Interview | FFS 5 with Tai Shan

Nashville’s Tai Shan is set to release her new album Traveling Show in April. With hints of jazz in her nuanced singing and songwriting – Shan is a serious practitioner of the slightly unexpected chord change, the beguiling harmonic shift – taking the concept of the singer-songwriter to new levels on Traveling Show. She is indeed a serious student of American songwriting, and she’s used her vast knowledge to teach the art of matching words to music to multitudes of students who have learned from her example. Traveling Show is a masterclass in the art of deceptive simplicity. It is, after all, about the stories, and the emotions within them. 

Traveling Show is due out on 3 April. Prior to its release, Shan is taking on our ongoing ‘FFS 5’ interview series.

As an artist, how do you define success?

When I was 17 I was ushered into a chapel with 99 other kids my age from my hometown. We were a choir and our director gathered us and asked us to sing. We began to sing “O Magnum Mysterium” in a chapel we all know as at the Sistine Chapel. I remember singing to the paintings on the wall. Each note seemed to give the paintings life and the hundreds of little painted people danced on the walls before us in slow motion. I was taken by the beauty of art at that moment. Those walls, all the work Michelangelo did, that is a success. Success is to continue to move people long after you are gone. To be a memory in the life of another. To be included in a sentence of “I remember when I first heard that song by so and so” Or “I remember I was listening to that song when I …”  It’s the ultimate goal for people hundreds of years later to see and experience your work and be moved to tears while singing with 99 other voices and live on in my memory as a defining moment.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

Every day I hear another musician who is amazing. It’s hard to believe we are this talented as a species. Sometimes I get discouraged, why should anyone listen to me. There are so many voices shouting to be heard and our attention span and tolerance for these voices is short. Sometimes I wonder if Humpback Whales hear the latest song and get jealous they didn’t write that tune, or if the Meadowlark blushed when they heard a song sung more sweetly than their own. The greatest struggle is finding listeners through the constant static of everyday life. Can we all be artists and support art in others or do we have to have listeners, fans to balance out the constant creativity? My song “Remember When” was written with this question in mind.  An aging artist who remembers being on top meets a younger musician who has no idea who she is and has the memory of times past but is no longer the star they once were.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist? What do you hope to achieve?

To be inspired. Last year I was on tour and playing in the small tourist village of Leavenworth, a Bavarian-themed town in Eastern Washington. After concluding one of my sets, I was using the bathroom. In the stall next to me I could hear a woman singing her own version of the last song I had sung. She thought she was alone in the restroom. I stepped out of the stall and said, “You need to join me on stage, you have an amazing voice.” She gulped and in a shy voice said, “Ok, I’d love to.” A few minutes later she was on stage with me singing. To this day I still touch base with her and help encourage her to pursue her love of singing. This is why I work with people of all ages teaching songwriting, voice, and guitar. It’s a way to pass on the gifts that others gave to me by teaching me to play. “You Look like Love” was written with the second grade class of Concord Elementary and one example of the work that can be done when it comes to inspiration. So, a realistic goal is to inspire and help others to be inspired. As artists, we not only have the mission to create meaningful pieces of art but to help inspire those around us and in our audience.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

From 2017-2019 I spent most of the year on the road traveling from town to town with a 13 ft vintage fiberglass trailer called a Scamp. My husband, who performs with me on trumpet and beatbox, and I moved out of Seattle and onto the road, putting all our belongings into storage to tour. Along the way, we would stop to hike to backpack into the wilderness and to get lost. From staying in remote lookout towers with bear claw marks on the door to sleeping on a beach in LA where the morning waves would break across our back window of the trailer. Traveling over 50,000 miles over the years through the US into Canada and down the Baja to the tip of Cabo San Lucas. Everywhere we go we talk to people, we hear their stories and open our minds to the life our new found friends live. These stories became the songs from the album. From 8:45, a story of a friend who was in a life-altering car crash to Traveling Show, the story of the joy of going to the fair told to us by a carnival worker in Butte,  Montana. When I travel my mind opens and effects my art.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm