Smile Politely

Track-by-track with Deena Shoshkes

If you haven’t already heard of her, Deena Shoshkes is a singer-songwriter from New Jersey. She will be performing at the Clark Bar on April 24th. Local musician Jeff Arrigo will be opening the show. Shoshkes has been making music for a long time. She is a founding member of The Cucumbers, an indie band that was successful in the 1980’s — even getting played on MTV — and just released her second full length solo CD, Rock River. I’d describe her music as fun, friendly and well played.  

Outside of music, she’s active in raising awareness of issues related to autism.  

For each song on her new record Rock River, I spoke with Shoshkes with a corresponding question.  

Smile Politely about “My Own Advice”: I’m hearing a jittery, nervous quality to this song. At 2:22, it’s also the shortest song on the record.  It puts me in mind of someone chain-smoking cigarettes. Were you intentionally trying to start the album with a bit of an edge?

Shoshkes: That song is about driving myself crazy and finding myself. We all have the answers inside, we just have to take the time to listen to that inner voice and follow the message. That’s what songwriting does for me, so this song serves as an introduction to what follows.

SP about “Find the Love”: I’m interpreting the lyrics here as being about time passing by as the narrator tries to find the love in an old relationship: “Tuesday’s on and Monday’s gone, long gone/Thursday’s coming round, you know it won’t be long/Sometimes I’m afraid that time is going to wear us down.”

You’ve been writing songs for many years — how do you still “spark the flames” and keep your writing fresh for yourself?

Shoshkes: I fan the flames with collaborations, new ways into the music such as trying out different tunings, instruments and sounds, and listening to lots of others for inspiration.  Instead of strumming my guitar, my habitual way of starting a song, I began “Find the Love” by riffing around on an organ. When I added the guitar twang on top the magic started to happen.  I started singing, and realized, “Oh, that’s what I’m thinking about.”  Once you’ve felt that beautiful spark, of love or creativity, you want it back again and again.  There’s no method one can follow to bring back magic, but you can try and make yourself available to it, be adventurous and open.

SP about “Bring it All”: There are quite a few instruments being used on this track: mandolin, Wurlitzer, shaker, etc.  What sound were you aiming for? Did the sound come out the way you expected?

Shoshkes: The decorative sounds, created by Rob, add a dreamy, cloud-like cushion for the vocal to float over.

SP about “Comes with Kisses”: This song starts out very simply with just the vocal and the acoustic guitar. Do you usually write songs using just your own voice and a guitar or some other way?

Shoshkes: Starting with a guitar and vocal is the way most of my songs come out, and that is how this one was written. I hear and begin to sing a melody with lyrics and try to find the music to go with it on the guitar.

SP about “All She Wrote”: There are horns on this song; it swings. Are there any big band era artists that you really like?

Shoshkes: I especially love the magnificent singers of the era, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. My son, Jamie Fried, plays jazz drums and is constantly guiding my listening with his favorites, Coleman Hawkins and Art Blakey among others.

SP about “I Will Never Be Your Valentine”: I like the reverb sound on the electric guitar on this one. It puts me in mind of the sound of some songs Kacey Musgraves has recorded. Are there any contemporary country singers you’re into? Musgraves? Miranda Lambert maybe?

Shoshkes: My guitar playing has a bit of Ventures-style surf guitar influence and minimalist twang-pop like the B-52s. I love the importance of the song itself in country music, and how folk and traditional country music blend with rock and pop in contemporary country. I get enchanted with certain songs, more than any one individual artist. I really enjoyed “Merry Go Round” and “Gun Powder and Lead.” And I must admit a fondness for Taylor Swift and the music from the Nashville TV show, and singers like Toby Keith and Trace Adkins. While I was writing and recording Rock River I listened to a lot of Gram Parsons, Nina Simone, Charlie Rich, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, David Johansen, Skeeter Davis and all my local singer-songwriter friends. 

SP about “My Friend Superman”: Fun lyrics. If you had to pick another super hero to write a song about, who would it be?  Would the Incredible Hulk good for a song, perhaps?

Shoshkes: Now you’re giving me an idea. Of course, it would have to be a female this time. There’s a song, here, in a list of names such as these, alone:

Aurora, Firestar, Black Widow, Wasp,

Thundra, Elektra, Phoenix,


Invisible and Wonder Woman.

SP about  “Well Take it From There”: Your producer Rob Friedman is listed as playing the glockenspiel on this song, just as he’s listed as playing many other instruments on the record including horns, drums and pedal steel guitar. Are there any instruments the guy can’t play?

Shoshkes: Rob Friedman is a super talented instrumentalist and producer/engineer, and one of the sweetest guys in the world. He made the recordings sound great. He’s the Superman, here! Also a fine songwriter, he had a top ten hit with Paul Carrack, “Don’t Shed a Tear.”

SP about “Always Tomorrow”: I’m interpreting this song as being about a guy who’s having trouble looking forward. What are you looking forward to, musically speaking, in your own future? 

Shoshkes: I am very excited about my next music project which will be an acoustic, harmony-rich set of songs with The Jersey Girls (who sang background vocals on “All She Wrote”).

SP about “Heart Full of Now”: There’s a funky electric guitar riff that moves this song right along. How did it come about?

Shoshkes: I was experimenting with open G tuning for the first time. I started strumming and had David Graham’s lyrics on a pile of papers in front of me and it all came out together.

SP about “Mr. Nobody”: Mr. Nobody — maybe a relative of John Lennon’s “Nowhere Man”? What’s the Beatles song that you most wish you had written yourself? 

Shoshkes: It’s impossible to pick just one, I love the Beatles so much. Since you are asking me today I will say “Across the Universe.” Tomorrow it would probably be another wonderful song.

SP about “When I Fall”: “Like a stone and a shell/They say friction causes change.” On the subject of change, now that Rock River is recorded and released, is there anything you’d like to go back and change, or are you happy with it just the way it is?

Shoshkes: It took me so long to make it happen, I don’t want to look back. I had enough of that along the way. I’m so happy it is out in the world and proud of all the love that went into creating it. I’m excited about touring and playing my music in new places and meeting new people all because of and through Rock River.

Catch Deena Shoshkes at the Clark Bar tonight with Jeff Arrigo, show starting at 6:30 p.m.

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