Shawna Caspi plays guitar in a captivating and elegant manner. Her lyrics are deeply felt expressions of her inner thoughts and feelings. She takes the listener on a lilting voyage through her songs and enables them to visit new musical landscapes with each and every song.
To learn more about Shawna, check out her website.
Here’s a video of Shawna singing her song “Not So Silent” which is an excellent representation of her work.
What first got you interested in making music?
I was a choir kid from a young age, which led me to studying vocal music at an arts high school in Ottawa, Ontario, where I grew up. I had a background in classical music studies and was taking classical guitar lessons while in high school. I started getting interested in folk music through the Ottawa music scene when I was a teenager – the main pillars at the time were Rasputin’s Folk Café (where I ended up working as a waitress), the Ottawa Folk Festival (which I attended for many years), CKCU Radio (where I volunteered as a radio host), and the Ottawa Folklore Centre (where I bought my first acoustic guitar, which I still play today). I moved to Toronto to study music at York University and kept writing and playing, and eventually touring!
What musicians do you find inspiring? What is it about their music that make you gravitate to them?
I am most inspired by songwriters who fearlessly tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. People like Jon Brooks who sing about raw humanity, whether that’s death, darkness, love, or hope. People like Rose Cousins whose live shows can be simultaneously devastating and fulfilling in their depth. I strive to be that open and fearless. Musically, I love fingerstyle guitar players that are also great songwriters, like Bruce Cockburn and Stephen Fearing. And I love being told a good story, so I’m drawn to that in songwriting too – folks like Dar Williams, Danny Michel, James Keelaghan.
My interest in classical music was always in the modern era – the newer and more experimental the better. I think that’s why I was drawn to fiddle player and all around genius Oliver Schroer, who we sadly lost in 2008. He’s still one of the most inspiring musicians I’ve ever known, both in his remarkable talent and his philosophies about life and music. Likewise, my favourite composer and musical hero is World Soundscape Project founder R. Murray Schafer.
Your bio says that you are classically trained. Did you study voice and guitar?
I studied classical voice in high school and university, privately and as part of the curriculum. I studied classical guitar privately as a teenager as well. In university, I started taking folk guitar lessons from a renowned flamenco guitar player, which I think broadened my guitar skills and led to the lyrical folk style that I play in today. As for singing, I feel like I’ve spent years trying to “unlearn” my classical training in an attempt to find my own true voice and really sing from that place. That’s still something that I’m working on all the time.
Have you always played as a solo musician? Do you feel that solo performers have more freedom in many ways than members of a band?
I actually played in a trio in university – it was me and my two roommates at the time and we were called The Daily Gnus. We had a ton of fun. Playing with other musicians is such a joy. Otherwise, I’ve always been a solo artist and my career for the past ten years has been as a solo artist. I still fervently believe in the power of one person and one instrument, and that a solo artist can be just as dynamic and engaging on stage as a band.
I do welcome the opportunity to play with other musicians though, and hope to do some of that in the wake of my new album, which features some excellent players and arrangements. I can’t imagine how I could ever afford to rehearse and tour with a band, but one never knows what the future might bring. It’s definitely logistically easier to tour as just one person! Although sharing some of those long drives sure would be nice at times…
Do you have any themes that flow through your collection of songs?
While my new album, Forest Fire, has a fairly consistent theme of crawling out of the darkness towards something more hopeful, I think the biggest constant throughout my songs is the idea of amplifying quieted voices and shining light on small moments, tiny victories, snapshots of life and love.
You’ve released several albums since you started pursuing music. What have you learned about yourself and how your sound has developed over the years?
I think my commitment to being more open and honest is evident over the years. As I mentioned, I’ve been steadily working on my singing and trying to access my true voice, so the vocals have changed over the years – I think they’re softer and more relaxed now. My songwriting has also become a lot more structured over the years. I think the dissonance and chaos of 20th Century classical music seeped into a lot of my writing in the early days…the songs made sense to me but were hard to grasp for the listener. I’ve since learned the ways of choruses, repetition, anchors in songs, knowing more about when to stay the course and when to deviate from it for effect.
Tell us about your latest CD, Forest Fire. Explain the concept of the title!
Forest Fire is probably my darkest album, but I also believe it’s my most honest work. It felt like the songs were largely about burning things down and building them up again, so that inspired the title. There’s a song on the album – “Oleaster” – which does literally reference a forest fire, in the context of environmental stewardship and cycles in nature. When I was creating the source paintings for the album artwork, the works were abstract depictions of actual forest fires – namely inspired by the fires in British Columbia (which I experienced first-hand on tour there in 2015) and the chilling images I saw of the fires in Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016. By coincidence, when the album was released on September 1st of this year, the whole west coast was experiencing some of the worst fires they’d ever seen.
This album also has two cover songs on it (Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz” and Lynn Miles’ “Brave Parade”) – I had never recorded other people’s songs before. But they just fit perfectly with the others so I had to include them.
The other musicians who play on the album are so fantastic, as was the work of producer and engineer Don Kerr. My previous release, Apartments for Lovers was a solo guitar/voice album, so it’s pretty exciting to have other musicians adding their talents to this one.
You paint as well as make music. Do you have the opportunity to paint when you’re on the road on tour? Or do you have to separate your two creative outlets during those times?
I take photos while I’m on tour and then paint from those photos once I get home. Most of my work is realistic landscape painting, and I particularly like painting on a small scale. I usually don’t have time to do get anything done on tour except drive myself to the next show and play! I like having another artistic outlet that isn’t music. While I keep the two separate, I do notice some correlation between them, particularly how the relationship between light and colour on canvas mirrors the relationship between sounds in music, how the amount of paint on a brush, the weight and direction of the stroke, mirrors dynamics in music, the length of a breath or a bow stroke.