Shiloh Plays The Game Old School

Monday, 31 August 2009

At this stage of the game, the group of people under the age of eighteen making music professionally (it gets called 'kid rock,' 'underage rock' and a variety of other such titles that all seem passively condescending) has been polarized into two clearly delineated groups: there are the ones – like Tiny Masters Of Today and Please Quiet Ourselves – with more underground credibility (read: they do not regularly appear on TV) and those – like The Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus – that work within the major label system of music production. There's no point in questioning the validity of the way either camp does business – they've clearly worked for those that utilize them and worked very well to establish the desired ends of those musicians – but because the methodologies employed are so different and so mutually exclusive, it has left the middle ground in between wide open for use that is equally fertile, it's simply a matter that no one has thought to try. Well, not no one exactly. As Shiloh's string of successes over the last few months illustrates, following the middle ground – where not necessarily making pop stardom a career goal and thus proving that making music can still be a fun career – can be just as fulfilling as that of the two extremes. “It's my job, but it doesn't feel like a job to me,” explains the singer quietly before her recent show in Hamilton. “I mean, it's what I love so it's not a chore or anything, but it's not like I set out in the beginning as having the goal of a career in music. I've just always written songs for myself and, when I was younger I used to do singing competitions for fun. When I was a kid, eventually those competitions became a little more serious and they really became an effort to get out there. My mom used to encourage me – she still does. She'd say stuff like, 'You're really good!' And my response would be 'Well, thanks – I don't really believe it, but thanks!' and I'd just keep doing those competitions and writing because I just always have; I'd just take whatever I was feeling that day and write it all down and try to figure out how to put it all together and rework the ideas until it was a song I was happy with. A bunch of them were already finished and I was playing them before I got signed.”

…And so a genuine and true pop star – not a 'pop star' in the grotesquely over- and mis-used sense term that often and rightly gets deemed 'pop-tart' – was born. Unlike her peers, Shiloh got started for her own amusement and, like so many other pop acts from decades ago, got discovered for her talent rather than being force-fed down the collective throat of audiences. That she has been received as well as she has so far (Shiloh's debut, Picture Imperfect, was released on August 18 and is currently comfortably in the number 9 spot on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart as well as sitting at #1 on the iTunes Pop Album Chart – while simultaneously rocketing its way up the iTunes Top Overall Album Chart – temporarily resting at number 5) is refreshing for a cynical critic like me, but also establishes a new paradigm for young singers; she may only be 16 years old, but no one is attempting to use those silly 'kid' genre names – it's just rock.

In listening to Picture Imperfect, it's easy to understand why no one's calling her a kid or otherwise belittling the album's merits. After the first breakout single, “Operator,” gets adrenaline pumping with some vintage punk (think Blink 182 – not Sex Pistols) tones, the singer breaks into some startlingly mature and solid reggae (“Alright”) and reflection that both looks inward as well as out at the world around her (“You're Not Alone”) with prescient remarks and personal insight that many singers twice Shiloh's age have yet to realize in both cases. With that foundation set, Shiloh proceeds to further refine the vivid self-portrait she's presenting to listeners as she dismisses a lousy boyfriend (“Goodbye, You Suck”) before outlining the shape of her own mental landscape through songs including “Better,” “Strong Enough To Cry” and “It's Not Me.” In each case, the songs lead with an incisive lyrical punch (“Love is all you ever give/but hate is just the life you live”, “It's so hard to feel alone with no one there to hold” and “I'd rather speak my mind than choke on the words that you want me to say” respectively) that everyone listening will be able to feel, but the soul with which she delivers them is the secret weapon with which Shiloh really buckles knees. Somehow, the singer manages to straddle that seldom seen line that separates 'punk kiss-off' from soul singer sweetness that, no matter which side the song falls on (she does both vocal gears with more confidence than most singers do on their fourth and fifth albums here on her debut), still winds up working for the whole audience rather than dividing the album in such a way that some like one half while others swear by the rest. As “Got To You” fades and right before listeners figure they can peg Shiloh as an overachieving songstress, she scales back the sincerity for “Missing Existence” and “Raise A Little Hell Now” for some old fashioned and fluffy rock n' roll laughs (if lines like “My boyfriend stole my mascara, and the dog ran away with the microphone/I woke up today on the ceiling, cause this gravity left me alone.” don't make you crack even a wry smile, you don't have a pulse) just because it seems like the right thing to do. The end result is an album that listeners could assume Bif Naked might have made several years ago but, peel back the layers and flip through them and it becomes apparent that Bif is still working toward this kind of self-assured and comfortable-with-herself stance, while Shiloh is just starting at this point. Such a start simultaneously seems to make hope for pop music possible and excitement build toward what Shiloh will do next as, even this first time, she's made a record for fellow musicians to envy.

Even with that said though, and with Picture Imperfect scaling the charts as well as audiences swelling with each show she does on her current SCENE tour, that doesn't mean Shiloh has elected to start doing things any differently, in fact she's doing exactly what she's always done; looking forward and, of course, still writing. “I'm still writing pretty constantly and I'm hoping that I'll have enough to be ready to do another album when the time is right to go back into the studio,” says the singer, visibly brightening at the prospect. “I'm a little upset because I was doing little demos and storing ideas on my laptop, but I broke it not too long ago. I dropped it and so only half the screen is working right now. That hasn't really slowed the writing down though, it just means that I don't have Garageband at the moment. It just means I'm writing on everything again [laughing] I've done that before when there's nothing around and I have to get something down. I've written on the back of my phone and scribbled all over everything or found something that I can type an idea into.

“As far as the writing goes and how it comes out, it depends on the day; sometimes I'll end up coming up with the tune first and then I'll have to find some lyrics for it because I really like it,” continues the singer, further explaining her writing process. “Sometimes too, I'll leave it as instrumental until I'm able to write lyrics that I think compliment the music and that music compliments the lyrics. It may take a while – maybe five years down the road – but I'll find the lyrics to it. By the same token, sometimes the songs pretty much come out ready to go – lyrics and music – and they're demoed and just waiting for when we go into the studio to record them.”



Picture Imperfect
is currently available as a Canadian import. Buy it here on Amazon .

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