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Becky Shaheen transformed 'crappy iPhone demos' into intimately gorgeous new album 'Serial Dream'

Becky Shaheen

Becky Shaheen Erin Pederson

As listeners, we can become detached from an artist's initial sense of purpose, especially so in the age instant-everything on Spotify.

For musicians like Becky Shaheen, the music-making process is simply therapeutic, and they hope that pleasure is able resonate with others. On her new sophomore album, Serial Dream, the Twin Cities singer-songwriter is so open and vulnerable that each spin is like a warm embrace from an old friend. The 11 tender, gently-strummed tracks provide the same joys as an evening holed up in a familiar pub with a loved one.

Ahead of her album-release party Friday at Icehouse, Shaheen told City Pages how she and producer Chris Koza turned "crappy iPhone demos" into the beautiful Serial Dream.

City Pages: How do you think your writing has changed in the last two years since your last album?

Becky Shaheen: Every song on Serial Dream felt like more thought had to go into every part of the process, partially due to the subject matter. We took apart some choruses and restructured them completely, wrote several versions of verses, and came back to them weeks later to pick the ones that elevated the songs. I didn't go into the studio until the songs were perfect.

The process of this album was much different than other projects I have worked on. My dad has a studio, and I work at a studio, so I was used to recording/mixing/mastering all in one space. This album was fun because we utilized so many different studios, engineers, and musicians. We tracked the initial full band tracks all together, which I would have never attempted if [producer and Rouge Valley frontman] Chris [Koza] hadn't suggested.

CP: Now that the album has been out for a couple of months now, how do you feel about it? How have people been responding to it?

BS: I am so proud of it. As an artist it is really easy to listen back and hate things about a recording and spend time wishing you would have done something differently. It is a wonderful feeling to put it out into the world and confidently say, “This is good; there is something special about it.” I have gotten overwhelming positive responses to this album from people who know me well to people who stumbled on it or who was recommended a listen. It is very affirming.

CP: How do you think working with so many other musicians at [Minneapolis music publishing/licensing/production house] In the Groove has helped you to become a better writer?

BS: I represent a wonderful boutique collection of music for work, and it is basically my job to know the music like the back of my hand, so I can pitch it to people who can use it. Listening critically to such talented songwriters that have such different styles has definitely made me a better writer. Meeting and speaking with those artists and engineers throughout the years has been so beneficial for exploring different ways of thinking about songwriting and production. 

CP: When did you start writing for this album?

BS: Some of the songs on this album are actually several years old, and then some of them were written in the few months before we started recording. Many of the songs don't fit into my live set, or always seemed to sad or down-tempo to perform live, so they sat untouched after I wrote them.

When I started to revisit those songs, I found them to be better than I remembered, and I guess it did inform the tone of the later songs. I tried to bring more of a storytelling aspect of songwriting and did my best to bring the listener into the story and feeling of the song. 

CP: When did Chris Koza enter the picture, and how do you think the influenced the album?

BS: He entered the picture just in time to whip the songs into their best shape before heading into the studio. I remember when I first listened to Rogue Valley, and being immediately drawn to the songwriting style. I sent him some crappy iPhone demos, and luckily he felt drawn to the songs and felt like we were very much on the same page. He was essential to the journey to get every song to where it needed to be.

CP: Tell me about the song "Please Try."

BS: "Please Try" does have an interesting story. I had written the bare bones of the song, when I brought it home to jam with my dad. We talked through how the form of the song might be -- basically five iterations of a very simple verse/mini chorus with a wide array of dynamics -- and played it through.

The form and feel of the song never changed from that demo run through. The song wasn't really supposed to be on the album! When we were tracking the base tracks with the full band, we had an extra two hours left for our tracking weekend at Humans Win! [recording studio]. My dad and I played through the song and convinced everyone to try. It ended up being the perfect opener for the album.

CP: Any other songs stand out to you?

BS: "2 Weeks" is probably my favorite track on the album. It was one of those songs that I sat on the guitar riff for months and the lyrics inspiration hit me much later. It ended up being the perfect swirly soundscape that gently washes over you. Brian Casey did amazing work mixing this album and I think this track is a great example of this.

"The Chair" is a song that I really wanted to record but was nervous about, being that it’s about cancer. It is loosely based around my experience living briefly with a couple in Pennsylvania and feel that it tells a not-always-told side of some people's experience when loosing loved ones. Chris convinced me that is was a good choice for the album. The album version turned out heart wrenchingly beautiful with Joey Kantor's lovely piano work and Laura Lou's harmonies.

Becky Shaheen
With: Chris Koza
Where: Icehouse
When: 10:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 18
Tickets: $10; more info here