Skip Shirey wears a great many hats. First and foremost—though even that may be up for debate—he’s an accomplished electro-pop composer, who has released several records, including 2010’s Sonic New York and 2006’s Sombule, as well as composed for film (Neil Gaiman’s Statuesque, Douglas Keeve’s Hotel Gramercy Park) and theatre (a mini-opera for English National Opera, the music for Lisa D’Amour’s Marsupial Girl). He’s a producer, curator, a featured TED performer and a teacher at the Norwegian Theater Academy in Fredrikstad, Norway, where he helps students explore the non-traditional instrumentation and experimental sound composition for which he is lauded. For the past two years, he’s toured around the world with circus arts show, LIMBO, as a performer, composer and music director. On December 3rd, he unveiled the world premiere of his new piece, “The Gauntlet—Fredrikstad,” in Norway as part of the 450th anniversary celebrations for the city of Fredrikstad.
In case it isn’t apparent, taking time off isn’t Shirey’s style, and upon return to Brooklyn, he wasted no time transitioning full steam ahead into finishing his latest record, A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees, which he wrote primarily on the road and recorded with Don Godwin at the legendary BC Studio of Martin Bisi in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The record, out January 13th on VIA Records, speaks to the madness of Shirey’s nomadic, international lifestyle– in many ways it’s both travelogue and testament to his ongoing artistic journey.
Today, Elmore is sharing Shirey’s video for “Palms,” a track from the upcoming album. Though Shirey sings lead vocals on the album version, he recruited Puddles Pity Party, “the sad clown with the golden voice,” as a guest vocalist for the video. Shots of Puddles singing highlight the vaudevillian melancholy of the piece, his face as evocative as his melodious croon.
One by one, characters from the carnival step out of a bus to greet him, each performer dwarfed by his imposing, seven foot figure. Paired with the video, the track at first feels mournful, with Puddles isolated from the parade that passes him by. Then, halfway through, the track explodes with violins and the swelling, singalong harmonies of a chorus, leaving the viewer impossibly charmed– and in stitches– by the off-beat aesthetic.
Shirey will play an album release show at National Sawdust in NYC on January 9th, where he’ll be joined by Rhiannon Giddens and Xavier, featured vocalists on the record. Connect with the artist on his website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and read our interview below, in which he talks about the circus, the ups and downs of touring and connecting with Puddles Pity Party.
Elmore Magazine: This video shows your interest in the imagery and people of the circus– you’ve also toured with a circus arts production, among other credits. I mean hey, your Facebook “influences” says “John Cage in an orgy with P.T. Barnum.” Can you talk a little bit about what draws you to that lifestyle and aesthetic?
Sxip Shirey: I love circus, because it’s across the board, populist entertainment. No matter how modern, post-modern and beyond our world gets, there is something wonderful about watching an actual human being do something amazing. Honestly, I just love the excitement of it.
EM: Branching off of that, you have a background in theater– how do you think that impacts your work, both your compositions as well as the visual pieces that accompany them?
SS: My songs exist in a theatrical space. They are three dimensional sounding. A song like “Woman of Constant Sorrow (feat. Rhiannon Giddens)” has instruments placed around you. Some are below you, some on the side and some inside you. I think of a song or composition as something active that should be a moment of live theater of your perceptions.
EM: You’ve worked with such a diverse group of artists—what traits are you looking for in a collaborator? Or, perhaps to look at it in a different way, in a project itself? How do you know you’ve found someone you want to work with or something you want to work on?
SS: Oh man, I’m always listening for that person with that special something. That special ability to project emotion in a way that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end. These tend to be artists with ability to make old things sound like they were, when they were heard for the first time. Rhiannon Giddens does this so well. When she sings an old folk song, it’s not an old folk song, it’s a song sung in the present with meaning for the present. When she sings one of my songs she embodies the character that is singing it as a version of herself. I guess that what that special thing is. I love artists who are totally in the present moment when they sing even as they fuel their work from sounds from the past.
EM: You have so many projects at one time– how do you find balance, and find time to create new work? On a slightly different note, can you tell us a little bit about the making of your latest release?
SS: I am not sure that I do find balance, and this album is a bit about that. I was on tour for two years with LIMBO, a contemporary circus arts show that performed on four different continents. It was thrilling, but I felt the rest of my life was so far away. By this I mean my friends, my family, my streets in Brooklyn and all of my other my creative outlets. So I made music to connect me to what I was missing. I made music on my time off. I made music backstage. I made music on the top of red double-decker buses. I made music in chip shops in London. I made music in hotel rooms on four continents. I ended up finishing writing this album on the road and having a good start on the next one. Every time I had a couple of weeks off, I would go back to the studio in Brooklyn and work with my engineer Don Godwin on the album. This album is what kept me connected to the rest of my life.
EM: You’re also a teacher. How does that impact your work? Do you have faith in the next generation of music makers?
SS: Oh my God. YES. It’s amazing the music being created right now. It can take a bit to find it, but at the same time, because of the internet, it’s easy to find. I hear artists I love every day, usually because someone says, “Hey Sxip, listen to this!”
My students are “acting” students at Norwegian Theater Academy. I teach them how make compositions out of objects that make sound. I call it “object oriented composition” Old telephones, marbles in bowls, toy bells, wine glasses, sound effects toys are all used to make compelling and entertaining sound pieces. Everyone has the ability to compose already. We are all composing every day when we speak, when we tell a story or when we kiss someone. I just guide them in taking this innate knowledge and applying it to sound.
EM: Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the specifics of your video for “Palms”? What made you decide to use a different vocalist for the video, and how did Puddles Pity Party come to play that role?
SS: I actually sing this song on my album, and it comes across as a more Velvet Underground type of thing. I was performing at the Adelaide Fringe Festival a couple of years back, when I found out that Puddles Pity Party was also performing. I had never met him, but was a fan, so contacted his manager, Big Mike, and asked if we could have lunch. On my way to meet him, I suddenly started hearing him sing “Palms” in my head. I loved how I imagined his voice would sound on the song. I suddenly hatched this plan to do an instant video cover version of my own song, but with Puddles singing and including the circus people around me. During lunch I told them about my idea. “I know this sounds a bit odd,” I said, “but listen to this song…”
Puddles had his hands over his eyes as he listened. I couldn’t tell if he liked it. He finally looked up and he had tears in his eyes. Big Mike looked at him, and then looked at me. “We’re in,” he said.