[Cover photo credit to Michael Gomez]
Adam Shoenfeld is best known for his twenty years of work in the world of music as a go-to guitarist, as his vast output in 2021 alone attests. He’s even been nominated as the Academy of Country Music’s Guitar Player of the Year seven times and tours with Tim McGraw. Throughout that time, while Shoenfeld has made substantial creative contributions to an astonishing number of hit songs (it’s several dozen), he’s considered whether he might also record his own music. Just a few days ago, that finally happened with the release of All The Birds Sing, via Lozen Entertainment Group/Copperline.
Where do you start on a project that’s been a possibility for such a long while? For Shoenfeld, the songs simply started arriving on their own in 2019, starting with the title track “All The Birds Sing”, and the pandemic only made the recording process a little easier since he wasn’t on his accustomed touring schedule. Genre wasn’t really a concern, and you’ll find that Shoenfeld reveals his wide-ranging musical interests with dedication, all while serving this bigger desire for outreach to others in his life, and among audiences, with an endgame to make people feel “healed, or helped, or heard”. I spoke with Adam Shoenfeld about jumping into solo work and how he feels about live performance below.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I saw you posting on social media about all the albums you had worked on in 2021, and it was a lot! You must have spent a lot of time in studios.
Adam Schoenfeld: Yes, then add all the ones where I worked on singles. I just posted about full records. I feel really fortunate that people call me. I think people know what they can get to me and what I can bring to the table. I still feel like I surprise some people because I got pigeon-holed at the beginning as the guy who played power chords in Country Music. They wouldn’t be completely wrong about that, but I also have a whole other skillset in there that I don’t often get to lay down on people.
HMS: For some people, if they spent many hours a day at a particular task, would not then want to go and spend their personal time on similar task. But I do see that one is more like your day job, and the other, your solo album, was something that you needed to do for personal reasons. Did not being on tour make that possible and turn that key that otherwise might not have gotten turned?
AS: Actually, this key got turned while I was still on tour. I knew that I was going to make this record, though it’s been a matter of time. I had a couple of songs come to me, “All The Birds Sing” and “Son”, in mid-2019. Just a little while after that, I had an experience with my “day job” where I felt very worn out and lost in it. That caused another song to come about, which didn’t make it on the record, but the gist of the song was, “my heart doesn’t beat the way it used to beat”. I do enjoy doing music for other people, but I had stuffed down my own dreams for many years just because I was comfortable doing music already.
It was a matter of time, and the pandemic helped that, because it forced me to be at home a little more. I was throwing tracks around to people before that, but it may not have gotten finished as quickly without the pandemic. You’re definitely right to say it’s like my day job versus my dreams. I do like my day job, and though you always get burned out on your day job, you find ways to fall back in love with it, if you’re lucky. Doing my own music helped with that. Anytime I’m in the studio working on music for someone and not enjoying it, I remind myself, “This music means as much to that person as mine does to me.”
HMS: Wow, so that’s a new realization for you, based on the experience of making this album?
AS: Absolutely. It’s definitely put me back in a place where I feel confident and happy.
HMS: Have you, over the years, beaten yourself up a bit over not doing your own stuff?
AS: I would say that I’ve had regrets, if I was psychoanalyzing how I’ve talked about it over the years, but I feel like I’m in the right spot now to be doing it. I had opportunities to do record deals before, but something always kept me from doing it. In one case, I knew that they would try to make me a Country artist. In another case, as gracious as the label was, at the time, I didn’t know what I did, as an artist, and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.
Also, everyone who makes a living in music wants to be a Rockstar, but as a sideman, you don’t realize until you get further into it, that it’s not about you. I took some time being a sideman thinking I was going to be a Rockstar, and then realized the sad truth that it’s all about the name on the marquee. I do realize that, and I’m good with that, and that’s partly why I’m doing my own thing. I try not to take for granted what I do in music, but I can’t help but want more. I can’t stop thinking about what’s next for me, at the risk of sounding narcissistic.
HMS: I don’t think it’s necessarily narcissistic if working on a project is something that’s inspiring and motivating for you.
AS: Maybe that’s why I’m doing it now since, generally, I don’t want to be a narcissist, and I don’t want it to be all about me. My whole record spoke to me, but a lot of it was written to other people and I want other people to get something out of it. I want them to feel moved and healed, or helped, or heard, by hearing my music.
HMS: I notice that several of the songs on the album seem motivated by outreach to other people. “All The Birds Sing” is a beautiful song with a multi-genre feel. I heard that it was written kind of quickly. Is that true?
AS: As I said when introducing that song a few nights ago, I never thought I’d write a “girl power” song, but then I had a daughter and a step-daughter turn into teenagers. I will say that there was somebody in my life who was really hurting at the time, and I wrote that song in ten minutes, in tears, in a hotel room on the road. I had to get it out, and it was how I felt.
On top of the hardships of being a girl anyway, you add on all the new things that kids are dealing with now, like their ability to see everything, and their ability to be slandered in front of thousands of people [online]. It doesn’t have to be about that, it’s really a song for everyone who’s doubting themselves. My son is turning 15, and we aren’t deep conversation guys, but I wrote “Son” to speak out to him to say, “I’m here for you and I believe in you. I wish you’d listen to me, but I care about you.”
HMS: These are multi-generational things that many people can relate to. I’ve worked with young people a lot and am aware of so much that they are facing. It’s never been harder to build a real personal identity than now since social media really erodes that. I think music plays a great role in offsetting that.
AS: I couldn’t agree more. I think music always has. Music heals.
HMS: How did you capture these songs when they first came to you?
AS: It depended on what was within reach. The phone’s almost always within reach, so I almost always capture the initial ideas on my phone. With “All The Birds Sing”, except for a couple of keyboard parts, that’s all me on all the music. I started recording it at home and played the drums on it. My high school bandmate was in town and he played the keyboard on it. I called up a few of the real guys.
HMS: Was it hard to have that conversation, letting people know that you were, indeed, recording your own music?
AS: It was great, because we had five or six people in Nashville for a reunion and I invited them over to the house. I knew I had the song there and studio set up, but it was really spur of the moment. On “Sun”, I had a real drummer since I couldn’t quite pull it off. Paul Bushnell also did the strings on that song and helped me arrange it.
HMS: I noticed that you’ve also Produced a number of albums. Did that help you when putting this one together?
AS: That’s always been a different thing that I’ve always done. I had a really cool educational background in music with the high school I went to. We had professional musicians teaching us orchestration for Jazz and Classical. The Production I’ve done has been more mainstream, but it’s all intertwined. When I build guitar parts and simple keyboard parts, that’s all orchestration, too, so it’s all orchestration in my mind.
HMS: Did you try to govern what musical directions or genre elements came out in these songs? They show a pretty broad range of emphasis. “Getting’ To Me” is very Rock, for instance. You have the more mellow approaches, and the more Pop side to some songs.
AS: I definitely didn’t really care about the songs being different. I thought that was okay, because I had finally realized that the thread is the singer. The thread is the voice. The only time that I policed it was when I said to myself, “I want some more rocking tracks on this.” I was happy with everything I had so far, but I wanted some more upbeat stuff, too.
I purposefully had some ideas that were more like Blues-Rock, like Tom Petty on his later records. I was really happy with “Gettin’ To Me” and two others didn’t make it, though I felt like the record was complete. It’s interesting because one of the things that had kept me from doing a record for so long was the feeling that I was all over the map, but now I realize that’s okay when you know what you’re saying. I think that makes for a more interesting record. It’s all me and I’m cool with it.
HMS: In the past two or three years, it feels like it’s becoming much more common to take a multi-genre approach on albums, possibly because people are listening more widely to so many types of music digitally.
AS: I agree. To me, genre has become more of a lyrical term. If you look at Country music, especially, you notice how many genres are being mashed into that. It’s beautiful. I’m sure if you look at a Tim McGraw audience, there’s 50% of them, if not more, who love to turn on AC/DC or Ariana Grande. Everybody loves all different kinds of music.
HMS: People are really owning that more. They are saying that they like to explore. You seem to have focused on live performance from a young age. Does that relate at all to how you see this album?
AS: I would love to play this album live. I did a show a couple weeks ago to see if it felt right to perform these songs live. I am working on some possibilities of getting out there. Playing live has been a magical thing my whole life. It’s making that connection, and knowing you’ve connected with at least one person in that audience, whether you know it at the time or they reach out to you later. It’s an amazing thing to see people in tears listening to a song, being moved. For me, it goes back to me air-guitaring to Peter Frampton Comes Alive. I was as drawn into the sound of the audience on that record as much as I was the music, if not more. I knew every point at which the crowd would get loud. Another one that my dad got me was Eric Clapton: Just One Night.
When I was in a battle of the bands at 14 years old, it was in the cafeteria at my junior high school. There was a portion of the performance where I would do a guitar solo and I wrote this thing where I was rocking out. I remember doing it and just getting lost. I remember the guy’s coming back on stage saying, “Dude, that was so awesome! Did you hear everybody?” And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I went away. I’ve been forever trying to capture that again. Once in a while that happens. That’s kind of being beyond connection to an audience. That’s going so far out there that you’ve connected to them in ways you don’t even know you’ve connected to them because it takes you away.
Boy, I live for both those moments, when music takes me away, and when I can’t help but notice that I’m impacting somebody. I think that’s the overall thing for me, is that I wish I could do that with my words as much as I’ve done that with my playing.