Guest Post: An Interview with Atheist Musician Shelley Segal
Blogger Emily Dietle (@emilyhasbooks) recently had the opportunity to interview the talented Australian singer-songwriter Shelley Segal. Segal is best-known for her single "Saved" off of her new album which is chock-full of uplifting atheist tunes. Continue reading to learn all about Segal's musical history, the response to her album, and her upcoming projects.
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Mid-way through listening to Shelley Segal's newly-released album An Atheist Album, you'll realize that this talented songstress is more than musical—she's inspirational. I found it easy to relate to the thoughtful lyrics that pour out from this collection of secular songs. It was a delight to meet this sparkling young Aussie in DC during the Reason Rally, and I'm looking forward to her next album, a compilation of heartbreaking songs written over the course of eight years, tentatively titled "My Whinging Vagina." Turns out, the structure of vocal chords is strikingly similar to the female anatomy.
Did you have concerns or hesitations with writing an entire album themed around atheism?
I didn't have any concerns or hesitations myself, but I faced some from family and friends who were worried that I would be risking my career. I wasn't worried about that. For me, music is about expression and communicating. I make music about things that matter to me which creates a genuine expression and perhaps a sense of urgency to the communication. I believe that if you write about what matters to you, it will comes across in your music and provide a strength to it.
What has the response been from religious people in your community to An Atheist Album?
The Jewish community where I live (Melbourne, Australia) has a weekly newspaper called The Jewish News and they wrote a story about the album that wasn't negative at all. People, including family, have been very supportive. I am lucky to live in a country where I can speak openly about these issues. There have been some negative responses, some people writing to let me know how evolution is false, or that I'm going through a stage. So far, the best negative comment I have received was on YouTube; it said, "Prostitute, worthy of shame. Nice vocals though." There has been been a difficulty in reaching commercial radio; they declined to interview me as they don't want to be seen to be supporting atheism.
Growing up in a musical family, did you ever feel pressured to become a professional musician?
I started singing at three. Dad had a band, so often, time after school was spent doing homework at their rehearsals. At eleven, I began singing with the band and that whole environment became completely natural. I've played at so many weddings, I don't know what to do with myself when I attend them as a guest. From the day I wrote my first song at eleven until I started my music degree, I spent every single spare moment of my time writing songs. I guess I already was a singer, but more than a musician I wanted to be a songwriter. There was never any pressure to do those things. Only complete support. They made me feel like my creativity was really important; I guess the only pressure would be over directions that I could take to reach my goals. About seven years ago I was asked to appear on a reality TV show; I didn't want to participate, but my dad thought it was a really great opportunity for exposure. We fought a lot about that. So, no pressure to be a musician, but pressure to decide what I want to do and to make the most of my time, for which I am extremely grateful.
You performed at Reason Rally. As an atheist yourself, did you feel closer with an audience that identifies so well with your music?
This was only the second time that I had performed my songs to an entirely non-believing audience. It was an incredible experience. A main part of music for me is communicating; getting to communicate a specific message, to 25,000 people who you know will be able to relate is indescribable. I felt a solidarity and a sense of community on such a large scale that I will remember and treasure for the rest of my life.
What do you hope your music gives to people?
I hope that my music can give people what my favourite music has given me. My favourite music has moved me. It has made me feel less alone by relating to others' experiences. It has made me think, opened my mind to different perspectives. It reminds me of the strength of humans, who have the ability to take a difficult or negative experience and transform it into something positive; a reflection of life that they can share with others. A reminder that the whole spectrum of human experience is beautiful or at least poetic in some way. Music can be uplifting, it can be empowering and motivating, it can be inspiring, joyful and it can bring hope. It can take you back to powerful moments and memories in your own life. Music is one of the most transcendent experiences that I can enjoy and share, and I consider my work successful if my music gives any of these things to even one person.
There are pictures of you with a little rat—is this your pet?
That was Tyrone. He was my little mate. He used to come everywhere with me, just hanging out on my shoulder and in my dreadlocks. I liked sharing my life with another animal and seeing the joy that other people would have from meeting and interacting with him; he enjoyed it too. Rats are really the best pets, so intelligent and affectionate. If I weren't traveling so often, I would have another.
After performing at the Global Atheist Convention, you launched An Atheist Album at PJ’s Side Bar. What was the reception like, and how did the launch of your first album feel?
The Melbourne launch was one of the best nights of my life. One of the highlights was getting to perform with the incredibly talented Dan Barker. I've been writing songs for fourteen years now, and this is the first project I have felt was finished and that I was happy enough with to release. It was such a pleasure to be able to perform it, accompanied by friends, in my hometown, to family and loved ones, old and new friends and supporters from the secular movement. It was the culmination of years of work and it was extremely satisfying.
When do you know you’re done with an album or a music project?
That is very hard. I've written so much and I've never felt that a project was finished until An Atheist Album. I think it helped that into the project I felt as though I was covering all the aspects of the topic that I wanted to discuss; that gave a sense of finality to the project. Even though I am still writing songs about Atheism, it feels like a new and separate project. I think now that my first album is out and complete I'll find it easier to let a project out and be better at recognising when it's finished.
Music has the potential to be powerfully influential. Do you have any anecdotes from people that were influenced by you?
I have been overwhelmed with the support and encouragement I have received from many people, including the freethought community. I have also been very moved by some of the stories people have shared with me. One gentleman told me that he stopped writing music after he lost his faith, and that after hearing my songs, felt like he could take it up again. A few people have written to me to tell me how isolated they feel in their communities being an atheist, and how my album has made them feel less alone. Gail Southwork, a graphic artist in Michigan, was inspired by the album and created a portrait of me. Many people have written to thank me for representing their thoughts in song. I am so grateful for all of the feedback I have received, including these stories; it makes me so happy to know that my music is having a positive impact. It's pretty amazing to be part of the chain of music. I was raised by musicians. Musicians have taught me, inspired me, shared their passions and understandings with me and now I have the opportunity to pass those things on to others and continue that tradition of expression, shared experience and reflection.
What advice can you offer other aspiring songwriter and singers—or even other writers—as they start their artistic journey?
Write write write write! Sing sing sing sing! Perform perform perform perform. Every chance you get! Each time you do, you get better. I think everybody is creative. It's just about putting in the time and the work to practice it until you can create automatically and spontaneously and it will become natural. I also teach music, vocals and song-writing. Especially with song-writing, I find that teaching is a lot about creating a space for the student to try. So my advice is to not be too hard on yourself. So many people will start to play/sing/write and then stop themselves with criticism before they even get going. You can only improve by doing things again and again and again and if you are too critical to let yourself get started you won't improve. So allow yourself to make mistakes, to be imperfect. if this is what you want/have to do, you need to be dedicated, focused and persevere. Good luck!
In June, you’re coming to New Orleans for the American Humanists Conference—are you ready for Bourbon Street?
Yes! I'm ready. I think… Everyone has been telling me it's quite a wild place. I'm looking forward to getting to see New Orleans and the rest of the states. I'll be staying on after the AHA Conference and travelling around the US. I'm excited to explore new places and meet new people.
Any collaborations with other artists in the works?
I have quite a few projects that I'm currently working on. Other than my solo stuff, I am recording an album with my father of some jazz and folk covers that we do together; he sings and plays violin. One of my favourite things is playing music with my father and we'd like to have a copy of what we do together. I'm also working on an EP with my partner Rob: it's kinda upbeat indie finger-picking guitar and vocals music. We've called that project "Snow Pear" and we are recording it ourselves at home which has been a learning experience. I have written half an album with one of the most talented writers and musicians I have ever met—Adam Levy; it's really varied: jazz, folk, country, pop, blues songs. I'm also writing a song with atheist rapper, The Religious Snitch. Hopefully at least some of these will be ready in the next few months.
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So you think that you | Can tell us how to live our lives | Never questioning the source from which your moral code derives | You think that suffering is part of some great plan that’s been devised | I wonder, I wonder | When we’ll be rid of your lies