There’s a depth and individuality to Shellee Coley’s music. It’s captivating, because her brand of honesty and genuine feeling are rare. That’s because the Texas native isn’t trying to fit herself into a pop star mold. She’s a mom of two, who returned to music after a significant hiatus because she wanted to do it for herself.
This personal drive is exactly what makes Coley’s music so inviting. The singer/songwriter’s sound is a patchwork of styles, ranging from folk to Americana to country. Her lyrics are made up of snippets from her everyday life, including memories of her father and conversations with her daughter. A lady who juggles her time spent in the recording studio and playing live shows with getting the family together for dinner? Who gives up listening to Bob Dylan in the car to let her teenage son play Skrillex? I think we can all agree that Shellee Coley is the coolest mom ever.
Check out our interview with Shellee below.
Crushable: How did you get involved in music?
Shellee Coley: I started when I was really little, doing voice lessons, in about third grade. Then I think I started writing songs in eighth or ninth grade. I went to Nashville for college, to go to Belmont University. I thought I was going to go to Nashville and be famous. I actually got married a few years after that, and decided I was just going to write and not be an artist. We ended up moving back to Texas a few years ago, and I sort of restarted my whole career and path in music. So I’ve done music my whole life, but I really started back over a few years ago and put out my first EP, and then just now released my first full-length CD in February. I’m older than everybody else doing this. I was tired of not having my own identity and doing things that I loved.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Conroe, Texas, which is north of Houston. And then I lived in Nashville for about 15 years, and then we moved back. We live in Texas now, Magnolia, Texas.
What was the music scene like where you grew up?
There wasn’t a music scene. Church was my music scene. I had voice lessons, and sung at town fairs and at church. I third grade I was in a play, and this lady told my parents that they should get me voice lessons. There was one voice teacher in town. You know, I did Annie in the talent show and I was the only singer at my school. So I went to Nashville, because I was really super into Christian music when I was growing up and I thought I wanted to be like Amy Grant. Or Faith Hill or Trisha Yearwood were big at the time. But all these women that were singing then were like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, and all these big R&B singers. And that’s not my voice at all, so I kind of just quit music, because I thought, I can’t keep up with this. And folk music kind of took a break in the 80s and 90s. Which sounds lazy, but I didn’t want to have to be 110 pounds and look 18 for the rest of my life. So we moved back to Texas a few kids later. My husband actually moved here to manage a band. And then we found the Texas music scene and there was folk music, and country music. And these really strong female musicians that are making music that the rest of the world probably doesn’t know about, but they tour regionally in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. The fanbase here is so loyal with folk music now, and singer/songwriters. I thought there was a place for me in that. So I told my husband on the back porch one day, I’m doing music again. I don’t know how, but I’m doing it. So we just started going down that path, and we met someone who owned a recording studio and made a record.
So your husband is a band manager. Is he a musician as well?
He is a manager, and when I met him in Nashville he was working at a tiny little record label. Like for six dollars a week, it was not even minimum wage, kind of like an internship. And then he moved into working at a major label, and working in publishing at EMI. But it was never helpful or beneficial to me. In fact, I think one time he tried to pitch some of my stuff secretly, and nobody took any interest. And so when we moved here and he was managing a band in the Christian industry for a little while, we met another guy, and they started a management and publishing company called Magnolia Red. And they decided they were going to manage a different band, and so they started with that band. And then I was in the middle of making my record, but I really just thought I would just make a record and be done. It was on my Mommy list of things to do to make me happy. So I made an EP, and it was these little, quirky, country-pop songs, and I thought, yay, I did it. And then people started asking me to play places. So actually they signed me as their second artist. They didn’t even have me in mind to work with them as an artist.
There’s a real range of sounds on your album, Where It Began. Who are some of your biggest influences?
I grew up listening to pretty much all Christian music and some country music, so really Amy Grant was everything to me when I was a kid. When I was in college I started listening to a lot of stuff T Bone Burnett produced. I had this great friend who told me that my musical influences were stupid. We were at a Christian college, too, and he told me I couldn’t be a musician and only listen to three people. So he started introducing me to T Bone Burnett, who at the time was just producing Elvis Costello. Nothing that people had heard of. He hadn’t done the Alison Krauss yet. So I’m a huge T Bone Burnett lover. Anything he produces. When we went into the studio, I realized that I like almost all male musicians. I love Greg Laswell. I’m a huge Rufus Wainwright fan, that’s probably the best concert I’ve ever been to. I also love Patty Griffin. She’s more like Americana. I really listen to a lot of old folk music, like Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins. And I love Leonard Cohen. My all-time favorite songwriter is Leonard Cohen for sure.
I don’t really listen to a ton of mainstream music, because then I feel like I’m going to make music like everyone else. I’m just super picky. I feel like I’m being cliché when I say this, but I really love Bob Dylan. When I was growing up, I hated Bob Dylan. I couldn’t stand his voice. I liked the Beatles. My mom only let me listen to Christian music, but my dad would always say, you can’t just listen to Christian music. He would sneak other stuff in on the weekends. That’s what my song “Cotton Dress” is about. On the weekdays it was church music, but on the weekends it was rock and roll. I felt this spiritual connection more with my dad a lot of times, because he loved music so much, and it was really a spiritual experience without ever being in church. But I hated Bob Dylan when I was growing up, and I didn’t even appreciate him until probably five or seven years ago. But I still can only listen to Bob Dylan when I’m in the car by myself. When the kids are in the car with me, it doesn’t work. You can’t talk when Bob Dylan is singing.
How do you go about creating a new song?
I don’t have one particular way I write. I used to write for other people, so I mostly wrote lyrics. I had a couple Christian radio singles. But I never ever connected to those songs. And now, I hear people say, oh, I have this great idea for a song. And I never get those. I just get a phrase in my head that sounds good, and it may not even rhyme, just an idea. And I work the words over in my head. And then I generally go lock myself in my room with my guitar. I really have to lock out the world. Sometimes they happen in a day, or an hour, and sometimes it’s months that they just sit there half-done. Two of the songs that are on my record were just half-done for ever and ever, and they came together just weeks before we were done with the record. That was actually the title track, “Where It Began.” It wasn’t even supposed to be on the record. It surprises me every time, and every time I’m done with a song I’m completely sure I’m never going to write another one because I’ll never have a good idea again. I’m still really surprised by all of this.
You have a lot of shows coming up. How do you work out tours with your kids and family?
I haven’t actually been on a full tour. So far what I’ve done has been a lot of one-off dates, mostly regionally around Texas. And we do a lot of house shows. The number one thing for me, by choice, is house shows. We make the most money at house shows, and there are generally families there. I love house concerts because I can bring my kids. They get sick of it, and wish they didn’t have to go sometimes. But there’s food there, there’s other kids. And the cool thing is, I think, that I might have another mom there who’s hosting the show, some friends of ours, or people who are friends of friends. And then her mother might be there, and her 12-year-old daughter might also be there. So I feel like it’s kind of a cool privilege to be able to sing to three generations of women. I got an email the other day from a friend of mine. She said her 90-year-old mother, who was my first Sunday school teacher, got my CD and was just pouring over the lyrics every day. And my friend also has a 10-year-old daughter who loves my record, and I just thought, what a privilege. To get to communicate with that many women, that I would never get to do in a bar.
We have a great group of people around us. My family lives close, and we have a great group of friends that we’re in the music community with. They feed my dog if I’m out of town, and I water their plants if they’re out of town. But you know, we’re talking about doing a tour together and I’m wondering who’s going to take care of our houses if we tour together. My husband is super supportive. I never, ever discount that. It’s a very big honor to have somebody like that. I was a stay-at-home mom for 11 years, and then I decided that I needed to change my whole life. And my kids are 13 and eight. I always tell my kids, when I grew up, my mom did everything for us. She did my laundry until I stepped out the door to go to college. I just tell my kids, this is a community. I’m trying to raise some self-sufficient kids so they can be a part of what we do, but also still have their own things. As every opportunity comes up, we sit down and talk about it. They’re pretty cool kids to be in the process with us. I think it’s great for my daughter to see that I don’t just sit at home and wait on their every need. All their needs get met, and we sit down to dinner at a table two or three nights a week even with our crazy schedule. I want my daughter, more than anything, to see a woman that has goals and passions and dreams.
Are there any lessons from being a mom that cross over into music?
Oh, yes. Pretty much all my music is about my family, or extended family, or friends that feel like family. If I had tried to have an artist career 15 years ago, I just think the depth of things I would have had to write about was so limited. And again, I was trying to write Christian music and singing about my faith. And Christian music is all about Jesus, you know. And my God, my faith extends out for layers and layers and layers, and it’s tested by all those layers all the time. Through so many years of life, I feel like I have so much more to think about than when I was 19. Also the communication that you have to have in order to raise a family, especially having a 13-year-old. I think the level of communication you have to have with kids helps a lot being in a band, or communicating with people on stage, eye contact and all that stuff. Communication skills in general.
Do you have a favorite song off your album?
It changes a lot for me. The whole time we were recording the record, I felt like all the songs were my little song babies. And then the ones that didn’t make the record, it felt horrible. The ones about my family, like “Cotton Dress” and “Conversations with Z,” which is about my daughter, and “Where It Began,” that’s about my dad. I think that those songs are my favorites on the record because they’re just so directly about the reason why I’m able to do this today. I think “Conversations with Z” is a lot of other people’s favorite, so it’s turned out to be one of my favorites. I don’t cry when I sing it, but a lot of people cry when they hear it. I feel honored that I can connect with people like that. My daughter actually wrote that song with me. She walked into the room one day and she said, “Are you writing a song about me?” And I said, “I think so.” And she said, “Well, I’ve got a couple ideas,” and she just shot out the whole second verse, word for word, perfect rhyme.
Are your kids musical?
They’re not. My son has taken drum lessons. And he kind of likes it, but he doesn’t love it. He’s an artist, he draws a lot. My daughter sings. She’s actually a great percussionist, she has great rhythm, but she doesn’t like taking lessons of any sort. She takes karate. My kids love music. They both have their iPods in their ears all the time. But neither one of them has shown a ton of interest in music, so I don’t ever want them to feel like we’re forcing our world on them. I think my son will end up doing show posters or merch for us someday.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
I teach songwriting classes locally, and I started doing that to help pay bills. And then I fell in love with teaching. I said I’d never teach music, because that’s what every girl was told to do when I was growing up. I have four or five girls who are between the ages of 14 and 18 who have become great little writers. You can’t really teach it. You can teach the structure of the song, but then past that there’s something they have in them that can create. I always tell my girls that if you can tell your stories honestly, or tell an honest story even if it’s about someone else, people will connect with you. It’s not about the hype around it, or the track around it, or the production. All of that stuff makes it better. Tell your own story, but leave room for other people to step into it.
Shellee will open for Greg Laswell in Houston on May 24. For more information, check out her website.