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Easy Does It

Shaprece. Photo by Megumi Shauna Arai.

With an effortless, assertive voice, Shaprece pushes creative professionalism 
to new heights.

At almost 10 o’clock at night, Phil Peterson’s house smells like bacon. Outside, summer twilight lingers over Northgate and Peterson’s grape-purple Victorian, but Peterson—medium build, plaid shorts, flip-flops, David Cassidy hair—is in his living room studio, editing a bumper for PBS on his Mac. A few steps away, a plate piled with cold breakfast meat sits on the kitchen counter. A pair of platinum records, individually mounted and framed, occupy an adjacent wall: Pink’s “The Truth About Love” and Owl City’s “Ocean Eyes.” Peterson played cello on both.

First to arrive for tonight’s rehearsal is Daniel Butman, a violin virtuoso who plays with Cirque du Soleil and various 5th Avenue Theatre productions. His instrument case is suspiciously slim. Shortly after comes Branden Clarke, known to Seattle’s electronic-music underground as IG88, a production maestro who works with forward-thinking hip-hop artists and independently releases woozy downtempo soundscapes. Finally there’s Shaprece Renee Richardson—just Shaprece to these guys. Wearing daisy-printed short shorts and a black crop top, she’s come from a friend’s barbecue across town.

Nobody is interested in the bacon pile except Beatrix, Peterson’s greying hulk of a Great Dane. The musicians volley quick hellos and then file out the front door, along the white picket fence and around back to Peterson’s other studio, the one in the basement.

It’s cramped down here, kids’ bikes leaning on a drum kit in one corner, old blankets tacked to the walls and dusty rugs on the floor. But the musical setup is lean. Tucked under a low ceiling, Peterson handles a snazzy electric cello that looks like a broomstick mounted with strings and a magnetic pickup. Butman’s sliver of a violin is electric, too. Clarke whips a laptop and MIDI interface from his backpack, rests it atop a heavy black monitor speaker and powers on, ready to go. Shaprece adjusts a mike stand.

Small talk while tuning up: Butman says he taught his improv string class how to play Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.” Clarke answers a casual “How are you?” with “You know—we’re all just meat balloons floating through nothingness.” Peterson proclaims that their private gig last night for a local video production company was as cool as something like that could be.

And then suddenly they’re making beautiful music.

No signal given, no count-off ticked, nothing discernable to the civilian ear. From zero to soaring in a blink.

In mournful harmony, Peterson and Butman peel off a slow, quivering drone, tracking the sheet music set in front of them. Clarke clicks into a minimalist percussion pattern of hushed brushstrokes and robotic fingersnaps, then injects a deeper beat.

Shaprece, eyes open, face forward toward her bandmates like she’s still in conversation, begins to sing.

You and me/Make sense like sand and sea/All the love and suffering/Shaped what you mean to me.

The song is called “Utero” and it’s new, unreleased. The band plays it as if it’s a timeworn classic. The music is like a mosaic, discreet pieces in fixed space, chromatic and whole taken in from farther back. Then it fades, the musicians efficiently backing out of the song and into silence.

“That’s pretty!” Shaprece smiles. “I like that!”

Peterson and Butman shuffle pages to the next song while Clarke cues the next track.

Is music supposed to be so easy?

* * *

The broke musician. The struggling artist. The tortured soul. No pain, no gain. Because anything worth doing is difficult.

Without thinking much about it, we too often expect great art to come from some fiery crucible, a distant, mysterious plane untethered to consensus reality; to spring from minds that function according their own logic, peculiar and possibly dangerous. For their part, many artists embrace that fantasy and, because of it or despite it, produce great work.

Everything about the Shaprece project suggests an easy approach. The combined forces behind the music teeter between ambitious professionalism and freewheeling creativity. It’s an elegant balance that runs counter to Seattle’s ingrained, stubbornly humble DIY-ism. And it works.

Shaprece grew up in a musical family. Her dad, who then and now works at the Capitol Hill branch of the Post Office, was an amateur musician and her mom dug Stevie Wonder and Parliament-Funkadelic. Her first vocal foray was as an alto in the classical choir at Christian Faith School in Tukwila. After graduating in 2004, she skirted college and instead kept singing, working day jobs and recording her voice in different musical settings.

Until recently, Shaprece performed standard rock ’n’ soul with a conventional backing band. She did it well, especially onstage, her voice punching through a heavy rhythm section, her bearing relaxed and magnetic. But she was hearing other music in her head, off-kilter sounds reminiscent of Björk and Erykah Badu, artists who are unafraid to plumb uncharted territory, who are genres unto themselves. Her dizzy eclecticism was summed up by title of her first EP, 2011’s Scatterbrain.

This past March she released “Her Song” online, the first dispatch from the new world she’d discovered. The sound was focused, vital, innovative. Shaprece’s transition to this stings-and-beats, live-electronic thing felt like a natural evolution rather than a contrived reconfiguration.

“Her Song” is a highlight of her new EP, Molting, but it’s of a piece with the other five songs. The EP sounds luscious, robust, full of gratitude and unsullied joy—even as, song after song, Shaprece laments her fading grasp on ideal love. Shaprece’s voice is assertive but not urgent, unadorned but richly timbred. The music, for all its nebulousness and genre flouting, is powerful. Physical. Effortless.

“Performing the new material feels more myself than in any stage of life,” she says. “Right now I feel like I have a complete understanding of myself as an artist and I feel like people are going to be able to identify with the things that I’m saying.”

We’re sitting on a park bench in Cal Anderson on a sunny weekday morning. Weird scenes unfold around us—daytime-homeless-in-the-park scenes—but Shaprece’s attention skips along straightforward.

“You just have to experience life. There’s a period of time everyone goes through and they’re just kind of roaming around trying to figure out where exactly they fit in. And that’s a necessary part of understanding yourself, and that’s really what happened. Nothing specific; there wasn’t one defining moment. Life happened around me and I just figured it out.”

She also met the right people. Ian Imhoff first saw Shaprece perform in the Scatterbrain days and recognized a huge talent ready to take an audacious leap. Not long after, he left his job at an artist management company and signed on as Shaprece’s manager. Late last year Imhoff introduced her to Clarke, a friend of a friend from Bellingham. Clarke played her one of his gauzy, atmospheric productions (“Seahorse Paternity Suit”) and the pair were instantly bonded. Another mutual friend introduced her to Peterson—he needed vocals for a separate project; Shaprece needed strings for hers. Finally, Peterson introduced her to Butman. Their creative process is collaborative: Shaprece writes the lyrics and melodies, Clarke the rhythmic beds and Peterson the strings.

“Everything has happened very organically,” she continues. “This is the right place at the right time and I met these people who love what I do. Everything has been like that. I love it so much and I’m so passionate about it. I’m so careful with music that I didn’t want to damage it by trying to force a situation.”

Beyond ease, what we’re discussing here is flow—the tendency for an object in its natural state to take the shape and characteristics of its setting. Fluidity is there in the music. It’s in the way these people talk, the way they think.

“There’s enough struggle just in existing as a human,” Clarke tells me later. “If you’re comfortable with the tools that you’re using, when you come together to create, it should come easy.”

* * *

Easy, organic, fluid. Phil Peterson gives a lot of credit to the general public for recognizing those qualities in the music they listen to. As a veteran of longstanding indie bands Kay Kay & his Weathered Underground and Tennis Pro and a composer who’s arranged strings for songs by Flo Rida, A$AP Rocky and Florence and the Machine, he has a rather unique perspective.

“Seattle is the best place in the world to be creative, hands down,” Peterson says, “but I don’t know what it’s gonna take for it to become a professional music town. It’s easy to collaborate with people here. There’s so many recording studios, a lot of really high-end sound engineers and the venues are super fun to play. But to make a living full-time as someone who’s doing that is hard.” Not so in places like LA, New York and Nashville, cities with diverse, deep-seated music economies.

“The old guard of artists in town would say artistic integrity and professionalism are mutually exclusive,” Peterson says. “But if that’s the truth then everyone should keep their job as a barista and make music as a hobby. That’s fine, but I see a lot of people trying to make it with their music. I’m more creative than I’ve ever been and more artistically fulfilled regardless of whatever you think about mainstream pop artists.”

Peterson’s pop-music savvy tilts the music toward the mainstream while Clarke’s underground status sways toward the avant-garde. The anchor is Shaprece’s engaging persona, her easy way with a vocal. Imhoff’s music industry experience—he was part of the management team that boosted the Lumineers to superstar status—has helped her land a few high-profile gigs in a short time, including prime slots at this year’s Capitol Hill Block Party and Bumbershoot. He also says he’s been fielding calls from major labels.

As Seattle explodes with new industry and new money, the city’s music community is at a pivotal moment. We live in a post-Macklemore world, and the nation’s music biz pros have taken note of Seattle’s fledgling talent. This place has a long and fertile history of record labels, concert venues, radio and press, though the management and booking side of the industry languishes. That’s changing.

Zach Quillen, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ manager, recently recruited a colleague from the Agency Group to move from LA to Seattle and help expand operations. Red Light Management, founded 20-some years ago in Virginia Beach as Dave Matthews’ management team, is opening its first Seattle office this fall, run by Jason Colton, a manager who works with Phish, tUnE-yArDs and Calexico. Developments like these nudge Seattle toward the type of place that not only nurtures musicians but also sustains them. Shaprece and the rest of her bandmates have pursued that life for a long time. Now they’ve arrived at their ideal.

Creatively and professionally, Peterson says, Shaprece is steering her own ship: “She has the luxury of being as creative as she wants to be.” She’s smart to take on management and her music is angled just so for mass appeal. And Molting arrives at a moment that’s ready for it.

Molting echoes the late-’90s musical style known as trip-hop. Bands like Massive Attack, Everything but the Girl, Morcheeba and Sneaker Pimps created smoky nocturnal ambience with sultry female vocals, languid bass lines and reverb-soaked sonics. Right now, that sound is once again slinking out from the global underground, slightly ahead of pop music’s 20-year recycling schedule. Little Dragon is the forerunner; lesser-knowns are Wild Belle, Doss, FKA Twigs and Jungle. (“Love!” Shaprece says of the latter two.)

In its initial go-round, trip-hop perked discerning ears by bridging hip-hop, electronica, soul and rock for the first time. Today, those genres have each been subsumed, digested and assimilated by mainstream pop.

This new world is Shaprece’s world. At 28 years old, she’s part of a generation that’s grown up amid ahistorical musical miscegenation. Fusion—in the music itself and in the business around it—isn’t required anymore. Now it’s DNA.

“People are craving creativity right now,” Shaprece says. “People want to be inspired by what they listen to. And it’s hard, because everyone likes mainstream music. Everyone can find joy in pop. I’d like to believe that people want to be thinking right now and I think that music is an essential tool to doing so. I think we’re coming to a more innovative generation. At least that’s what I’m hoping.”

Photo by Manuela Insixiengmay. 

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