This is Part One of a six-part series on South African Vocalists
Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6
On stage, South African singer Shannon Hope is a feline presence, her lithe body accentuated by a tight, black satin dress, spiked onyx hair, glossed lips and red stilettos. She moves languidly behind her instrument of choice, an electric piano. But when she starts to sing, it’s apparent that she’s no purring pussycat.
? Hope’s voice is powerful but pure, the perfect accompaniment to her personal songs that exude emotional turmoil but also, ultimately, the attainment of inner peace.
The singer songwriter has worked with leading music producers and is part of a new wave of female vocal talent emerging from South Africa.
The country’s critics are praising her second album, Fight a New Day, as a landmark recording in the adult contemporary pop category. It’s filled with tunes that veer from lush, sweeping melodies brushed with electric and acoustic guitar, cello and percussion to stark piano ballads.
Hope’s songs are tinged with the bitterness, anger and regret that often taint relationships, but they mostly soar above these emotions to reach a place of personal triumph.
Serve the music
Hope writes her songs using her favorite piano and is endorsed by the famous Japanese maker of the instruments, Kawai. “I’ve been playing the piano since I was six years old – 26 years, goodness gracious! For my entire life I’ve been sitting behind a piano. It’s who I am,” she told VOA.
?The vocalist, who has performed at one of the world’s top concert venues, The Metro in Chicago, lives by the mantra, “Serve the music.”
She decided on this while working with premier American music producer Bjorn Thorsrud, who’s produced Hollywood film scores and albums for famous rock and pop artists, including Smashing Pumpkins, Marianne Faithfull and Whitesnake.
“That process taught me a lot about serving the song as opposed to serving my story. Bjorn taught me a lot about how to write lyrics, how to focus not on the personal story I’m trying to tell but on the story that serves the person who’s listening to it,” said Hope.
Her soul-baring lyrics expose her. “My nakedness as an artist has become natural, but in the beginning it was very difficult. I think it took a little while for me to get used to the idea of sharing my story in such a personal way and dealing with the response to that. Now it doesn’t faze me at all, because it’s who I am. I don’t get nervous before shows. I have grown into who I want to be as an artist,” Hope said.
While her music is enjoyable, it’s not easy listening; its intensity demands a lot of the listener – in terms of the complexity and the lyrical and vocal heights she reaches.
“I love the idea that my music moves people,” she said. “The idea that I can write music that affects people very deeply is just crazy. I love what I do, for that reason.”
Living at maximum capacity
Hope’s new album is named after one of its key tracks, “Fight a New Day.” She explained, “[That song] is about getting up every day despite what the day might hold and trying to be 100 percent, authentically you…and that’s what the [whole] album is about.”
With lyrics like, “I’ve missed my heart the most / I’ve come out fighting / So I’m getting up again / To fight a new day / There’s just one thing / That I regret / The time I wasted on you / I’ve come out fighting.” Hope’s latest work is about moving on from a failed relationship and once again looking forward to life. But it’s much deeper than this, and is also a reflection of the human spirit’s ability to endure pain.
“Believe” is the first single from the album. She wrote it three years ago, a week after she quit her “day job” at the corporation where she’d worked for more than a decade.
“When I finally made the decision to give music the 100 percent chance that it deserved, and the time and courage that I think it deserves, that was a very powerful moment and a very powerful journey that followed,” Hope said.
Believe” is a dynamic and forceful shout-out to people to have the passion and bravery to follow their dreams, as the singer herself has done in deciding to be a professional musician.
She added, “I get to do this once, this life thing. So I want to make sure that I’m living it at maximum capacity and make sure that I’m having fun and doing what I really, really want to do, instead of wasting away at a desk, hating nine hours of my day.”
“Believe” is beautifully bombastic, and almost orchestral, with a rousing chorus that’s characteristic of most tracks on Fight a New Day.
However, Hope’s songs are not all bright and bouncy odes to optimism. Some are darkened by expressions of self-doubt, showing their creator hasn’t always had faith in herself.
A few years ago, exhausted by the “constant fight” to establish herself, she took a hiatus from music.
“Actually, I let myself give up,” she acknowledged. “I let myself believe that music didn’t really matter and that life would go on without it and that life would be easier just paying the bills by working a day job that I hated.”
Hope said the break from music was important, because it allowed her to realize who she was and wanted to be. “I think before I was chasing a dream that I didn’t really understand,” she said. “Now I’m not able to buy a block of cheese sometimes but I am living my dream and I am having a whole lot of fun.”
Hope has the ability to slow a tune down without turning it into a dirge. “The Liar” is an example.
“That is a song about the games that people play with each other, because they play with each other all the time. I think people think that they can get away with a lot more than they can,” she said.
The lyrics of “The Liar” offer evidence that someone messed with Hope -- but didn’t escape unscathed. She opens the song with the words, “You’re not fooling anyone / You think your fake smiles / Can hide / What you’ve done / But you’re not fooling anyone / I’ve caught you out, my friend,” as an acoustic guitar whispers and her piano chimes in the background.
“It’s probably one of my more angry songs on the album, actually, in a very subtle way,” she said. “But I don’t get very angry very often. I get sad and brokenhearted more than angry.”
Cheeky and happy
Arguably the strongest track on Fight a New Day is “Why I Bother,” which is enhanced by piano and guitars pounding out staccato notes as Hope sighs, “Oh / Why do I bother / There’s nothing new…Never knew how to communicate with you / There’s nothing there / No spark or flame….”
She said, “I’m quite proud of that song. I love putting staccato strings in the background; it’s one of my favorite things to do, and I finally wrote a song that has that!”
The lyrics of “Why I Bother” seem to convey defeat and surrender, but the songwriter insisted that the song’s “cheeky” rather than bitter. “It’s a slap-in-your-face kind of song. It’s kind of a ‘look at me now; I don’t actually need you’ kind of song,” said Hope.
“Happy Song” elevates the vocalist’s playfulness to new heights. It’s a song that swells with accordion and military-like drums and wouldn’t be out of place in a beer garden in Munich at the height of the Oktoberfest.
It was written in response to someone close to Hope. “He’s listened to a lot of the music that I’ve written for the last 20 years. And he kept saying to me, ‘Please write a happy song, Shannon; please write a happy song.’ So I did; I wrote this song called “Happy Song,” which is the most cynical song I could possibly think of writing!”
Fight a New Day concludes with a ballad, “On Second Thought.” “It was kind of intentional to end the album with a song that says, ‘I’m fine,’” said Hope. “On Second Thought” is about perspective and the idea that over time you realize that you weren’t as broken as you thought…or you change your mind; you grow up. They say that time heals. I think that time heals because it gives you perspective.”
And that’s exactly what she has, as she looks forward to a future that’s uncertain, but in which she says she will refuse to forsake her dreams and desires for her music.
“What I really want to do next is an acoustic album, because my music is a very different experience when you experience it just with piano and vocals, and I really want to capture that,” said Hope.