Shannen Moser’s Natural Growth
This place is special to Shannen Moser. They’re leading me through the meadows at Philadelphia’s FDR Park, a beautiful, peaceful refuge that was totally accidental. It’s a near 150-acre former golf course, left to grow wild when transformation plans were abandoned during the pandemic. Goldenrod and rich purple speedwell sprout on either side of the path as we walk; butterflies hover, skittish and transient. It’s like stepping into a fantasy world.
The time Moser spent here over the last several years became one of the biggest influences on their forthcoming third record, The Sun Still Seems To Move, an exceptionally moving folk album. They tell me this as we settle on a bench under a tree, overlooking a huge clearing with the tip of the Girard Point Bridge visible in the distance. They also tell me this place could be destroyed soon. The city’s plan is to dump a giant mound of dirt here, which, if funding is secured, will be turned into a gigantic sports complex; if not, the dirt pile could end up a permanent feature. (A week after our interview, they post links on their Instagram story to resources in support of the meadows.)
“I’m a city person, but I feel deeply connected to this space. It reminds me a lot of Berks County where I grew up,” they say, gazing at the view from behind sunglasses. “The record is this trauma-informed record about change and death and kind of the existential mind of a sad and sick world. That content is heavy, and I wanted to create a world around it that sonically was really playful and whimsical. And then there was a moment where I was like, oh, it all makes sense — I wanna spend my time here because it kinda scratches the itch on the other side of the art I’m making.” They decided to take all of the album’s promotional photos here, and the artwork by Russell Edling is a collage inspired by the space, based off of one of them.
Moser’s last album, 2018’s I’ll Sing, was a rocky, full-band version of their DIY Americana. When they started writing The Sun Still Seems To Move that same year, they intended for it to be a sparse guitar-and-vocals record, something that was logistically easier to put together and play live — an impulse that was strengthened when the pandemic began and gathering studio musicians in the same room became a problem. They started making that version of the record with engineer Alex Melendez in Philadelphia. Then, suddenly, they went through a major breakup and their dad got sick. They were taking a break out back of the studio one day, chatting with Melendez about a record they were listening to (they don’t remember which one), when they realized their album needed to change to contain this earth-shaking moment in their life.
“It [had] been a long time since I [had] experienced this cataclysmic grief,” they say. “There’s this line that I felt of now and then, and so badly wanting to exist in then, but having to exist now. It was this chaotic all-at-once frenzy of I’m grieving love and family and the world and is music ever gonna come back? And that put a lot of fire under my ass to make a record that I was really proud of.”
So Moser and Melendez re-recorded at a studio in the Hudson Valley, creating a lush, rich, unrestrained sound, featuring cello, piano, clarinet, saxophone and banjo. Moser was inspired by Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens, and by the escapism of the Lord Of The Rings series and Dungeons & Dragons. Looking for comfort during a hard time, they also rediscovered a tape that had been made for them by a childhood friend. It had been their first introduction to “cool” music — Neil Young, Brian Eno, Nirvana. The experience of revisiting it (which they liken to Joe Pera’s “Baba O’Riley” moment) inspired them too.
“It is tough, the more you find yourself in music and in the industry — like my day job, I work in venues and I see live music six times a week, and it’s easy to get disheartened and a little numb to the whole experience. But I think when you’re able to tap into the moment of music that just totally rocked your world — that’s how I wanna feel about music forever, and having a physical item that can get me there and still inspires me is really special.”
Though the album is much wider than a breakup album — exploring so many kinds of love, taking in so many different shapes of sadness — the songs that read as breakup songs, such as the title track and “Liminal,” are the kind that stick with you forever. “Liminal” explores a friendly if painful phone call with an ex; “Fuck up and say I’ll see you back at home,” Moser narrates, in one of the album’s most quietly devastating lines. And the title track delivers the eponymous line amidst transcendent harmonies, with Moser’s voice taking on a bolder, almost reverent tone.
During the writing process, Moser returned to their hometown of Oley Valley, a tiny farming community in Berks County, Pennsylvania, to take care of their dad. They and their sibling were raised there by their mom in a house out in the woods; on a lot of levels, it was idyllic. “It was like everything was a playground,” they say. “The natural world out there is really cool — there’s a lot of willow trees, and it’s very densely lush. There’s a lot of really beautiful old architecture, barns and farms and these old farmhouses. So to look at, it’s incredible.” Beyond that, it gets complicated. “The other end of these small towns that maybe aren’t talked about as much are these very dark underbellies. Heroin is a huge problem in Berks County. Abuse, all of that kind of stuff.”
“Ben”, the second single off of The Sun Still Seems To Move, begins with the line, “All the boys that I knew in middle school are dropping dead.” It’s about the first boy that Moser ever had a crush on. They grew up together, then parted ways and lost touch; a few years later, he died in an ATV accident. “The song is a story of a coming of age in Americana,” Moser explains. “The wealth gap in Berks County is extremely wide, and [Ben] definitely grew up very poor. And I feel like that’s an extremely American experience too, to watch the way at an early age in these old communities that government and tradition treats folks.”
While back out there, they sustained themself working on farms for the summer in between writing songs. It strengthened their connection to the outdoors, to the mystery and serenity of nature. “I was working on that farm when I thought I had met God / It was just the sunset setting,” they sing on “Oh My God”, the new single out today. It was a feeling that reconnected them with their childhood. “For all of the problems and hardship that went on, I still feel so lucky to have grown up there,” they say. “Even though it was tough, it’s like, there’s a reason that I still feel fond of that. I feel like it’s a human experience to have confusing feelings about something that caused you so much pain, but to still have a fondness for it. It’s cool to be an adult and have this more meaningful understanding of the why and how.”
Philadelphia, where they moved after college, is a deeply important home base to them too, and the album is equally indebted to Moser’s life there. “The people here are unmatched. When I talk about it to my mom or my sibling or just people who don’t live here, they’re like, ‘Wow, it sounds like you have a lot there.’ And it’s so true, I really do. So I think the combined powers of both of these places have just created this perfect storm for me to really connect with the things I care about, and be surrounded by people that really care about me and I really care about them. And I feel like I’m able to make art that is really authentic to both of those experiences.”
Throughout The Sun Still Seems To Move, Moser was purposefully cultivating an appreciation for the unremarkable, everyday happenings in which love is present. “A series of quiet moments makes forever,” they sing on “Paint By #”; “I know that life’s not one linear, seamless destination/ It’s ass-to-ass traffic sometimes, yelling on the freeway,” on “Oh My God”. “Dendrochronology” is a song dedicated to a close friend who’s also an ex. “Reading a book about a set of trees that grow parallel forever, never touching/ You say, “That’s a real long time to be in love, the kind of devotion that doesn’t need a touch,” they recount in it.
“I’ve really been practicing enjoying the peacefulness of mundanity,” they say. “It’s like the human experience to find yourself in those moments and to kinda reject them as, you know, ‘My life is boring and this is hard.’ And it is. Life can be very boring and very difficult. But seeking out the palpable magic of the world is so important. And if you can tap into that space, I feel like it’s like a map, and it unfolds itself, and you find all of these really incredible moments within all of that.”
The entire album was a means for elucidating emotions just as much as expressing them. When Moser returned from a two-day studio session to record the track “Two Eyes” — a fun session, but a very heavy song, about the personal struggles of a friend who’s also a brilliant artist — they were hit by a depression with no apparent source. “I was talking to my mom over the phone, and I was like, ‘I just had these really great two days, I don’t know why I feel so pulled through it right now.’ It [was] truly a ‘the body keeps the score’ moment, where you’re like, I am singing about something that happened a long time ago, but it still exists inside myself.”
In the studio they constantly were listening to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, which became a template for the emotional space they could create. They also drew on the experience of attending Quaker services and Sacred Harp singing practices while back home in Berks County. “Their service is just an hour of meditation, and you sit in a room with people and if you feel compelled to say something you say something, and then after that you eat a big meal together. So it’s this perfect couple hours of sitting in the feeling, saying it if you’d like to, and then experiencing community by eating a meal with someone.” Last year, too, they came out as non-binary, and this new experience of fluidity was vital to the album’s internal landscape. “Just allowing yourself to feel the confusion of like, why do I feel this way? And maybe I haven’t had the words for it. Musically, gender identity, all of the above. Very big year for that.”
“I feel like this whole thing was a really good exercise in experimenting with sitting with a feeling and moving through a feeling,” they continue. The Sun Still Seems To Move, as a title, speaks to that motif; it’s been in Moser’s back pocket since 2017, when they sat down to eat at a diner in North Carolina with their then-partner as their relationship was nearing its end, and took note of a poster on the wall. “It was this little boy fishing, and the sun, and it just said, ‘The sun moves’. I was really struck by it. I was like, yeah, the sun moves as hell.
“I’d like to think that even within those songs about trauma and death and sadness of the world, there is a kind of pulling the curtain back on hope, and continuing to go forward and move through something. And that’s kind of been the motto for the whole record, in both the content and the action of making it.”
Finishing up a can of Sprite in the shade of the tree, they tell me, “I think if there’s one thing that I want to say about the record, it’s that even though it is these tales of grieving and trauma and time passing, it’s like… for me, it’s the first time it’s okay that that’s happening. You know, like, the only thing that will keep happening forever is that the sun will rise and the sun will set and the days will continue to pass, and all of the stuff that happens in between is a privilege, to just exist. And the longer that I’m able to experience the joy and sorrows of the world and the one-in one-out forever kind of thing is just like, the greatest privilege of my life.”
As we finish up and head back down the path towards civilization, they add, “I hope this place isn’t a parking lot the next time you’re here.”
The Sun Still Seems To Move is out 9/30 on Lame-O.