Leah Shaw comes home to play Muddy Creek Music Hall
Singer-songwriter and one-time Winston-Salem native Leah Shaw has the benefit of being able to think on both sides of certain large-ish divides. Shaw was raised in Winston-Salem, but she’s been living in New York City since 2011. She’s written poignantly about having a connection to the Carolinas. She’s also written about committing to living the striving artistic life in Brooklyn. Shaw is classically trained; she plays bassoon and has a performance degree. But she’s also a folk singer, writing acoustic music and singing about experience and emotion. She was raised in the church, but she’s not much of a church-goer these days. Straddling these different spheres, being able to see a little into and understand worlds that sometimes seem at odds — that’s something that makes Shaw approachable.
“I have a little bit of a dual identity,” said Shaw, who spoke to me by phone from New York on Sunday.
Shaw will perform at Winston-Salem’s Muddy Creek Music Hall on Dec. 23. The concert will benefit the Amani Children’s Foundation, a charity that is close to Shaw. Shortly after Shaw’s mother, Rebecca, died in 2016, following a long struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the children’s foundation gave her a special honor. Rebecca Shaw had been active in working with orphans in Kenya, and the organization paid tribute to her commitment to naming the next orphan they took in after her.
As one would imagine, the death of her mother has weighed on Shaw and shaped some of the recent songs she’s written. “A lot of the songs are about losing her, or about losing a sense of security,” Shaw said. For those who lose loved ones, simply finding the strength to grieve and go on, and the mystery of how one keeps having energy and inspiration when it seems like there’s no reserve of such powers, those are frequent surprises.
Shaw, 32, had lived in the area for a time, after college, when her mother was first diagnosed. And she’d helped tend to her mother, staying home with her four days out of the week, as her condition slowly worsened. Shaw’s decision to move to New York was based, in part, on the sense that it was what her mother would want her to do.
As her mother’s condition worsened, Shaw says she not only became friends with her mother in a new way, but she also grew confident that her father and the network of other helping out didn’t need the young Shaw to stay in town and be a nurse to her mother.
After earning her performance degree from James Madison University in Virginia, Shaw had come home and, while spending time with her mother, had also worked at RayLen Vineyards in Mocksville. While there she’d helped launch a series of Friday evening music events. During this period Shaw was branching out from her musical training.
“I just got burnt out on all the classical music,” she said.
Drawing on her church music background, her experience playing piano, practicing guitar and growing more interested in the classics of popular and folk music, Shaw started learning more covers and writing her own material. She released a few EPs at around the time she was working in the vineyard.
“I love playing by ear,” she said. “I did a lot of church music by ear, and I loved it, and it was very improvisational.”
One can hear Shaw’s comfort with building harmonies intuitively and letting melodies unfold organically on songs like “I Went To War,” which has dreamy, bubbly, minimalist arpeggiations at its heart. But Shaw is just as comfortable constructing songs built on folk-style strumming. She can float her sweet and clear voice over a mellow acoustic backdrop, sustaining notes and adding expressive ruffles.
The live events at the vineyard helped nudge her to the stage again. But she still wasn’t entirely comfortable there. As she’s said, when she moved to New York City, she struggled with stage fright. In workmanlike fashion, Shaw decided that to battle her nerves in front of a crowd, she’s simply de-sensitize herself by routine exposure, and so she started becoming a regular on the open-mic circuit in the city.
“I wasn’t used to being out front,” Shaw said.
This led to another of the twists of her career. While making her way to open mics, she’d routinely get out her guitar and practice on the subway or waiting for a train. Often people would toss bills or coins into her case. Soon she realized that busking for the busy pedestrians in New York was more profitable, rewarding and fruitful than making the rounds of open-mic nights.
For someone who struggled with stage fright, Shaw has found that the way to move past her jitters is to engage with an audience. She chooses to interact with listeners instead of hoping that she can cultivate an inward experience that will somehow translate to those in the audience.
If Shaw can be both reserved and outward, classically trained and folk-y, she’s also made something of being a displaced Southerner in the Northeast. She won a 2014 singer-songwriter competition put on by Our State Magazine for the song “Carolina I’m Home,” about a musician who finds the big city to be a little off-putting. (It’s not exactly written from Shaw’s perspective, but it’s a sentiment she understands.) It’s a small irony that Shaw was already pretty much a New Yorker at that point. For the flip side of the coin, one can listen to her songs “Brooklyn” or “Up in New York,” songs about the rootlessness, flux, and excitement that come with being anonymous in the metropolis.
Shaw isn’t intimidated by new challenges. She’s enrolled in a masters program in media scoring, where she’s working with filmmakers and directors, learning aspects of studio engineering and also learning to collaborate in using music to help tell stories.
Finding new modes of work, new collaborators, and new techniques is all just a way of keeping busy and improving, says Shaw, bringing new tools to her singing and songwriting. But Shaw is less concerned with achieving any technical mastery or cultivating structural sophistication than with learning ways to help with expression.
“I’m more worried about it being honest when I put it out there,” she said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.