Shawnee Kilgore and Joss Whedon: Back to Eden
Interview by Brent Cole
UPDATE: The show is sold out. 🙂
Imagine you’re doing a kickstarter to raise funds for an album and one of the biggest writers/directors in the movie industry backs the kickstarter. And from there, a creative partnership is formed. That’s what happened to former Bellingham (now Austin, TX) songwriter, Shawnee Kilgore, who connected with Joss Whedon via her kickstarter. The two have recently released an album and will be in Bellingham this month for a show.
I was able to connect with Shawnee around Thanksgiving to ask her all the questions we’ve been wondering.
How did you initially connect with Joss (for those who don’t know the story)?
In April of 2014 I was running a Kickstarter campaign for my last solo album, A Long and Precious Road, when out of the blue Joss backed the project. I date a game developer so his name would come up fairly often and I’d always have to ask, “Who is that again?” He’d tell me Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly and the Avengers and my response was always, “Ohhhhh right, that guy.” Same thing happened with the Kickstarter and I asked one last time, “Who is that again??” This time the response was more of a “That guy?!” His reward was a personalized song so when the campaign ended I emailed him, said thank you, and we got to work.
Few of us have ever been contacted by such a high profile writer/artist/celebrity. What were your initial thoughts when he reached out?
Well, the initial thought was pretty much WTF??! It seemed too bizarre to be true, but after some research about Kickstarter fraud (extremely rare) and the email address he used (registered to his wife) it would have been way more bizarre if it wasn’t true. If I may risk sounding self assured here for one brief moment, there’s pretty much one thing I’m confident about and it’s writing songs, so once doubt was out of the way I was just excited to work with him. From the first email he wrote I felt completely at ease. I kept thinking “I know I should be intimidated right now….” I just wasn’t. I really appreciated that about him. I still do.
What was it like first meeting him?
It was a bit of a *finally* moment, as it had been almost a year since the Kickstarter ended, and eight months since we had put out our first single, “Big Giant Me.” I went to LA on a whim and of course chose the busiest weekend possible for him during the post-production of Avengers II. I landed in California still not knowing if he’d have time to see me. He sold his soul to some devil or another to make it and we got to hang. I definitely had a healthy dose of butterflies walking in, but as soon as we were face to face it felt like we had been a hundred times before. I didn’t bother changing out of my grungy travel clothes. I had the feeling of wanting to impress everyone else in LA but him. I knew I didn’t have to. It was good.
What happened after you first met him? How did talk of an album come about?
The meeting itself wasn’t a notable milestone, or even really an influence, in our creative journey. After “Big Giant Me” was written, in a very organically swift 24 hours, I was wondering what we could do with it and asked if maybe I could release it as a bonus track on the vinyl edition of A Long and Precious Road. He wondered if we should keep going and see if there were other songs to be had, and maybe they could become their own thing. I said yes. It was a pretty simple (still email only) conversation. We wouldn’t meet until the next year, with several songs under our belt by that point.
How did songwriting proceed from there?
We found what worked for us with BGM and pretty much stuck to it. Whenever he had a song idea he would send the lyrics over and I would work a song around it. I rarely got more than a word or two of guidance to go on. “For Three Legged Dog” it was “jaunty,” for “Love Song” it was “wistful.” The two exceptions to this were “Unforgiven,” which was the second tune we started to work on – and wrestled heavily with for the next two years. He sent a chorus over, sung and played on the piano. I was really sick at the time and have some of the saddest recordings of me crackling out notes I can barely hit on a good day. The melody changed a lot, the energy of the song changed a lot, and the lyrics changed enough that I can’t remember which one of us wrote some of them. We fought pretty good over that one, which I’m glad for. If it was all easy the reward wouldn’t have meant so much.
The other exception to our co-writing rule was “Break the Skin.” He had come to Austin for the purpose of us writing together in the same room and we lasted about an hour before we anxiously quit and hit the hotel bar. So *that* didn’t work, and we still needed a last song. “Break the Skin” came to me one night at home basically fully formed except for the verses. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a song have that much presence… I could feel it tingling in my body, it filled the room. I recorded it, humming the verses and singing everything else, and asked if he wanted to finish it for the record. He did, and we agreed on it, but he never finished the verses. We recorded it in the studio with a full band and me humming the unwritten parts on Monday, and wrote the verses together on Friday afternoon – our last day there. I sang reading them from my phone.
Can you give us background on the album itself? When was it recorded, released, etc?
I went to LA in December (2015) to scout out studios, and completely fell in love with Ocean Studios in Burbank. I told Joss after we left that if I got to record there I would feel like a princess. It was a nice enough space to actually feel intimidating as hell, but the manager Greg Ruoff was so kind and welcoming and I was grateful for a space that would hold me to working hard and doing my very best. We recorded the bulk of the album during five days in January. Joss couldn’t be there the whole time so I had a few afternoons alone with studio musicians, most of whom I had found and hired but never met. That was definitely one of my biggest challenges, as I feel that my whole role in the project was to bring Joss’s vision to life and it was hard to do that without him.
One of the biggest highlights for sure was having Sara Watkins in to sing and play fiddle on “Unforgiven.” I hadn’t written a harmony part for her, or even determined where I wanted one, and what she came up with was so freaking gorgeous I just curled up in a ball on the couch and cried. It was such a beautiful finish to the journey. Everything about that song had been a struggle and there we were with Sara Watkins in the sound booth assuring us it had all been worth it.
We rerecorded a few parts back in Austin, and did all the mixing and mastering there. The Congress House crew are my guys, Andre Moran and Mark Hallman. We released the album on Oct. 14, with an amazing band show in Austin and the very first showing of the music video we shot in July for the title track, “Back to Eden,” on the big screen at the Alamo Drafthouse. My face was like 20 feet tall – it was amazing. We’re both really proud of what we’ve made; I’m really grateful for that.
What’s the short term future of the project?
That’s a “great” question……aaaaand we’re definitely making all this up as we go. The next steps will be to release this freaking gorgeous music video we’re sitting on, as well as vinyl. Joss’s kids dig vinyl so we’re doing it for them – and for me. I’ve never had a real actual record before and I’m pretty excited about it. It will be a butterfly moment, dropping that needle for the first time. The whole “planning” thing has never really worked out for us so we’ll kinda just keep seeing what happens.
Is there talk of any collaboration in the future?
Before Back to Eden came out people would ask all the time if the project was for his next movie. It’s not at all; it’s for us. And this might be it. I will always see Joss as a collaborative partner, regardless of where our creative paths take us. It’s so much a part of who we are and the friendship we’ve cultivated (and it’s just worked out so damn well…) it seems likely – perhaps inevitable – that we’ll cross over into each other’s artistic spheres from time to time, but I have no expectations. If this is it I’m super happy and super proud. That said, my creative ambitions have really opened up in the last year. I’m getting that “anything’s possible” bug and have gotten really inspired to make movies….it’s the weirdest thing.
Any last thoughts?
What a long strange trip it has been… I’m the luckiest.
Shawnee Kilgore and Joss Whedon perform at the Shakedown Dec. 17. It’s gotta be sold out by the time you read this, so for those who have tickets enjoy this most memorable night! For more info, see shawneekilgore.com and follow her Facebook page.
Published in the December 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine