Ryan Shaw, The New Voice Of American Soul?

Jun 11, 2012
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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. These days, when people talk about the leading names in R&B and soul, a certain big-voiced British woman is often the first name to come to mind, but there's an American in the house whose name is being mentioned in the same sentence as some of the leading voices in soul. His name is Ryan Shaw.


RYAN SHAW: (Singing) Tell me, did you get down on your knees and pray that you'll never, never, never go away. Where did you go now? What I'm talking about - you don't know nothing. You don't know nothing. You don't know nothing. You don't know nothing about love.

MARTIN: That was Ryan Shaw singing his version of the classic "You Don't Know Nothing about Love." It's just one of the songs featured on his latest album. It's titled Real Love and Ryan Shaw is with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SHAW: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, as I understand it, yours is kind of a classic story, which is fitting, given that you have such a classic voice. I understand that you grew up in the church, singing sacred music, gospel music. You didn't even know any secular songs, so how did you kind of make that transition?

SHAW: Well, yeah. Growing up, we couldn't listen to anything except for gospel in the house. My mother's a southern Pentecostal minister, so everything was like, you know, what are you all playing up there? Nothing. Turn it off. So there was a lot of that happening and so I didn't really get my start in really, like, listening on my own until I left home and got to New York and started - had my first job at the Motown Café.

MARTIN: And you did have your starving artist phase, as I understand it. That was not easy.

SHAW: No. It was pretty strange. I actually got to New York doing a Tyler Perry play called "I Know I've Been Changed" and, for some reason, seeing New York City for the first time was the thing that kind of switched it for me. So I remember getting here and calling my mom, like, Mom, guess what? And she was like, what? And she was very nonchalant about everything, so she's like, what? I'm like, New York is crazy. Like, you know, like Kroger - which is our supermarket down south - so imagine like a Whole Foods or a Kroger and, like, people live above the Kroger. That's crazy.

And it was like a big shock for me and so when I said, I don't think I'm coming home, she was like, yeah. OK. Very nonchalant. So we were supposed to have been at the Beacon for two weeks and we ended up closing after the first week, so I called her back and I was like, Ma, I'm staying. And then that's when she started freaking out a little bit more. It wasn't so nonchalant. And then she said, now, boy, you better get your foolish behind back on that plane and stop being crazy. You don't know nobody up there. You ain't got no money. What you going to do? I was like, I don't know.

My first day I stayed was my first audition because I came here to - I wanted to do Broadway, as well, so I came here and my first audition was for "Rent," the first of 14 call-backs for "Rent." Yes. But it ended up being for "Rent" and so I just remember having $180 in my pocket and nowhere to stay, so I went to my first audition and I was making little jokes and, you know, like, does anybody know where I can find a shelter and stuff, you know. I was lighthearted. For some reason, I wasn't afraid.

And, coming out of my first audition, this guy named Peter Jergenson(ph) - he came up to me and he was like, hey, man, you really don't have a place to stay? And I was like, no, not really, but you know - and he's like, so where's your stuff? I was like, I left my luggage in the lobby of the hotel - on the Skyline Hotel on 50th and 10th Avenue. And he was like, really? I was like, yeah. He said, well, me and my girlfriend have a little bitty apartment in the East Village with one of her friends from college. We have a futon chair. So I slept in that futon chair for my first, like, four or five weeks in New York City.

But - yeah. That was kind of the starting, just couch to couch for a couple of years, but never - I say struggling artist because, for some reason, I'm pretty sure it was God's will for me to be where I was because I was never hungry. I didn't have a home, but I was never outside, so it was always a couch or somebody's random floor or somewhere for me to be and always a meal to have, so - yeah. It was...

MARTIN: How does your mom feel now? You didn't tell her all that, I hope.

SHAW: I told her after the fact. Well...

MARTIN: Yes. Good choice.

SHAW: My mother - she - yeah. My mom - she didn't think that singing was a career. You know, she's, like, you need to get a real job and stop all that foolishness. I'm like, ma, you just don't - you don't know what I feel. You don't know. You don't see what I see. She's - uh-huh. So, finally, when I got here and got my first job singing at the Motown Cafe, I called her and was like, ma, guess what I'm doing? She's like, what you doing now? I'm singing at Motown Cafe for a living. That's paying all your bills? I was like, yes, ma'am, it is. And she's - oh, OK. I guess - well, well - and that's about it.

MARTIN: Well...

SHAW: I get two wells and that means - that's a lot, so that was a...

MARTIN: Well, two wells is a lot.

SHAW: That was a OK. Two wells is an OK.

MARTIN: All right. We'll give you a third. Well, well, well, here you are. Now, people are going to hear this for themselves in a minute, but people have been really impressed with your sound. Ellen DeGeneres compared you to Stevie Wonder. A lot of other big names have been kind of thrown your way. How does that make you feel?

SHAW: It's cool. I think it's kind of cool. That's what I say, especially when names like Stevie Wonder drop because it's, you know, people that, you know, are world-renown. And when I hear Stevie, I'm like, wow. Like, when I could listen to music, he was one of the - quickly - one of the ones that quickly influenced a lot of what I did, and especially with his creativity of how he wrote songs and stuff he could talk about that other artists couldn't necessarily get away with, which made him even cooler to me.

MARTIN: Is it intimidating, though? I mean, you've been compared to all of the big names in soul and R&B.

SHAW: I draw energy from it. I mean, it's an honor to be put in those categories - I mean, both from, I guess, noted people, and also just regular fans, you know. One of the biggest compliments that I get sometimes is from a fan that'll come to me and say, you know, I've seen Otis Redding back in the day, or I was - well, you know, I'm an old guy. You may not know me from your time, but yeah, this is the best show I've seen in 40 years - you know, that kind of stuff. And I don't pressure from it. I just - I think I take more of the energy side of it, and use it to give back.

MARTIN: Speaking of energy, I hear that you don't actually work from a set list, that you just try to feel what is the thing to sing at a time. Whoa, that's a lot of pressure.


MARTIN: I mean, that's like flying without a net. I don't know.

SHAW: For me, it's less pressure. I think it's more pressure when you put a set list together and you have people and you sing a certain song, and they respond and they go crazy. And in my mind, like, to go to that next energy level would be another song, but according to this list, it's five songs down. And that's a bummer to me. And then I have to go sing, OK, well let's go do "Miss Mary Mack" for the people, and then, like, the energy of the room changes.

But I think when you go off the people, like for me, when I do a show or any kind of live performance, it's a give and I take. I give to the audience, and they give back to me. And based on what they give back to me, it'll trigger certain path, musical path in my mind.

MARTIN: OK. What do you feel like getting to me? Mm-hmm. Right now.


MARTIN: I don't know what I'm throwing over there, but what do you feel like sending back?

SHAW: Let's - I think we'll start with "Real Love."

MARTIN: OK. Let's start with "Real Love." And will you introduce the young man who's accompanying you?

SHAW: This is Aaron Marshak(ph), who's my new guitar player, actually. And he's also my brother-in-law, which is kind of cool.

MARTIN: That is very cool.

SHAW: Well...

MARTIN: Well, welcome. Thanks for coming. All right.

SHAW: I don't know how cool it's going to be when we hit the road when my sister realizes he's not home a lot.


MARTIN: Well, she knows - well - I won't - maybe I won't even address that.

SHAW: No. He'll be fine. He'll be fine.


MARTIN: OK. "Real Love." Here it is.


SHAW: (Singing) It's like rain in the deserts. It's like finding a treasure. Like struggling in the dark, and someone shines a light. Never seen such a beautiful sight, and when you find it nothing takes you higher. There's nothing like a real love. You got to, got to have it. You got to, got to handle it. And baby, when you feel love, oh, you never, never let it go.

(Singing) Friends in your pocket when there's money to spare. But when all the money's gone, no one is there. So take a look, look deep down inside, 'cause when you find it, nothing takes you higher. There's nothing like a real love. You got to, got to have it. You got to, got to handle it. And baby, when you feel love, oh, you never, never let it go. There's nothing like it. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, baby, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to have it, yeah. A real love. A real love. Real love. A real love. I got to handle it. I've got to, got to have it. There's nothing like it. Nothing like it. Nothing like it, baby. So never, never, never let it go.

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

We are in NPR's performance studio with R&B and soul artist Ryan Shaw. His latest album is "Real Love." I still feel the gospel...

SHAW: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...infusion that's sort of the transcendence in there.

SHAW: Yeah. I can't get rid of it.


MARTIN: Do you want to?

SHAW: No. Not at all. Not at all. It's really funny, because a lot of artists, when they -they call it leave the church. I don't really call it leaving the church. But when they leave the church and go and sing other music that's not gospel, they want to tend to just completely just leave it all behind. But I think what I learned about music through gospel was that this music was our connection to God. So it wasn't about us.

And I remember sometimes, you know, when you're a kid and you're growing up and you realize that you can really sing or, you know, trying to do it good and you start getting into church and doing little extra stuff that's just not really about God, but about you, and then, you know you get home and my mom's like, what was all that about? And you're like...


SHAW: I don't know, moms, just - mm-mm. God wasn't in that. I ain't felt God. That wasn't God, you know. So I really had to learn to every time I got before people, my first thought was that music was not about me, that there's a higher level of music, and that I become a vessel for music to get it out. So - and it still transcends today. So when I sing something, I usually sing it from where I am, which is another reason I don't use a set list, because it - each night is a new experience. Each audience, even if it's the same song or ends up being the same set list, it's a different experience because of the energy that's in the room.

MARTIN: Well, you're going to sing something else for us?

SHAW: Let's do "Evermore," I think is a good one.

MARTIN: "Evermore." OK. Here it is.


SHAW: (Singing) Oh, girl. Oh, girl. Oh, girl. Girl, you're finally back in my arms, and this love will grow stronger and deeper. All the lonely nights are gone. Sweet darling, from now on evermore, I'm going to love you, love you. Said, I'm going to love you, baby, evermore, oh, baby, and give you the best of my love evermore.

(Singing) And girl, you never need to wonder just how strong my love is, because I'll be your rock to lean on. In my arms, I will shelter you, baby. See all the lonely, lonely nights are gone. Sweet darling, from now on, evermore I'm going to love you, love you. Said I'm going to love you, baby. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. Forevermore, evermore. Sure enough. Sure enough. I'm going to love you, baby. See all the lonely, lonely, lonely nights are gone. Sweet darling, from now on.

MARTIN: Well, that was lovely. Thank you.

SHAW: Thank you.

MARTIN: That was lovely. Thank you. So, but we - so many things we could talk about, and we have to let you go. But before we let you go, I do understand that you are not just talented with your voice, but with your hands, that you can do carpentry. You can install floors, and that you can even sew, and that you've been actually known to sew an outfit or two for yourself.

SHAW: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is that true?


SHAW: Yes, it's all true. I don't know, I have this thing that I think I got from my mom. It's called I Can Do That Syndrome.


SHAW: So, it's really funny, because I never, like, went to school for any of these things. And like a situation will come up or something, and a lot of my friends call me MacGyver.


SHAW: So, like, things will come up, and they're all, like, call Ryan. And it's like, you know, and they say well, you know, my friend wanted a bookcase built in her apartment. And so she called a friend of mine, one of my prayer partners, and he was like, yo, man, you got some tools? I was like I just so happen to have a lot of tools. And he was like, well, can we rent your tools, because my friend, he's trying to build a bookcase for Pastor Charmaine(ph) . I'm like well, yeah. And he's like or would you know how to do that kind of thing? I was, like, well, I've never done it before, but I'm sure I could probably figure it out. And he's like well, cool. We can cut out the middleman. We can, you know, so...

MARTIN: Somebody read "Tom Sawyer" before he called you.


MARTIN: I think you got roped into that.

SHAW: Yeah, I did. And I'm actually right now remodeling - one of the mothers at my church, she's really sweet, and she's always giving back and taking people in. And I'm actually redoing her kitchen right now.

MARTIN: Is that right? Oh, wow.

SHAW: In between tours, when I'm home.

MARTIN: In between tours.

SHAW: No, because I said, if you don't rush me - so she was, like, I just want my kitchen done. So I said I'll do it for you. And she was - I said, but what's your timeframe? Because, you know, I'm going on tour, and I can't be, like, rushed into this stuff. But I said when I'm home, I'll work on it. She said just this year. As long as you can get it done by the end of the year. I was, like, end of the year, I can do. So I do it in stages.

MARTIN: All right. Well, send us some pictures of your progress.

SHAW: I will. I definitely will.

MARTIN: All right. So let's see, he sings. He can do carpentry. Don't tell me you can cook, now.

SHAW: I actually cook very well.

MARTIN: Oh, see, I don't know...

SHAW: I'm a really great - I think I'm going to open up a cake shop. I really bake very well.



SHAW: And red velvet is my specialty, just so you know.

MARTIN: Oh, see, you may never go on tour. I'm telling you, you shouldn't advertise that. You shouldn't advertise that. So - before we let you go, so what's next for you?

SHAW: Touring for a couple of weeks, doing - playing Milwaukee Summerfest again this year, and a couple of festivals in Chicago. Doing a few dates with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. This is all the end of June.

MARTIN: You're going to sing something else for us before you do go? Are you going to do something else?

SHAW: Yeah. We - let's do a - we're going to do one of the covers from the new record. We did a pretty cool version of "Yesterday."

MARTIN: "Yesterday." OK. All right. Well, Ryan Shaw is a two-time Grammy-nominated artist. His latest album is "Real Love." And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio.

Ryan Shaw, thank you so much.

SHAW: Thank you.

MARTIN: And brother-in-law, thank you so much for joining us.


SHAW: Come on, Aaron, let's do this.


SHAW: (Singing) Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now I need a place to hide away. Oh, I believe in yesterday.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk tomorrow.


SHAW: (Singing) Suddenly, I ain't half the man I used to be. There's a shadow hanging over me. Oh, yesterday, it came suddenly. And why she had to go, I don't know. Lord, she wouldn't say. So I said something is wrong, and now I long, now I long for yesterday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.