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John Shaffer: genre-hopping musician lands on MTV
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
When John Shaffer was growing up in, he heard all kinds of different music playing throughout the house. His brothers listened to Boston, Journey and Yes, while his parents were often playing music by country artists like Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash. But the Colorado native's earliest favorite was John Denver. At age six, he would impersonate the “Rocky Mountain High” musician before moving on to the family's organ in his pre-teens. When Shaffer was 15, he attended a Depeche Mode concert at Red Rocks and was forever transformed. He immediately decided that the synthesizer was for him and he began to pursue synth-related music head-on.
His first foray into the genre was Blind Man's Holiday, a band he formed in 1986 that drew the attention of MTV and CBGB's. Legal issues and management problems caused the group to end, but Shaffer soon found himself in the heart of the rave scene as a DJ and was soon incorporating live visuals into his performances. He partnered with a former member of Blind Man's Holiday to form Panoramic/Trancevision.
"We would show up at these warehouses, or whatever, to perform with three carts, a rack and a massive projector," recalls Shaffer, "All kinds of electronics, because computers were just not reliable enough for video, back then. People would look confused until they saw and heard the final product and then they were awestruck. I think we took people on some incredible journeys back then and it was a good time."
But the good times eventually caught up with Shaffer and after an all night show, he collapsed from dehydration. This caused a shift in his outlook and he decided to focus on a more personal style of music, with a bit more of traditional feel. The first album to reflect those changes was, fittingly enough, Change. The 2005 release was well received by the local and on-line press and Shaffer played a handful of shows to promote the record.
Shaffer says the growth shown is pretty evident, "When you're young you're kind of copying your favorite artist without realizing it and the lyrics are very immature. As I've progressed, I understand that I can write in different genres, such as R&B, rap, country, new age and jazz. Not just electronic and alternative. I can also write lyrics that find a balance between giving you something to think about but not getting so deep that the song becomes alienating to a large population. I used to write these novels for lyrics that could get very involved and depressing. Then a few years back a record executive told me, 'The music is pretty good, but your lyrics are great. Unfortunately, that's the reason we can't do anything with it.' He basically told me to dumb it down. But I don't think it's about dumbing it down. I think it's about becoming a songwriter that can find a balance."
Shaffer challenged himself to write in a few different genres and released three separate albums in the past year that each focus on a particular style of music. Push has an alternative-pop sound to it, Water Sign sounds like something that Peter Gabriel's Real World Records might have released with its world music meets electronica feel and The Journey Begins combines jazz and new age.
All three albums were recorded in Shaffer's studio, Isolation/Breeding Ground. "The process to release the last three CDs took under a year, but most of it was music that I had amassed over the last seven years, probably," points out Shaffer, "Then, I organized, re-recorded and added some parts, before having all the recordings mastered for finalization, by a group who has mastered for RCA and Warner Brothers."
The inspiration for Shaffer's songs is just as varied as the styles that he records them in. "Honestly, I don't know where to begin. As an artist, I think it's about trying to find something you appreciate in any style of art. For example, a lot of musicians I know pooh-pooh electronic music. But they have no idea what goes into creating that music or how you are supposed to listen to it. My point is, I find something to appreciate in almost all styles. There are so many times that I dream a song. I don't know if that sounds cliché or not, but it's true. I will be in that half awake/half asleep mode and something will come to me. I also carry a little digital recorder with me for those times that something pops in my head or I hear something cool I want. Of course, new instruments help too!"
Shaffer says that the goal for his music is three-fold. "I would say it's to offer entertainment, enlightenment and to bring me fulfillment. I grew up in a pretty unstable environment and music always helped me escape that. It also helped me to not hold grudges against my parents or other family members. It's always been therapy, really."
More recently, it's become lucrative. Shaffer has quite a few songs set to be featured in a half dozen or so shows on MTV and more waiting to be used in feature films. "When I started writing country songs and rap songs, I told myself I really needed to get them published, so that I could get them into the hands of artists who could perform them, because I don't really feel comfortable performing those styles. So, I went on a hunt for publishers and I was turned away a lot. Then, a producer/publisher who has released music by Carly Simon, Duran Duran, Yes and has placed music in Coach Carter and The Matrix contacted me and asked me to send him more music. I did and he told me I had a profound talent for writing in all these different genres and that he thought my music would be great in T.V. and film. So, I signed a very, very fair contract with him. One that really plays in my favor and the first deal he's secured is for my music to be used in Cribs, True Life and basically all of the reality shows on MTV. He's working on a movie deal and shopping my rap and country music. What this means for me is validation. It means my music is 'that good.' It's also the start of bigger things, mainly composing for film. That has always been part of my music, anyway. I was the first local artist in Fort Wayne to mix video on a large projection system behind my set, going all the way back to 1989. So in a way I've been composing music to video, or vice-versa, for many years."
When it comes to the future, Shaffer has his priorities in order and is looking forward to creating more music and, hopefully, bringing more area musicians into the limelight.
"I am moving into a new studio space that will concentrate on composing music for film with a 5.1 surround system, projection and more. I look forward to doing this as well as writing singles for other artists and continuing to release my own CDs. I would also like to get out and perform again or maybe put on some type of world music festival. Obviously, I hope this will just bring that much more attention to Fort Wayne and all the great talent we have here. Also, if I continue to get placements I plan on working with other artists and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic for symphony scores. But, that will have to wait until my newborn son gets a little older. My wife and I waited nine years for him, so we're just enjoying this time right now."