What I’m Listening To is a new series where we talk to exciting artists and musicians and get a five song slice of their current playlist. 

“Music is my first love.”

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Shannan Robertson on stage with the Scratch Outs at the Blue Lamp in Sacramento CA, 2016. Photo Melissa Uroff

Shannan Robertson grew up in a house filled with music: her mother’s beautiful soprano, her grandmother’s Glenn Miller records which she taught Robertson to jitterbug to, and Robertson’s own musical stylings. “I started singing before I could talk. I would line up all my stuffed animals and sing to them. Because I couldn’t sing like my Ma, I would harmonize with her…I fell in love with harmonies. We would hop in our baby blue Dodge Dart…no radio [on], go for a drive and sing. When life gets to be too much, I still do that,” she says.

Robertson, this month’s curator of the What I’m Listening To playlist and singer in the Scratch Outs, started playing piano by ear at 3 1/2 years old. By 7 she was handwriting her own sheet music when she was supposed to be practicing. “Playing the piano was a wonderful outlet for me. I was able to digest things I didn’t have words for… my Daddy died when I was 4 months old and I was molested by a family friend for about 3 years. There was a lot I didn’t understand, feelings-wise, and music helped me cope. All the emotions that I didn’t have words for or was scared to tell another living soul… I could turn into something beautiful.”

Supported by her mother and grandmother, Robertson fell in love with the flute in the second grade.
“It’s [a] lonely, hauntingly beautiful, almost sorrowful sound. It expresses so much, without words.” She practiced the piano and the flute daily, and performed with her instruments and her voice every chance she got. “My Grams would always say, ‘Smile pretty and sing like a little bird.’ And, I would, I would sing my heart out! I loved how it made her…beam with pride and tears glisten in her eyes.”

But music did not make her feel superior, instead it made her feel different, “like a misfit outsider,” because none of her friends were as obsessed with it as she was. Despite that, she went on playing, performing, and writing though she kept the latter close to her chest. By 13, she had learned how to play the guitar, the piccolo, her mother’s autoharp and her father’s bagpipe chanter (though to this day, she still hasn’t mastered the bag or the drones). By high school, life improved as Robertson met other kids she could connect with, who were “[a] little damaged, lovers of art and music and keepers of many secrets.”

As a young performer, she had never been afflicted with stage fright, “just an excited flutter,” but that changed one night when she was 15. Robertson was playing piano and singing at a school talent show. Just before the second chorus of her rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine,’ the video yearbook cameraman caught his cord around the mic stand and the mic hit her in the mouth. “My hands, legs and voice started trembling, my eyes filled up with tears and I could taste blood…I wanted to disappear. But…my Ma always said, ‘No matter what happens or goes wrong, just keep going!’ So I did, I finished the song. I will never forget the roar…the crowd made.” But it began a period of crippling stage fright for the singer.

Throughout the rest of high school, Robertson hung around the Midtown Sacramento music scene, soaking it in. Almost every night saw her in the corners of practice studios and in the crowd at shows. “I would…get lost in their captivating music. I was so lucky to meet such ridiculously talented musicians at that time in my life. Many of [whom] are still friends and important in my life today.” Though she dreamed of singing in a band, she was terrified to try. Instead she went to every show she could find, from hardcore to reggae to hip hop. “I would go in the pit and start slamming around. Sometimes guys would yell, ‘No clits in the pit!’ I didn’t care… I wasn’t afraid to take a few punches and I definitely wasn’t afraid to throw a few.”

Slowly, she dipped her toes in the idea of performance, playing music with her friend Kenny Beasley.
“I’d play him my ham fisted guitar rhythms or play the piano and sing. We called them our “Hell’s Choruses” jokingly.” Robertson would also frequent the practice sessions of the Steady Ups, a local reggae band. Few people knew she could sing or that she wrote music until she played and sang Guns N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’ at Joe’s Style Shop during a practice session. Then she began working on a duet with her friend, and a member of the Steady Ups, Lesley Bruce. After weeks of daily practice, Mike B., the founder of the band, asked them to sing a song with The Steady Ups. “I was over the moon! Utterly terrified, but excited.” Shortly after, Robertson joined the band. “I had made it back full circle to my love of harmony, and started to write harmony parts to sing duets with Les and backups for Kenny with Les. We played some amazing shows and I learned tons from my bandmates…I had finally found my tribe.”

Two years later, the Steady Ups recorded Soul of the City at the Hangar.  “I was so proud to be immortalized (in a small way) with one of my favorite bands…I would play it for anybody that sat still long enough to listen.” Soon after the CD release, the band broke up. Robertson was heartbroken.

After the break-up, Robertson and Beasley kept jamming and writing together. In 2003, not long after the disbanding of the Steady Ups, they played their first gig as a duo at the Distillery where Robertson works. They called themselves The Shakes because “we both would get nervous and shake.” In 2005, the members of The Shakes joined a brief Steady Ups resurrection but the band fell apart again within a year. Though The Shakes had shows afterwards, they became fewer and fewer. Robertson started going to karaoke nearly every night just so she could sing. This helped her get a handle on her stage fright.

In 2013, Mike B. asked Robertson to sing backup vocals in his and Matt Pailes’s band The Scratch Outs. “He knew how much I loved playing music and…being in a band. I was delighted to reunite with my love for harmony and join [them].” Robertson has been with the band ever since. She loves singing in a vocal section that is backed by a “hard hitting rhythm section.” She and her fellow songbirds Pailes and Minh Quan, trade off singing the lead and backups. “I love the dynamic that we have…The way we write new material and decide on the versions we do fascinates me, because it happens so organically. Somebody will bring in an idea or rhythm line, they will either have it already written and just tell everybody what to play…[or we] will just follow…along until it comes together.”

What is songbird Shannan Robertson listening to? “It was like Sophie’s Choice picking only 5 songs,” she says, but managed to come up with an awesome list anyway.

Barbara Lynn-‘You’ll Lose A Good Thing’- “She is so badass. She makes playing the guitar and singing look effortless. I’ve been studying her for a few months now. It was difficult picking which song of hers to chose. So I went with the first one I ever saw.”

Beverly Jones and the Prestons-‘Hear You Talking’-“I had never heard this song or of this group until my ex gave me a CD of 60s all-girl groups last year and this song was on it. I fell in love with her voice and listen to this jam almost everyday.”

Billie Holiday-‘When You’re Smiling’-“I started listening to this song every morning at the start of the new year to get [psyched] up for work. Billie has always been one of my favorites from the first time I heard that voice, that pain filled, beautiful voice! I can’t help but smile, so it helps me get my day started on a good note.”

Lera Lynn-‘Lately’ (from the True Detective Season 2 soundtrack)-“I had never heard of this lady until I watched the season on DVD a couple of weeks ago. Her melancholy music added so much to the show for me. I have been listening to a few of her tracks on YouTube ever since.”

OTIS feat. Erin Honeywell-‘Gone’-“This is an amazing band and her voice gives me chills. The Scratch Outs have the privilege of opening for them and Hepcat with some amazing DJs, Nina Cole and Selecter Kirk at Slim’s on [Febubrary 13th]. I so hope they play this song!”

“I wouldn’t still be alive if it weren’t for…music, and the amazing people it has brought in to enrich my life…I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t had the experiences I have had…or the support from my musical family, friends, Ma, and Grams… Music makes life worth living and gives it defining purpose.”

Robertson is also very proud to be in The Scratch Outs. “We have had some outstanding opportunities already and I’m super excited to see what our future holds!” The band will be playing at Slim’s (333 11th St., Sacramento) on Feb. 13th with DJs Nina Cole and Selecter Kirk, OTIS playing Booker T, and Hepcat at 8 pm.

Words: K. Hules.

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