If the music of singer-songwriter Shayla McDaniel can be distilled down to a single theme, it’s mindfulness.
The 2010 graduate of Bearden High School, who releases her debut EP on Friday at Modern Studio in Knoxville, is quiet and thoughtful, at least until she picks up a guitar. She considers every question in a recent interview with The Daily Times carefully, pausing to collect her thoughts before answering. She’s learned well, over the years, that words can have an impact, and being mindful of their delivery — especially through music — allows her, as an artist, to make a difference, she said.
“I want people to enjoy music but look at their own lives — their words and actions,” she said. “We can be so quick to fly off the handle, but something as small as a smile or a few words can really brighten someone’s day.”
The multi-instrumentalist first got into music through an orchestra program in middle school; she started out on the violin before moving on to guitar and bass. She and her brother shared a guitar purchased at Toys R Us while they were in middle school, teaching themselves with the aid of the accompanying DVD and tabs and notes they discovered online. In high school, she began playing bass in her church, a regular gig that helped her develop as a musician, she said.
“I messed around and got better, and playing with the choir was really helpful in teaching me to play well with others and being ready for whatever,” she said. “I started messing with the keys a little bit in high school, too, but by the time I graduated and went to college, my main instrument was guitar.”
For most of her childhood, gospel was a mainstay at home, but in the sixth or seventh grade, she said, she discovered Switchfoot. A modern rock band with a spiritual bent, the songs inspired her rock side, she said, and bandleader Jon Foreman’s lyrics encouraged her to begin writing her own a couple of years later.
“Some of those songs on that album were some of the first riffs I learned, and going through and listening to it, it was really inspiring,” she said. “At the time when I was in middle school, I didn’t grasp most of it, but I knew it was really good.”
Those early songs, she laughs, don’t really count toward her catalog; it wasn’t until college that she began to discover new, unheralded artists via the website Noisetrade, and the depth and weight of their lyrics made her reexamine her own, she said. Artists like Propaganda and Beautiful Eulogy, hip-hop musicians on the Humble Beast label, opened her eyes and ears to new ways of documenting her observations, she said.
“Most of the time, I was writing about observations in my life or the lives of others,” she said. “Being confused, going through college as you struggle to get yourself on the right track for after college; finding a job, finding a path, making good decisions. And I’ve definitely written songs about family and loving them and other people in my life.”
Friday, she’ll celebrate the release of her “26 Letters” EP, a collection of intricate, jazz-inflected folk pop that’s reminiscent of the music of singer-songwriter Brett Dennen. Her voice ranges from languid and tranquil to pleading and urgent, sometimes within the span of a single song as she navigates the myriad of emotions found in the hungry heart of a woman on a spiritual and emotional journey through life.
She’s found encouragement by the East Tennessee-based website Knoxville Music Warehouse; she’s played a number of open mic nights around town and on WUTK-FM 90.3 “The Rock,” but it wasn’t until she was invited to perform at a Cre865 Showcase event — a gathering of musicians, journalists, managers and movers in the local music scene — that everything began to snowball. Where the journey takes her is uncertain, but one thing she is certain about, she said, is that she plans to continue working toward this thing that has captured her heart and her passion.
“I once heard a really good quote — ‘waiting for inspiration is like waiting for an airplane at a train station,’” she said. “Basically, you need to show up with your paper, your notebook, your tape recorder, whatever. Inspiration does come, but if I don’t put in the work, nothing is really going to come of it. I always like to keep an eye out or an ear out for things I really like.”