Daryl Shawn is an unlikely guitarist. He was born in the Bronx but raised in a Mennonite home in Amish country where most rock music wasn’t permitted. But his parents gave him a guitar for his 16th birthday, and since then he’s made the instrument his own, playing “gut-string power pop” on his nylon-string guitar in hundreds of clubs across the U.S.
Shawn’s latest album, In Place, is a testament to years of living on the road. “It’s very much a thematic record,” Shawn said. “It was written during the period of time when I went on the road for a couple of years. I didn’t really have an address. I played a lot of shows. I crashed with family members and friends and just sort of stayed on the road. Then I settled in New York. The songs on In Place were all written during this time, and they all tie into the theme of finding a place in the world. A physical place.”
The album is primarily original compositions, although Shawn also reached into history to play his own versions of a few traditional tunes, all of which relate to the album’s theme. “There’s a song called ‘500 Miles,’ which I first heard from Peter, Paul & Mary, who I love. ‘500 Miles’ deals with leaving. There’s a version of ‘Shenandoah,’ which is really a song of longing for a place. And there’s ‘Nkosi Sikelele Africa,’ which is the unofficial anthem of South Africa. Both my mother and my step-mother spent a lot of time in Africa, and I’ve visited. The continent means a lot to me, and I chose that particular song as a tribute to that place, as well as to my mother and step-mother.”
While Shawn’s music may involve everything from metal to flamenco to classical to rock, he says there’s a pop element that ties it all together. “I like the pop song framework. There’s repetition. The songs may be two minutes long or 10 minutes long, but they hang together. They develop and resolve. So that’s why I call it pop. I call it power pop because I really am trying to rock. When I’m up there playing the guitar, I’m imagining Black Flag or Husker Du on stage with me. I’m trying to generate a big sound and real rockin’ feeling. Even though I am playing ‘classical guitar.'”
He’s based in Brooklyn these days, but Shawn still spends a lot of time on the road. “I love to perform and I love to tour, so I play a lot. I’ve played close to 300 gigs as a solo musician over the past five years in 200 or 220 different venues. A typical year for me will involve four different tours of about two weeks each. In addition to that I play a lot of local shows and I do short weekend jaunts to places in the New York area.”
Shawn says his music is all about connecting with his audience, and a successful show is one where he feels like he communicated something, even if it’s to just one person.
“The best is when someone will tell me afterwards that they liked the show, they liked a song, or they’re curious about how I did this or that. Sometimes it’s just a feeling when I’m on stage. When I play a show, I want to make it energetic. I want to make it involving. And I want to make it entertaining. I want to play music that people want to pay attention to and be part of.”
Shawn grew up in a home full of music, but much of that music had no guitar – or instruments of any kind.
“I was born in New York City and spent my earliest childhood years in the Bronx,” Shawn said. “Then I moved to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is the heart of Amish country. I was raised in the Mennonite church. Instruments were not allowed in the church, so all the music was provided by fantastic four-part harmony singing. And we had records at home with that kind of thing.”
Not all the music in Shawn’s childhood home was religious. “The Beatles were permitted in my house. Most rock music was not, but the Beatles were. So I listened to a ton of Beatles records growing up. Every Beatles record I could get my hands on.”
Not knowing how it would change his life, Shawn’s parents gave him a steel-string guitar for his 16th birthday. He soon gravitated to electric. “For a long time the electric guitar was my main instrument. I had the whole deal: big rack setup, Marshall, Strat. For many years I played in bands, cranking up the electric. But I always had a nylon string sitting around. The steel string never really felt like my instrument. I had that first guitar that I learned on, the one my parents gave me, but after that it just never felt right.”
Shawn spent years playing in rock bands, making music he’s still proud of to this day. During this same time, he used his nylon-string guitar to study flamenco and classical playing. In 2004, Shawn decided to shake up his life and move to Mexico. That move helped him settle on the nylon-string guitar as his main instrument.
“I decided to take along only one guitar. And it seemed right that it should be an acoustic guitar. It seemed to fit with moving to rural Mexico, to the state of Oaxaca. I had no plans to form a band. I didn’t really know what my plans were, but I felt done with the rock scene at that point. So I just had that acoustic guitar and spent all my time playing that. And some of my flamenco and classical training started to come out as I started to write new songs, both instrumental and vocal. I got really excited about the possibilities of playing the acoustic.”
Shawn said one thing he likes about playing the nylon-string guitar is that he “can mix genres a lot more easily with an acoustic than with an electric, especially in an electric band. With an acoustic I feel like I can go from death metal to a jazz ballad, one right after the other, and it’s fine. It all fits on the instrument and no one is too shocked by the dynamic range.”
Right now, Shawn is working on his both vocal songs and instrumentals, which he plans to release as a series of singles in the coming months. Visit http://darylshawn.com for more information and to listen to Shawn’s music.