Shenandoah Ableman has come to New York by way of San Francisco, bringing with her a flair for the dramatic and an eclectic mix of sounds that she refers to as “Pop Noir.” It‘s dark, haunting, moody and atmospheric, counterbalanced with bursts of joy and infectious energy.
The Night, her backup band, is made up of luminaries from around the New York area who come from a variety of backgrounds themselves. Guitarist Seth Johnson and acoustic bassist Miles Mullin have been a part of the New York City jazz scene, while drummer Sean Hutchinson has played with San Francisco jam rock group New Monsoon, as well as members of the Allman Brother Band, the Neville Brothers, the Meters, Santana, Talking Heads and Béla Fleck. The group is rounded out by Kwame Brandt-Pierce on keyboards, accordion and acoustic piano.
Shenandoah was raised in a musical family that included a fiddle-playing father and a mandolin-playing mother. She spent her early days with a steady diet of old-time standards and traditional folk music.
“I grew up going to bluegrass and folk festivals,” recalls Shenandoah. “And while I don’t necessarily specialize in that type of music, it does have an influence. But what we are doing also draws on doo-wop, old R&B and some old country. At its heart, Shenandoah And The Night are telling an American story.”
Shenandoah went on to earn a BA in jazz vocals from the University of San Francisco, but her love of theatrics led her to don pasties, spending eight years as a singer and burlesque dancer for the infamous Yard Dogs Road Show, a Bay Area-based musical cabaret group that has performed thousands of shows both in the U.S. and in Europe, earning a spot in Spin Magazine’s “Best of 2007” issue.
Shenandoah has kept some of the theatricality in her new band, utilizing her background with high kicks, rhinestones and feathers to create a new experience. “When we perform ‘All the Beautiful Ladies’ live, I do a tight little feather fan dance,” she notes. “There is a bit of dancing throughout our show, which incorporates a performative and aesthetic element that is definitely a reflection of my experience with the Yard Dogs Road Show.”
Shenandoah And The Night have been steadily building an enthusiastic following in and around New York City, and with the release of their self-titled debut album, the band is set to head out on the road.
Musically, the songs come to Shenandoah in a variety of ways, but most often when she’s walking. “I don’t have one way of starting a song,” she says. “Often it starts from walking and singing. When I get stuck I go for a walk too. I sing different parts and see how they fit together melodically, then figure out the chords. Sometimes I start with the chord structure and sing words and a melody over a recording of a section. I think being open to different approaches is key.
“My musical influences are travel, life on the road, love and longing. My father is a major influence. He is a fiddle player and I grew up listening to folk, bluegrass and old country ring out from my dad’s band in the living room, and also Nina Simone and Kurt Weill, to the dusky psychedelic sturm und drang of the Doors and Janis Joplin.”
Four of the five songs on the new release were written by Shenandoah, including “So Fine,” “All the Beautiful Ladies,” “These Arms” and “So Long.” The lone cover track, a 1908 John Lomax song called “Dink’s Song,” which is also known as “Fare Thee Well,” maintains the original version spirit, but is given an uplifting doo-wop arrangement.
While the majority of the tracks were self-produced, one of the songs, “These Arms,” was a collaboration with the New York City-based singer/songwriter Rusty Santos, who is known for his work with underground favorites such as Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance and Ariel Pink.
Shenandoah has very specific goals for the project, and what she wants to accomplish in terms of her art, including keeping the factors that make it so different at the forefront. “I would like to continue to develop a very unique sound and stage show, that makes music that moves people to tear up and cling closer to their loved ones,” she says. “I don’t think of Shenandoah And The Night as traditional anything. But our music does draw on the storytelling traditions of folk and bluegrass in that it describes the punishments and pleasures of life on the road. Sometimes, to do what you love you have to go away from those that you love.”
The moniker of the band is an apt description of how she envisions the group. “Shenandoah is my given name,” she says. “And ‘the night’ is expansive and mysterious, all encompassing.”
For further information, and to find out about upcoming appearances, check out shenandoahandthenight.com.