Speaking or singing, Shannon Kingsbury has an enchanting and towering voice. Her music has been described as beautiful and ethereal, but underneath those qualities is an earthiness and emotion that give her songs their power.
In a backyard conversation this week, the musician spoke of the intertwined roots of myth and fairy tale that nurtured the new songs on her forthcoming Bones & Secrets, an album that, while beautiful and ethereal, is not without the gripping undercurrents of a scary bedtime story.
The album will be released on Sunday, May 7 at the Harcourt United Church, the concert beginning at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance at Janus Books, or $25 at the door.
A poetic lyricist, classically trained vocalist, and harpist, Kingsbury assembled a community of well-known Guelph musicians to craft the recording of songs that have been in process for a few years. Jeff Bird, Ben Grossman and Kingsbury produced Bones & Secrets.
In other lifetimes, she has been a karaoke DJ in Slave Lake, and once sung the national anthem before a boxing match in that northern Alberta community, to uproarious applause. She worked on a cruise ship, and performed dinner theatre in Niagara Falls.
Kingsbury began playing the harp, a difficult instrument to master, about 15 years ago, and has become something of a harp collector. She has a number of the elegant instruments upstairs and down in her Guelph home.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, schooled in the natural world by a biologist turned minister father, in a home alive with mythology, Jungian philosophy and a love of learning, Kingsbury explores both mythological archetypes and the natural world in her songs.
Being a mother contributed much to the thematic content of her latest work.
“Being a parent of a young child limits your ability to read and take in the literature and art that you want, so a lot of what I’ve been reading in the last 10 years has been children’s literature – fairy tales, folk tales, classics like Alice in Wonderland,” she said. Her daughter, Harmony, is 12.
“A lot of those tales were permeating our lives and our consciousness.”
Teaching a child about the world they live in, she said, is often done through stories in which things like adversity, innocence, evil and joy are personified. The stories she told and read to her daughter began to inhabit Kingsbury’s inner world, and even surfaced in her dreams.
Another major inspiration for Kingbury’s new songs was the book Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Published in 1992, the book weaved folklore, fairy tales and dream symbols into a Jungian analysis of the female psychic – the part-wolf aspect that gives women their fierceness, grace, and guts.
“I loved this wild woman archetype,” Kingsbury said. “As I was growing into hopefully a wiser person, those stories were like food for me. And the strange thing is, I would read these stories and then I would dream about some of those characters. That was incredibly moving.”
Estes’ story of “Skeleton Woman” had a deep impact on her, and became the basis for her song Ribcage. One of those songs that gets under the skin, it tells the tale of a fisherman who hooks a skeleton woman at the bottom of the sea and makes of her his “new ghastly wife.”
The song expresses a longing to “break free from the cage of these ribs” – a longing to achieve transformation, rebirth and love.
Another song, Persephone Suite, was inspired by the gift of a flower. A grower of seedlings gave Kingsbury’s daughter a plant with a yellow blossom. The girl was instructed to plant the “moon flower” and then watch it carefully as night fell and the moon rose.
“Literally before our eyes it began to tremble, the green slit and we could see this yellow peeking out,” Kingsbury said. “It was like watching time-lapse photography. It shook and shook, and opened, and opened, and opened. And it was the most beautiful thing.”
That flower brought to mind a story of the gods. Zeus brokered a deal with Hades, giving the lord of the underworld his daughter Persephone as a bride, unbeknownst to Demeter, the mother, who became crazed and blighted the harvest. A further deal was struck that allowed Persephone, the goddess of spring growth, to surface for six months of the year, before disappearing once more into the underworld.
“I was thinking about her and thinking, if I could make this story new again, how would she tell the story, who would she be?” Kingsbury said. “Would she be a hapless victim or a queen?”
For the song-writer, Persephone became the personification of the kind of adversity that spurs us toward wisdom, and helps us find out true role in life.
“The symbols from our dreams can give us our light, our vitality, our life,” she said. “I think my music is full of that.”
As a “sensitive being in the world,” the artist said it can be difficult to express the depths of our emotions in our daily lives. Music provides an outlet for airing them and understand them.
“Often when I’m writing I don’t have a clear idea of what it will be,” she said. “For me, it’s a way to see something, or just to be in the presence of something.”
There is a complexity to life that is not easy to express, she suggested.
“Light and dark coexist, and writing music can be a way for those seemingly contradictory things to be together and almost compliment each other,” she said.
She is grateful for the opportunity to have worked with extraordinary musicians on the album. The making of it, she said, involved a great deal of play.
“The songs were seeds,” she said. “I wrote the melodies and the words, but it was the players who helped bring them to life. It starts with one person, but it’s a community who makes an album, a band, or a production.”
Performing, she said, is where she feels at her very best.
“I love performing,” she said. “I feel that when I get to sing, it’s like putting on a super hero cape. I feel really alive.”
The self-described introvert, who was an “insanely shy” child, has always come to life on a stage.