Atheist Music: An Interview with Shelley Segal on Her New Album Little March
On Feb. 22, Australian singer-songwriter Shelley Segal will be releasing two CDs: An Atheist Album, containing the popular 2011 single “Saved,” and Little March, a collection of jazz music with American guitarist Adam Levy. She will also be touring the U.S. for two months beginning in March.
Humanists may remember in 2012 Segal performed to an enthusiastic crowd at the American Humanist Association annual conference in New Orleans. In her home country she recently spent two weeks at the top of the dance charts with Chemistry, a collaboration with DJ Carl Cox, performing with him at the Stereosonic Festival in Melbourne last year.
Segal, an international performer for the last decade, was raised in a traditional Jewish family and is the daughter of the President of the East Melbourne Synagogue. Authors such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins helped lead her into the secular movement, with one of the results being the folk rock songs on An Atheist Album that question a great number of dubious existing moral codes and dilemmas. Her songs also highlight Segal’s “intense love of life and fellow humans and her desire to encourage equality for all.”
Little March, on the other hand, is not only a different genre (jazz) but moves away from the atheistic themes of An Atheist Album. For example, Stuck In The Memory is a song about a frustrating side of love that will be familiar to everyone.
Segal took some time to answer questions from HNN, revealing, among other things, what’s behind her gecko tattoo and logo!
HNN’s Brian Magee: Since your appearance at our annual conference in New Orleans last year, how often have you been back to the U.S. and in what cities have you performed?
Shelly Segal: Since the American Humanist Conference in New Orleans last June, I have been back to the U.S. three times. Last year, I was in the U.S. seven times overall. So far I have performed in Washington DC, Raleigh, Fayetteville, Tallahassee, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lancaster, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Portland, Seattle, Kennewick, Lakeland, Boston and Montgomery. I was playing in Montgomery for Alabama's first ever state-wide secular conference! The last time I was in the states was December. I was in Los Angeles recording my new album, Little March. The album is a jazz-y/blues-y collaboration with guitarist Adam Levy.
HNN: Do you think it's risky to have your second CD be in a different genre from the first? Do you prefer jazz?
Segal: I don't feel like I'm taking a risk. You can't please everyone but that is going to be the case regardless. I have always enjoyed singing in many different genres. I don't really prefer one over another. My first EP was folk rock. I have written and recorded a drum and bass song with DJ Carl Cox. An Atheist Album contains pop, folk, reggae and alternative tunes. I think while the genre may vary from song to song, what stays the same stylistically is my approach, my vocal delivery and also my lyrics. I like to tell stories and feel like that unites my song writing across all my work.
HNN: Why are these two CDs being released together?
Segal: For exactly that reason. I felt as though releasing two very different albums at the same time is reflective of my career and my writing. Very broad and not constrained by genre. I feel as though it allows me to explore whatever I need to, without the pressure of people's expectations. Later this year I am working on another dance record, a pop record and hopefully another 'secular' themed album.
HNN: Is Little March openly atheistic like An Atheist Album? In either case, how would you describe the differences in the messages?
Segal: An Atheist Album has a much stronger message as the whole album is tackling a particular theme. Little March is much less political in nature.' It is a lot more introspective and focused on topics like love and relationships. I think the songs, production and instrumentation are a lot more delicate. The title track, Little March is about a Romanian custom and, for me, is a reflection on ritual. I came from a religious household where ritual, custom, and symbolism was a big part of my life. I can see the potential value in them, if they are utilized in a considered way. It's also going to be a very different album as it is a collaboration. Adam and I wrote all the songs together. Little March was my first project of this kind and it has been extremely rewarding. I have learnt so much and am excited with the finished product.
HNN: What compels you to write about such strong issues in your music?
Segal: As a songwriter I am compelled to write about what engages me. I like to share my reflections, thoughts, and ideas with people, to show them my journal. I find myself very inspired by the books that I read. I want to get across into music what I think is important—themes and ideas that are important to me and also what I think is worth considering. I think music has the power to influence people and to bring about change. I want my music to reflect the way I want things to be.
HNN: What are you most excited about as an Australian touring America in the next few months?
Segal: I'm excited to be seeing more of the U.S. As I travel I get a better understanding of the geography of the country as well as getting to meet lots of interesting people. Last year the media were very focused on the election and it will be interesting to see what the difference is, how everybody has responded.
HNN: You'll be performing at NAPCON, REASON FEST and other atheist conferences. It must be an honor to perform as such big gatherings of people that share your same worldview. What's the best part about touring and taking part in these sorts of shows?
Segal: It is absolutely an honor to be involved with these events. There are so many highlights. It's wonderful to be an attendee of the conferences. When I am not performing I get to go and hear other speakers. I get a chance to learn about so many interesting topics; Philosophy, science, politics, activism, etc. I also love getting to meet people who are passionate and dedicated to similar issues as I am. It's great to know what the situation is like for atheists in different parts of the world. It's an honor to meet my heroes, people who are being so brave in speaking out and who have inspired me on my own path. The best part though, has to be playing my music to the people whose worldview it reflects. I know from my own experience how powerful it can be to hear your views in music and I am so happy to be able to provide that for people.
HNN: When people attend your shows on this tour, how do think they should describe what they heard to their friends?
Segal: I hope that they would describe the show as passionate. I think my performances are very intimate. I like to tell stories in between songs. It helps me to focus on what I am saying while helping people to understand and hopefully be more engaged by the lyrics. I like to sing as honestly and with as much power as I can. I try to make my set really varied with lots of different styles of music to keep it interesting.
HNN: What is the most surprising compliment you've received?
Segal: I can't think of the most surprising but I can think of my favorite. One gentleman shared with me online that hearing my music was like listening to his thoughts in song and that it made him feel beautiful. It made my day.
HNN: When you've finished a show, do you usually feel energized?
Segal: Absolutely. It's what I love to do and what the rest of my time is centered on preparing for. I always finish playing on such a high. But sometimes after a late gig, it's hard to get to sleep. I also enjoy getting to speak to people afterwards, hearing their thoughts.
HNN: Do you mind sharing the significance of the lizard tattoo and logo image?
Segal: Not at all! When I was 19 I went backpacking around Europe and the U.S. with a friend. It was actually the year that I became an atheist. The tattoo is of a gecko. They are the only lizards that can vocalize and people say it sounds like laughing and singing, which is how I spend most of my time. To me it represents my trip and all that I had learned from the experience. Also to bring home a message that is summed up best by Ani DiFranco lyrics: “I had to leave the house of self-importance to doodle my first tattoo. Realize a tattoo is no more permanent than I am.”
HNN: What is the first song you remember singing?
Segal: The first song I remember singing is a Whitney Houston tune! I remember trying to reach those crazy notes (and failing). There is a video of me singing “Groovy Kind of Love” by Phil Collins when I was three years old but I don't remember doing it.
HNN: If you had the ability to put on the "perfect" concert where you performed with 3 or 4 other people, who would they be?
Segal: It would be an absolute dream to play a show with Ani DiFranco, Alanis Morissette, Tim Minchin, Kate Bush, Sarah McLachlan, Jewel ... that's already too many!