Looking for Clark Kent
Jay Shaner is either a mild-mannered songwriter or a double agent
Jay Shaner is a relatively conservative man. Not in terms of politics, for during the course of our conversation we didn’t hit on that subject at all, but rather in terms of actual existence. One could easily imagine Shaner wearing a green and yellow John Deere hat and driving a tractor or, just as easily, wearing the white shirt and blue tie of IBM’s middle management in the 1950s. He is, at least at first glance, a sort of ubiquitous American everyman, a Clark Kent-like figure huddling in the quiet background.
Shaner himself does little to dispel this observation. “I have a boring life,” he said, a slight smile brightening a youthful, friendly face. It was at least the second or third time this self-assessment had escaped his lips during the course of our interview. This time, Shaner fixed his eyes thoughtfully on his second glass of Newcastle ale, newly arrived on the Capitol Garage’s gleaming, stainless-steel bar.
It’s difficult to assess just how accurate this middle-of-the-road picture of Shaner is. The singer-songwriter carefully guards information like a politician or a spy, particularly information that sheds light on his personal life. He would not, for example, tell me where he works. When asked if he was married or dating, he dodged the question. When asked about specific collaborators on his various songwriting projects, Shaner outright refused to name names.
As for his own music, though, Shaner is more open. That music first manifested itself locally under the name Infinite Martini, the three-piece rock band Shaner helmed for two years. That project ended in 2002. (“There was a Yoko Ono incident,” Shaner said, perhaps only half-joking. “I can’t talk about it.”) Shaner continued to write songs, but with little real output apart from occasionally playing open-mics at local venues. He continued to play music with Martini bassist Zack Proteau and discussed recording a solo record with Proteau at the helm, but that never quite materialized.
Eventually, though, Shaner did get back into the studio. Encouraged by local songwriters Kevin Seconds and David Houston, Shaner recorded two solo projects, the second of which, Heavy Early, was released last month. On that disc, Shaner sings rootsy pop songs of urban life, the entanglement of relationships, broken hearts and, occasionally, slow successes. “Security kills; / it takes away the pain,” Shaner sings on “Taxi,” with a full band providing a steady accompaniment. “My anesthetic is gone now. / Now I’m feeling again. / The taxi arrives here to take you away. / Yellow for your dress and I have nothing to say.”
In many ways, Heavy Early is an effective CD. It was cleanly recorded by Chema Salinas, house engineer at the Hangar studio, and mixed by Salinas, Shaner and the album’s bassist (and former Amazing Sweethearts member), Evan Drath. The songwriting is consistently hooky and melodic, but the CD is also very, very safe. The crack backup band—including Drath, Jackpot’s Mike Curry, Seventy’s David Van Dusen, and the Famous Celebrities’ Dave Middleton—is kept under tight rein, in part because Shaner’s vocals are always at approximately the same timbre and have a consistent impact. Essentially, the vocals remain tonally the same regardless of the loudness or intensity of the song. They are perfectly in key, but there’s a sense of intensity that is lacking on the CD as a whole, making it seem more middle-of-the-road than it needs to be.
But perhaps that’s all in keeping with the songwriter himself, for Shaner’s current life philosophy isn’t so much about breaking rules as it is about comfort. “I have social anxiety, so I’m interested in less worry,” Shaner said, midway through the second ale. “Less worry, more fun, more playing.” So, it seems as if our mild-mannered Clark Kent comes complete with social anxiety, new-millennium style. As for the tights-wearing caped crusader lurking just under the surface, one will need to be satisfied by the talented songwriter, performing this week (sans tights) at Old Ironsides.