Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. So far I’ve talked with folks whose work I’ve admired from afar. But in this special installment, I’ll be interviewing the actor and vocalist Shannon Conley whom I first met a few years ago when I was doing a story for public radio on Lez Zeppelin, the amazingly talented Led Zeppelin “tribute” band that Cluck Klosterman has flat out called “the most powerful all-female band in rock history.” If you’re not already familiar with Lez Zeppelin, check out this video of the band performing “Communication Breakdown”:
Shannon has taken Lez Zeppelin’s music all around the world, receiving kudos from legions of fans including Jimmy Page himself. She has also has also earned praise for a variety of roles on screen and stage, and has recently made her Broadway debut as understudy for the role of Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I was really excited to talk with Shannon about her early influences, the challenges and rewards of musical theater, and what it’s like to perform across gender lines.
The Rumpus: I understand that your upbringing was fairly unconventional.
Shannon Conley: Both of my parents are from Virginia and they met when my dad was in the Navy, and stationed in Norfolk. My mom was going to school at the time, and after my dad got out they both became teachers. They were both creative and literary—not quite Beatniks or hippies—but I call them the “hip establishment” because they were young and both taught English during the hippie movement. They dug what the kids were doing. They didn’t get wrapped up in the drugs, and the alcohol, and the sex, but they latched onto meditation and spirituality. I joke that we were “Hindu Baptists” because our background was Protestant—that’s kind of the way of the South—but my parents had taken this brave journey together toward Eastern philosophy, going to ashrams and following gurus, and they were doing this in small town, rural Virginia.
Rumpus: How did they specifically find Hinduism?
Conley: My father was always of a spiritual nature, and after becoming disillusioned by the gap between the teachings of Christianity and the ways that the local church perpetuated racial discrimination, he started seeking out other spiritual truths and answers. He eventually got involved with the Light of Yoga Society in Cleveland. He would split every couple of years, go find himself, and then send for the family or he’d come back to us. We moved around a lot, so people thought we were a military family. It was really the spiritual quest my parents were on, and also their unusual relationship dynamic. They actually divorced when I was seven but remarried each other in a Hindu ceremony when I was nine. By this time they were both involved with Sidhha meditation, which was led by Swami Muktananda. When he left his body Gurumayi took over—that’s the guru from Eat, Pray, Love. By this point, we left Cleveland and were living in India. We lived in the same ashram that Elizabeth Gilbert went to in the book.
Rumpus: What brought you back to the States?
Conley: We were in India for a few months, but I got sick a lot. I had dysentery twice. My mother’s mother was from Blackstone, Virginia—population three thousand. Nanny was getting sick, so we decided to move to Blackstone to be with her, and that’s where we stayed from that point on. I tell people I’m from Blackstone.
Listen to Shannon sing a song about growing up between and across cultures (iPad/iPhone users click here):
Rumpus: I imagine moving to Blackstone must have been major culture shock for you.
Conley: It was pretty traumatizing. The high school had about four hundred people, and about one hundred and twenty five were in my graduating class. It was the high school for the entire county. They thought our family was “the cult family”—the kook people, the freaks. And we were also the new family because many of the other families had been there forever. It was an awful place for me to grow up, but later on we became Blackstone’s freaks, and they embraced us. It’s now the quaint little town where my parents live and I’m Facebook friends with most of the people from my school!
Rumpus: Did acting and singing allow you, in a way, to become another person—not a freak?
Rumpus: Which came first for you, acting or music?
Conley: Musical theater. I was singing in the form of acting. My musical tastes come from my mother and my brother. From my mother I got all the jazz and swing and blues. She loved like Nina Simone and Odettta. For my first audition I did “Summertime” and they were like, “Wow! You’re ten, and you know Janis Joplin!” And I was like “Who is Janis Joplin? I’m doing Nina Simone.” [Laughs] Years later I discovered Janis and of course that became a whole new chapter in my musical life. I was about twelve when my brother introduced me to rock ‘n’ roll by way of Led Zeppelin. I was like, “Who is this?” I had a rock band in high school but for me the acting always came first. When I came to New York it was to be an actress, to be on a stage, to play roles, to tell stories.
Listen to Shannon sing “Orange Colored Sky” (iPad/iPhone users click here):
Rumpus: How did you get to New York?
Conley: I did an internship at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia when I got out of high school, but they cast out of New York, and I met a bunch of New York actors there. It was an equity house. I learned every aspect of theater, every department—front of house and back of house. I ended up getting really into wardrobe and toured as wardrobe mistress with Barter after my internship ended. Then my New York actor friends invited me to come up and visit. I came and never left. That was it.
Rumpus: What were your early theater jobs like?
Conley: I had all these wardrobe jobs, but at a certain point I realized I had to stop taking them—which was scary because that’s how I was earning my living. But back then you were either on backstage [or] on onstage. You know, it’s ironic because when I think back to the ’80s, it was different in music. There were no clearly defined rock or pop or funk radio stations. Everyone played a little bit of everything. In the ’90s it got more compartmentalized as the stations started to cater to different markets, but during that same period as a dancer, singer, model, or actor, the opposite was true. I’m thinking about Whitney Houston or Madonna, who kicked the doors down so singers could also act. Now, especially in New York, it’s almost expected that you can do more than one thing.
Rumpus: What do you see as some of the differences between acting and performing as a musician?
Conley: I had an original band for a while, but ultimately I stepped away and went back into acting because, as a musician, you have to have such a strong point of view—to say something so particular. Your audience wants to know, and I think this is just human nature, who you are going to be for them. Are you going to be the music I turn to when I get my heart broken? Are you going to be the music I listen to when I’m in the gym? Or when I’m hanging out with my friends? If you try to be one thing you get locked into that identity. If you try to be everything it confuses people and they don’t know what to do with you.
Rumpus: You’re raising a very interesting point here. I remember when I was young, trying to join up with horribly shitty bands that should never have graced a basement, much less a stage. At the same time I was also trying to write all of these original songs that no one wanted to hear. Instead I was expected to nail a set of covers, one minute trying to be Stevie Nicks and the next Chrissie Hynde. But I’m not an actor and so I failed, miserably.
Conley: It isn’t easy.
Rumpus: No. The worst ever was a U2 cover band. So maybe this was circa 1987, and it was that song “With or Without You.” That is such a fucking hard song to sing!
Conley: [Laughs] Yeah. I would love to hear you do that.
Rumpus: Well, I’m very flattered, but I think you may be the only one. From a purely relative standpoint, I think I did a much better job on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” when all I had to do was conjure up a fake Irish accent and stomp on the floor. But to come back around to a serious point, I think it’s much easier to develop a persona than it is to channel personas created by others. It was hard to sing those songs but even harder to feel like I had to somehow “become” Bono.
Conley: Yes, definitely.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about Lez Zeppelin. Lez has often been misidentified as a tribute band or sometimes even as a cover band. But that’s not really what you’re doing. You’re not trying to convince the audience that you’re Robert Plant.
Conley: No. It’s about delivering the energy and spirit of the music.
Rumpus: But you’re not trying to suppress your own energy and spirit.
Conley: Correct. It’s not an impersonation. It’s an influence. Robert Plant was one of my first influences. I learned how to sing by copying him, David Lee Roth, and Steven Tyler—all these male cock rockers.
Rumpus: In your view, are there distinctly male and female ways of singing, and/or of presenting oneself as a kind of gendered persona?
Conley: When I was a girl I grew up listening to and emulating hard rocking male bands. That’s what I enjoyed and what I found I could do with my voice. It never occurred to me that as a woman I might not be allowed to perform in such a “masculine” style or genre. I just figured no one like me had been discovered yet! But then later when I was in an original band called Sugargrass that was trying to get signed in the ’90s, I was constantly being told to soften my vocal style: “Don’t be harder than Gwen Stefani! Melissa Etheridge is already the passionate folk rocker! Alanis Morissette is already the angry girl!”
Alanis had been labeled the angry girl with the song “You Oughta Know,” but she was really the nicest girl, and rather than keep writing angry rocker chick songs, she dropped out. Then Courtney Love came along but also kind of ruined it in a way. She had this great growling wailing voice over crunchy, punchy guitar driven music, but her personality and behavior got the way of the music and art she was creating. I’m not saying Courtney should have been nicer or played the game. But it was just unfortunate that she was the first hard rocking chick to hit the scene, and she ended up setting the progress back for others. Those of us coming up in her wake were deemed untouchable. We were written off as unmarketable and unsellable for a long time.
Rumpus: But even before Courtney Love, Chrissie Hynde had that badass thing going. Her voice was certainly more melodic than Courtney’s, but I’m thinking about that attitude, and some of the early Pretenders songs like “Up the Neck” and “Tattooed Love Boys.” The subject matter was not what you expected to hear, especially coming out of a woman’s mouth.
Conley: Oh yeah, Chrissie Hynde was badass, but I guess I’ve been speaking more in terms of male-oriented vocal styles and musical genres as opposed to masculine/feminine points of view in the lyric. Chrissie was a talk-singer in my mind, and I was all about the howl and wail of full-throated singing! There were no girls doing what I was listening to, singing the way I was singing at the time; Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Megadeth, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Nine Inch Nails, and all the grunge bands of course, but not one radio station really distributed hard rocking female belters. So is it the genre, style, or the emotional content of the lyric that makes it masculine or feminine?
Rumpus: I think it’s a very complicated alchemy. Look, when you’re up there on stage performing with Lez Zeppelin, everyone can see that you, Steph, Megan, and Leesa are all unambiguously women. Beyond the fact that you can play the hell out of the music, what’s powerful and subversive is how you appropriate the “cock rock” swagger. But with Hedwig, I’m wondering if it’s different, and I suspect that it is. I’m willing to bet there are many people in the audience who see you or Lena Hall as Yitzhak in Hedwig and don’t know they’re watching a woman—in fact, the only woman on that stage.
Conley: In the Playbill there are no pictures either, and that was intentional. When Hedwig had its first off-Broadway run around ’98 this was before marriage equality, before trans awareness, before people really talked about gender and sexuality the way they do now. It made marketing difficult. Even though Hedwig now has a huge cult status, it’s still relatively unknown in the mainstream—that’s one of the reasons Neil Patrick Harris did such a service to the show in the current production. By being such a famous star, it’s helped to put Hedwig on the map.
Rumpus: Does it matter that the role of Hedwig was played only once by a woman—Ally Sheedy—and the role has since been cast exclusively with men, in its current run with Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, and soon John Cameron Mitchell?
Conley: Historically that’s been the case. But gender is absolutely a state of mind. People are finally starting to understand that the outside doesn’t have to fit the inside.
Listen to Shannon perform as Yitzhak (iPad/iPhone users click here):
Rumpus: In a successful theatrical situation I believe the audience has to forget that they’re in a theater, that they are watching actors, that this world they see on the stage isn’t real. Perhaps it’s dependent on the actor’s ability to sustain the entire illusion, not just the illusion of gender?
Conley: Yes, you have to be all in. You have to do it with your gut, organically, in the moment. The technical aspect is the discipline. It’s important. But you also have to have the flame to propel the rocket.
Rumpus: Where do you find that? I remember when I was on that leg of your tour with Lez Zeppelin and there was one night in Detroit when you were so sick and I remember thinking, How will she make ever make it onto the stage much less make it through the set? But somehow you managed to clear everything away to be present for that show, and you nailed it.
Conley: I was present, but in a way it’s not me. With Yitzhak, it’s the same thing. I leave myself in the wings. Another aspect of me who harbors these other characters takes over when I’m performing. It’s a ride I get to take. I don’t get be that person in my real life, but in a way I do when I’m on stage. Maybe it’s the energy I get from and exchange with the audience. When I was younger, my dad always used to say, “You’re a thousand-watt bulb in a sixty-watt socket.” I still am, but now I get to make a living at it.
All images courtesy of Shannon Conley.
This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.