You might think you know Shannon Whitworth. With her Americana roots and her Belk commercials and her pageant-pretty-turned-Bohemian looks. And then you listen to her new album, High Tide. It drifts on salty breezes, it aches and glimmers. Whitworth smolders on each beachy, swoony, retro-cool track. And you think, who is this? And why didn’t I meet her sooner?
The Brevard-based singer-songwriter (and visual artist, too: At press time she was readying an exhibit of her paintings for the Transylvania Community Arts Council) understands that not all her fans are willing to follow her current trajectory. “There are a lot of people who knew me from the Biscuit Burners who are like, ‘What is this?’” she reveals. “But that’s not why I got into the business — to not grow.”
Whitworth says the first time she held a microphone was with that bluegrass/Americana band, and she was afraid; she had to get over that intimidation. “It’s really not about you: It’s all coming through you,” she says now. “Fear doesn’t belong up there.”
But for every fan who doesn’t warm up to High Tide, dozens of others will love it. And Starbucks is making sure of that by playing the album in its stores worldwide.
The new sound, however, isn’t actually all that new, Whitworth explains. “It was a place that in the live shows the music was going.” Her current band includes drummer Evan Martin, guitarists Barrett Smith and Matt Smith, and longtime collaborator Seth Kauffman. Kauffman also fronts his own project, Floating Action, and is making a name for himself as a producer. He’s lent his island-infused, nostalgia-tinged sound to albums by local singer-songwriter Angi West, Benny Yurco of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and Juston Stens (formerly with Dr. Dog).
“We have this way of doing things,” Whitworth continues. She and Kauffman begin writing separately, emailing ideas back and forth, before introducing orchestrated songs to the band. Her two previous records, she says, didn’t reflect the group’s stage show. High Tide, recorded live, produced by Kauffman and mixed by Bill Reynolds of Band of Horses, “felt like this natural thing. It didn’t feel like I was doing something different. It felt like a picture in time of where this band and I are.”
The result: the wistful, steel-guitar-tinged “You Are In Love”; a narcotic, haunted cover of Dire Straits’ “So Far Away”; and the bubbling, slow-building title track, on which Whitworth sings, “I’m losing my blues, and I don’t sing most sad tunes.” There are hints of Margo Timmons and Sade, and the sun-bleached pang of a vacation more imagined than remembered.
Whitworth says that making High Tide with her band (rather than the studio musicians she’s used in the past) has changed her whole perception of the recording process. “Sometimes, the tighter the grip and the more you want to control it, the more you lose the magic,” she observes. “Seth guided that vibe. He’s got this golden force around him: It’s this peaceful and intentional way he conducts his music and his life.
Worth noting: Whitworth’s Nov. 8 Isis show will be her first without Kauffman, who’s now working with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys on a new album for a musician who can’t yet be named. (Hint: This artist is a Christmas Jam alum.) At Isis, Mary Ellen Davis, formerly of Ménage, will sit in on bass and harmony vocals.
But it’s Kauffman who, even outside the studio, has helped nudge Whitworth’s sonic evolution. “We’ll be onstage and he’ll kick off a song a totally different way, and I’ll just ride it,” the singer-songwriter notes. “It’s exciting.” That’s how she wound up with an updated version of her own song “Don’t Lie,” from her 2010 album Water Bound. Gone is the banjo and the chugging two-step. Instead, the track plays out a slow burn from some dark echo chamber. The anguish is palpable.
“We were playing it that way live, and we’d all look at each other after we played it, like, ‘We don’t want to leave that town.’” Songs, Whitworth points out, re-mold themselves according to the spirits who are playing them.
And apparently, those spirits are re-molded by the songs they play.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Shannon Whitworth Band
where: Isis Restaurant and Music Hall, isisasheville.com
when: Friday, Nov. 8, 9 p.m.
$12 in advance / $15 at the door