There’s a common misconception that all musicians are brash, extroverted, natural-born entertainers who love the limelight and live to perform on stage every night.
That that’s not always the case. For every extroverted Madonna there’s a reclusive Kate Bush – the artist who loves to make music but shuns the spotlight. And in a world where musicians are told they need to be media-savvy self-marketers in order to “make it big”, those with a quieter nature need to find another way.
For Perth singer-songwriter Helen Shanahan, there’s certainly a duality to being a musician – the co-existence of a desire to create and perform, and the anxiety that comes with putting yourself out there in public.
Her latest single I Only Hide – and the accompanying video, filmed in Nannup by Villanova Music duo Danny Martin and Elliot Smith – explores this duality in arresting shades of dark and light. The song, recorded in Nashville by Brad Jones (the producer has worked with Missy Higgins, Bob Evans and Melody Pool), explores the pressures of being a musician when your natural habitat is not beneath the bright lights of a concert stage, or afterparties.
“Danny and Elliot came to me with a video concept of ‘two Helens’, one showing a side of me that was afraid of leaving the house, and another that was filled with confidence and positivity, trying to lure the ‘inside Helen’ out,” says Shanahan.
“In the verses of the song, I talk about how ‘they’re waiting outside’, and that evokes a foreboding and dark mood. But in the chorus there’s a brighter tone, which is what we thought the ‘outside Helen’ could reflect − the hope that while there is a dark side of me, there is also a light that can come through.”
Following on from the critically acclaimed 2015 EP Finding Gold, I Only Hide is a taster for Shanahan’s new full-length album, Every Little Sting, recorded with Brad Jones over 10 days in Nashville. While she says she didn’t set out to write an album specifically about anxiety, it is a theme that threads itself through many of the album’s lyrics.
“I find songwriting very therapeutic and it helps me to work through anxiety, partly because people do expect musicians to have a certain amount of confidence,” she says. “Sometimes you feel you need to be a certain way for people to listen to or like your music. I try to remember that it’s the differences in us that make us unique, and even if I’m not as ‘out there’ as other musicians, as long as I am writing from the heart, writing the best songs I can write, that’s all that matters at the end of the day. I’m slowly getting more comfortable with being myself on stage, and I think as long as I can have a few ‘good nerves’ to keep me focused, then that’s a great place to be.’’
“Out there” she may not be, but what Shanahan does have is a rich, affecting and emotive voice; it’s an instrument that has already won her a 2015 Telstra Road to Discovery award (WAM’s program to foster independent Australian songwriting talent; other recipients have included Melody Pool, Andrew Redford and Gena Rose Bruce).
Shanahan hopes listeners will identify with the lyrics of I Only Hide and perhaps feel less alone if they suffer from anxiety.
“For a long time I just kept everything inside and didn’t know how many other people were actually feeling the same,” she says. “The more that people can talk about it, the more it may help others to understand how debilitating it can be and how much it can affect your day-to-day life.’’
Helen Shanahan's debut album Every Little Sting is out now.