Interview: Raven Shelley
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
Growing up, the house was always filled with music, so I think that I probably just absorbed it in a similar way to the literature I’ve spoken about. We would tend to have classical music – especially Tchaikovsky and Mozart – at breakfast (though I didn’t appreciate that enough as a surly sleepy teenager, I do now!) and then various playlists at dinner. An early memory is my parents having dinner parties, and when I went up to bed I could still hear the music playing; I still have some of those playlists and certain songs still remind me of that time. That’s one of the amazing things about music, its ability to transport back to times and places long gone.
My parents also both play instruments; my Dad plays the guitar, my Mum plays the violin and they’ve both played a bit of piano. They also had lots of musical friends; I remember our neighbours played the accordion, and on most Sundays they would have lots of friends over and do a big lunch, ending the afternoon with traditional French folk music which everyone joined in with.
So I think that I’ve always been around music, but I sort of fell into playing guitar. I couldn’t sleep one night so I came out of bed and watched a late night music programme with my Dad; there was some female singer-songwriter, I don’t remember who now, and he suggested I start playing guitar. We looked into lessons, and everywhere was full, but I sat in on one of my friend’s lessons, and picked it up from there.
Once it started, my passion for music was like my passion for literature; voracious. The more I read, the more I listened to, and the more I learnt about playing guitar, the more I wanted to discover. It's difficult to imagine what my life would be like had I never discovered my love of music. I would hope I’d still be doing something creative; creativity is like my oxygen. It’s as essential to my life as breathing and eating. I would probably still be doing something with words; I still write poems & short stories, and I have various other longer projects on the go, but they take second place now to the music. I’m also a keen silversmith, so perhaps I would be focusing more on that. Now it’s just a hobby, and it’s nice to do something creative that is visual rather than sound based, just to have a break. I do occasionally envisage alternate realities, thinking if things had gone differently where would I be now (I’m sure everyone does that), but I always see myself doing something creative and travelling around. I can’t stay rooted in one place for too long.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
As I’ve said, I make sterling silver jewelry, which is great because I can sit focusing on the one piece in front of me, but I still almost always have music playing, or a podcast or something, which means I get to listen to music and learn plenty of new things; it gives my mind a break but still allows me to think about stuff too, if that makes sense.
Otherwise, I read a lot, and try to read some poetry every day. That’s one of the main influences for my music; I tend to read with a notebook and pencil in hand. That way, if something I read kickstarts an idea, or I particularly like a phrase or word, I can underline it/write it down, and either run with it right then and there or come back to it later on. I have plenty of songs which are based on books that I’ve read too, the most recent one was called A Spy in the House of Love, based on the book of the same title by Anaïs Nin, about free love. I’ve also got one on the go now based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I intend to call ‘Blighted Star’. I also love visual mediums like films and art, and I find they can influence ideas too, especially if it’s a visually striking image from someone like Nicolas Roeg or Schiele.
I walk a lot too; walking is a great way of clearing your head, and I find that the rhythm helps especially with music and poetry. People don’t walk as much as they used to anymore; you read anything by Hardy for instance, and it’s perfectly common for the characters to say something along the lines of “It was only 10 miles to the nearest town, she would be there by dinner time”! But walking is a great healer; just you, clean air, quiet. It’s a bit like yoga which I do as well; I love being able to focus on my breath, it forces you to quieten your mind, to reset.
How long has your band been around?
I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 10 or 11. Upon moving back to the UK I played in a few bands as lead singer/rhythm guitar player, and although performing live was great fun and really increased my confidence, I didn’t have enough confidence to play my own material until I reached uni and started playing open mic nights. That also kick started a different way of writing; more mature lyrics, way more literary references, just better poetry in general. And this has only increased as I’ve focused on improving guitar playing and lyrics.
I’m also much more confident now, since working with The Animal Farm, and having played solo gigs where people came specifically to watch me, and then said how much they enjoyed it. People don’t need to say that, but if they genuinely believe it, they will. And the response from the single has been absolutely fantastic!
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
This is always a hard question to answer! I was born in the UK but I grew up in France, where I went to
small rural French school. I therefore educated myself in English works of literature, and it became my own private world. Returning to the UK after almost a decade in the southern sun was a real culture shock, and it felt both strangely recognisable and deeply unfamiliar at the same time. I think this is why I dislike settling in one place for too long; I feel I have nomadic instincts, and I like to keep moving on. I’m only passing through! People always ask me where I’m from and it’s difficult to say, because I moved away from the country when I was so young, but I’m also not French. I went to uni in Manchester, so I think that the music/cultural scene there influenced me greatly.
I decided to cut and run after 4 years in Manchester, and came to small village in the Peak District. That’s influenced my creativity a lot because I feel I have space to breathe, to walk, to think, to take the pace down from the lifestyle I was leading in Manchester, though I will be returning to the city in the Autumn to pursue my musical career.
How did you come up with the name of your band and what does it mean to you?
have created their own nicknames for me. I love having different names for different situations and social circles. Juliet may well ask “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but sometimes having a different name can help you step into a different personality. And it shows a level of intimacy, because sometimes there are names which only one or two people ever call you, and which you associate uniquely with them. There’s also something liberating about using different names. Occasionally if I’ve randomly met someone that I know I’m never going to see again, I’ll give them an entirely different name to my own, and sometimes I even make up a whole backstory as well. It’s quite a fun exercise, you have to think “Who am I right now?” I mean we all have different people within ourselves; it’s Whitman who wrote “I contain multitudes”, and sometimes I find that changing a name can help to change your self, and your idea of your self for that day or that moment.
Anyway, ‘Shelley’ has always been a nickname for me which my friends have used. It’s my middle name, given to me by my father after the radical bohemian poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who is also one of my favourite poets. At university my friends found this out, and adopted it (along with many variations, “Shell” and “Sheleyna” being favourites). It always felt like a comfortable name to me, and I love the associations. People also used to call me Raven; I can’t remember exactly how this came about, but I probably mentioned that I think they’re incredible birds. They’re playful, intelligent, and empathetic. They can imitate a huge range of noises, they are associated with many mythologies in different cultures, and teenage ravens leave home and roam about in ‘gangs’ until they pair off and find a mate! Plus, my house used to overlook an abandoned church which was popular with ravens, they used to wake me up squawking sometimes, and I loved watching them.
So it seemed natural to me to pair the two names together, and Raven Shelly had a good ring to it; it felt right, so I went with it.
Tell me about your most memorable shows.
The last one was pretty fun; I finished my setlist with a song I knew everyone would know. The beer had been flowing all evening and everyone was singing along, everyone was in a great mood. That set the tone for the rest of the evening, and it soon turned into an all-night karaoke//sing-along party!
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
I want to play everywhere that I haven’t played yet!
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
That’s a tough one to answer, there’s so many! My favourite artists are Ani DiFranco and Bob Dylan, so I would be really tempted to say them, because how cool would that be? Marika Hackman and Wolf Alice would be great to have there, and perhaps Florence & The Machine. Or add some spoken word stuff and have someone like John Cooper Clarke.
Do the artists in the lineup have to currently be alive? Because if not that really expands the possibilities! I mean you could have David Bowie & Lou Reed followed by Beethoven!
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into playing in a band and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
Be confident, and if you don’t have the confidence then fake it until you have it! I’ve realised that you do have to be pushy sometimes, which isn’t something I naturally excel at, but in this business, in is sometimes necessary. Have confidence in your own music, in your own abilities. And also make connections! It’s very much a connections-based industry, and you never know who someone might know, or how someone might be able to help. So, without being mercenary, just be aware of that.
Also know that it isn’t easy; you have to put yourself out there, and keep knocking on doors until one of them opens just enough for your to wedge your foot in, and you claw your way up from there. You only need one break.
If you could go back in time and give yourselves advice, what would it be?
Very much as above, just be confident in your own abilities! When I was younger I didn’t have enough confidence to perform my own material. Because it is scary to stop and say “Hey, listen to this. I wrote this and it’s good enough for you to listen to”. Plus you’re exposing aspects of your personality or your life, you’re putting out these songs which you may have written when really sad or angry, and as a very private person sometimes that can be hard. I think going to uni & playing open mic nights there gave me the confidence to perform my own stuff – I played my own songs and the pubs didn’t empty! And when you’ve done it once it gets easier.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
Well, ‘Sink in Solitude’ will always have a special place in my heart, because it’s the first one to be properly released, and I remember the time period when I was writing it very well. It was one wet afternoon in Manchester; I'd woken up late, having been out the night before, and was annoyed with myself for wasting most of the day. It was winter, and (as usual) raining. The light was flat and dull, and I stood looking down at the grey urban street, at the litter, the sludgy brown leaves and skeleton trees, at the other houses, wondering about the individual stories and tragedies that could be unfolding just metres away from me.
I'd been reading Shakespeare's 'Richard II', and a lot of Shelley's poetry, so many lines from the song are influenced by these two great writers. It's a song I wrote to myself, trying to rouse myself to get on and do something, rather than wasting the time that I have been given. Whenever I listen back to 'Sink in Solitude' I remember that time very clearly.
But there’s plenty of others which mean a lot; ‘Ariel’, which will be released on 28th October is about Sylvia Plath, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, lyrically. There’s also several new ones which I’m very pleased with, many of them looking at ideas of free love and jealousy in relationships.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
I would have to say ‘Do You Miss Me Yet?’ (which will be released 26th August). I wrote it when I was really angry with someone, and I thought ‘What would I really like to say to them? I mean really, if no one was every going to read it, if no one could judge me for how I felt, what would I want to say?’. I had no intention of turning it into a song initially, but once I started I just couldn’t stop, and it kind of wrote itself. I’m very excited for it to be released (keep up to date with that via Instagram and Facebook, or the Mailing List!), because it tends to make people laugh whenever I play it. I was listening to a lot of Dylan at the time, songs like ‘Positively 4th Street’ and ‘She’s Your Lover Now’, and I hope that very Dylanesque mixture of humour and savagery comes across when I sing lines like:
“I mean how are you not bored of yourself
It’s bad enough dealing with you as someone else
But you have to put up with you every day of your life”
What is the creative process for the band, and what inspires you to write your music?
It’s a weird thing, because I don’t really like sitting down and saying “Ok, I’m going to write something”. Occasionally I have done that, but I don’t really like it. On the other hand, I’m very wary of that attitude which some people have, of sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike. I think perhaps it’s having watched my parents working; they’re both writers, and I know that the difference between people who play at writing and those who actually do write is that they do it even when they don’t feel like it.
I know I go through phases of being far more creative than others; often if something emotionally draining has happened, or if I’m in the middle of a really chaotic situation (breakups, moving house, etcetera), I’ll only start to process it all afterwards, and then I’ll write about it. You tend to cannibalise your own life, and the lives of those around you, to write. I am almost always on the lookout for song ideas, for phrases which I can overhear or read and which kickstart the creative process. And I have certain ideas or phrases in various notebooks which sometimes I only use years after I first thought of them, but I know they will be used eventually. I write stuff by hand, and my house is full of various notebooks, scraps of paper, receipts, bus tickets, all with ideas and lyrics on them.
On the other hand if I want to write a song about a certain topic, sometimes I will sit down and research it, making notes, deciding how to use the information I’ve gathered. Usually though I’m much more relaxed, and songs just grow organically. Occasionally I’m in bed, about to drop off to sleep, and suddenly an idea hits and it’s a scramble to find the nearest scrap of paper!
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
I was told by someone recently that when they listened to my music, they felt at peace, and that everything was going to be ok. It was such a lovely thing to hear, because I don’t often have that sense of peace in myself, but if I can bring it to others then I’ll be happy!
I hope that people can think about the lyrics, because I sing about lots of different things. I have songs ranging from questions of monogamy and morality to the bombing of Dresden. But either way, I hope that somewhere it helps someone get through their day, and makes them stop and consider the lyrics for a moment.
Someone said to me at the last gig I played, on a rowdy Sunday night, that something happened when I started playing. They said that people actually quietened down, and listened, and the emotion of the room shifted. They said that it was strange to watch, because it was just me and an acoustic guitar, it wasn’t loud, but there was something that made them stop talking and take notice. I want that to be what people remember. I want my songs to have that power to silence a room, not through being louder than the room, but by subtly commanding attention.
Do you ever have disagreements in your band, and how do you get past them?
Well I’m a solo artist, but it doesn’t stop me having disagreements with myself! They don’t tend to last long though!
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
I’ve been focusing on the release of ‘Sink in Solitude’, and now I’m going to put all my energy into the next 4 singles that are going to be released, as well as continually improving my guitar and lyrics, and writing more stuff, playing more shows. In the long run, I’d like to get a backing band, and play bigger and bigger shows, creating a stable following. I also want to record an album or EP soon, and have a couple of ideas for how I want that to work.
In terms of spotlighting stuff that’s coming up, I’m very excited about the release of the next single, because this one has had such a fantastic response! So don’t forget to follow my Spotify and Amazon Music, as well as the Instagram page so you can keep up to date with future releases!