Susan Sheller is one of those gals with guitars that you’d think more people would know by now. Sheller is a California-based singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist. Her PR seems to favor focusing on her music more than her bio. Perhaps that's due in part to a gap in her musical resume.
Regarding her absence from the scene she states: “I had to take about 10 years away from music . . . for family reasons.” More recently, however, Sheller has returned. In fact, your rockin’ writer saw her perform with Michael-Ann not too long ago at the Canyon Club. Wherever she was, Sheller is back.
Still, if her 1999 debut disc, On The Way To Here, is any indication, her unexplained absence is irrelevant. Her soulful songs speak for themselves. Her music speaks volumes and maybe that’s what’s most important.
Indeed, while she's opened for artists such as Rodney Crowell and Kenny Loggins and Blue Sky Riders, her press largely focuses on her music, billing her signature sound as something that blurs the “fine lines between folk, rock, and country.” This too is true as online authors struggle to label her ranging in choice between blues, folk and roots rock. Sheller initially offers little explanation of her personal song-style.
"My songs are from my life and my dreams." Well, maybe what’s important is that what began “as a few demos” became this attention-worthy, 11-track release. Of course, that was due to some help from a famous although initially unexpected source.
Sheller explains: “This CD was supposed to be some songwriting demos that turned into an album of songs. Strangers and long-lost friends kept appearing to chip in and make it go. Daniel Stern paid for the mastering. I met him at The Mint but didn’t put together the face with the man on the phone.
Sheller continues: “Finally his assistant told me: ‘You don’t really know who he is, do you?’ Oops. (At that point) I had never seen Home Alone. I knew his work but not his name. I had no idea the man who called me and sent me the money was a famous actor.”
With what some call “provocative lyrics that could make Johnny Cash blush” and a distinct yet familiar vocal style, her premiere project still holds up thanks to a musical mix of early folk rock and an original, contemporary elements. On this work, Sheller (lead vocals, guitar and songwriting) is backed by a bevy of other assorted artists including: producer Dave Darling (guitar, bass, harmonica, loops and “general hocus pocus”), Arlan Schierbaum (piano, pump organ, Hammond B-3 and accordion), Stevie Gurr (guitar and vocals), Scott Babcock (drums and backing vocals), Tara Prodariuk (bass and backing vocals), Mark Karan (guitar), Bri Darling (percussion), Ken Stacy (backing vocals) and Bob Gross (“Honorable Mention Absentee Bass player”).
The lyrical lead-in is the titular track “On The Way To Here”. While the song works well enough and has an almost commercial feel to it, the best is yet to come. Sheller shared the song’s secret origin and the reason why her mother (B. Lanzet) received co-writing credit with your probing penman.
“My favorite story is about (this) song. . . I was working on it at my mother’s house. I screamed across the house randomly: ‘Mom! We learned to swim upstream!’ She immediately screamed back: ‘Like superheroes in a dream!’ Thanks mom. Gotta love that.”
The second selection is “Memphis Radio”. This one truly grows on you and sounds (duh) radio-made and commercially viable. Sheller credits Mark Karan on guitar and says “He was recording with me when he got the call to be in the band The Other Ones after Jerry Garcia died and went on to be in Bob Weir’s band RatDog and now performs ‘Memphis Radio’ with his band Jemima Puddleduck.”
“Chains Where Wings Used To Be” is spiritual and somewhat personal. It has an element to it that makes it sound like something Janis Joplin would sing if she had not died long ago. No surprised there as Sheller is obviously inspired by Joplin when she lets herself go.
Sheller shares: “I always preface when I’m singing it live: ‘A song wrote the day my momma got outta jail.’ It's become a legend but it's not true!” The quality cut also made her a semi-finalist for the International Songwriteing Contest and "Third Place" in the Just Plain Folks" competition as well as both "Best New Album" and "Song of the Year" in the Americana/roots music category.
The awe-inspiring “What If I Stop Believing” follows and is one of the few songs she did not write by herself. It is a popular song among her long-time listeners and reveals more of the musician’s personality to boot. The next number is titled “The Wind Knows” and is actually one of the songs she “heard in a dream”.
According to Sheller, Darling “was getting busier and busier with Bette Midler and Brian Setzer and Meredith Brooks.” She never knew if she “was going to see him again so every session was like ‘do it or die’.” She admits: “I sang ‘The Wind Knows’ with terrible Bronchitis because I needed to keep working or it would never get done!” (Mind you, considering the production quality and the comparisons to Joplin it’s doubtful anyone would have questioned the cut without this confession.)
The sixth selection is the intimate offering “Sex With You”. Here Sheller manages to write a sexy song about sex with a certain someone being special and significant without lyrically coming off like a hip-hop artist or a Penthouse letter. (It’s nice when a gal with a guitar writes something nice about your rascally reviewer. Yeah, yeah . . . dream on . . . got it . . . got it . . .)
The cut “Coyote” comes next. It includes an interesting twist on the American Indian in that Sheller gives the character Coyote a female alter-ego. This is yet another number that has quickly grown on her fans.
“Absinthe & Tangerine” is a musical mix of Americana and a bit of psychedelia and features Gurr on harmonica. Sheller is quick not to alienate the anti-drug audience stating that the song “is really about painting not drugs. I was painting a lot at the time and those were the colors I was singing about. I have a painting of it somewhere (or) I may have given it away as a ‘thank you for some money I got for the CD.”
Also included on the album is “Yes I Do” which while sometimes overlooked is still a noteworthy number in its own right. This and the previous piece we co-written with Arlan Schierbaum. It’s followed by “The Way To Go Home” as Sheller winds down the recording. Although she admitted the tune “has a very funny kinda weird story” behind it she was not specific about this fan favorite.
The album’s end-note is “The Dream”. This is another “song about a dream” and Sheller added: “It came true.” And so she closes her premiere project—a dream that came true—with a song about the same thing. It’s a poetic finish to a collection of honest and at times heartfelt material.
Sheller--who will soon be “singing on the radio again in October on KTYDE and KLYTE”--is excited about her next gig: "I'm opening at the Canyon Club for Leon Russell October 18th!" Yes, Sheller appears to be going places. Does your rascally reviewer think On The Way To Here is worth another listen? “Yes I Do”.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.