Shawn Lee is a Lebanese/Native American/Irish Boy from Wichita Who Sings Like Otis Redding

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Shawn Lee is a Lebanese/Native American/Irish boy from Wichita who sings a little like Otis Redding and makes music patchworked with bits of every influence imaginable. On his debut album, Monkey Boy (We Love You), he wraps his formidable voice around cleaned-up Mississippi blues, loose-hipped soul, r&b ballad, full-out rock and Weimar-era cabaret.

Living now as a happy expatriate in London, Lee has weathered Hollywood glitz and major-label one-night stands on the long journey from America's breadbasket. Along the road he recorded a never-released album, endured the fallout of the mid-90s record industry and, on a lighter note, met a girl, fell in love and got married.

On the phone of a dreary English late-afternoon Lee sounds brightly cheerful. His voice is Midwest twang under a heavy mantle of clipped British and cockney slang. He says "innit." His statements sound like questions. He's got a high, mischievous giggle that charms with its suddenness. He's also got opinions: Beck is lyrically aloof. Ice Cube is full of love. And honesty is always the best policy.

So you're a Kansas native turned Californian turned English gent? How the hell did that happen?

I loved music and I knew that to do it I had to head to either L.A. or New York. L.A. seemed like a better choice because I had had it with the hard winters and the extreme weather. So I went out there and did the music thing and sort of reinvented myself and all those things you do, played in bands and had a publishing deal. You assimilate and you make your peace with the sort of Hollywood schmoozefest. And then I got offered a record deal in London and the label was keen to have me here and I was ready for change. So I came over here and I fell in love with it.

What made a guy from America's heartland decide he was going to be a rock star? Didn't farmer seem like a more viable option? I mean, it must have taken some guts to take off for Hollywood.

I just loved music naturally as a kid and I used to imagine playing instruments, playing a concert. It was a natural progression. Music is a bit of escape. It's clicking into another sort of reality, to another sort of space that takes you away. I used to retreat to my bedroom and grab my guitar and my tape recorder and start playing. I just always envisioned doing that with my life. It's been my lifelong pursuit, my modus operandi. I've been doing music all the time and thinking about it all the time.

Yeah, but did that seem like it could be a plausible reality?

It did to a certain point. I've managed to do it most of my adult life, but I felt really isolated. I realized at one point that I had to sort of leave Kansas. I had to go forth in order to really do it, and that meant going to L.A. or New York.

So then you went and you crawled up the ladder of fame and you got signed and moved to London and spent three years making an album that never came out. Are you bitter about the corporate music machine as a result?

I think some things are changing now, but the cynical part of me says the more things change, the more they stay the same. We're never going to get rid of the Sonys, we're never going to get rid of the big corporations. But I do think now more than ever there are more ways to do things, more options.

You've got a real eclectic style on this album and a lot of unexpected instrumentation. How do you make those choices?what sort of sounds are you drawn to?

I think I look at the studio as an instrument. Everything else is a tool to make a sound with, to make a color, to sort of connect everything together. I really enjoy playing acoustic instruments; there's a way that you connect with them that you don't always connect with with an electronic instrument. There's an instant sort of joy that you get when you hit something, the way your body feels it. It's a really deep thing. I've been buying a lot of folk instruments. I've got autoharps and strings, and it's really interesting to use that sort of instrumentation outside of a straight folk context. You play the organic stuff, then you process it through all sorts of electronic devices, either plug-ins or analog effects, and that's when things sort of take on a character of their own. I love to actually play things, then play around with them sonically afterwards. That's a really rewarding process. A lot of times people seem to be on one side of the fence or the other. They make stuff that's completely electronically made or they play stuff that's presented in a really straightforward manner. I think each way is valid.

So you sort of mix the palette and hope it doesn't turn out brown?

I think everything else is how you embellish it, it's the style, the slant, you sort of put on everything. However you make music, it's all about the idea that that's what's important. If you're writing a song, then the song is king, if you're doing something that's groove-oriented, then the groove is king. You take whatever the idea is and you expand upon it. But I think you need a great idea to begin with, whatever way you dress that up. It will transcend the way you do that as long as the idea is really, really good.

I'm a songwriter, so it's the song, the melody, the lyric, that's what's most important to me, and the rest of it is just having fun and trying to do something which sounds good to my ear. If the songs weren't any good, it wouldn't mean anything. The production serves to elevate the song, take it someplace else. For me, a great song is one that crosses boundaries, which will last beyond trends. To get style to go with the substance, that's a beautiful thing.

So you're sort of starting with a good story, then embellishing on it in the studio.

That's when the artistry and craft comes into it. There's too much music that goes in one ear and out the other, too much with a nice veneer, that sounds good, but it's kind of hollow, a facade of sorts?like a Hollywood set. The most I can possibly give to people through the music is to lay myself bare and not hide behind being too clever or ironic.

But clever irony is the hallmark of our generation!

Right, exactly. I mean there's nothing wrong with that, but I think my mission's definitely about laying myself bare. When people understand it, they really love it. I think it affects people because they sense that I'm putting myself out there. I think sometimes things make more sense in retrospect, and I think people have to live with things a little to feel their resonance. I think we're living in an instant-gratification phase of culture and everything's disposable and people want something now. You need to make music which will stand up to time. I want to make music that lasts, that stands outside of the present...

I will say this?I think right now there's the greatest abundance of good music being made than there has been in a very long time. There's so much good music going on right now. Whether or not it reaches into the mainstream at all, that's a good question. That remains to be seen. But people are challenging themselves. They're realizing that songs are important and having really concrete ideas to begin with. You have to connect with the tradition, you have to know the roots. You have to be knowledgeable in order to excel at what you do. At the same time, if you don't know the rules, then you don't know when you're breaking them and being innocent and stuff like that is important for creativity. It's always that balance of learning things while keeping that edge of wonderment. I think now everything is about a balancing act. It's balancing art with commerce. It's balancing style with substance. I think sometimes we're too closeminded. Myself included. We're not willing to take the time to get to know something. We have to be open-minded and reeducate ourselves. Open up our hearts and our minds.

And fuck ironic distance.

Yeah, you make fun of something and you're not quite serious about it, so it's noncommittal. You're not really putting your soul into it. Someone like Beck is sort of the master of that. Clever and jokey. He's not putting his heart and soul on the line. I like Beck, don't get me wrong.

Now now, I have to defend Beck here. I admit with Midnite Vultures he's not exactly baring his soul, but what about Mutations? That's an incredibly intimate record.

Yeah, that's a different piece of work, that and the early stuff is different. In his other work that distance is in the lyric, lyrically he's aloof. Everything else he does is amazing. But it's sarcastic, ironic, abstract. It's not about really hitting you on any emotional level. Ultimately, I have to say I think that's more important. I think one of the great things about early hiphop is that people were talking about their lives and what was real. The cliches were not developed yet. You were getting something true and raw. You listen to someone like NWA, you were getting something real. It's hard to express yourself sometimes and not sound cliche.

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