Walking in a Willow Wonderland with Tara Shannon

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Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? If you’ve been to any shopping mall, grocery store or coffee shop over the last few weeks you’ve probably heard a few of those bells piped over the speakers while holiday shoppers rush and bustle to check everybody off their gift lists. Award-winning singer and songwriter Tara Shannon, however, wants to add a few new musical festive frolics to your Christmas playlist.

Willow Wonderland, Shannon’s first holiday album, unwraps a few Christmas classics and sprinkles them with the musician’s unique seasoning and style. Her cherry pie sweet vocals perfectly compliment standards like “The Christmas Song” and snazz up “Feliz Navidad”.

And what’s the holiday season without visits from friends? This album is like having a Christmas sing along in your living room when suddenly your doorbell rings and in strolls some of the most talented musicians in Ottawa. Kyle Ivan, Chantal Hacket, Jessica Pearson and Sam Timmins are just some of the artists you’ll hear alongside Shannon on Willow Wonderland.

Shannon and friends dash through the snow on December 8th for a performance at St-Brigid’s Centre for the Arts but before her sled of songs touches down Ottawa Life chatted with the musician about the release and some of her favorite things about the holiday season.

How does the holiday season make you feel?

I get mixed feelings about the holidays. I look forward to the snuggling by the fire with family, the slowdown, the baked goods, the wine of course, but I do feel a great sadness for our culture at this time of year too. We have conditioned generation after generation to connect 'getting presents' with 'feeling loved'. It's a time of year that amplifies 'otherness' for those who can afford 'presents' and the others who cannot which can translate to 'loved' and 'unloved'. That is a source of sadness for me.

Is there a particular holiday-themed song or album you feel you could listen to all year long?

Yes! Celine Dion's "These Are Special Times", no one does it like Celine and Bing Crosby.

What are some of your favorite things about Ottawa during the holidays?

Ottawa is so beautiful any time of year, but the lights in and around the parliament are always stunning. All of the Christmas concerts in the churches and gathering places leading up to Christmas are so special too.

This is your first holiday album. Does one approach recording a holiday themed album any differently or was it a similar experience?

It is our first and I am so proud to showcase some of the talent I get to work with from Ottawa. The approach is pretty much the same, find a producer that knows what he is doing, I turned to my good friend Steve Foley for this one. We were weaving together different styles from different artists so having experience at the board was important. And he's also a great guy, so talented.

What made you decide to do a holiday themed album?

We hadn't really promoted the label up to this point yet so I thought a holiday album would be a great way to do that and also a way to give these wonderful Ottawa artists some exposure.

You collaborate with many artists on this release. How did you choose them / approach them?

The label is a non-traditional format. We are a membership co-op of independent artists empowering each other to reach our goals trying to find creative ways to get our music to audiences. There two levels of membership depending on where an artist is at in their development on business plan, they need different amounts of support. So I offered the album opportunity to artists at The Full Circle level which means they are in an active cycle of promotion of their music so the holiday album would help them with that phase. We have almost 20 members now so it would be an epic, two-volume record if everyone participated! My hope is that we do one every year and rotate the opportunity through the membership to showcase a new bunch each season.

With so many Christmas songs to select from, how did you go about deciding what would go on the album?

I let the artists choose their own, I really wanted them to pick a song that moved them or meant something to them and just have fun with it.

Are there any cuts left out that you feel might see the light of day later on down the road?

I have a Christmas song that I wrote over 20 years ago that was on my first full-length album. I will probably re-record that again one of these days. It's called "There's A Child".

How do you and the guests apply your own touches to some of the more well known tunes?

Once they chose the song they wanted to cover, we listened to reference tracks and then came up with a production approach that would compliment the artist and fit the album. From there they brought their vocal stylings to make it their own.

Can you share a story or two about a particular recording session?

The story of the song I chose is kind of funny. My team wanted a cover song that would fit well at radio so I tried a bunch of classics but once the greats have done them, should anyone really even try?

That wasn't working for me so I tried writing instead and ended up with one hilarious tune called "Company Christmas Party" (with Sam Timmins and Tony Zavitson), it's about the employees showing up to work the day after the office party hungover and feeling awkward, it's really funny but it wasn't quite the right fit for me as an artist. So I went to my roots, looked for inspiration from songwriters that I look up to and found an obscure song by Patty Griffin from over 20 years ago.

It's called "Mary" and speaks to women everywhere being examples of Mary, how she said yes and how the story of Jesus only happens because Mary said yes. And that resonated with me deeply, especially it being a year of me saying yes to myself and my vision for my life. So I cut it. When the track was ready, Steve sent it over and I was on the 401 driving back from TO with my husband and played it. My husband said "sounds great, who's singing?" I said "Huh? What do you mean?? It's me!!" – he didn't think it sounded like me so I started to panic, thinking I had made the wrong choice, the project will fail, why can't I just sing a normal Christmas song like every one else….and just as the anxiety was reaching it's peak, I look out the window ahead of me at the car in the next lane and the license plate read "For Mary". So I knew it was going to be ok.

Can you tell me more about your inspiration behind founding Willow Sound?

I have worked in artist development for years but not formally. I had always wanted to create something concrete that provides support for artists. As an artist myself, I felt very alone trying to figure out the music business and I wanted to help others through that. To me, the old school music industry model is quite dysfunctional and not very healthy but it was making money. Now that the majors have to get really creative to keep making money, I felt it might be a good time to introduce a new model that empowered indie artists to build their own brand. I see myself as a coach really. I have extensive experience building businesses from the ground up and I see every artist as a start up company. I help them bring their product to market and build their equity so they can have a life doing what they love. And the label is a community of indie artists mentoring each other to do the same. I really believe that together we are better. Even in a competitive marketplace.

What have been some of the biggest surprises for you since launching Willow and focusing on these mentorships?

The buy in from the artists. I wasn't sure they would get what I was trying to do. The industry has done a wonderful job of conditioning an 'us and them' mentally, a feeling of 'you're in or out' when it comes to the music biz and that is just an illusion. Every artist IS the music business. The music creator is the sole point on which the entire system rests. So I have been surprised by how easily they are challenging that conditioning once they start thinking about how backwards it all is. What has touched me the most is seeing the members reaching out and co-writing with one another, sharing resources and tips, going to each other's shows. I was hoping to build a sense of community and I see the seeds of that growing, because we all want to feel that we belong somewhere.

Finally, what can audiences expect from the coming show at St Brigid's?

My favourite show of the year!

I look forward to this one all year long. It's a fantastic variety type event showcasing artists on the label, some original music, I'll perform some tunes from my album and holiday classics. The house band is killer, the talent is amazing. You will sing, you will want to dance, you will laugh and it's all for a charity. A wonderful family evening to ring in your holiday season featuring Sam Timmins, Chantal Hackett, Jessica Pearson & The East Wind, Kyle Ivan & Kae Shelby.