Many artists describe the writing, recording and production of their first CD as something akin to the birthing process, analogizing the bittersweet joy, pain and frustrations that many expectant mothers feel with the agonizing, cathartic experience of seeing their own little musical labor of love finally set loose upon the world.
No one probably knows this better than songwriter Annette Shepherd who gave birth to an excellent solo debut CD and a baby daughter in 2001 — each of which, she happily acknowledges, couldn't have been done without a little help from her husband, musician/producer Ashley Shepherd.
Shepherd labored over her new disc, The Perils of Iva, for more than three years, writing the majority of the album in 1999 and 2000. However, nature intervened in the form of her newborn daughter last May. "We recorded some before I got pregnant and while I was pregnant, but I was so sick early on in the pregnancy and then so big later that we had to record a lot of the songs after I had (daughter) Lottie" she recalls.
Prior to working on her solo release, Shepherd did time in cover bands, worked as a wedding singer and backing vocalist and fronted a girl group. Her most recent stint was in the pop combo, jjaR. However, her focus always remained on crafting her own songs.
"In (jjaR), I wrote collaboratively, most often writing the lyrics and co-writing the music," Shepherd says. "When jjaR broke up in 1998, I guess I got a little more assertive and decided to take more control over the music I was playing and writing. If I was going to sing covers, I wanted to cover artists that I genuinely respected and inspired me. I decided to take a stab at writing my own stuff, hence The Perils of Iva."
Produced in her husband's Grandin Studios in Newport, the resulting disc is replete with swirling emotional songs grounded by smooth, jazzy soundscapes, above which floats Shepherd's heavenly voice (alternately resembling Kate Bush, Cardigans singer Nina Persson or an über Cabaret chanteuse).
Shepherd wrote the lyrics and music on Iva and gave Ashley free reign with the arrangements and production. The musical Shepherds originally met in 1994 when jjaR opened up for Ashley's band, Circus of the Sun. However, not all was hearts and puppies for the two future professional and personal collaborators.
"At the time, I was a little put off by him and thought he was sort of music snob with his fancy Berklee degree," Annette recalls. "A couple years later I had the occasion to work with him when his band was recording a commercial project, songs for film and TV, to finance their next CD. They needed a female singer for some of the material and called me. Since Ashley was engineering the project, I got to know him a lot better and sort of fell in love with him over the headphones."
Shepherd not only got a life partner out of the deal, but a sympathetic, talented arranger and producer with an impressive list of local and national credits. After marrying in 1998, the two began working on both a family and the project that would eventually become Iva. Of course, mixing professional and personal lives can sometimes get very sticky. Was it that way for Shepherd and her husband?
"Actually we work well together in the studio," she says." I won't say there weren't tense moments. We had plenty of disagreements over various things, which is unavoidable given the fact that you're working so closely with someone you're already intimate with and have to wake up with in the morning. You've heard of couples divorcing over wallpapering a bathroom together — try making a CD together. But in the end, we both wanted the same thing, for the CD to sound good."
Iva's 11 tracks run the gamut from femme power anthems ("Live it Up Girl"), to ethereal, atmospheric tracks ("Wombs & Hearts," a personal favorite of Shepherd), to the sweet Disco-tinged party that is "Runaway Sky." Several of Shepherd's more affecting songs explore dark vignettes, steeped richly in melancholy and tears.
"Generally, I think I'm lyrically drawn to darker themes, and I like the music to provide the levity" she says. "One of my favorite songs of all time is 'Strange Fruit,' performed by Billie Holiday. The imagery in the lyrics doesn't get much darker, while the melody is sweet and almost hypnotic, compelling you to listen."
One heavy song that didn't make it to the final mixes: the title track for The Perils of Iva. Iva is Shepherd's given first name, affectionately passed down from her grandmother. Shepherd explains: "It was a song about some darkness in her past and about me owning up to its legacies. I think it was emotionally too much for me to tackle at the time. But I still loved the title and thought it aptly conveyed the mysterious mood of many of the songs on the CD so I kept it."
As for handling a day job, a new baby and being an aspiring musician, Shepherd admits it's a challenge.
"There is no 'having it all' without making sacrifices" she says. "Since I've had the baby, I'm not writing as much as I'd like and I don't have as much time to rehearse or play out. I am definitely stretched to the limit in trying to promote this CD. However, I wouldn't have it any other way. My daughter is the best thing that ever happened to me and will doubtless be a whole new emotional source for my writing in the future."
ANNETTE SHEPHERD appears every other Sunday at Rosie's Tavern in Covington. She will play with her full band at the Southgate House on Feb. 21 with Staring at the Sea, DW Project and Anne Winslow (of Len's Lounge).