Song Writing

Shayna Leigh

by Laura Antonelli

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Imagine having your dreams, fears, and darkest self-criticisms read out loud for others to hear? It's something Shayna Leigh experienced while writing her debut album, Drive. The New York-based singer vulnerably exposed her inner thoughts by drawing her lyrical inspiration from actual journal entries in her dairies. Leigh engaged in the experiment while recording and encouraged one of her co-writer/producers Peter Zizzo to literally read entries out loud in the studio. Along with Michael Mangini, the three of them created exceptionally personal but relatable songs.

Here, Leigh talks about her co-writing adventures, the uplifting lyrical themes on the record, and overcoming self-doubt.


Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): When you're writing a song, what method works best for you?

Shayna Leigh: I do a lot of co-writing, so my method is always changing. It's always about getting in a room with creative people, some I know well and some I'm just meeting for the first time, and seeing how your perspectives, influences and experiences can come together to create something. Sometimes we start with random lyrics, sometimes melody, sometimes an instrumental part and sometimes a specific idea. It really varies, which is part of what I love about it.

Songfacts: You co-wrote your album Drive with Michael Mangini and Peter Zizzo. What have you learned from collaborating with other people and how has it changed your own writing style?

Shayna: I am a big-time fan of co-writing and collaboration. I think the important thing when you do co-writes is to have a good idea of who you are and simultaneously be open to things that you don't normally do. I am a big believer in learning as you go, so I think as I let my music move in different directions, I discover more of who I am, and the great thing about recording is, if you don't like it, you can always change it. Working with Peter and Michael specifically has been one of my best experiences. Not only are they both incredibly talented and just overall good people, but it's been amazing to watch our working relationship evolve as we've gotten to know each other. We're working on a new EP now that I am really excited about!

Songfacts: When you were recording the album, you read out loud in the studio your own diary entries from the past 10 years. How did you decide what entries to draw inspiration from?

Shayna: After we had collaborated on a couple of songs, we (Peter, Michael and I) decided to do a full album. Peter said that sometimes artists bring their journals into sessions and see what happens. I was kind of in love with this idea. I don't think of myself as a journal-er, but I have dozens and dozens of notebooks filled with thoughts and journal entries and quotes I love. I actually let Peter read them to see what he was drawn to. It's an incredibly strange feeling letting someone else read your journals, but it was also incredibly thought-provoking to have someone else reflect back to you your deepest thoughts.

Songfacts: The album is named after the first tune, "Drive." What was your intent when writing that song and why did you decide to make it the title of the record?

Shayna: "Drive" was the first song we wrote. It came out of a tumultuous time for me, both personally and as an artist, and is what I always cite as my favorite song on the album. It seemed fitting that my debut should be named after the song that lives closest to my heart. It was as simple as that for me.

Songfacts: How did you come up with the idea to compare the imagery of tumultuous weather to a romantic interest in "Typhoon"?

Shayna: One of my favorite images in "Typhoon" is in the first line of the chorus, "You blew in stronger than a typhoon." I think love lends itself nicely to the weather comparison. It is unpredictable and uncontrollable and can sneak up on you. I love the idea of love barreling in and sort of wreaking havoc on your life, in good ways and sometimes in not so good ways. I think it's both unusual and expected. It makes so much sense, but we don't typically think of it that way.

Songfacts: You said in an interview that your latest single "Goodbye July" is about "growth through connection." Can you expand on that thought and explain what motivated you to write it?

Shayna: "Goodbye July" is about the loss of a relationship (romance, friendship, family, any kind of loss, really) and about how you grow as a result. It's about losing something you care deeply about and realizing that you will be okay anyway. I think growth happens through connection – connection to other people, to your passions and most importantly to yourself.

Songfacts: What inspired "Paradise Lost" and was the title of it at all influenced by the John Milton poem, Paradise Lost?

Shayna: The title was absolutely a big bow to the John Milton poem! "Paradise Lost" is a big journal song. I can't remember the specific entry, but a big recurring theme for me has been looking for the place that I belong, looking for my metaphorical home in the world. This is a song about that, about moving out of the "houses" that hold us back so that we can grow into the people we are meant to be.

Songfacts: How did you come up with the idea for "Last Criminal" and can you explain the tale occurring in it?

Shayna: "Last Criminal" for me is not a song about a relationship. I love writing songs about other things and telling them in relationship stories (because relationships are so relatable and universal and that's something I always strive for in my music). For me personally, the criminal in this story was my self-doubt. I had spent the better part of my life doubting myself, sabotaging and critiquing myself to my own detriment. With "Last Criminal," I wanted to say goodbye to that.

Songfacts: The album begins with "Drive" and ends with "Crash." Is there a correlation between those two songs and did you purposely place them in those spots?

Shayna: I really like the symmetry of starting with "Drive" and ending with "Crash." They were two of the first songs we wrote, so I guess I was really inspired by metaphors of driving and moving at the time. I think they're different songs, but somehow similar in message – the idea that sometimes we have to fail before we succeed, that tough times will inevitably come but we can get through them. I think this idea is central to the album and to who I am as a person, so I like having it bookend the album.

Songfacts: What moved you to write "Crash"?

Shayna: We wrote "Crash" shortly after "Drive." I was just on the upswing from what was a pretty rocky time in my life, so I think it naturally arose from that. I'm actually pretty sure that a few lines of the chorus had already been written when I joined in (which is not unusual - songs are always being written and re-written and repurposed), but it felt meant to be. I was learning to fly after having crashed. I was rebuilding my life and my sense of self after a series of heartbreaks and losses.

Songfacts: You often write about experiences you've gone through. Have you ever kept a song to yourself because it was too personal or you were worried about how someone might react to it?

Shayna: There are definitely songs I choose not to release for various reasons, but it's never because I'm afraid of the reaction. I haven't ever worked on anything that I won't let the people closest to me hear. I can totally imagine how this could happen, but, honestly, my family is my strongest sounding board and they are the people closest to me. I can't really imagine working on anything without letting them hear it.

Songfacts: What is the greatest challenge you have encountered while writing a song?

Shayna: Getting out of your own way. Self-censorship kills creativity. Try anything and don't be afraid of imperfection.

July 14, 2016.
Get Drive and find out more about Shayna Leigh by visiting shaynaleigh.com.
Photo: Joshua Shelton

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