Interview. Henry Shaw: "I feel like my songs are honest and real"
Photos: Henry Shaw | Collage: Ana Alonso

London born Henry Shaw, 30, is a singer-songwriter who studied at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music (BIMM) with some well-known artists such as Tom Odell and James Bay. He first released a few indie–rock songs, four years ago that can be found on Soundcloud under the name “Henry Shaw & The Dancefloor Troubadours”. Right now, Henry is about to release his first Solo EP, “Ghosts”, which consists of four new songs: “Ghosts”, “Joyride”, “SSR’Eyes” and “Curtain Call”. We had the chance to talk with him and get to learn a bit about where his music is coming from and to get to know him a little better.

Question: Let’s start from the beginning, when did you start playing the guitar and writing songs?

Answer: I started playing the guitar when I was really young; I was about five years old. My dad played guitar so he taught me how to play few chords and things like that. I started writing songs probably when I was about 11, so I was pretty young. Not necessarily full songs, but lots of lyrics then trying to sing them and play the guitar over the top. But then full songs I think came about when I was around 14 or 15.

Q: Can you play any other instrument besides the guitar?

A: I’m currently learning the piano. I had lessons a couple of years ago but I’m mostly self-taught so I’m fairly basic. Saying that, almost all of the new EP was actually written on piano. It’s a bit of a departure from my previous songs with my first instrument being guitar.

Foto: Henry Shaw
Foto: Henry Shaw

Q: What music did you listen to when you were growing up?

A: My parents are both massive music fans and Bruce Springsteen was always my main guy. I’m kind of obsessed with him; I’ve seen him 43 times... My first gig was his actually; I was five years old and it was at the Milton Keynes Bowl. Then when I was really young I also kind of obsessed with “The Beatles”, “The Beach Boys” and then this live “Queen” album recorded at the old Wembley Stadium. Then there were loads of more contemporary bands my dad would play me, bands “Oasis” and “Blur”. Music’s always been, you know, in the front of things.

Q: Do you still have the same music taste, or has it changed over the years?

A: I think my music taste has always been guitar led. In my teenage years, all the music I was predominantly listening to was Punk-Rock, Punk-Pop and stuff like that, “Green Day”, “Blink-182” and “Rancid”. And then when I got to about 15 there was a lot of new music happening in London, bands like “The Libertines”, “Bloc Party” and “Jamie T” … all those indie bands. So there was a little bit of change, but still, predominantly guitar music.

Q: What was the moment you said “I want to do music as a living”?

A: As silly as it sounds, I’ve always wanted to do it. Since I was a small kid, probably after I first picked up a guitar. It sounds crazy but it’s totally true. I never dreamt of being like an astronaut or a fireman or anything else like that. I always wanted to be a musician, always.

Q: Where does “The Dancefloor Troubadours” come from?

A: There’s this country artist called Steve Earle, who is another artist my dad showed me as kid. There’s a biography about his life and it’s called “Hardcore Troubadour”. When I was trying to come up with band names ideas I was sat on my bed in Brighton and on my book shelf there was that book and I thought “that’s a cool title”. I always liked Henry Shaw and something else, that there was something more happening, not just me. And I kind of wanted people to dance and have fun because I felt like “hard-core” might’ve sounded a bit like a metal band so I changed it to “Dancefloor Troubadour” instead.

Q: How would you describe your music to someone who has never listened to any of your songs?

A: I guess the stuff I have been putting out lately under my name Henry Shaw is definitely more singer-songwriter. It’s mostly piano but then there’s a sort of a country/Americana feel to one of the songs. I guess it is kind of a piano record, even though I don’t class myself as pianist, you would definitely class it a singer- songwriter piano record. But then, “The Dancefloor Troubadours” is more of indie-punk-rock thing.

Q: How’s your typical song writing process?

A: I’m usually obsessed with the lyrics. Typically, I come up with an idea and then I just sit and write as much as I can, coming up with rhyming couplets, a single line and then getting that to rhyme with something else. Then I’ll sit and try putting it to music. That is probably the usual process but then, you know, sometimes it will happen the other way round, I’ll be sat playing guitar or piano and come up with something and then I’ll try writing lyrics on top of that. It kind of changes but usually it’s the lyric that come first.

Q: Who are your main influences?

A: Obviously Bruce Springsteen, but also “Arcade Fire”, “Jamie T” … Who else do I love? “The Clash”, “The Smiths”, “The Cure’. Whether I sound like any of those guys is one thing but they’re certainly some of my favourite artists.

Q: When writing music, do you rely on past experiences and use them in your song-writing?

A: Yeah. I would say a lot of it is coming from personal experiences. Most of it is usually coming from me, but obviously it is nice to put in a bit of a story sometimes. Certain songs might not necessarily be about a specific person, but it all comes from those experiences of who I am.

Q: Which song would you say is the most personal one for you?

A: On this new record they’re all real personal, it comes from a pretty tough time I was going through. “Ghosts” is definitely on the top, I probably put too much of myself in there If I’m honest. When I was writing this record, as cliché as it sounds, I was using it as therapy. I was getting out of a pretty bad relationship that suddenly ended. I made demos of the songs and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them, whether I was even going to release them or not. But then I played them to some friends and they were like, “this is really cool, you should progress with them”.

You know, music has given me a lot, and anybody that is obsessed with music like me will understand the power that it has to give comfort, whether it be happiness or just not feeling so alone in certain situations. Even though I was slightly terrified of releasing these songs because they’re so personal, I was kind of hoping that by putting them out that they might find homes with people going through similar situations. I feel that my songs are very honest and real and that is really all that music should be about. I would say “Ghosts” and “SSR'Eyes”, which will be the next song I’ll be putting out; they’re the most personal.

Q: What have you learned about making music since you first started?

A: You learn a lot about yourself I suppose, because you have to peel away the surface questions of what are you actually thinking and feeling. You have to delve deeper within yourself. Not just finding the obvious in something. You get to learn more about yourself and hopefully find some answers.

Q: You have already shared some songs, but you are about to release your first EP. Is there a date already?

A: There isn’t a release date yet because I’ve had to re-record one of the songs so it’s kind’ve been pushed back. I’m putting the songs out individually and then they’ll all go out as a full EP hopefully some time in November. I’m also tempted to put out an alternative acoustic version of the EP too. I was meant to go on tour where It would be just me playing the songs on guitar and piano… just a solo thing. So I thought it would be interesting to record the songs in that way too, a lot more stripped back and true to how they were on the demo. I guess one of the things that can happen when you’re recording is that you think you’re going in one direction but then it takes you in another. Initially I wanted it to be totally acoustic, I wanted it to be a record that would sound great for people sat alone in their bedrooms with headphones on while sat in the dark. Very personal and just me telling them my story but then it kind of all got a bit mad. So I might just put out two versions of the EP, mostly because I can’t work out which version is better.

Q: So the tour is not happening then…

A: No… I was supposed to be supporting someone. It was meant to be a 30-date tour but it fell through which was a real shame. I got to play the London show though which was unbelievable. It was at St. Pancras Old Church and was one of the best gigs I’ve ever done. The natural reverb sounded unbelievable in there, just the best setting for those songs. All the lyrics are really personal but it felt like the crowd were really with me and listening to every word. Which is great thing but also slightly terrifying and leaves you thinking, “oh God, I hope I haven’t written a bad line.”

Q: Some of your songs on Soundcloud are like four years old but this is going to be your debut EP, why did it take so long to release it?

A: I don’t know. I was always writing songs but I wasn’t sure about being a solo artist…

Q: And there is one that I really liked from the old ones… “He’s Not Me, She’s Not You”

A: Yeah that’s one of my favourites too, It’s a great song and I feel like I can say that because it kind of feels like I didn’t write it. I remember I’d just learnt this new finger picking style on guitar when suddenly, as if by magic this song just started to write itself, it was all done within 20 minutes. Afterwards I felt like, “wow, where did that come from?’. It was the first time that had ever happened so it felt more like a gift or something. I’m kind of tempted to do another version of that song, maybe a band version or just me on acoustic.

Q: Is there anything in particular you would like to achieve music related?

A: Just play more shows and put out a lot more music. I’m going to finish off this EP and then I’m going to have some fun and do a Punk-Rock record. My cousin who is a great drummer and in a band called ‘The Hyena Kill’, She just moved in with me and we share a music studio so we’re going to mess around and put out a punk record for fun. Then I’m going to go back and do another solo record. That’ll be a mixture of everything. A bit like “Ghosts” and a bit like some of the songs off the first record I put out with “Dancefloor Troubadours”, somewhere in the middle of all of that.

I just want to play a lot more shows and write the best music I can. That’s of all I care about, trying to write great music that I’m happy with and hopefully people will like. Going back to what we were saying, Music has given me so much, and I know the power and comfort it can bring to people. I just hope I can write something that means something to someone.

Q: If you had the chance to collaborate with any other artist, who would it be and why?

A: Obviously Bruce Springsteen, that would be incredible, but I don’t know whether that’ll ever happen. It would be great to work with my old pal Tom Odell again, that might be fun. At one point I was thinking of asking him to produce the EP actually. Who else… Brian Fallon from the Gaslight Anthem would be great, Jamie T would be amazing, Tim Armstrong from Rancid would be great. They’re all my heroes who lyrically and musically blow my mind so I’d love to make and write music with any of them.

Q: And then you also have a radio program on Boogaloo Radio every Friday. How’s that like?

A: It's great. I went on a friends show and I just thought it was such a cool place and I mentioned it would be fun to do a show of my own. She spoke to the girl that runs the radio station and said, "you know this guy, he loves music, it would be great if he could do it." Then a week later I was doing my own show. In fact that was about a year and two weeks ago. And since then, in a year I have probably missed about three weeks. I love it, it’s really good because it exposes me to more music that I might not of heard. Sometimes it can be hard to find new music that you absolutely love but then when you do, It remind me of how powerful and exciting music can be, Especially if it is a new band coming out of London or wherever. I just love it.

Q: So the radio show is mainly about sharing music…

A: Yes! It’s all new and old music that I love or discover a long the way. I sometimes have guests and bands on the show where I interview them and they’ll play some of their favourite songs too. It’s great, it’s just really good fun.

Q: What projects are you currently working on?

A: I’m just finishing up the last little bits of the "Ghosts" EP and then I’ll be going straight into the writing/recording the punk record with my cousin.

Q: Is there any musician that you would really like to see perform but haven’t been able to?

A: Through my parents, my job and my friends I’ve been super fortunate to have already seen a lot of my favourite musicians. Although there’s still a list of people I want to see. I am going to see Ronnie Spector from “The Ronettes” in London in December; I’m really looking forward to that. She’s one of my favourite female vocalists. I’m a massive gig guy, so over the years I’ve seen a lot of shows. Who have I not seen? That’s a good question. It would be great to see Tom Waits, that would be amazing. I’ve never seen U2, I know that’s a bit controversial one but I‘d love to see them live. Elvis Costello, I’d like to see him. Butch Walker; I’ve never seen him and I really like some of his records. Also, I missed Alice Cooper last night in Brighton; I wanted to see him because he puts on such a great show. Even though it’s not usually my genre of choice but there’s quite a few metal bands I would like to see. I’m sure It would be great to see bands like Metallica or System of the Down live. As I said, I’ve been pretty lucky over the years and I’ve of seen more people than not, if that makes sense. My dad is a massive music fan so growing up he would to take me and my friends to lots of gigs. I’ve also seen a lot of the classics, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd.

Photo: Henry Shaw
Photo: Henry Shaw

Q: And any artist that has passed away and you would have loved to see live?

A: Oh man! I would’ve loved to of seen The Clash, although my brain might have exploded. And I would’ve loved to of seen Leonard Cohen or Tom Petty, I really messed up not seeing them while they were alive and I had the chance.

Q: Favourite film

A: That’s a tough one… I’ve got quite a few… There’s this film I love called, “Mystery Train” which is by Jim Jarmusch. It’s not very well known but it’s really cool. It’s quite moody, not much happens but it’s great film. “Goodfellas”, I love that one. “True Romance” and “Moonrise Kingdom”, they’re great films.

Q: Favourite junk food

A: You can’t go wrong with a good burger and I also love fried chicken, I know it’s bad but I kinda love them.

Q: One thing you can’t live without

A: Bruce Springsteen, well I guess I could live without Bruce Springsteen but it would be a pretty sorry world to be living in.

Q: Favourite book

A: “The Basketball Diaries” by Jim Carroll, I love that book, that’s one of my favourites. It is not too well known, I think it was bigger in America and not so much in England. They made it into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, he was probably in his early twenties when he did it. Other authors, John Steinbeck, George Orwell…

Q: Favourite place on earth

A: I kind of love New York… it’s just one of my favourite places.

Q: Best piece of advice you’ve received

A: I would say, and this is a bit of a cliché, but try not to worry about what other people think of you. Which is a lot easer said than done because It can be long journey of learning to be comfortable with-in yourself, especially if you’re an artist and filled with a lot self-doubt. You’ve got to trust your own instincts and forget what other people may think. Because more often than not, they’re probably more interested in what’s happening in their own lives than what you’re doing. It still takes a lot of guts though to put yourself out there artistically. Even more so now when on things like Instagram you can who has listened or viewed your stuff. It can make you feel very vulnerable. But If its in your heart and you mean it you’ve just got to take your heart in your hands and just say, “Fuck it. Who gives a fuck about what I say, as long as It’s real and I like it, that’s all that matters”.

Photo: Henry Shaw
Photo: Henry Shaw

Q: Guiltiest pleasure

A: Probably fried chicken again.

Q: Cats or dogs?

A: Oh dogs every day of the week! I’m currently looking after a cat, so don’t tell him, but I love dogs. Dogs are my favourite.

Q: Favourite hobby

A: Going to record stores, that’s kind of a hobby I guess. Visiting Museums, exhibitions and art galleries. I enjoy walking around new places and looking at history stuff.

Q: Favourite sport

A: Football, skateboarding and Ice hockey.

Q: Favourite football team

A: Fleetwood Town FC. You’ve probably never heard of them but it’s where my heart belongs.

Q: Place you would love to visit

A: I would love to go to Japan and South America. I’d love drive through the Utah desert and Monument Valley, would be unbelievable.

Q: Best concert you’ve ever been to

A: Bruce Springsteen at Giant Stadium in New Jersey.

Q: Sweet or salty?

A: Probably sweet.

Q: Morning person or night owl?

A: I kind of change, I’m a bit of weirdo. I have moments when I don’t mind getting up early and doing stuff but then I change and sometimes I’ll be up until three in the morning. I don’t know, I’m terrible. As silly as it sounds, I’m kind of both.

Q: Coffee or tea?

A: I’m going to say coffee. Controversial for an English person… I do like both but you can’t beat a really good cup of coffee.

Q: Favourite song

A: Well, it’s going to be Springsteen… Hmm, let’s go with “Thunder Road” or “Born to Run”, one of those two.

Q: Driver or passenger?

A: Driver. I’m scared of being in the car with other people.

Q: Winter or summer?

A: Summer, definitely summer. I don’t mind winter but when it gets too cold it’s never that fun, whereas summer you can go outside and just be content. You get to see your friends a lot more when the weather is nice. There’s a moment to be sat by the fire and cuddled up when it’s cold, but not for too long.

Q: Wine or beer?

A: Oh god, if it is just one for the rest of my life I would probably go for wine, I reckon.