The former Bitter:Sweet lead singer on primetime TV and lessons learned.
The singer eyes a new beginning.
The consensus among many singing show alumni is that competing on primetime TV is much like boot camp. You strap yourself with your best cover songs, ship off to Los Angeles for sometimes months at a time, and your fellow housemates transform into eagle-eyed enemies marching into the combat zone. You step onto the dazzling stage of Hollywood and hope what you bring to the table is unlike anything America has ever seen or heard before. Promise of fame and fortune is just at your fingertips, and one slip up could cost you everything.
But for Shana Halligan, who saw moderate success as singer and musician for alternative-pop outfit Bitter:Sweet, visions of grandeur didn't obscure her thirst for exercising her craft. Millions of people tuned into The Voice every week, and Halligan proved her mettle on such covers of Cher's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" and Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody." Her journey was tragically cut short, but not before she was bestowed with a wealth of resources, equipping her to recharge and soldier onward into an even more worthwhile future.
Her new song "Hurricane," an inkier version of Lana Del Rey, laced with a James Bond-sloshed shellac, sees the singer returning to form, as she bites venomously into the lyrics and unleashes a grim vocal performance. Originally intended for another project altogether, in a similar vein as Bitter:Sweet, the somber track landed in a trailer for YouTube's new drama, Youth and Consequences (below) earlier this year, and it's slick and slithering melody not only latches onto the brain but burrows into the backbone. "It's not necessarily eluding to what's next," Halligan tells Popdust over email, "it's just what was in that moment."
Along with producer Kiran Shahani, Bitter:Sweet have sold over 500,000 records, from genre-bending project as 2006's debut LP, The Mating Game, and Drama (2008). Halligan has also amassed more than 70 songwriting credits and syncs across such generation-defining shows as Orange is the New Black, Grey's Anatomy, Nip Tuck and Desperate Housewives. All of that success, however, could not have prepared her for what was coming on NBC's blockbuster singing show.
Now, a month or so removed, the singer-songwriter is working toward more ambitious music endeavors. "I'm exploring stripping the electronic components way back and getting back to more of my jazz roots. But I'm also having fun with this whole electro-swing movement that's going on," she says. "I love dark , stormy, moody electronic music, as well, and I've always created music to a bit of a cinematic landscape, so.....I plan on doing it all."
Below, Halligan takes one final look back at The Voice, what she learned and how her craft has changed.
Did you ever feel you were "over-qualified" to be on a singing competition?
If I were to look at this experience as a singing "competition," I probably wouldn't have been able to go through with it. I looked at this as an opportunity to showcase my talent on a very different platform and for the largest audience to date I have performed in front of. I may have had more experience than many of the other contestants as far as my previous musical achievements are concerned, but for me, I felt like I had to do something drastic to shake things up. I've been in the industry for so many years.
I've been the flavor of the year, on top of the world and heading in to what I thought were the beginning drops of stardom, and I've crashed at the bottom, having to work my way back up after my band broke up. I've had to create new beginnings, and reinvent myself, all the while hopefully growing, evolving, and being open to trying new things. The industry is always changing so the way I was fortunate enough to get exposure in the past, wasn't working today. I chose not to "compete" or have that in my consciousness while on the show. Instead, I chose just to do my best to be in the moment and use this as a bigger stage to to make a bigger splash on.
You wrote on your website that the experience was "not an easy ride" and you "had to face a lot of challenges." What did you face?
The biggest challenge that I had to face was being away from my 2 and a half year old son and my husband for such a long period of time. I felt like part of my body was missing. All the love and joy that filled my heart and gave me strength to do something like this, felt so far away. Even though it was filmed in Los Angeles, we are sequestered and unable to see anyone apart from the show. A mother's guilt is fierce. Even though I knew my husband had it all under control and he couldn't have been more supportive, it was really difficult to let go and feel 100% ok.
It's also a very unnatural experience preparing for something like this. As a professional musician, I have played everywhere from The Greek Theatre, Hollywood Bowl and Royal Albert Hall to The Kennedy Center for people who have actually bought tickets and were willingly and happily there to see me perform. In contrast, while on the show, we were preparing for and thinking about a 90 second moment for 20 million people that may or may not result in a "chair turn," all while listening to vocal gymnasts all around you. It's a recipe for insecurity and second guessing yourself. As centered and as at peace as I felt, I was in my life going into this, one can't help but to get a bit wobbly through the process.
How did that transform you as a person?
Before the show, I had some pretty deep fears about touring again or leaving my family for much longer than like two days max. Being brought up in a rock and roll household and seeing the toll that that kind of absence took on me growing me up as a kid, combined with the amount of touring and career obsession I also indulged in through my own past relationships, I felt that leaving my boys would be the worst thing I could ever do. I was finally so happy. My sweet new family has brought me more beauty than any career ever has, so how could I leave?! But I think this once free-spirited hippy swung so far on the other side of the pendulum once my son was born, that I was holding on to them for dear life. And that, perhaps, wasn't so healthy either.
I learned from this experience that I don't have to have only one or the other and be paralyzed in that kind of fear. Because I have such a supportive husband (who manages talent by the way and totally gets it) , I got to experience both. I got to reignite the importance of continuing to chase my dreams, while slowly allowing the guilt to dissipate. I'm proudly showing my son what it is to be strong, ambitious, courageous and thoughtful about our choices. Since then, I've been traveling regularly to Nashville and the red carpet has literally been rolled out for me in the songwriting world there. I miss the shit out of my boys every time I leave, but then I'm back and squeezing them to pieces! And guess what? We are all still a sweet family and everyone is OK.
You also wrote: "It took everything I had to stay grounded and at peace with my decision to do this." Can you elaborate on this sentiment?
It's taken me years to get to a place where I know exactly who I am as an artist. Not that I'm unwilling to grow and expand, that is essential as an artist, but in terms of my sound, what resonates with me, my genre....
During the show, I found myself taking the longest road at times to get right back to my starting position. The place that I knew in my heart was right all along and then asking myself why did I just do all of that second guessing just to get right back to where my gut knew I should be? While I had all of these influences and circumstances that were so completely out of my control, always shining their bright headlights on me, I couldn't help but start to feel less than and uncertain. I'm sure everyone there did, many a time! Then, I would get upset with myself. I know who I am, dammit! Why am I allowing this strange situation to mess with what I already know? So, I would take bath, light some candles, meditate, watch some videos on the internet of myself performing in front of thousands to remind myself that "oh ya, this is what I do," and try to calm the hell down. [laughs]
Doing something like this show is not for the faint at heart. In the end I made peace that no matter what, I'm me and I will never please everyone nor is that my goal. I can only remain authentic and that will illuminate. When the scent of "competitiveness" was in the air as the "battle" rounds started, that's where I had the most trouble. Music is not a competition. I cannot, in any bone in my body, approach it as that. Maybe to my detriment, but so be it. Music is art and comes from your soul. Period. I felt very saddened by the idea that other contestants could actually treat this as a competition. But that's when I remembered, "Shana! you're on a damn singing competition!"
In music terms, did the show change your technical approach to mood, melody or building a song?
I had never really warmed up my voice before so regularly. We had vocal coaching, and we were given these fantastic vocal training exercises. For my own shows, I was used to having a shot of tequila or a glass of red wine before hitting the stage for a full set and hoping for the best! I was noticing a vocal strength and consistency I could count on in a way I had not thought about before. I also had never really sang anything but my own music before, so it absolutely stretched me to have to find a way to sing songs that didn't belong to my voice, but make them belong. The luxury of having nothing more to do than sing is pretty captivating. I could try things I had the focus and time to play around with. When else in life do you only get to do one thing? Never!
Ultimately, do you think doing the show has been a game changer for your craft?
Yes. In the sense that this was so far outside of my comfort zone, and I had so little control in so many areas, that it has given me a different kind of clarity and confidence to go out there in the world far stronger, knowing if I can do that, I can do anything! In my own music, I'm in control of my band, I know what arrangement I want. I write the music, I more or less feel as in control as one can feel, given unforeseen circumstances when it comes to a performance. Through this experience, I realized I will still show up for myself no matter what and no matter how challenged or vulnerable I may feel. I also realized I don't need a whole production, a huge band, projections, smoke and mirrors, or many of the things I believed I needed in the past, especially while playing in my electronica projects. Not to say it isn't fun having all that. When I hop on stage with Thievery Corporation, I'm all too happy to have their full blown set up. But I can move people perhaps even more deeply with everything stripped way back and maybe, just let my voice and my energy be the pillar.
You recently teased you've been writing with some new producers since doing the show. How have you seen your creativity, energy and confidence flourish in these new sessions?
It's been pretty amazing. I've been thrust into writing sessions with truly epic producers. The irony is I had all of these wonderful things lined up before I even went on the show, but the energy coming off the show has absolutely reignited my fire to to stay motivated. From writing for other artists to exploring what the next evolution of my sound will be, it's been so fun. I started to miss the fun in music after a while, and I'm finally getting back those butterflies when I think about how many dimensions I can break through musically right now. Plus, it didn't hurt having Alicia Keys tell me I'm the most unique artist she's ever worked with. She said I have such a distinct clarity in my individuality and put me in the same league as Portishead, Sia and Florence + the Machine. And Blake Shelton called me a goddess. Said I memorized him. I mean....sweet Blake. That can only help my swagger in sessions. [laughs]
Jason Scott is a freelance music journalist with bylines in Billboard, PopCrush, Ladygunn, Greatist, AXS, Uproxx, Paste and many others. Follow him on Twitter.
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