Flannel Graph is a quirky indie/folk duo hailing from the tiny town of Kalispell, Montana. In some ways, singer Shayla Smith and guitarist Leon Gregory take a whimsical and lighthearted approach to songwriting. Shayla’s dynamic voice is well suited for the duo’s light acoustic style.
But Flannel Graph’s music is far from shallow. Smith’s lyrics are raw and honest, offering her take on the joys and trials of human experience. Many of their songs offer outside-the-box interpretations of classic stories. Whether you want to cheer yourself up or take some time to ponder the meaning of life and relationships, Flannel Graph is worth a listen.
Emily Cardé: How did you guys get started writing music?
Shayla Smith: I dabbled a bit with writing songs here and there in middle school (all those pre-pubescent hormones needed some kind of outlet), and during high school I got more into it. (More hormones?) I feel like high school gave me plenty of source material, which was really just the typical stuff that you encounter growing up: friends falling into drinking/drugs, losing loved ones, trying to make sense of my beliefs—things like that. I often wasn’t satisfied with my responses to a lot of those things, and writing songs was my way of creating closure or getting a better grasp of something.
Emily: How would you describe your musical style?
Shayla: Acoustic. Singer/Songwriter. Even when we have synths and electronic-type sounds involved in the mix, we still can never fully get away from the more earthy, real basic stuff, like just a grand piano and acoustic guitar. Those sounds are actually very versatile depending on how you use them. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of working with simple tools! I would also say that there’s some blues involved in it too.
Emily: Who or what are your biggest inspirations?
Shayla: Sufjan Stevens was one of the first artists that I listened to as a youngling. He left an impression on me by his fearlessness with instrumentation and subject matter. He seems to write with his own preferences in mind, instead of catering to an audience. That really is the antithesis to pop music, which is refreshing. We also are inspired by quite a few independent artists: The Oh Hellos, Noah Gundersen, Anais Mitchell, and other artists like Ben Howard, Grimes, Fink, Death Cab for Cutie, Bjork—a mixture of genres for sure.
Emily: What does the creative process look like for you guys?
Shayla: We’ve always worked as follows: I’ll hide away in my house with Logic and Ableton (my music production programs) and my guitar. Scheduling this time is very important. I think lots of creative people struggle with the dichotomy between the spontaneity of inspiration and being a responsible adult! Scheduling time is the way to straddle both of those worlds. When I start writing, I’ll play around with things that have been sitting in the “waiting room” of my mind—things that have come up in the past week or so, that have left some kind of impression on me. I scribble on a lot of paper. I also try to break out of my already-established musical habits, so I’ll do things like changing the tuning on the guitar. Then I’ll show it to Leon, who acts as a fresh pair of ears. I trust him to tell me if he genuinely doesn’t like it or if it doesn’t make any sense to him. Together we’ll toss around how we want it to be played/recorded. He’s good at elevating a chord or a drum pattern into something more distinguished, since he has a much more academic approach to music than mine, which is more instinctual.
Emily: Do you have any songs that were influenced by specific events or experiences?
Shayla: “Broken Boy” is written to one of my dear friends that got into a lot of tough stuff: homelessness, drug addiction, prison. When I ran into him on the street years later, there was such a shame in his eyes. He had gone through hell, and I just hurt for him. Face-to-face, my words to him felt insufficient, and his were brief. So I went home and wrote out what I wished I had said to him on the banjo. That song comforts me because, in so many ways, we all can find ourselves needing to be reminded of our inherent worth—a worth untouchable by the things we’ve done or the things that others have done to us.
Emily: Several of your songs tell stories. “Oh Joe” is a particular favorite and seems to be based on the biblical story of Joseph. What went into writing that specific song, and how you approach narrative song writing in general?
Shayla: Yep, “Oh Joe” is about Joseph. In that EP, I wanted to focus on characters from the Bible, namely, the prodigal son in “Apple Pie” and Joseph in “Oh Joe.” Since I heard their stories ad nauseum in Sunday school growing up, I wanted to stay away from using the familiar ways to describe their lives.
I approached Joseph specifically because I wanted to try on his depth of faith. The song started on the piano, from just a picture in my mind of someone running through the woods, disowned by his brothers. What a way to start things off! And I just followed his heart as best as I could from there. Narrative songwriting is so enjoyable for me because you get to try on different worldviews like you would switch out sunglasses, but even afterwards you can take what you’ve learned from them along with you.
Emily: Why did you choose the name “Ribs of Adam” for the album you released in 2014? Does it connect with any themes in specific songs?
Shayla: The album is focused on the ups and downs of love. There’s a line in the second verse of “Here and Now” that says, “I am from the dark, sweet land, and from the ribs of Adam, and nothing in my temperament makes me different from him.” That line was one of my favorite lines from the album, because it’s reiterates what the songs are also saying: that all relationships really follow the same cycle of passion, conflict, forgiveness, and revival, because we are all made from the same origin, the same single rib. In the story of Adam and Eve, they became the first couple after his rib was extracted and God formed Eve out of it (also a small example that pain and the very best things for us can come hand in hand). And I’m kidding myself if I think that I don’t have the same propensity for mistakes and struggles as my ancestors had.
Emily: Which song has been your favorite song to write or perform?
Shayla: I think I would say “The Life I Was Missing.” That one was really sublime to write. I wrote it in a little flurry in the living room with my electric guitar, and I felt like it came from an honest place: that the one I love has radically beautified my life merely because he is in it. I feel like it tied up the whole EP with a heart of gratefulness and affection—something that the other songs only touched on here and there, but something that’s quite important to give a whole song to. It was our way of finding an ultimate resolution in the EP: that even though love may cost us a lot, when we take a step back and look at what we actually have, it gives us back far more.
Emily: What is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you while on tour?
Shayla: This past January we did a couple of gigs that were called “slumber parties”: people were encouraged to wear their pajamas and bring blankets and pillows. The whole venue was decorated so exquisitely! We didn’t want to miss out on the festivities, so we wore some animal-themed onesie pajamas. I was a tiger and Leon was a panda. Was honestly quite strange to wear so much fleece on a stage, and to be seen in your pajamas by lots of strangers. But hey, getting dressed for that gig was a breeze!
Emily: What do you want your audience to feel, understand, or take away from your music?
Shayla: I want people to feel like they don’t have to pretend that everything is okay when it isn’t. I want to remind them—or help them see for the first time—how much they’re worth, even when they make mistakes or when life seems unfair. Hopefully our music will encourage people to slow down and contemplate, to laugh, to exercise a possibly long-forgotten imagination, and to hope.
Emily: Do you have any new music coming out soon?
Shayla: We do! We are currently writing and planning out an EP to be released this year. It’s going to be something that we’ve never really touched on before! We are really elated about seeing how it will turn out.
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