More than three years after the release of her debut, Shannon McNally is back with her second offering, Geronimo. A rebel yell of soulful pop-rock songs marinated in the Louisiana bayou, the album hits stores June 28.
It wasn't just Geronimo, the last great Apache warrior, who made something in the singer/songwriter click again. McNally, who has a degree in anthropology from Pennsylvania's Franklin and Marshall College, says the death of George Harrison made her think about the kind of music she wanted to make.
"We all need that breath of the silly and the light," she said. "But that silly and light will get real suffocating if there's nobody holding up the deep end." The death of the quiet Beatle filled her with fear. "I literally had a little dose of panic. I thought, who is going to be holding down that end of it? Who is going to remind us that there is more than lip gloss? The best of us forget."
After touring with John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks, Ryan Adams, Robert Randolph and Rufus Wainwright, she is venturing out on her own headlining tour in the late summer. McNally acknowledges that opening for artists can be rough but says she fared well in the past. "I know it can be very brutal to be there when nobody wants to see you at all, but I haven't had that," she said. "It wasn't necessarily my audience, and I had to work harder, but they liked it, so I didn't need the chicken wire. I wasn't ducking bottles and tomatoes."
The 32-year-old Long Island, New York, native lives in New Orleans with her musician-turned-teacher husband and their dog, Captain Jack Sparrow, whom she named after seeing Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean" on a return flight from Amsterdam. The record was made in Lafayette, Louisiana, during a sweltering summer session in the swampy bayou, and McNally truly went native. Geronimo is filled with mature, soul-soaked vocals that suggest the muddy, listless streams that ran past the recording studio.
The sluggish journey McNally's music tends to take to reach the masses (see "Shannon McNally's Jukebox Sparrows Finally Takes Flight") created a long marinating process, which any Cajun chef worth his weight in crayfish will tell you makes the product all the more delicious at the end. "A lot of the writing on this has been just odds and ends from a lot of time that's gone by," McNally said. "Unfortunately, you don't get to make records at the same pace that your creativity hits, so some of these songs I lived with a long time."
The journey for the first single, "Miracle Mile," with its bluesy slide guitar and rollicking groove, hasn't been as long as that for some of the other tracks. McNally says that songs like "Pale Moon," "Leave Your Bags by the Door" and "Weathervane" are older but that the final collection of 12 storybook songs almost selected itself. "They whittle themselves down," she said. "I don't know if it's favorites or just comfort. It's the same as a pair of jeans. You might have 12 pairs of jeans in your closet, but every single pair has its appropriate moment."
While her husband doesn't let her play her Band records in the house anymore, the influences of Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan remain apparent on Geronimo, which was produced by Charlie Sexton (Lucinda Williams) and features an all-star lineup of musicians including piano player Ian McLagan (the Faces, the Rolling Stones), bassists Tony Garnier (Bob Dylan) and Tony Hall (the Neville Brothers), drummer Raymond Weber (Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos) and steel guitarist Greg Leisz (k.d. lang, Lucinda Williams).
Connecting to Sexton, though it happened through mutual friends, was fate, according to McNally, whose admiration for the former Bob Dylan bandmember is clear. "There's how he plays his instrument, then there's how brilliant he is, then all of those things become very small in comparison to the person," she said. "He has complete respect for me and thinks really broadly and can go anywhere."
She finds musical contemporaries like Citizen Cope and Ray LaMontagne also willing to join her in music's deep end. "The thing that has kept us all alive — artists and industry and the combination thereof — is the deep end of the pool," she said. "There's Bob Marley, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, even Tupac Shakur. Those guys are holding up the deep end, and we really got to keep it there. You're not encouraged to do it because it's more complicated or because it's more rainy-day stuff. But you know if it doesn't rain for a long time everyone is going to be out in the streets doing their rain dance, saying, 'Send the water, Geronimo!' "