Interview: Eryn Shewell

brent johnson chats with rootsy New Jersey singer-songwriter Eryn Shewell …

Eryn Shewell’s voice has long hovered over the Jersey Shore.

It’s clear yet powerful, belting out a blend of rock, blues, soul and jazz. It’s also a voice that has been drawing attention since her early teens.

Shewell joined her aunt’s country band, Sundance, at 13. A decade later, she started performing her own songs solo. Over the last few years, Shewell has created a buzz around New Jersey’s venerable ocean-side venues, releasing a pair of albums along the way: Window Pane and 4th & Broadway.

Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson recently spoke with the rising singer-songwriter about her musical upbringing, being a mother and musician, and how tough it is to break into the business these days …

Pop-Break: Where in N.J. have you lived?

Eryn Shewell: That’s a tough one. I’ve lived in a lot of places, starting out in Maryland. Moved to New Jersey when I was 8. Then I lived in Jackson, Howell, Freehold, Toms River, East Brunswick, East Windsor, and more. I’ve moved around a lot through the years.

PB: You say you come from a musical family. How so?

ES: My grandfather is a multi-instrumentalist, playing anything from guitar to accordion to trumpet. My mother is a country singer. My father is a crooner, singing songs from the Rat Pack days []. My aunt is a country/rock singer who sang in a band called Sundance for 20 years and helped me get my start. And now my daughter is starting to play the piano.

PB: Common question: Who are your musical inspirations?

ES: I have so many influences, but to name a few: Susan Tedeschi, Etta James, Eva Cassidy, Ella Fitzgerald, Bonnie Raitt. Plus, all of the Motown stuff, like Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder. A few country artists like Patsy Cline, and, of course, my aunt Lori Jennings Stuble. There are many more, but I think that’s a start.

PB: You wrote you first song at age 14. What was the title? What was it about?

ES: The first song I wrote is called “I Don’t Know.” It’s on my first CD, Window Pane, and it’s about not really knowing who you are yet. Which I guess at age 14 is expected. [laughs]

PB: Tell me about Sundance.

ES: Sundance is a country/rock band I sang in with my Aunt Lori. I joined in singing back-up vocals and leads when I was an early teenager. I sang with them for almost 10 years before I decided to try to do my own thing. One of my great blues influences was also the guitarist in that band, Mr. Al “The Blues Man” Philo. He passed away last year, and that was a great loss for me.

PB: You were in another band after that?

ES: Shortly after I left Sundance, I joined a band called The Soul Project [] with guitarist Cristian Duque. They are a New Orleans funk influenced band, and I loved them. They relocated back to New Orleans, but I still occasionally sing with them when they visit New Jersey and when I travel down to New Orleans. Christian taught me a lot about being a band leader and how to run your own band. I learned so much from him that helps me run my own band today.

PB: Why go solo?

ES: Who else would do all this work? [laughs] Just kidding. I just felt it was time to get my own music out into the world. Besides singing, I love to write music. So going solo, I could be the boss, play all my original music, and choose the covers I want to do.

PB: The line on Asbury Park is it’s a thriving music community. And one that supports its musicians. Have you seen that?

ES: I have been playing in Asbury for over 10 years now, and I’ve seen it grow so much. With new music venues popping up everywhere, I think it’s really becoming a real music town again. There are more and more music supporters and fans going to Asbury. Also, I will never forget the ones who supported me from the start, like Scott Stamper from [noted club] The Saint.

PB: Do you make music for a living? Is that difficult these days?

ES: Yes, I am a full-time musician, and it’s like having three full-time jobs. It’s really tough. A lot of work and very little pay but it’s my calling, my passion, and I love doing it. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else with my life.

PB: Have difficult is it to be a musician with a young daughter? Does she ever come to shows?

Shewell's guitarist, Pat Ruh

ES: I find being a musician difficult in general, and I don’t know what it would be like to be one without a daughter. My daughter is worth any difficulty she may cause me. Although, I don’t think that is much. She is a wonderful child and I am very blessed. She does come to some of the shows, and I think she enjoys herself,, but for her, it’s her every day. She is so used to mommy being a musician that it’s not “cool” to her. [laughs] She does seem very proud, though. She tells all her teachers about me and asks to give them my CDs for Christmas every year.

PB: Think she’ll want to be a musician like her mom? Would you encourage that?

ES: I think she may end up being a more trained type of musician, the type that goes to music school and ends up in a pit orchestra or something, rather than the artist type of musician like me. I could be completely wrong, but that’s the type of kid she is. Very self-disciplined. She is very into the piano right now and loves to show me her progress. I hope she keeps up with it because obviously I’d love to see her as a working musician someday, but I’ll support her in whatever she decides.

PB: How did you and your guitarist Pat Ruh meet? How important is he to your sound?

ES: Pat and I met at his audition to be the guitarist in my band and have been inseparable ever since. He is my best friend and I love working with him. He is my business partner and musical director in the band, my behind-the-scenes guy, and I can’t do it without him. He has a lot of different musical influences just like I do, so when we put that together we created the sound we have now. It took me a little while to figure out exactly what I wanted musically, but Pat was key in helping me discover that. He really understands what I’m looking for when I come to him with a new song idea, and I understand him when he has ideas. We trust each other on every level, and I think that is why we’re a great songwriting team.

PB: I’ve read many reviews that calls your music rootsy. Is that a tag you enjoy or agree with?

ES: “Rootsy” is a good description. I could definitely agree with it. It’s tough to find one word that describes what I do. Pat and I have so many different musical influences and loves that It all seems to leak over into our original music. Sometimes I think I should make up my own genre to describe my music. “Ruby-style music” maybe? [laughs] A combination of blues, rock, Motown, soul, jazz, and country.

PB: Do you think popular music will ever embrace natural, acoustic, non-synth driven music in the near future?

ES: I sure hope so! That would really help out my situation! [laughs] I do see little bits of it here and there, a real artist will break out every now and then, and then I see a little glimmer of hope and tell myself all is not lost. [laughs]

PB: Has it become easier or harder to be a musician the last few years, as the business model changes with the internet becoming such a central facet of the industry?

ES: I think it’s definitely getting harder and harder as the years go on. I find every year it takes me a little more work just to get the same amount of gigs. The fact that the income for a musician hasn’t changed in over 40 years, yet the cost of living is way higher definitely makes things hard as well. Especially playing original music there is no money in it at all.

As for the internet, I’m not sure if that has harmed me or helped me. I do a lot of my promotions online, and I can reach so many more people with the internet and all the tools there are out there for musicians really help. The only thing is that everyone now has these tools and you can get lost in the sea of people trying to “make it” and lost in the sea of companies trying to screw you over. I guess you just have to keep working hard and be smart about it. The technology that I think harms artists like me is programs like Auto Tune. If that program didn’t exist, there would be a lot less of these pop teen idols who can barely sing in the spotlight, making room for more genuine artists.

For more on Eryn Shewell, visit her website.


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