Along with the songwriting team of Zach Redler and Sara Cooper, Shaina Taub is a recipient of the 2014 Jonathan Larson Grant. Hailing from Vermont, Ms. Taub is a songwriter-performer of whom NPR said has an “… imaginative lyricism is all her own though. She has creativity in spades.”
As a performer, who are some of your influences?
My influences as a performer are inextricably bound to my influences as a writer, as I am a devout disciple of the American singer/songwriter tradition. My main gods are Carole King, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder. Vocally, I pray to the churches of Aretha and Barbra. Lately, I’m blown away by Rachael Price, the lead singer of Lake Street Dive. Her live vocals stun me.
Do you approach writing songs differently when you know you won’t be performing them?
Sometimes. When I’m specifically writing for myself, I like to work in certain keys and tonal relationships, so they sit comfortably right in my sweet spot vocally. When I’m not writing for myself, I’m most often writing for a very specific person’s voice, and I work with some outrageously talented singers, so I enjoy tailoring the piece to their specific vocal virtuosities.
You’re performing some Tom Waits songs in the ART’s Tempest. How are you approaching that process?
The band for The Tempest is called ‘Rough Magic’. We are Prospero’s musical agents, his spirits, doing his bidding sonically. We are the wind and the island air. We were very fortunate to work with one of Tom Waits’ own collaborators, a drummer named Kenny Wolleson, who literally invented a whole bunch of unique instruments that create an eerie and unusual aural landscape to the songs that echoes and honors the esoteric percussion that permeates many of Waits’ records. Our melodic instruments are accordion, vibraphone, upright bass and trumpet, and feature a duet of powerful female vocals. I’m honored to work with three extraordinary musicians on the project – Ms. Miche Braden, Mike Brun and Nate Tucker.
What makes a good song or a good lyric?
One that hits you on first listen. One that you immediately want to play over again. One that you return to to constantly for years. There are technical qualities musically and lyrically that I appreciate in songwriting, but at the end of the day, it’s an ineffable quality that attracts me immediately to certain songs like a magnet, and I’m stuck for life.
What did RENT and/or Jonathan Larson mean to you?
I got to talk about this a bit at the grant presentation. I wrote a 28 page research paper on the life and work of Jonathan Lars I was ten years old when a friend at summer camp played me the Rent cast album for the first time, and I proceeded to listen to the entire record daily, ritualistically, for years, until I knew every lyric, every harmony, every Idina Menzel riff. While most girls my age were obsessing over Nick Carter and Britney Spears, I was devoutly worshipping Jonathan Larson’s songs. The vocal selections book of sheet music from RENT was like a sacred text to me, and learning to play the tricky intro to Halloween made me fall in love with playing piano. The songs were my gateway drug into theater and music. I remember printing out the lyrics to La Vie Boheme and asking Jeeves one by one what each reference meant, from Carmina Burana to huevos rancheros to masturbation. As a pre-pubescent kid in rural Vermont, much of what the characters in RENT sang about was beyond my experience, but the emotional core of the piece awakened something in me. The fierce sense of togetherness and belonging, the raucous celebration of creativity, and the immensity of love that poured out of my stereo was a sonic invitation to a community which I hadn’t yet encountered, but knew I had to be a part of. I remember staying up late at night in middle school, singing along to ‘Why’ from tick, tick, Boom, ‘I’m gonna spend my life this way.’ I regularly re-visit his records as inspiring reminders of masterful craft and genuine soul in songwriting. Jonathan Larson’s work was truly the instigator for my personal and creative journey, having a profound impact on my growing up as an artist and a person, which makes this grant have a particularly deep resonance to me.
What are the new musicals you are scoring right now? What are they about? What are the songs like?
I’m working on two musicals right now. One is called There’s A House, an original American folktale travelogue story about a girl’s journey across the country to find out the truth about her family after her house burns down. It’s loosely based on an old Child ballad called ‘The House Carpenter’ about a woman torn between loves on land and at sea. Our story focuses on that woman’s daughter, who she left behind. The music is all acoustic soul, folk and gospel, featuring many musician/actors. The show is a commission for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I’m collaborating with an amazing playwright, Kim Rosenstock. My other project is Robin, a female re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend, focusing on the friendships in the merry band, the entry of Allan A’Dale into the group, and Robin’s death. This one’s a commission for Ars Nova, and I’m collaborating with another incredible playwright, Jen Silverman. The music for that features a lot of groove-driven songs and tight vocal harmonies. Both are still deep in development, though I’ve been performing many of the songs in concerts to test-drive them.