Complete with the haunting howls of actual coyotes, we learn about a song that was born in the Virginian wilderness
Back in 2001, when he was just 14, Shane Cooley decided to raise money for the 9/11 Red Cross Relief Fund with a self-penned song, a creative act of generosity that revealed a path in life he’s been following ever since. Fast-forward to the last few years and Cooley remains a singer-songwriter who knows how important it is to put the work in. During lockdown, in an attempt to boost the spirits of his fans, he released his acoustic anthology 50 Songs and performed weekly live streams on his Facebook page – it’s no surprise he has such a loyal following.
Up next is his exquisite new album Forest. Going through a particularly difficult time, Cooley retreated to the Virginia wilderness, taking long moonlit walks in the woods near his cottage sanctuary. Inspired by his surroundings, the alt-folk artist delved into the hinterland of his own life and dragged forth the songs which form the record. Opening track Coyote, complete with the calls of the mysterious canine, instantly transports the listener to Cooley’s world. Captivated, we were keen to find out more about the song…
Coyote came into this world as a fully-formed creature. Not all the good ones happen that way, but most of the ones that do are pretty good. I had been within the lulls of creative doldrums; a place where every attempt to write feels strained, or below the bar. The pandemic was in full swing, my marriage was crumbling, and my mental health was struggling. Dante, in Longfellow’s translation of Inferno, proclaimed, ‘Midway in the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark.’ That’s just about where I was.
I was living in Ohio at the time, still adjusting to a much different life than I had been living pre-pandemic in the music hub of Austin, Texas. I worked an odd job investigating crawl spaces to get by. You haven’t lived until you’ve put on a full hazmat suit and crawled around under someone’s living room… or maybe you have. At night, my neighbour and I would take long, moonlit strolls in the wilderness. Nature has always been a place of peace for me. The quiet of the woods calms my mind, and heals my spirit. On those walks, we would commonly hear the haunting howls of coyotes, which otherwise move as silent as phantoms in the night. Sometimes, they would be eerily close. The howls of those coyotes were chillingly reminiscent of the Native American warriors who would mimic them lifetimes before.
One morning, after one of those walks, I set a little time aside for a writing session (I call it “song fishing”). I went through my usual process of pressing record on my iPhone, and the vision of Coyote appeared to me. The doldrums were over. After that, the rest of the songs flowed, and within a month I had the songs for my new album, Forest. Many of them, like this one, were premonitions, and truths I knew I must confront.
I knew I wanted to be a songwriter the first time I saw (musical drama movie) Eddie And The Cruisers, at about age eight. In the film, the lead singer, Eddie, makes a partnership with a poet he deems “Wordman”. He crosses his fingers, to symbolize the sacred pact between words and music. Eddie was cool, but there was something about the Wordman that was profound to me. By age ten, I was writing lyrics. My dad taught me how to play guitar at age twelve, and I dreamed of being a legendary guitarist like Jimi Hendrix (my dad saw him live in the ‘60s). Then, I discovered Bob Dylan. Words have always held a great deal of importance to me. I pursued a degree in literature at The College of William and Mary instead of music. When it comes to words, I aim to out-stick the stickler. It took me a while to understand that sometimes the simplest words can be the most complex. Tom Petty was a great teacher of lyrical humility.
When I wrote Coyote, I was thinking about my old days in Austin and some of the rascally characters I had known in the past. Like the coyotes in the night, their memories called. They haunted me with longings, regrets and buried secrets. The first line of the song mentions one or two of those secrets, but they wouldn’t be secrets if I told you, would they? Maybe they’re not even mine to tell.
I had a 1988 Volvo at the time, named Elvira. She was the main setting of my musical ingesting/escapism. I had a rule in that car to never play any post-80s music. Elvira was my musical time machine, and I would devour entire albums on my cruises. Among my favourites at the time were Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love, The Cure’s Disintegration, and the immortal Sam Cooke’s Night Beat.
Musically, Coyote was born from a funky beat on an old Yamaha keyboard. After hundreds of songs written on the acoustic guitar, a provocative beat or sound can be a good source for fresh inspiration, as can the keys. I love the simplicity and consistency of those keyboards. I fumbled through some grooves until I found the “hip hop” beat. Immediately, the meat and bones of the songs began to take form. Finding a song is an indescribable feeling. Some folks call it “channelling”.
I had also been listening to a lot of old Delta blues at that time. Coyote, at its heart, is a blues in E Minor. I’m a sucker for minor blues.
IN THE STUDIO
After my wife and I split, I came back home to rural Virginia. My parents own a guest cottage that they used to rent out, so I went there to process everything. The cottage overlooks The Rappahannock River, three miles wide, and near the Chesapeake Bay. When my mom was pregnant with me, she would watch the sunset there every evening. It is a place of spiritual and soulful importance to me. I could feel the spirits of the Virginia woods taking me back in.
I knew that the only way to pull myself up from rock bottom was to record Coyote, and the other new songs that I had been writing. Going to a studio was still a little iffy as far as COVID went (and money), so I decided to record it myself at the cottage. I bought a RØDE condenser mic with a Scarlett interface, and delved into it.
I’ve always been obsessed with arrangements, especially ones that are respectful to the space within a song. Even when working with producers, I tend to take the reins with my ideas. Even so, money and time create barriers, along with personalities. Something inexplicable happened to me once I had set up my home studio. When I was a teenager, I would record albums in my garage on an eight-track digital recorder, but I had never possessed the confidence to attempt it in my adult life. I played all the instruments, translating what I heard in my head. A huge part of the soundscape came from a Micro-Korg synth, which was a game-changer for pads and bass. I spent hours in that little room, feeling like a mad scientist in his laboratory. When I needed a break, I would walk in the woods. It was just what I needed.
The songs began as demos, for my own personal healing. Then, after getting positive feedback on a rough mix of Coyote from people I could trust (including my long-time mentor, Bruce Hornsby), it became a serious project. I worked with what I was comfortable with, which was Garageband on my Macbook. Again, simplicity made things flow easier. I could walk around inside of the song itself, uninterrupted.
Recording at the cottage (“Cooleyland” as I call it) was very significant in the sound of these songs. As an ode to the peace nature had brought me, I decided early on to incorporate nature sounds into the album. Those are about the only sounds audible out in Mollusk (pronounced Mow-llusk), Virginia. I had already added bird sounds on a couple of tracks, so coyote sounds in Coyote, was a no-brainer. These sessions felt like séances. The spirits of the forest had worked their way through the walls. I could feel them there in the silence.
Coyote, and the full album, Forest, were mastered by Fred Kevorkian at Kevorkian Mastering in Brooklyn, New York. I’ve been working with Fred since I was 18, and he has worked with everyone from The White Stripes to Willie Nelson. He is a gentleman and a true wizard at his craft.
Coyote is the opening track and single from my upcoming album, Forest, set to release on April 22 (Earth Day). The album will be available on Spotify, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Pandora and more. Throughout the release, I am raising awareness for organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, and the benefits of nature on mental health. Simply being in nature has been proven to be extremely helpful for those of us struggling with mental health, which is pretty much all of us in the 2020s. You can view my video about nature and mental health (with helpful links in the description) here: Shane Cooley on Nature and Mental Health – YouTube. If you’re a late-nighter, swing by my Facebook page on most Wednesdays at 1am UK Time (8pm EST) for my regular live stream.