and drum kit when I was 15. I played in Rock and Country bands in Alberta, where I grew up. I went back to school in 1982 and studied Music Business and Performance (guitar and drums) at Red Deer College (Alberta). I was also playing with the Powerhouse Blues Band.
I moved to Nova Scotia a little later. I was singing and playing tenor saxophone with my band Shirley and the Playboys… it was 50s and 60s music. After a few years making good money with that band, we started getting tired of the songs, we changed direction and the name… one of the musicians suggested Shirley Jackson and the Good Rockin’ Daddies, after Etta James’ song “Good Rockin’ Daddy”. We started playing blues and started making a lot less money, but everyone was happier!
It was around this time, 1990, that I went to Dalhousie University. I studied saxophone and percussion and got a degree in Music Education. I started teaching band in the public school system while continuing my playing career. I recently completed my Master’s Degree in Education at Acadia University.
I have two bands: the Good Rockin’ Daddies, has a stronger blues flavour, in 2005 we were invited to play at the Blues Brews Barbeque in Kingston, Ontario. There was a budget to pay us for the performance but it didn’t include travel expenses. I filled up my Ford Tempo with 3 other musicians, Rob McIntosh (tenor sax), Dawn Hatfield (baritone sax), Jef Wirchenko (upright bass), and we drove 1500 kilometers with a bass strapped to the roof. The gig was a blast and we called ourselves Shirley Jackson and the SideCats.
That started an extremely productive stretch. I was constantly writing new material. It was mostly for the SideCats but we also recorded some of the same songs with the Rockin Daddys. It was interesting how they evolved between the different bands. “River of Dust” and “Jack’s Beanstalk” are two of my favourite examples.
How did you start learning to write songs?
I love going to songwriting workshops. I took Pat Pattison’s songwriting course through Berklee online. I learn from getting together with other songwriters and from the musicians I play with. I don’t usually co-write, but when I bring a song to one of my bands, we transform it. They influence me and help me create something new with it.
My songwriting is therapy. The subject matter is sometimes too personal to share in a co-writing situation. Songwriting is a way to get what is eating yourself up on the inside out on the outside.
I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and had to write down song ideas so I can get back to sleep. “Three Things Worth Doing” was inspired by a dream of my mother telling me I should do three things:
1. Be honest with myself
2. Be as happy as I can
3. Live as healthy as I can… and ‘Nothing else matters’
After the initial inspiration strikes, what is your usual songwriting process?
Lyric writing is my strength. I find that my best songs are the ones that come easily.
I often have most of the lyrics worked out before I pick up the guitar. If I have a verse and chorus, I will repeat them over and over until ideas come to me. Most of my best songs weren’t difficult, they seem to just happen if I stay open.
Walking or driving works well for me. If I am partly distracted with a task, it frees me up to get out of my own way. I’m not fully aware of what’s going on and all of a sudden, there’s a song. If I think too hard, or try too hard I can block up. I have to let it flow.
I find inspiration in noticing moments in life, road signs, newspaper articles, things people say to me. Ideas come from being open to life’s experiences.
I go through periods of increased songwriting. At other times I have to consciously make the time to write songs.
Time of day works for me too… the best time of day for writing is as the sun is coming up….
What advice would you give yourself 10+ years ago?
Believe in yourself, have faith in yourself!
I was afraid to put myself out there… I had to fight stage fright. When I was 11, I was singing to an auditorium full of people. My voice cracked and a very unladylike expression popped out of my mouth and through the microphone. Everyone laughed. Being 11, I thought they were laughing at me and I felt humiliated. The fear of being laughed at took years to get over.
When I first started performing my songs in public, I didn’t even tell my audiences I had written them. It took encouragement from band members for me to tell the audience. I was astonished at the great reactions and feedback I received. People were telling me “You write such meaningful lyrics!” I haven’t counted recently, but I’ve recorded about 50 of my songs over the years.
What advice would you give a developing songwriter?
There are song ideas out there – everywhere. You don’t have to look for them, they happen.
Don’t give up.
The “just start writing and don’t stop method” you know: write, write, write… does work. Great ideas will happen.
When I’m really writing, it’s effortless, like someone else is writing it. I just have to stay out of the way.
Connect with other songwriters and other musicians. Influence each other….
What advice would you give a developing band or songwriter who is trying to book performances?
If I was getting started again…
Go to open mics, jam sessions, songwriter circles, anywhere you can play and hear others play.
Present your music, practice your set, get experience.
Write with other people, play with other people, talk to people, make connections and collaborate.
Shirley, how do you promote your music and yourself?
I’m still working on this. It’s partly overwhelm… you aren’t just a songwriter or musician anymore, you have to be your own publicist and do your own marketing. You have to learn how to use technology to help people hear your music.
Initially I resisted FaceBook, but I have learned to accept and embrace it. I use social media to send people to my website and advertise my shows.
Honestly, I’ve sold more merch and CDs from the stage than any other way. I get my best results in person. When people are already hearing my music, they want to hear more of it.
What’s your next project, Shirley?
“Things Keep Lookin’ Up” is due out in September, 2017. I finished recording with the Good Rockin’ Daddies this summer, final mix notes were just submitted, and it should be mastered this month. There are 16 tracks, 9 are my originals.
There are some great tracks “Stir It Up” is a little political, the inspiration was an expression of my sister’s “The more you stir it up, the more it stinks!” I added some political details about a certain Canadian political party… but it doesn’t matter who’s in power, there’s always things getting swept under the rug or glossed over in the media. “You Won’t Be Coming Back” has a different take on power struggles in a relationship. “Drop of Water” and “River of Dust” are Good Rockin’ Daddys versions of songs that were already cut by the SideCats.
We chose “Things Keep Looking Up” as the title track to put a positive spin on the album…
“If you keep lookin’ up
and don’t look down
Thing’s keep lookin’ up….”
When the Money’s All Gone
Connect with Shirley Jackson
To Book Her Band
Purchase Shirley’s Music on cdbaby:
Shirley Jackson’s YouTube Channels:
Shirley Jackson and Her Good Rockin’ Daddys
Shirley Jackson and the SideCats
My 20 Takeaways from the Interview
Mostly in the order they appear in the interview
1. Cooperating with other musicians can transform your songs… when I play my songs for my band, we will transform it into something totally different… it’s great.
2. Keep learning, keep growing. Shirley went back to school to study Music Business at Red Deer College, to study Music Education at Dalhousie University, and for a Master’s of Education at Acadia University. She also learned songwriting by writing and learning from other songwriters and the musicians in her bands.
3. Work with what you have… when the performance budget didn’t cover travel expenses, Shirley brought the musicians she could fit in her car, had a great show and founded a new band because the musicians loved the sound they created.
4. Pay your dues and write, write, write… learn by doing, and keep doing it!
5. Get your songs played… having a working band means you can easily get your songs played, test them with an audience and learn and improve your craft faster.
6. Learn songwriting from the best… learn from other songwriters. Go to songwriting workshops and songwriting circles, listen to songwriters, espcially in person… read books, take courses, get feedback
7. Learn songwriting by writing songs.
8. Songwriting is therapy… “get what is eating yourself up on the inside out on the outside.”
9. Write when inspiration hits: “I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and had to write down song ideas so I can get back to sleep.”
10. Keep an open mind: “Most of my best songs weren’t difficult, they seem to just happen if I stay open.”
11. Change your writing environment, don’t sit to write (all of the time). “Walking or driving works well for me. If I am partly distracted with a task, it frees me up to get out of my own way.”
12. Blocks are usually self imposed… learn to stop editing while you write… just write!
13. Find inspiration in noticing life’s moments.
14. Create the time to write songs… amateurs wait for inspiration, professionals write to find inspiration.
15. Find the best time to for you to write, work when it suits you best: “Time of day works for me too… the best time of day for writing is as the sun is coming up….”
16. Your personal blocks, like stage fright, can be overcome. If you know where it is coming from, it becomes easier to rewrite your personal narratives.
17. Put yourself out there, that’s when the magic happens… you don’t learn if you are always in your comfort zone.
18. There are song ideas out there – everywhere. You don’t have to look for them, they happen.
19. Music is created with cooperation… Connect with other songwriters and other musicians. Influence each other…. write with other people, play with other people, talk to people, make connections and collaborate.
20. Put in the time and effort to pay your dues. Get the experience, perform in front of audiences.
21. People will buy your music and merchandise if you give them a reason to buy and if they like you… they have to like your music too, but they buy music from people they like… “I’ve sold more merch and CDs from the stage than any other way. I get my best results in person.”
22. Keep a positive perspective… “If you don’t look down, things keep looking up”