Peeling Back the Layers of Shannon and the Clams’ Onion

On having a good time while we cry, cry, cry.

Shannon and the Clams’ “Diary” is my favorite song to blast as loud as possible. It’s a fast and furious 35-second diatribe against the ultimate violation of privacy that most of us have either fallen prey to or committed (and probably regretted) at some point in the torture-game of love. I’ve been screaming “You read it! You read it!” ever since I first laid eyes and ears on the Clams at a Brooklyn show during their first tour back in late 2008. Guitarist-singer Cody Blanchard wiggled around half-naked in caveman garb and a furry teddy bear hat, while bassist Shannon Shaw crooned her heart out, her vocal stylings rivaling the ’60s girl groups, or Dion getting his teeth kicked out.

For years, I clung to the Shannon and the Clams’ demo CD I burned off of a friend, picked up an album here and there, and bopped around at their magical live shows when my band opened for them on a few occasions. The Clams deliver haunted-tiki-bar tunes and dress impeccably in vaudevillian vintage attire, including fabulous show aprons that wink and nod at 1950s housewife imagery. Shannon and Cody, the immensely talented core of the group, have always come across as perfectly polite and professional, but, given the themes of their music, I’ve often wondered what primordial fears and desires lurk deep inside their sideshow hearts.

Shannon and the Clams’ latest album, Onion, encourages us to dig deeper, peel back the layers of personal struggle, and have a good time while we cry, cry, cry. Reminiscent of the Collins Kids, both Shannon and Cody’s voices mingle and soar, and I often can’t tell their beautiful articulations apart. No matter—this is a gorgeously sincere and infectious body of work that I can’t put down. Most of the songs, like the deceptively kitschy title track, “Onion,” expose the protagonists pushing through the hard work of looking inward and tracing life experiences back to where personalities develop—and problems begin.

I called Shannon and Cody up to do a little investigation about how that went for them in reality. Shannon, the daughter of a fire chief father and a mother who worked nearly half of her life as a nurse at Napa State (the mental institution which famously hosted a 1978 Cramps show), grew up way out in the country. She hung out at creeks and train tracks with her brothers, looking for kicks while avoiding jocks and police with nothing better to do than harass outcasts. Shannon was raised in the Mormon church, and she started challenging authority when her mother was shunned for divorcing her father. The church tried to manipulate the kids, telling them to trick their parents into getting back together. Shannon and her siblings refused.

In high school, Shannon got a bass guitar as a gift from a boyfriend—the glittery Danelectro she still plays today. She wasn’t able to envision herself as a “real” musician at the time, so Shannon didn’t actually start playing her bass until about 10 years later, in response to a particularly gnarly break up that left her alone in the East Bay and desperate for an outlet.

Shannon’s partner in crime, Cody, hails from a damp Portland suburb of “’70s Hobbit homes,” as he calls them, within a “mossy mushroom forest.” His mother, like Shannon’s, was also a nurse. Cody’s parents sent him and his sister down the street to a wrath-of-God style Bible study group that induced guilt-ridden anxiety in both of them. Cody’s father was a stressed-out knife maker who often took his anger out on the kids. Cody spent his youth avoiding his dad, running around in the woods with cigarette smokers and booze stealers, and busing into Portland to hang out at festivals and record stores.

The pair met at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, where Cody focused on creative writing while Shannon studied painting, drawing, and illustration. Their shared love for symbolism, magical realism, and each other’s art projects drew the kindred spirits together, briefly as lovers, but primarily as long-lasting musical collaborators. The effects of their creative education weave seamlessly in and out of Shannon and the Clams’ psychedelic sounds and imagery.

To my surprise, Onion was produced in Nashville by Dan Auerbach of the stoner-jock band the Black Keys. Shannon, Cody, Nate Mahan, the Clams’ drummer and fancy dancer, and keyboardist-slashcrossword master Will Sprott employ their multiple talents to make beautiful use of the studio’s unique instruments and lush sound production. Auerbach shines as a producer and possesses a keen eye for talent, and he’s lovingly scooped up the Clams for his own record label, Easy Eye Sound.

The stepped-up production and new-fangled label may tempt one to declare Onion a major departure from Shannon and the Clams’ previous work, but I would argue that this album builds on the whimsical, layered, sparkly throwback sound the band has been developing all along. This time around, Cody wrote more regularly and deliberately, resulting in his singing lead on just over half of the album’s songs. Shannon, who tends to write cathartically in response to intense life events when they happen, notes that Cody’s contributions seem more real and less fantastical on Onion. The lyrical content is the palpable harbinger of growth here. Self-examination looms large in both Shannon’s and Cody’s real-life tales of tough times on Onion. With an almost Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus vibe, I see both songwriters working through breakups, but coming at it from opposite ends that are equally painful.

In the hit opening song and single, “The Boy,” Cody heartbreakingly laments the long-lasting effects of childhood verbal abuse:  

When I was a boy, I learned not to cry

My daddy would scream, I learned how to hide…

I learned how to dig, better each time

What do you do when there’s nothing inside?

Striving to access emotions and unlearn a lifetime of avoidance are recurring themes in Cody’s other lead songs, as well. With a little Buddy Holly influence here and Everly Brothers there, songs like “Backstreets,” “I Never Wanted Love,” “I Leave Again,” and “Tryin’” paint a picture of a charming escape artist trying, for once, to stay in the picture and hold himself accountable.

Shannon’s bittersweet ballads and upbeat bruisers “It’s Gonna Go Away,” “If You Could Know,” and “Love Strike” proclaim the joy of love and the pain of its loss. She embraces the bravery of daring to love and lose and reminds us that even our “negative” feelings can make for life-affirming, edifying moments. If only my own breakups could be rendered so beautifully and bewitchingly…

Onion closes solemnly with two tributes to Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire, which killed 36 people on December 2, 2016, devastating the victims’ families, friends and underground community. Cody’s “Strange Wind” confronts an outside world that watched their scene mourn while simultaneously attacking its methods of creative survival. Eerily reminiscent of “Crying in the Chapel,” which contends with the impossibility of finding peace of mind, Shannon’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes” is an outcry of support for the grieving extended community and vows never to forget those lost in the fire.

The album’s conclusion manifests the band’s protectiveness of an experimental underground struggling to survive amidst never-ending greed; a scene that persists, against all odds, in carving out spaces of beauty and resistance—spaces called “home” capable of incubating a band like Shannon and the Clams.

Allison Wolfe was raised in an all-female, single-parent household by a lesbian feminist mother who started the first women’s health clinic in Olympia, Washington. While attending the Evergreen State College, she co-founded a punk feminist fanzine Girl Germs, all-girl band Bratmobile, and third-wave feminist punk movement riot grrrl. Allison also initiated the non-profit feminist music festival Ladyfest. She lives in Los Angeles, where she got her masters in arts journalism from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Allison produces a monthly podcast for Tidal called “I’m in the Band,” sings in the band Ex Stains, and is working on an oral history of riot grrrl book and audio archive.