Shaughn Richardson, a musician, podcaster and community leader in Reno, NV took the time to talk to Ethan about all the different pieces that makes a song, as well as the importance of music in the political culture of today. He is one half of the podcast, Up in the Mix, a funny exploration of hip hop, pop culture and politics, a teacher, and an insightful thinker. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Ethan: What begot your interest in songwriting?
Shaughn: I don’t think I really consider myself a songwriter, so I’d say it happened by accident. I’ve written poems and raps since I was a teenager and that evolved into going to open mics, which lead to joining a band. So it all just kind of happened naturally. As a result of playing with different bands I had to work on my songwriting, but I don’t consider myself to be very good, and it’s something I continue to work on. There’s a huge difference between writing, writing poetry, writing rhymes, and songwriting. I think I’ve done song writing the least and come to it last, so it’s something that does not come as easily as other writing.
E: What’s the best song ever, written, according to you?
S: This is a really hard question. Funny, I was recently listening to a podcast discussing the songwriting genius of Stevie Wonder and Prince. As much as I love music I still don’t know if I’m qualified to say what is the best song ever written, it’s hard for me to separate the songwriting from the music and other aspects of a song like the performance. What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye would have to be one of my favorites. I’m a sucker for songs that touch on sociopolitical issues and that one’s a classic. So, I’m partial to everyone from Nina Simone to Rage Against the Machine. Public Enemy to Run the Jewels. I could talk about this for days so we’ll just leave it with that.
Ultimately I think songwriting is about telling a story, and if you can tell a good story people will be drawn to it regardless of genre or style. Songwriting is just one component in making music, but if you write a good song it’s going to resonate no matter how it’s performed or produced.
E: What is the place of the songwriter in this technologically oriented world of short attention spans, clickbait, and instant gratification?
S: I think songwriting is underappreciated and often gets lost because so much emphasis is placed on the actual music, whether it’s the beat or the production, I feel like it can steal the show and lyrics get overlooked, especially with more modern musical genres. But ultimately I think songwriting is about telling a story, and if you can tell a good story people will be drawn to it regardless of genre or style. Songwriting is just one component in making music, but if you write a good song it’s going to resonate no matter how it’s performed or produced.
E: If you could imagine something that the modern songwriter really needs in order to create more music what would it be?
S: I think songwriting is based on experience and comes from a deeply personal place. So I think living a full life, with a large and diverse range of experiences and having to overcome adversity helps. I think if you look back historically the last 100 years periods of intense societal change have been followed by great artistic output. Each decade following the world wars saw huge changes in music. But so much of modern music came from the 60s and all the social and political upheaval that came with the times. Hip hop and punk music, which I think really influence all music today, were born in the late 70s and early 80s as society really transitioned into a post industrial, globalized reality. So I’m looking forward to the music that is going to be inspired from what is currently going on in the world. I think you will see more music coming from unheard voices and perspectives because they will be both new, but also more relatable for the average person to identify with.
E: What do you hope to teach the kids you teach about music as they watch you live your life playing, teaching, and podcasting?
S: I try to lead by example. By just being myself proudly and unapologetically. Having spent so much time teaching middle school and high school I see the insecurities that come with being that age and figuring out who you are in the world. It’s tough, there’s so much pressure to conform to certain stereotypes, to live up to so many different unrealistic standards that I think it’s important to show my students that I am who I am, and don’t really care what anyone thinks. I try to support them and the things they are into regardless of what anyone else may tell them. As a black, male teacher I know how many of my students feel, especially minority students, who may have cultural experiences that are different from what is presented to them in mass and social media. I just try to show them that ultimately it is ok to just be yourself, and not apologize or owe any explanation of who you are to anyone. So I listen to hip hop music and share my love of that with them. The same music that people claimed was ruining society when I was a child has greatly inspired and influenced me to be the person I am, and I make sure my students know that. I make sure they know that just because their perspective is new, doesn’t make it wrong.
E: What is the greatest lesson that music has taught you?
S: As a child of the late 80s and early 90s I was greatly influenced by hip hop music and how it has evolved over the past 40 years. From an early age it gave me a perspective on society, and America in general, that I could relate to and was familiar to me that I didn’t see in mainstream media. It taught me to see through a lot of the bullshit propaganda and superficial values that are prevalent in our society. It got me to read history, be interested in philosophy and most importantly it taught me that you have to get involved and engaged in your community, to use your powers for good as we like to say.
E: How have you found music collaboration to be during this lockdown? Has it been easy for you, hard, manageable? What tools have you been using to collaborate with others?
S: It has been easier than I expected. I was involved with the Reno City song that came out last summer and that was truly an amazing feat considering it featured so many different artists who were not able to work together. With modern technology it’s easy to record remotely. I was able to write my part, get in the studio and record it in a matter of days and had no idea who else was going to be a part of it. It made the final product very cool to see. But I think not being able to just get together and jam has been hard for bands. I know the first time I got together to rehearse music live was really weird, but fun. There’s something to be said for the create process when you’re sitting somewhere just making stuff up together as you go, and I’ve missed that. With our podcast it was difficult at first to adjust to using zoom and not being in the same room with each other and our guests, but we eventually adjusted. It also allowed us to branch out and interview people who weren’t here locally so that was cool.
In other ways it’s made it easier to collaborate artistically because it’s easier to ask someone to jump on a zoom than it is to coordinate a bunch of people meeting physically at the same time. I do an annual art show at the Holland Project (in Reno, NV) and we were able to pretty seamlessly transition to an online version of it last summer. I think we as humans are more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for, and it’s been amazing to see people adjust to the new realities of the past year as an artist, a teacher and a community member. Despite all the challenges, headaches, and frustrations, life has continued.
E: If you could only listen to one album on repeat for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
S: Another tough question. But right this moment if I have to choose it’s ATLiens by Outkast. It might be a different answer tomorrow, but that’s how I’m feeling today. They say most people deeply identify with the music that comes out when they’re in high school and I’m no different. Condolences to The Score by the Fugees, Battle for LA by RATM, Wu Tang Forever and the Blackstar album, they’re all great.
You can keep up with Shaughn on these platforms:
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