Shannon McNally busts borders and opens minds on ‘Black Irish’

“If you can’t represent your whole self as an artist, I don’t know what the point is.”

Not many artists can straddle the line between being both good songwriters and good song interpreters, but Shannon McNally is that rare breed of musician who’s been able to plant her creative feet in both camps. To that end, the gutbucket Americana songstress has reached a career apex with the seductive collection of songs that comprise Black Irish available now in various formats via Compass Records. Black Irish is the result of a mindmeld-level collaboration with longtime McNally compatriot — and top-shelf Americana artist in his own right —  producer Rodney Crowell.

“I’m real happy with it,” McNally admitted to Digital Trends about Black Irish and its richly mined sonic template. “Rodney had very specific ideas for the sound of the record, and we worked with some really great engineers — Dan Knobler and Trina Shoemaker — to get it right. Black Irish was also cut the way albums should be cut — live, with everyone together in the room, and with only a few overdubs.”

Digital Trends recently got on the line with McNally while she was on her way to a gig in New Jersey to discuss how she sticks to her guns creatively, how art and social mores are intertwined, and why American music is international music.

Digital Trends: Over the course of your career, I’m sure you’ve had to fight to have your music be heard the way you want it to be heard. Black Irish sounds like the culmination of you being in full charge of how you want to present yourself sonically.

Shannon McNally: Yeah, I think that’s right. Every record I’ve made is an honest representation of me, and the time I was in while I made it. I’m pretty self-possessed that way, even during the times I’ve been challenged creatively.

I think I’ve been pretty consistent as an artist in showing the things that make me individually who I am. And I appreciate that this record reflects a deeper level of that consistency, because I’m older and wiser now.

The idea is to make art that will live through those changes — the changes in my thought processes, what I’ve learned, and how I’ve grown. Not all of it does, but you can look at some of your earlier work, and see how it’s somehow still relevant. Only the details of your life have changed.

I was just in Asbury Park [in New Jersey], so I can’t help but think about Bruce Springsteen. He’s omnipresent as a songwriter. There’s a beauty in what he did, because he built the ark right from the beginning. I don’t know that I always had that much control in what I wrote, but I certainly aimed toward doing that — if you write the end of the story first, that is. (laughs)

I’m glad Bruce has kept that part of his songwriting identity intact — I mean, as someone who’s constantly challenged the mores of the times we live in. I get a similar feeling by the time we get to Prayer in Open D on Black Irish. It’s one of the most naked, straight-ahead songs on the record, and it’s a very stark representation of what you’re doing as an artist right now.

Yeah, yep. And that’s a beautiful Emmylou Harris song too, one of those songs Rodney and I bonded over. I tried to do a quick version of it for my last album. When I sent it to him, he said, “Shannon, I think that’s where we should start.”

Good call, Rodney! It’s also a nice bookend to Low Rider, your cover of a killer song by the late, great JJ Cale. What an amazing artist he was, right? Troubadour (1976) remains one of my favorite records of his, in fact.

Oh yeah, JJ’s about as good as it gets. Troubadour is a great record, I agree. I got that record when I was 12 years old. It set my compass.

Banshee Moan is a good example of being a compass for modern times, I think. It seems to be very 2017 in terms of its subject matter in terms of talking about something people have to fight for constantly in society.

Definitely. I feel it’s very appropriate for the here and now. Being treated as a full human and a full citizen, and not having second-class citizenship, is not a new concept. I think it all comes to a real head when we’re still in a bit of shock that we’re still having these conversations today. But social structures take a really, really long time to change, especially when they’re built on semi-ancient paradigms.

So true. I remember somebody once asking me, “Are you OK with having a woman as a boss?” when I was working for a magazine publisher, and that was such a crazy question to me. I didn’t even think that was a relevant thing to be asked. It kind of bothered me, to be honest.

“There’s a generational shift that’s happening — but in the social process, sometimes, you have to state the obvious. “

Right. I hear you. I agree completely. Obviously, there’s a generational shift happening, and there are some questions it’s hard to believe that people even ask. But in the social process, sometimes, you have to state the obvious. And right now, we do have to state the obvious for the dinosaurs who are still here — but that’s OK. They’re passing, you know? And we’re moving on to the next dimension. So those things are changing, but we sometimes have to state the obvious for the younger generation as well.

It’s very important to understand there are people who try to make money off of you, and they use whatever they can to do it. With all the marketing systems that are in place now, everything about our humanity can be used against us. I think we’re at the apex of that, but it’s up to us where we take it from there.

And we should also point out music remains an important part of that discussion equation. By the way, is vinyl a medium that’s still important to you?

When I’m home, yeah. I like to look at a wall full of vinyl records, absolutely. And I really do hope people take the time to listen to the whole Black Irish record on vinyl. I like the album format, and I do like the way people are embracing vinyl records more now. The album is a valid medium, and I’m going to insist on continuing to make full albums, even in our singles-driven market. As artists, we do have to play by the rules of whatever the games are and keep up with what everybody wants, but it’s also up to us to insist on keeping the album format valid.

You also have to think bigger — not only about who made this music and what it’s talking about socially, but the bigger planetary issue going on about where our food comes from, where our clothes come from, where our garbage goes, and what’s in our water. It’s all related. We have to be mindful of what we’re doing, what we’re using, and how we’re doing it.

There’s such a push toward becoming aware of what’s happening through art, and the craft of it — an overall awareness and mindfulness where music isn’t just a standalone subject. The genie’s out of the bottle, and we’ve all seen the man behind the curtain. And you’ve gotta keep pointing him out. That’s what good friends and good music can do together. People have to insist on it in their micro and macro actions. The forces of evil have been busy, but things are going to right themselves. The truth doesn’t change.

I’ll second that. To borrow the title from the Stevie Wonder song you covered on this record, I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It. I really like how your vocal is dead-center on that song. It also has the right amount of echo on it, not to mention that cool, Mark Knopfleresque guitar line. I know you’re a Dire Straits fan, so it’s nice to hear that vibe going on there.

Oh yeah, I love Mark Knopfler. He’s very, very much on the shortlist of people I’d like to meet and work with, too.

It’s interesting that even though Mark’s British, he’s found an Americana niche at this point in his career. If you didn’t know where he was born, you might even think he’s an observational songwriter from Nashville.

“We have to be mindful of what we’re doing, what we’re using, and how we’re doing it.”

Mark Knopfler makes me think of the whole American music tradition, which comes out of the folk tradition in Europe — particularly from Ireland, and from the Irish and British bards of folk music — which came to the new world with all of the immigrants. Music of all kinds came over to America with immigrants from all over the world, so, to me, Mark Knopfler is just as much an American artist as Buddy Miller or Levon Helm.

That’s a good point. I also like how Roll Away the Stones has a Rolling Stones feel to it, while the Townes Van Zandt tribute track, Black Haired Boy, adds yet another dimension to your sound palette. These songs are further permutations of your personality as an artist.

Thank you. If you can’t represent your whole self as an artist, I don’t know what the point is. I certainly love The Rolling Stones and am grateful to The Rolling Stones, because they had so much to do with keeping the blues alive. They almost singlehandedly insisted that Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Howlin Wolf all got an audience.

So true. And when The Stones were doing that, not all music was accessible at our fingertips like it is now, so they put us in direct touch with blues music we may not have sought out on our own. And in a way, you’ve made a modern blues record of sorts. Earlier, we had talked about avoiding genre labels, but are you OK with being called that?

What, being called a blues artist? Yeah, I’m fine with that. You know, Townes Van Zandt said there are two kinds of music: There’s the blues, and there’s zip-a-dee-doo-dah. (both laugh) So if I’m a blues artist, then that’s OK with me.