Seventeen Minutes With Mount Pleasant Polymath, Shannon Hemmett

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Designer, photographer, videographer, writer, singer and musician (in two bands!) – what doesn’t Shannon Hemmett do? You may recognize her on the synths and singing back-up vocals as a member of Jason Corbett’s dark wave band, ACTORS, which is heading out on tour later this summer, including shows at the Ponderosa and Terminus festivals. But soon you’ll also be able to find her centre stage as the frontwoman for her own new project, LEATHERS, which combines all of her talents under one umbrella (with her trusty collaborator and bandmate, Corbett). Meet the multi-faceted, super-busy, self-confessed night owl, Shannon Hemmett.

What’s your neighbourhood and what makes it home? I’m in Mount Pleasant. I love the live/work spaces, bookstores, record stores and coffee shops in this area. I’m a big fan of ice cream, and between Earnest and Mario’s Gelato there’s probably 50+ flavours to try, so I’m covered for all my ice cream needs.

Neighbourhood haunt? Pulp Fiction Books. When I’m working long hours and need a screen break, I’ll head up there to pick out something new to read and then head over to Matchstick with a friend for a peppermint tea. You’ll also find me at the Fox Cabaret – my friends and bandmates DJ and play shows there quite often. It’s great place to socialize with creative people and listen to music, live or on vinyl.

What is a talent that you don’t have but wish you possessed? Gardening. I’d love to look after my own rose garden one day.

I love your style. Do you have a style icon? Thank you! I grew up in the midst of 90s grunge and goth culture, so some of those influences have definitely stayed with me. I always thought Winona Ryder had a great look in this era. The ‘Wish’ video by Nine Inch Nails left an impression too, and I felt empowered to incorporate fetish-inspired pieces into my wardrobe after seeing it. Day to day, I feel the most comfortable wearing leather jackets, harnesses, t-shirts, denim and boots. I wear a lot of black but experiment with knits and other textures to keep things interesting. I love tailored menswear pieces too. I came to appreciate suits through David Bowie and Annie Lennox.

You shot your first video with an iPhone – what’s the piece of technology you couldn’t live without? A camera, for sure. Doesn’t have to be fancy. The iPhone Voice Memos app is indispensable too, I use it all the time to capture vocal melodies, lyric ideas and guitar parts.

photo: Wayne Hoerchel
photo: Wayne Hoerchel

What about a piece of obsolete technology that you would like to see come back? There are many discontinued film stocks I wish they’d start producing again. Digital cameras are able to recreate reasonable film-like looks now but nothing beats the atmosphere and character of the real thing.

How about something that isn’t yet invented that you wish existed? I’m no good with Science Fiction… but is teleportation a thing yet? I’d like to travel direct to Berlin, no stopovers.

Your favourite Vancouver restaurant and dish? I love Italian food. If you told me I had to eat pasta everyday for the rest of my life, I would be totally fine with that. Savio Volpe is a fave spot and Ask For Luigi is delicious too. If Burrata is being offered, I always order that dish. It is often served with olive oil, salt and pepper, heirloom tomatoes, balsamic, basil and toast. A perfect summer meal.

What was the last show you saw? U2. I’d never seen them before. There’s a thing that people say, that you’re either a Depeche Mode fan or a U2 fan…and I definitely fall into the DM side. I like the War record a lot. But inevitably Bono gets a little preachy about his causes. It just seemed a little heavy-handed.

Favourite artist and graphic designer? Ed Ruscha – his use of typography and hard-boiled, dry wit in his paintings is so appealing to me as a graphic designer and a songwriter. Vaughn Oliver – the aesthetics of his design and photography work for 4AD Records in the 80s and 90s is unmatched.

Favourite photographer? If I had to pick one, it would be Helmut Newton, who clearly admired the power and presence of women in his gorgeous, technically perfect images.

Top 3 favourite concerts of all time? Let’s say it’s a tie between: The Cure at Deer Lake Park, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds () and Depeche Mode at Rogers Arena.

Three bands on your bucket list? Portishead, PJ Harvey and Sade.

What are you currently listening to? I’m listening to the new Slowdive record a lot. It’s just so beautiful. It’s been, I think, 25 years since their last release and it really sounds like no time has passed.

What was your first show? Weezer at the Commodore. It was an all ages show and I was 12 or 13. The Blue Album had just come out. Shudder to Think opened. They still had the bouncy floor at the Commodore. I crowd-surfed – I don’t know why, I was just living it up.

That’s probably the best first show ever, in my opinion. You get instant cred for that. The Blue Album is still one of my favourites… I’ve certainly lost track of them over the years but the Blue Album and Pinkerton – I still put those on every now and then, and I know all of the words still.

Me too. That summer to actually we went to Lollapalooza, which was the year with Hole, Sonic Youth, Beck, Cypress Hill, Yo La Tengo, Pavement – it was ridiculous! That was like ’95, I think. Kurt had died at that point so Courtney Love, she had sort of come out of this grieving for Kurt and everything. So it was pretty intense. It was the show where she had a fight with Kathleen Hannah the day before, so she had a broken arm. That was that same summer. I was exposed to alternative 90’s culture in a big way that year.

What was your first instrument? I played saxophone in Honour Band – but eventually I played guitar.

Tell me more about your musical upbringing. I was born in Vancouver and I grew up in Richmond. They used to have a night in Richmond called Nite Shift where they would have bands play, and it would just be kids coming together to play covers or form a band and play original stuff. So that kind of community that gathered around that, we would go to concerts together too. Our parents were surprisingly cool about dropping us off downtown and just being like, “Go on, have fun! Be safe. Don’t drink or do drugs.”

How did you get into Graphic Design? I didn’t go to school for Design. I went to school for Photography initially, at Langara’s 2 year program. My pathway to design is kind of a little snaky – not shady! – like a winding road. Eventually I started working for a photographer named John and he had a studio that also had some clients that had aspects of design. I worked with John for almost 15 years. It was a long-term mentorship. I knew how to use a lot of the software already; it was more the experience developing that taste and refinement for using type and images together and all of that sort of stuff. That can really only be developed over time and by doing things over and over again and being exposed to it. Even when I was in school I feel like I had a good understanding of Design to begin with. For instance when we’re putting together our portfolios for photography school, design was an important aspect for me. I wanted to have a nice logo and the type had to be well laid out…although I was doing it from more of a naive perspective. I also worked for the CBC as a house photographer for the Radio 3, so when they had a band that would come in to do a five-song session or something, I would photograph the session. That was really exciting. I worked with bands and for the Georgia Straight for a while. And then the whole industry changed so I had to get creative if I wanted to have an income from being creative with images in some way. I had to evolve to include design.

What’s your favourite current project? Working on all of the LEATHERS stuff has been really exciting because I’ve been able to incorporate all of the things that I like to do into one project. Whether I want to design a graphic or do a photoshoot, it’s cool to have it all under one umbrella. It helps to have LEATHERS as the boundary to focus my intention but it’s still the different mediums.

If LEATHERS were an animal, what would it be? My cat, Frankie, is my spirit animal. But an actual animal, as well. He is like me in cat form. When I play music he sits at the table and watches me.

What’s currently in the works for LEATHERS? Currently we just have two songs we’ve released. We have a third that’s being written right now. It’s pretty much recorded but I just need to write some more lyrics and record a vocal track for it. And then we’re gonna do a cover so that we have four pieces of music, and then I think at that point we’ll start rehearsing…and then as we’re rehearsing we’ll probably record another song or two. I feel like we’ll probably be ready to play by early next year, if I’m realistic about it.

Is there anything that you haven’t done that you want to do? LEATHERS hasn’t performed yet so performing. Prior to being in ACTORS I had never been on stage before. But I’ve been musical all my life. I think I just have a shy, introverted personality. It was reconnecting with Jason that encouraged me to get over it and just do it.

Are you looking forward to being the centre of attention? I don’t know about that! It is a little worrying because the focus is directed and I’m someone who likes to excel and do well, so I can be hard on myself. I think the solution to that is just to prepare as much as possible. Jason’s been a great music mentor for me because he’s helped me to sing better and given me an opportunity to be in ACTORS, which has been an amazing experience.

How did you come to collaborate with Jason Corbett? Jason used to manage Save On Meats – he’s now a producer full-time. He had a record night at SOM called Common Courtesy about three or four years ago. Basically the concept of the night was friends in bands would come in and bring records to play, like a rotating cast of guest DJs and Jason would DJ sometimes. And, because SOM was close to work for me, we’d go in there and have lunch. Jason and I reconnected at that point. We’re both crazy David Bowie fans and we’re into darker stuff like Bauhaus and The Cure. We discovered we have all of this music in common and he said, “Why don’t you come and DJ at Common Courtesy?” I did that a couple of times and eventually he suggested that me and this girl, Bianca, start our own night which we called Movement, named after the New Order record. Every other Friday for about an year we’d play records and hang out at the diner. So Jason and I got to know each other by proximity. He would ask me, “Why aren’t you playing in a band? You’re musical and you can sing.” At this point I was also doing Instagram covers where I’d play my guitar and sing for whatever the video duration was on Instagram. He planted the idea for both of us and we decided to start a project together.

Who is your dream collaboration? Nick Cave always did great duets with women, so if I could do a duet with Nick Cave that would be pretty sweet!

What’s the best thing about working with Jason? Jason is immensely talented of course, but he also has a magic ability to disarm my chronic over-thinking. I’m comfortable brainstorming in his presence, so if an idea falls flat, who cares, we remain flexible and keep going. He’s also a hilarious character and an outstanding friend, so we just have a blast making things together.

What is something about him that drives you nuts? I have no complaints. We have an open dialog and if something isn’t sitting well, we chat about it. It’s really that easy.

Now, imagine you are Jason and answering the above questions about yourself. I see what you did there. Best thing about working with me? Everything I take on, I put in the time and effort required. No shortcuts or half-assery. Something that drives him nuts? Probably not singing loud enough! I have gentle singing voice but I’m pretty sure that it’s completely psychological. I will find that volume dial any day now, I promise.

Shannon_LivewithACTORS

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