Karma Chameleon: Celia Shacklett is a one-woman musical renaissance

To call local singer-songwriter Celia Shacklett a musical evangelist might be an understatement. When she's not leading Celia's Big Rock Band, Shacklett plays bass in Fire Dog, performs sing-along songs for kids, and teaches grade-schoolers how to sing and play guitar. Her songs are both positive and wise, and she performs with a style that's magnetic to audiences of all ages. On a sunny spring Friday in a restaurant on the Hill, Celia sat down to discuss her latest record, Transformateurs, as well as her musical friendship with folk icon Bruce Cockburn.

Christian Schaeffer: What was the process involved with making the new record?

Celia Shacklett: I rehearsed with my local band, Celia's Big Rock Band, on these tunes for probably two years. We got this particular sound together. We rehearsed and went down to Arkansas [at East Hall Studios in Fayetteville] and recorded as a band. In October of 2007, I met Bruce Cockburn in New York City and we had a rehearsal day together, and then spent a day in the studio. We had one song we had written together in Memphis in June of 2007. He basically took the beginning of a song and helped me flesh it out.

What was it like working with another songwriter?

I've only cowritten a couple of times, and the cowrite with Bruce ["Things You'll Miss"] was definitely the most — I don't want to say successful — but it made something that is going to be a part of my repertoire. Part of that was that he wasn't doing much actual writing — he was helping me refine something. He helped me more with the chord progression and the melody and a kind of delivery — which to me, when I listen to it, is the "Bruce Cockburn delivery." That's what I love about that song: It sounds like Celia and Bruce Cockburn. It trips me out. I'm a huge fan and have been forever.

How did you hook up with Bruce Cockburn?

It's a really sweet story. I'm from western Kansas, from the High Plains, about 250 miles east of Denver and 330 miles west of Kansas City. It's a very remote area. If you're driving out on I-70 and you see all the signs for the World's Largest Prairie Dog, that's where it is — out in the middle of nowhere. And for me, that's the primary miracle of this whole trip is that I ever found Bruce Cockburn's music in the first place. But my brother threw a tape at me, and I listened to it and loved it. I became a disciple and went crazy. I wrote him a bunch of fan mail but never mailed it. I just had this love for him when I was fifteen.

And then when I was eighteen my dad died, and the night before the funeral, I wrote Bruce a letter, thanking him for having this kind of impact and for being a constant in my life. I mailed it the next morning on the way to the funeral, and a few months later he wrote back. We continued to exchange letters for a while, and in 1997 he sent a postcard and said he was coming through Lawrence, and we met for the first time. We knew each other pretty well through the letters, but we really hit it off. Over the years we've gotten together whenever he's in the Midwest, or I'll travel to go see him.

This was when I knew that it was just more [than] in my mind that we were friends: He was driving from Winnipeg to LA, and he cut across Missouri to come spend the night, on the night before Thanksgiving. We stayed up all night drinking bourbon and listening to David Bowie records. It was awesome. He's a really kind man, and I think he took it upon himself to be my friend when my dad died. So for fifteen years he's been a kind and generous friend — he's been a guiding influence in my life.

He really is my most treasured hero, but I just asked him to do this with me and he said, "Oh, sure. If you can make it convenient for me, I'll do what I can." I felt like I needed to offer him some kind of payment for his work, so I called him up and said, "What can I do for you?" He said, "Celia, you can't afford me. Just get me a nice bottle of tequila, and we'll call it even."

You also play alongside Mark Pagano in Fire Dog. How do your different bands intersect?

I've known Mark for thirteen years or so. We've played a lot of music together and been on each other's recordings from when we were learning to express ourselves musically. Fire Dog is kind of a special power trio — that band has a special bond. I learned how to play bass for Fire Dog, and Brandon [drummer] dusted off his chops for the band. Celia's Big Rock Band and Fire Dog has toured together with Love-O-Rama.

The Love-O-Rama tours have a multimedia aspect to them, with films being shown alongside the live bands. What is the impetus behind these tours?

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