Here's my April 2001 Archive interview with blues rock guitar virtuoso, singer, songwriter Shannon Curfman, discussing her debut breakout album, "Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions", her influences, gear, guitars, working with Jonny Lang and Jeff Healey, and much more.
Shannon Curfman Firebrand Of The Blues Spreads Her Musical Wings
By Arlene R. Weiss
© Copyright April 3, 2015, 2016 By Arlene R. Weiss-All Rights Reserved
© Copyright April 10, 2001 By Arlene R. Weiss-All Rights Reserved
In April 2001, I was honored to interview gifted blues rock virtuoso, singer, songwriter, guitarist Shannon Curfman. Curfman, at the tender age at the time, of just fifteen years old, had just released her critically acclaimed debut album, “Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions”.
Shannon was dazzling fans, critics, and seasoned music artists and veterans of guitar with her scorching maturity, authority, and command at burning up the fretboard while belting out her blues drenched vocals.
Shannon first learned to play the guitar and honed her chops in her hometown of Fargo, North Dakota.
In the beginning she performed with blues rock guitar icon, Jeff Healey, jamming with him in a local Fargo club after he played at Fargo’s Bluesfest.
Shannon then put together and performed with her first band, Monster On A Leash which later evolved into the more musically mature, The Shannon Curfman Band.
Shannon later relocated to the bustling music scene of the more creatively nurturing environment of Minneapolis, Minnesota, home of Prince and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. From there, Shannon became friends with fellow Fargo native and Minneapolis transplant, blues rock guitarist Jonny Lang who helped to mentor the younger Curfman in her artistry and guitar playing.
Shannon started playing the clubs in Minneapolis, making a name for herself with her searing musical and guitar playing talents, and was soon wowing audiences.
After releasing Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions on the independent Pop Sense record label, positive buzz and word of mouth, acclaim, and radio airplay for the young singer, songwriter, guitarist resulted in her catching the attention of Arista Records’ music mogul, Clive Davis, who signed Shannon and re-released Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions on Arista.
Since Shannon released her stellar debut record, she has gone on to become a business savvy solo artist, releasing several records on her own independent record label, Purdy Records.
Shannon has gone on to open for and tour with The Indigo Girls, Buddy Guy, ZZ Top, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana and many more esteemed artists. She has recorded with John Fogerty, Joe Bonamassa, Buddy Guy, Bob Seger, Kid Rock, Keb Mo, Jonny Lang, John Mayall, and many more.
Currently, while writing, recording, and touring with her own solo band, Curfman is also pulling double duty as a permanent member of Kid Rock’s backing band, Twisted Brown Trucker. Shannon joined forces with Kid Rock in 2010 and has been singing duets, background vocals, and playing guitar with him, on tour and in the recording studio to great acclaim.
In February 2015, Shannon and Kid Rock appeared and performed on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “The Today Show” playing songs from Kid Rock’s new album, “First Kiss”. This summer 2015, Shannon will be performing with Kid Rock on his “First Kiss” summer tour with Foreigner.
Here’s a fond look back with rock and blues singer, songwriter, guitar virtuoso, Shannon Curfman.
In 1999, fourteen year old Shannon Curfman released her auspicious debut album, Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions. A phenomenal sensation was born as the bluesy firebrand unleashed a musical maelstrom.
The album highlights Shannon’s soulful, impassioned songwriting, (she co-wrote seven of the album’s eleven songs).
Moreover, Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions, also showcases Shannon’s emotionally raw, torch imbued vocals rendered with conviction and urgency, and Curfman’s searing, hellfire virtuoso fretwork that would prove her mettle as a guitar player to be reckoned with among her fellow young gun guitar players, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Derek Trucks, and friend, colleague, and personal inspiration, Jonny Lang.
With equal parts blues scorched interpretation and vulnerability, she exudes utter emotional depth awash with explosive passion.
Born July 31, 1985 in Fargo, North Dakota, after establishing and making a name for herself locally, Shannon moved to the bustling music scene of Minneapolis in 1998, to be among the creatively conducive environment renowned for Prince, Paisley Park Studios, and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis just to name a few musical forces, in hopes of furthering her career.
After assembling her business team, she recorded and released “Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions” on the independent Pop Sense label, April 1999. Word of mouth and an ocean of fans requesting radio airplay, skyrocketed the record and landed the attention of Arista Records’ mogul Clive Davis who signed Curfman, releasing the record nationally, later in 1999, to critical acclaim.
Shannon and the album broke out immediately and she soon found herself on tour this past year opening for such venerable artists as Buddy Guy, John Mellencamp, and The Indigo Girls. Through it all she has held her own with maturity and grace, already possessing incredibly informed music sensibilities, command, and presence.
Not about to rest on her laurels, yet knowing the importance of keeping her feet solidly on the ground in the face of success at so young an age, the fifteen year old Curfman, has been spending a healthy balance of time off the road looking forward to graduating high school while simultaneously writing new material for her new second album.
Here Shannon discusses her music, the business savvy steps she took that resulted in her being discovered, and her plans to creatively evolve from the blues drenched musical stylings of her first record, to a more rock edged sound on her new sophomore album.
Arlene R. Weiss: Hi Shannon, how are you? How far along are you with the progress of your new album?
Shannon Curfman: We haven’t started recording the new album yet, but we’ve been demoing different songs. Mainly, we’re just in the writing stages of it.
Arlene: This only being your second album, as a guitarist, as a singer, and as a songwriter, what strides are you taking to creatively evolve since your debut album Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions?
Shannon Curfman: Basically, it’s more of a natural progression than it is something that you’re aware of. Of course, I’m always trying to get better at what I do. The biggest progression between the last album and the new album is probably the style of the music. It may end up being a little different.
Arlene: Not so much blues oriented this time?
Shannon Curfman: Yeah. Not so much blues, more of a rock thing. But, it’s not a big stretch where people won’t be able to tell who it is.
Arlene: Just a chance for you to spread your musical wings and do something a little stylistically different?
Shannon Curfman: Yeah. It’s what I’m into right now and the rock stuff is really fun for me to perform. It’s definitely still guitar oriented music.
Arlene: Do you feel that Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions successfully captured your original artistic goals?
Shannon Curfman: Oh definitely, yes. Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions really did the job that we were hoping for as far as, people will know, that is what I did, that’s what I was into. And that’s still what I’m into….It’s just that there are other things that I want to perform other than the blues.
Arlene: How many songs have you written and demoed so far for the new album?
Shannon Curfman: We’ve started a lot of songs that haven’t been finished yet. Right now, I’ve been focusing on taking time off, doing schoolwork, graduating high school, getting that stuff done and taken care of before I go on the road again.
Arlene: Regarding your creative process for composing, do you write the music or the lyrics first?
Shannon Curfman: I write both. Sometimes I’ll go into writing and I’ll have all the lyrics done. Sometimes there will only be a couple chords, sometimes there will only be the title of the song. We kind of sit there and see and wait for something to click. That’s why I really like co-writing because there’s another opinion there to catch things you didn’t catch.
Arlene: You can bounce ideas back and forth off a co-writer.
Shannon Curfman: Yeah. It’s great to see what someone else would make of an idea that you may have, that you would never have thought of like that.
Arlene: Do you compose on the guitar?
Shannon Curfman: Yes. When I’m writing chords, the actual music, I’ll either write on guitar or on the piano.
Arlene: What other instruments do you play?
Shannon Curfman: I play violin. I try to play bass. I try to play drums. Drums are my favorite to play other than guitar.
But anyhow, I compose on both the guitar and the piano. If there’s a piano around and I’m hearing something on piano rather than hearing it on the guitar, that’s what I’ll use. If the line I’m hearing in my head is more of something that would be played on a keyboard, then that’s what I’ll try to hash out….going to a keyboard and seeing what I can get out of it.
Sometimes I see something differently if I play it on a different instrument because it’s a different outlet. It can be for the same idea, but hopefully sometimes you’ll get different ideas by using a different outlet.
Arlene: What emotions and statements do you try to create when you’re writing, and where does this wellspring of personal expression come from?
Shannon Curfman: It’s really just the feeling of the song that I get from it. Hopefully some of the songs are vague enough where other people can really see themselves in it or feel what the feeling is of the song, whether the exact situation of the song fits them or not.
To me, I can really feel it if music is something that’s created that’s sad in a mourning song, a heartbreaking song, or if it’s an upbeat, happy song. You just go with the vibe of the song and try to get that feeling across. Then, hopefully people get something out of it.
It’s amazing, after the shows, when we run into fans or we’re signing autographs, they’ll tell you stories, you know, “I just broke up with my husband and all this stuff, and this song fits perfect!” That’s one of the coolest compliments, that someone’s getting something out of it, someone’s getting something out of your music in ways that you never thought of.
Arlene: How much overdubbing and effects did you implement on Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions and how much are you planning on using on the new album?
Shannon Curfman: Effects aren’t really my thing.
Arlene: Your recording process is more organic, more natural?
Shannon Curfman: Yeah. All through our recording process, we recorded all the basic tracks, the drums, keyboards, bass, guitars….those were things we recorded all within about four days.
We’d go in and we’d play them two or three times through. Sometimes we knew it was the first take that we did that was the best so we kept that one.
But it was between one to three times that we would try them. The studio musicians are so amazing. We had a really good band.
Arlene: Wasn’t Jonny Lang a significant influence on you in your wanting to become both a guitarist and a blues player?
Shannon Curfman: Yeah. Jonny had a big influence on blues music for me because he was the first blues artist that I ever heard. When he was just playing in Fargo, (Writer’s Note: Lang is also a Fargo native transplanted to Minneapolis), and he only had his independent record out and he hadn’t signed to a label yet, he was a lot more blues then than he even is now. He really helped me with a lot of my questions.
When I was nine or ten years old, really trying to get into music in general other than classic rock or music that I already knew about, blues was a new thing for me, so Jonny was the best person for me to ask questions about the blues.
Arlene: How did you originally meet one another and how did your collaboration on the first album with Jonny come about?
Shannon Curfman: Our families have been friends for years and years from living in Fargo. But I never knew Jonny, because he was four and a half years older than me. When you’re that young, I think age does matter a lot more. A fourth grader isn’t going to go hang out with an eighth grader.
Once he started playing, he was really focused into what he was doing and I would go out and see him every time that I could, in Fargo, in Minnesota, just the general vicinity. We would come to Minneapolis and see him if he was playing there. I really saw a lot of inspiration in him because it was amazing seeing someone so caught up in what he was doing because he loves it so much.
We got to know each other from me going to a lot of the shows. My Mom already knew his parents and we started hanging out. If we went to a show, we would go out to eat with them after the show, go backstage, and both Jonny and I wound up moving to Minneapolis a couple years back. This is obviously a bigger music scene than Fargo. So we’d hang out and ended up being with the same people by coincidence. We both liked to go see the same bands and so we got closer that way.
Arlene: Do you think he may be working with you on the new record?
Shannon Curfman: I would love to have him come in again! What happened with him coming in with this first album, was we needed a different kind of guitar player for a couple of the songs. We wanted a different mix for a couple of different songs and we were scanning our brains to think of somebody that would fit well. I said, “What about Jonny?” So, we just called him up and asked him if he would do it and he did.
Arlene: What is it about Fargo that is so artistically nurturing, spawning such a wealth of talented guitar players and musicians.
Shannon Curfman: I’m not sure if it really is. I think it actually has a lot to do with people getting bored there. [Laughing] People have so much time on their hands. The whole city only takes maybe fifteen minutes to get across. There’s only two major interstates.
Everybody’s able to just walk to school, so nothing is time consuming. You go to school, you come home, and you wind up doing what you really dig doing. A lot of my friends were really into sports because they had nothing else to do. There just aren’t a lot of things to do.
Arlene: When and how did you put together your first band, Monster On A Leash?
Shannon Curfman: What happened with that was up until that point, I never knew any musicians in Fargo. This was before I knew Jonny or anything. So, I went to the Bluesfest in Fargo. It was the first Bluesfest and it was a really big deal, just because of all of the artists coming to play, and I went to see Jeff Healey.
We ended up meeting and talking and he brought me on his bus. He asked me if I would play a song for him because someone said that I played guitar. He asked me if I would play him a song if they unpacked one of his guitars, because they had already packed them up.
I said “Yes!” So, I played a song and then he asked my parents, “Do you mind if we jam for a couple hours?” So we ended up jamming for a couple hours in the bus. Then Jeff and everyone on the bus were going to this club and they took me and I was only eleven! It was in the downtown part of Fargo and they were going to this place that a local band was playing.
We were walking in and I said “I can’t get in a club.” And Jeff’s going “Oh no, you can do anything when you’re with me. It’s fine.”
We walked in and he asked me if I wanted to play with him and so we went onstage and I sat in and played with him and his band. This was the first time that I ever played with a band. It was an amazing experience for me but it was also really cool because every musician in town was there knowing that he was coming to play at the club.
That night, I ended up meeting a lot of different musicians in town and a couple of them said, “We should start a band.” We ended up jamming a couple months later at their houses. I started getting to know them, we happened to like the same kind of music, we had the same ideas and the same drive, so we decided to start a band.
Arlene: How did you come up with the name for the band?
Shannon Curfman: That actually is a Tower of Power record, a song of theirs.
Arlene: What music were you and the band playing at the time?
Shannon Curfman: Popa Chubby. He’s very cool, a really old blues musician. That and Stevie Ray Vaughan covers. We did a lot of Aretha Franklin. That band wasn’t as serious as my next band which was The Shannon Curfman Band. It was my guitar teacher and me who was also one of my biggest inspirations as far as musicians from Fargo.
I was really pumped up to play and they were really pumped up to play and we all wanted to put something together that would go farther than Fargo. We wanted to get out of Fargo, be able to play Minneapolis, hold our own.
We practiced two hours a day, once every morning at eight and once every night at eight. It was a ridiculous schedule but we had a drive that forced us to do that. It didn’t even seem like we were spending that much time on this goal.
Arlene: What prompted your move to Minneapolis and how has that affected your music, your career, and your getting signed to a major label?
Shannon Curfman: I moved to Minneapolis because we were driving maybe three times a week down here. It’s four hours each way and eight hours round trip. We were down here half the time.
Arlene: Because of the music scene there?
Shannon Curfman: Yes, because of the music scene here. We were also staying down here a lot because my manager is from here, at the time all my business people were here. My parents were really helpful as far as taking me to see other bands that I loved and I knew I could learn a lot from. What Minneapolis has done musically, the musicians that I’m friends with….they’ve helped me with the psychological side of music, to really keep your head on straight so to speak.
Arlene: Keeping you focused?
Shannon Curfman: Keeping you focused, making sure you don’t get too big for your britches. And of course, Minneapolis is definitely a funky town. Two of my band members from here are great jazz, funk, and R&B musicians and so they play a lot of styles.
Arlene: I heard you’re a huge fan of Rufus and Chaka Khan, which I am too.
Shannon Curfman: I have everything by Rufus! [Laughing] That’s why it’s so great to have Kevin in my band. Kevin Murphy, Rufus’ original keyboardist, is my keyboard player. There’s so much funk in Minneapolis. There’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. There’s Prince. And Prince always has different artists coming through here….Larry Graham from Graham Central Station, George Clinton. We get a lot of artists coming through here because of Prince, because of the studios, and because of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Arlene: So did being in a more musically creative, business savvy music scene help in getting you your first major record deal, getting you signed to Arista Records, and now to J Records?
Shannon Curfman: What attracted the record labels to me was Soundscan. The labels saw that there was someone in Minneapolis that had an independent record that was selling a lot of records a week, without having major publicity or being signed to a major label. That caught their eyes first. Then they all came to see me play and from there, that’s when there was a lot of interest and people wanting to sign me.
Having a bigger market definitely helped and more places to play where there didn’t need to be as much traveling. It was an easy transition to move here because we had a lot of family and friends already here by that point.
Arlene R. Weiss: Who are your musical influences?
Shannon Curfman: Rufus, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Santana, Sting, Ani DiFranco, Doyle Bramhall II.
Arlene: You started out as a singer first. What motivated you to become a guitarist as well?
Shannon Curfman: My Grandma suggested me playing guitar because she knew that her friend’s son in town was giving guitar lessons. She asked all her grandchildren if they wanted to learn guitar and we’re like “Yeah! Sure.” We started and I was the only one that ended up showing up for the classes. No one else liked it. They were all into sports, cheerleading, whatever. I was just so caught up in it and I absolutely loved it.
Arlene: What was your first guitar?
Shannon Curfman: My first guitar was a Harmony electric guitar where the neck was so bent that the 12th, 13th, and 14th frets were all the same note. I didn’t know any different so I figured that’s how it was supposed to be. I learned to play with it being like that! [Laughing]
Arlene: What acoustic and electric guitars are you planning on using on the new album?
Shannon Curfman: I play a lot of Fenders. 1972 Thinline Hollowbody Fenders. I get those custom made. I use all rosewood necks. I play Paul Reed Smith’s a lot.
Arlene: For your main guitar, why do you prefer a Telecaster over a Strat? Is it the tone?
Shannon Curfman: It’s the tone and the feel. I’m able to get the sound better out of a Tele than I am able to get out of a Stratocaster. I did originally play Strat. That was my first good guitar that I bought. It was great to learn on. But then, after I started getting my own feel for what I was doing, and my own opinion about guitars, tones, amps….the Tele was definitely what I wanted, what was best for me to use.
Arlene: When you’re recording the guitar tracks on your albums, when do you know that you’ve successfully executed the guitar parts the way that you hear them in your head for your own creative vision?
Shannon Curfman: I don’t think I’ve ever been in the studio where I go, “Ok, that’s it!. Keep it. That’s great.” It’s more my producer going, “Shannon, that one was great. We’re keeping that one.” He’s really honest and he will tell me if I have to do it again. I would keep doing it until my fingers bleed if I could, just because it’s my own album and I want it to be….
Arlene: As good as possible.
Shannon Curfman: Exactly. There is a point where you have to stop because it is a photograph and you have to look at it as a photographed part of your life. You can’t change a photograph. It’s not a photograph if you put it in a computer and change it. It’s a photograph when you take it. So the second time going into the studio and re-recording a couple of the songs, we really kept it down to a bare minimum of doing vocal tracks over, doing guitar parts over. My main concern is the feel of it and not if you play the right note or the execution is perfect. It’s more if I’ve got the feel of it down and if that comes across, then we’ll keep it.
Arlene: What equipment, gear, and rig do you use?
Shannon Curfman: I use Fender Deluxe Reverb amps. I use two of them usually, but I only use one if I have my in-ear monitors in. They protect your hearing and it’s more confined for the sound man in front. You also don’t get all the stage noise and so you aren’t trying to be louder than everyone else. You can hear yourself better with in-ear monitors and the crowd doesn’t have to hear you battling onstage for volume.
Arlene: What slides do you use?
Shannon Curfman: It depends on what sound I want, but usually glass.
Arlene: Do you play in standard or open tuning?
Shannon Curfman: I play both. Mainly when you see me play live, I’ll always play in standard, or I’ll play with a Drop D.
Arlene: Did you have formal training or lessons for your vocals?
Shannon Curfman: The only formal training I had was in a choir in Fargo when I was about seven or eight. We toured and played for different Mayors and Governors across the United States and Canada.
The Music Director taught us how to breathe right. That’s the most important thing when singing in my mind, because you’re going to lose your vocals if you don’t know how to breathe properly.
Arlene: How old were you when you began singing professionally?
Shannon Curfman: I was seven when I started doing talent shows.
Arlene: What vocalists influenced you?
Shannon Curfman: At that point it was Reba McIntyre! [Laughing] I was really into country. I’m still into Wynonna. She’s such a rocker. Now it’s more Stevie Wonder, Prince. I really like Dwight Yoakam.
Arlene: For someone so young, you have an incredible emotional conviction and authority as a blues player and as a singer, songwriter. How did you attain so much maturity and such a beautiful grasp of the blues, and what are your thoughts regarding critics who say that a true traditionalist blues artist has to have lived a long and hard life to fully convey, understand, and interpret the blues?
Shannon Curfman: I don’t think age has anything to do with it. Even that theory, if I agreed with it, wouldn’t work because you don’t know what’s happened in some seventeen year old’s life. Some seventeen year olds that I know have gone through more things than I’ve seen people at sixty go through. It also depends on how it affects the individual person.
Someone that’s gone through three divorces may not be as affected as someone that’s sixteen years old and broke up with the first love of their life. You need to have some understanding of the music, not technically, but emotionally. You need to either understand what you’re playing and singing about or you need to understand the emotion of it. If you understand one of those two things, to me, you can play music.
Arlene: You toured this past year with Buddy Guy, The Indigo Girls, and you played on this year’s Farm Aid Tour. Did you learn and exchange any creative ideas, philosophies, or playing techniques with the other artists?
Shannon Curfman: I learned so much from seeing artists playing, especially seeing friends play, because you have a different connection with them and understanding of them. Going on tour with John Mellencamp was amazing.
I was so amazed at his stage presence, the whole thing. He played such a long show and everyone knew every word to every song. He just kept going and he gave that 110 percent in a very energetic way.
What I learned from The Indigo Girls is more an emotional thing….it’s kind of a behind the scenes thing involving the business and getting through certain things, criticism, and especially, the most important thing I learned from them was about songwriting. Their songwriting is so deep to me. They’re so great to look up to because they really stand for things and they don’t let that down.
Arlene: What music and artists are you currently listening to that you admire?
Shannon Curfman: Right now I have Doyle Bramhall II in my CD player.
Arlene: How satisfying is it for you finding success so early, doing what you love?
Shannon Curfman: It’s cool because I feel as if I still have time to do other things.
Arlene: That’s true. There’s less pressure on you because some artists try their whole lives and never succeed.
Shannon Curfman: Yes. There’s no time limit for me. It’s great. It’s like right now I wanted to take some time off so I can focus on both my schoolwork and music. It’s laid back to have such a timeframe and not think “Oh no, I’m going to be forty years old in three years. I haven’t made it yet. I want to have a Grammy by then.”
Arlene: That also allows you to be creative, because that pressure isn’t on you or your creative process.
Shannon Curfman: Yes, definitely. It makes me more relaxed to know I can be as concerned with my music as my personal life.
Arlene: Right, because you have to have a healthy balance of both.
Shannon Curfman: Yeah, and I don’t have to focus on one thing or it be an either or situation.
Arlene: Why do you think that there’s still so few women who have pursued and achieved success as guitar players and what advice would you give to inspire women wanting to play the guitar both from an artistic and a professional sense?
Shannon Curfman: I personally know more male guitarists than female guitarists in general, professional, or people that come to my shows and say, “I really want to play guitar.”
I just see more guys doing that, so I’m not sure. I think it’s a real challenge to break into the music business in general, whether you’re male or female. But there is an extra barrier there for women in some cases, not in all cases, but in some cases there are.
There’s also the barrier of age, “Oh, what do you know at thirteen?” which I think “Well if you don’t know, I don’t want you to sign me. If you’re asking me that, then I shouldn’t be in your office.” If you’re asking me what you should see in me, then forget it.
© Copyright April 3, 2015, 2016 By Arlene R. Weiss-All Rights Reserved
© Copyright April 10, 2001 By Arlene R. Weiss-All Rights Reserved