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03 Jun 09 The Heart of Melody – An Interview with Lena Shammas

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This is the first of what we hope will be many articles written by Bill Aspinwall whose album, Free Range Trout, was reviewed by the Texas Music Journal (http://texasmusicjournal.com/texas-music-business/album-reviews/album-review-bill-aspinwall-range-trout).

This article originally appeared in “Liner Notes”, the official webzine of the Houston Songwriter’s Association and is re-published with their permission.

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“The wealth of sense-knowledge belongs to perception, not to immediate certainty, where all that wealth was merely something alongside and by the way; for it is only perception that has negation, distinction, multiplicity in its very nature.” –  The Phenomenology of Mind, G.W.F. Hegel

Photo by Bill Aspinwall

Photo by Bill Aspinwall

One of the most elusive elements that songwriters deal with is melody, the element in a song that at its best, resonates in our hearts, immediately captures our attention and lasts in our memory. The best melodies make us want to sing along with the radio or in the shower. The philosopher Hegel’s concept that perception is everything seems to be particularly true when it comes to melody.

There is a large amount of literature aimed at defining melody; explaining the basics: construction of note sequences and rhythm, intervals and patterns, chord structures and scales. Unfortunately, purely intellectual efforts to construct compelling melodies fall short of reaching that goal.

Yet the concept of what makes a particular piece of music more pleasing to the ear than others is intriguing. Talking to a person who consistently produces engaging melodies might be a useful approach. One person who writes ear-pleasing melodies is Lena Shammas.

Some writers (Annie Proulx, for instance) believe that the best way to learn how to write is to read. By extension, it may be that the best way to learn to write better melodies is to listen. You should listen to Lena Shammas and do your own research – with the melodies that she writes, the journey unfolds like the best of melodies, effortlessly, organically and with pleasure.  You can check out her music on her first CD, “Open Your Eyes”, released in 2004 and available on Outbound Music.com. It’s a unique gem.

After you’ve had the chance to listen to Shammas, you’ll understand. I had the opportunity to hear and see Shammas at Anderson Fair, in Houston. The legendary Anderson Fair, still lighting prayer candles for live music.

It was a songwriter night, hosted by Ken Gaines, consummate performer and songwriter, joined by the bourbon-smooth guitar of Wayne Wilkerson. Clay Farmer was also along for the ride, in full acoustic songwriter mode, East Texas fundamentalist gospel honky tonk, country rock and more. Just another magical night at Anderson Fair.

The following week, Shammas was kind enough to spend a lunch hour with me, talking about songwriting and how it’s been a part of her life.

Global Perspectives

She was born in Kuwait into a Christian family.  Her family left Kuwait while she was very young, and she then spent quite a bit of her childhood all over the globe – London, New York, Moscow, Poland, Hungary, Paris, Nairobi, and California.

As a result of her travels, she has been fluent in 4 languages. At the moment “three and one-tenth – I’ve started studying Spanish”. She has written songs with lyrics in Arabic, English and French.

When she was with her family in Moscow, she helped her father, a Kuwaiti diplomat, by translating Russian.

“I was about 9 or 10 in Moscow. I used to be fluent in Russian. My dad always needed me – he’d say ‘Call Lena – we need to talk to so-and-so’. You know, when you’re a child, you just pick up a language much, much easier.”

Because her father was an ambassador, family travel included a trip to New York City, to put up the Kuwaiti flag at the United Nations. She went to the local international schools where her father was posted and for awhile, a boarding school in Switzerland.  She finished her high school years in Kenya, graduating from Nairobi International School and then went to Pepperdine University in California.

A global perspective at an early age.  She also started music at an early age.

“I started playing piano when I was six.  Just learning scales, do-re-mi, from a Russian lady.  And then when I was 12, in boarding school in Switzerland, my roommate had a guitar.  She never wanted me to use her guitar, but when she was out of the room, I used to borrow the guitar. And then I asked my parents for a guitar and it started from there.”

Shammas’ guitar playing is deceptively simple and elegantly placed behind her songs. The training in classic music shows, for example, in the song “Don’t Try to Stop Her” on her first CD. The song has a short bridge where the guitar work sounds almost like the beginning of a fugue with counterpoint – very Bach-like.

Another interesting facet is her ability to write gorgeous melodies. Her use of intervals and unexpected notes is beautiful and inventive. Without being derivative, her melodies are reminiscent of some of the best work of the Seals and Croft, Karla Bonoff or Joni Mitchell; for a more recent comparison, perhaps Sarah McLachlan or Sheryl Crow.

Working with a Multi-Platinum Producer

Her first CD is a wonderful and fascinating project, produced by André Cymone. Cymone is a supremely talented musician and producer who played bass in high school bands with Prince (long before Prince became the “Artist formerly known as Prince”) and also played bass on one of Prince’s early albums, “Dirty Mind”.

Then, in best Pete Best fashion, Cymone left just before Prince became a mega-super star. Cymone, however, went on to produce a number of high profile pop/R&B/dance acts in the 80’s, including the multi-platinum Jody Wately and Adam Ant.  To have such an experienced and talented producer for a first CD project is a good thing.

“When I first came to Texas, I was getting into music…trying to see where I belonged. A friend of mine from Los Angeles came to town and he heard me singing. He said, ‘Let’s go to LA and see this producer friend of mine.’ We ended up meeting a record producer who apparently had been trying to get in to see André Cymone.”

As luck would have, a meeting was arranged.

“So we go and meet André and right away, André and I just clicked. I just really liked him and he liked my music and through kind of visiting, we found out who he was and right away he said, ‘I’ll do your CD’. His fee is ordinarily humungous, but without a fee, he did my CD.”

Shammas is very modest about her guitar technique and while it’s not laden with fret-blazing gymnastics, it is a unique and subtle fingerstyle, using notes to imply chords and counterpoint.

“While we were doing the CD with André, he said, ‘Instead of flying out, I’ll get a guy to come in and play exactly the notes’. And he brought in four really good guitarists.  Then he called me back. ‘You know what, Lena? You need to come out here, I don’t know what you do, maybe it’s too simple, maybe it’s somehow awkward, but you need to come and do it yourself.’ So, I played my own guitar parts for the CD.”

Blending tradition into the future

While the production on her first CD encompasses primarily soft rock and pop, her lyric approach remains true to her Arabic roots.

“I kind of identify my songwriting with Arabic songwriting. Arabic songs are only about love. We don’t write about losing a house or tragedy. It’s only about love. I feel like my songwriting is only about emotions.  So it’s part of a tradition.”

Shammas has respect for tradition, and like many successful musicians, hears her music in her head.  And perhaps this is why some melodies can be so magic and so elusive – they come from within, from our hearts, our minds, our souls.

“I’ve tried to co-write with a couple of other people, and while we were writing, someone might say, ‘No, but you can’t do that note after that chord.’ And my way is, yes I can, because I hear it.”

Shammas is always working on new tunes. With global perspective, multiple languages, and melodies coming from her heart, head and soul, we can all be looking forward to her next release. It’s a good time to be alive.

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