Justina Shandler was born in New Hampshire but grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. She started writing music when she was 10. Since then she has written more than 100 songs for both piano and guitar. She can also play the saxophone. She started off writing songs for the PTA Reflections contests. For three years, she won top honors for her school, county, district and 3rd in the state of Virginia for her song, In My Dreams. She continued to play her music at local open mic nights.
After transferring to Community High School of Arts and Academics, she joined the school’s band. With them, she has played multiple gigs ranging from school-wide performances to community events, including Strawberry Festival, Down By the River and Floydfest.
Currently, she is learning how to record and produce her own music. Now, she is a sophomore at the Frost School of Music. Majoring in Media Writing and Production, and one of 15 nationwide to be accepted to the Bruce Hornsby Contemporary Songwriting program, she is a young artist to watch.
Thank you Justina for agreeing to this interview. First of all I will admit to being a fan so that my gushing has some context. Let’s start with you giving us a little of your history and your influences.
I grew up in a musical house. My dad has been a singer/songwriter since college, and the family would frequently have music sessions in the living room where we would sing and dance with Dad at the piano. I remember growing up, singing his song, “Play with Your Face”—where we would all fool around with each others’ faces and noses and ears. Hearing Dad’s music really inspired me to write myself.
I had been taking piano lessons since I was five, and around six or seven, I began writing songs on the piano. I would play the melody with my right hand, my left hand would do nothing, and I would sing the exact melody I was playing. Growing up, all I listened to was Billy Joel and Barbara Streisand. Joel had been my dad’s influence and inspiration, and my very Jewish mother loves singing Barbara’s songs. I never really took to Barbara, but to this day Billy Joel is still my music idol.
Your last EP was terrific. I notice that you put your lyrics up on your site. This seems a silly question but I think it speaks to a songwriter’s process. As a songwriter are the lyrics important to you?
Lyrics are number one for me. It is one thing to hear a song and tap your foot and dig the groove, but it is a completely different thing to hear lyrics you connect with. It is about depth for me. I want people to enjoy the sound of my music, but it is more important for them to hear and understand the words. I have been working a lot on the clarity of my lyrics when I perform. I make a concerted effort to emphasize the important words and really tell the story. Sometimes, when I practice, I read my lyrics aloud. That way, when I sing them, I communicate the words more conversationally. I try to think of my songs as a form of communication, as well as entertainment.
I did notice that you do have a very conversational style in your lyric – I’ll stick my neck out and say that is skill and talent – there is certainly a poetic quality in terms of word sounds and tempo. Did I get that right? Is that poetic quality purposeful in your writing?
I am flattered by this! My lyric writing is definitely purposeful; I spend a lot of time writing and re-writing words so I like the way they flow off my tongue. As I mentioned in the previous comment, I sometimes practice reading my lyrics aloud, as if I were just reading sentences. It helps me know what to emphasize when I sing.
As far as poetic intent goes, I really love the sound of alliterations when I sing them. For instance, in my song “Richard”, “He’s holding me by the pant leg, and hangs around with nothing better to do” was written on purpose. I really like the ‘h’ sound of ‘he’s’, ‘holding’ and ‘hangs’. I don’t think people notice small things like that, but I do. Some more examples of alliterations in my songs are “[you] didn’t die”, “clear and constant”, “softly said”, “tallest pedestal”, “silence sweeping”, “sea of shame” etc.
Also, I try to paint pictures when I write lyrics. I’m big on imagery. In my song “Salt”, “the only thing between us is sweat” is one of my favorite lines. I describe something R-rated using G-rated words. In my song “It Gets Old”, I described my friend who missed her ex boyfriend and was repeatedly making decisions that made her unhappy to cope with heartbreak:
Actually, it’s not that bad at all
When you ignore the floor when you fall
With your face down, you gasp for air
You want to go home, but who will take you there?
In my song “Ceiling Fan”, I use the ceiling fan as a metaphor to talk about a relationship dying. Ceiling fans move cold air around. Maybe it is a stretch, but my intent was to compare the fan to a boyfriend and girlfriend trying to move forward—like the perpetually moving fan—but end up just sitting in cold silence.
It began with the ceiling fan
And the silence sweeping through the dark
Now we lie on separate sides
Of the bed where we once shared a spark
I could give more examples, but you get the picture.
As an Artist there is no missing your terrific musicianship – what comes first the music or the lyrics?
It varies. When I’m in the shower, lyrics/melody hit me hard. But when I’m supposed to be practicing classical music in a practice room at school, my classical piano mess-ups sometimes turn into a riff I will eventually write lyrics over. Most of the time, though, I will start with a lyric, because my songwriting comes from my emotions. When I feel something, I write words. The music comes next.
Your voice has a clear and dynamic quality. Do you work your vocal intensity to mirror the lyric?
Truthfully I don’t think much on this. It is an innate sort of thing, rooted in honest lyrics, and my overall passion for what I’m singing, I would guess.
When you sit to write, do you start writing lyrics or music first?
When I sit at the piano with the intention to write, I know what’s on my mind is what I’m going to write about. Therefore, the lyrics come first, because my feelings are the most pressing thing I gotta get out of me! I write the music to mirror the mood of the lyrics. Sometimes, I write the music in the opposite mood of the lyrics, just for fun.
You are a talented songwriter and have a very clear love of the craft. Give us a little songwriting workshop on how one of your songs comes to be.
Every song is completely different, but I will talk about a recent song I wrote called “Emma”. Emma is a real girl– a good friend (and also ex-girlfriend) of my boyfriend at the time. I was never accepting of their unconventional friendship, given the romantic history. Anyway, some jealousy from both Emma and me came to a head from the struggle to win the boyfriend’s attention. Trying to be sympathetic towards Emma, I wrote:
Don’t you think you need a break
From crying and from hiding all your feelings from his face
You can’t set everything in stone
Nothing in life is permanent, but he’ll always be your home
I wrote the sad melody for this verse over a simple chord progression (C-Em-F-G). Trying to convince myself I was the bigger person, I told myself this entire issue would be resolved with time. I began the chorus:
Give it a little time
Give it a little time
Being a very erratic and emotional person, I suddenly could no longer hide my judgments and feelings. The chorus continues with leaping melodies, bursting with emotion…
You can’t see the colors
You see in black and white
You can say you tried
To not cut off your ties
But you’ll never love someone
Unless they’re on your side
How does it feel to be colorblind?
For any musicians reading this, I decided to incorporate two diminished chords in the chorus. I wanted it to sound dissonant and abrasive and perhaps a little agonizing to listen to, because that’s how I was feeling at the time. I decided I would rather say exactly how I was feeling than be the bigger person and write a sympathetic song. So for the second verse, I held nothing back:
Are you glad to watch him cry?
Preserve yourself, assure yourself
You’re right to say goodbye
You are fragile as can be
Afraid you’ll fall apart, you break the things
Around you easily
And you got inside his mind
Made him thinking he was to blame
For having disobeyed the rules to your own secret game
So bow your angelic eyes
As your feet drag you home
You think you can dance the tango
on your very own
Without knowing the nasty details of this situation, it may be difficult to understand my process here. However, when I play this song, I feel the emotional roller coaster I have been on all over again. It began with my struggle to be a bigger person, and ended as pure catharsis. Many of my songs work this way– they follow my emotional path, and sometimes take a dramatic turn!
Is there something about the craft of songwriting you think needs to be known to a songwriter?
Be honest, know at least five chords, and avoid clichés at any cost. Invent your own cliché. Invent your own word, or concept. It may not be a radio hit, but people will remember a song written about an alcoholic that gets eaten by stray dogs over a song that says hold me tight all night, baby.
I call that journal writing – there is a difference in the quality of a song that is written with an eye on form and lucid creative content – songwriting as apposed to banal emoting. I believe it to be an insight every new songwriter should get to if they are serious about the craft. Your lyrics are straight from the heart and well written. Tell us what needs to be in a Justina Shandler song.
I guess it’s the combo of honesty and accessibility; a balance of personal details and universal issues. I need to be saying something that people care about. People care about heartbreaks and love stories because most of us have had our own.
Giving a love story a quirky Justina twist is something I’ve done a lot. But I’ve also been pretty brutal in times of hurt. In high school, I wrote, “How Could Anyone Love Scum?”—A song about me changing a boy’s name in my phone to ‘Scum’, so that every time he called me, that’s the name that would pop up on the caller ID and I would be reminded of my feelings towards him. For that song, it was about using true feelings of hurt to write something comical and over-the-top.
“The only thing in life that is entirely bad is writers’ block. Everything else bad can have a good song written about it.”
I love this quote you have on your site (justinashandler.com) and I whole-heartedly agree. Tell us something about the quote and how it applies to you as a songwriter.
This is a quote I came up with (although I’m sure I was not the first person to say something like this) while getting through a breakup. I was heartbroken and wrote a great song. At that moment I realized that even if I was at a funeral, I could write a great song about that. If I got attacked by a bear (and lived), I could write a hit song about it. But the worst possible thing for a songwriter is definitely writers’ block. If I am able to write about everything I see and feel, it should be much easier to pull myself out of a bad place. Songwriting keep my confidence up, sometimes it keeps me afloat.
I discovered you on Fandalism.com and was just knocked out. That speaks to a couple things. One is that the internet is vast, but one can still make real connections anywhere in the world. Having said that, getting music heard by people outside your local area is still not that easy. As a young singer/songwriter how do you view the music business today?
The music business is a very do-it-yourself type of thing now. Anyone with a few hundred bucks can buy a cheap microphone and recording software and produce professional sounding music. I am grateful for sites like Fandalism, where so many musicians just starting out get a chance to be heard. I am one of them! However, since it is so easy for people to record their own music, it is so easy to run across crappy music on the Internet (and cough—the radio—cough cough). It’s nice that everyone gets a shot at promoting him or herself, it’s just more difficult to find a true artist among a bunch of mediocre musicians. Is that harsh?
I think it is honest. You are such a ‘sparkling’ performer – do you work on that or is it natural to you?
Again, you flatter me! I would have to say any sparkle or glisten you see, if it is not sweat, is just my passion. My passion is natural to me, so the sparkle is too!
You are a multi-instrumentalist – which instrument do you write with guitar or piano?
I write the majority of my songs on the piano. I’ve written four or five songs on the guitar. I love it though; my guitar songs are so different from my piano songs. My guitar songs tend to sound more folk-y and are more rhythmic than my piano tunes, which have often been compared to music in the style of musical theatre or Regina Spektor.
You also play with a band – I assume the band on the EP. Which do you prefer playing solo or with a band?
Both are incredibly different experiences. Sometimes I feel I am limited with a band. When I perform solo, if I want to slow down in certain spots to be dramatic, I can do that. I can change things up on the fly if I’m feeling in the mood. With a band, we perform as rehearsed. We get a nice chunky and full sound—which I love—but as a performer, I have less freedom when playing with a band. I have a feeling I might change my mind about this if I start gigging with the same musicians consistently. We’ll find a groove!
Who is playing with you on your EP “Pleasure’s All Mine?”
I did lead vocals, piano, and some backup harmonies. All other musicians are students and friends of mine at the University of Miami. Joni Fatora sang back-up harmonies (and also co-wrote “Drunk Tongue”), Steven Pardo played electric guitar (and also engineered and produced my EP—what a guy!), Dallas Marlow shredded with his lead guitar in “Pleasure’s All Mine” and “Fuel”, Adam Grossman filled in the sound with some nice and steady acoustic guitar, multi-instrumentalist Jackson Firlik played drums, and bass (electric and upright) was played by the talented Christopher Croce. Any digital instruments you hear (violin, harp, and glockenspiel) was also the work of Steven Pardo.
Let’s talk about your EP. ‘Fuel’ is one of those conversational songs that is rife with lovely metaphors. A song about holding on. What was the seed of this song?
I was in a long distance relationship with my boyfriend. I thought he was the “fuel I drink”– because I would feel happy and fulfilled every time we spoke. But sometimes when we didn’t talk for a while, I would run out of “fuel” and reassess the relationship. The song is really about my struggle to make long distance work.
“Do you get off when you demean me?
You’re fucking creepy, fucking creepy
Were you mad when I wasn’t screaming?”
‘Pleasure’s All Mine’ is my favorite for lyric, melody and arrangement. This has a different feel than the other tunes on the EP, a bit dark and boldly revealing, with a contradictive bright and happy sound. All the more creepy cool! Tell us about how this song came about.
I ended up going with “You’re so creepy, you’re so creepy” instead of the bad word…decided it wasn’t really adding much to an already very disturbing song.
“Pleasure’s All Mine” is a very very personal song to me. I like playing it because people think it’s catchy, but the ones who actually pay attention to the lyrics are left feeling a little uneasy. I love that.
To make a long, traumatic story short, I was sexually assaulted at a college party. I reported the guy to authorities, and wrote this song while waiting for the verdict of his crime. The lyric, “you’ll either die or you will be fine, or die” was my way of hoping he got a fair punishment. In my opinion…he did not.
I have no idea how the song came to sound like an over-the-top 70s pop tune, but I love that it did. My friend, classmate, and producer Steven Pardo really helped me realize the arrangement for this song. It was his idea to record the chorus of “na, na nas” in the refrain, and also to add bells during the verses. Both of those elements made the music sound innocent and convivial. That innocence juxtaposed with lyrics about a rapist created a deeply disturbing song. Creepy was the goal.
The ‘oh oh oh oh’ had me right away. ‘If You Ever Miss Me’ has a lovely melody, great refrain, and a poignant sad story. Is this from personal experience? How much of you songs are autobiographical?
This song is absolutely from personal experience. It was heart wrenching to write. The sadness of losing my loved one hit me every time I played it (especially after discovering he got a new girlfriend).
Most of my songs are autobiographical. But even those that are not, I try to tie them into something I’ve experienced. Sincerity is so important to me.
“Bite my tongue again- taste the bitter end.
See you back on earth where we’ll pretend this never happened”
‘Drunk Tongue’ is another favorite of mine, a song about those too sad moments when you may regret your actions. This one speaks to all audiences as to choices made. This is an example of what I mentioned earlier about being conversational without being mundane, where this could be a rambling self indulgent entry in a journal –you transform the event poetically/lyrically into an accessible, touching, and sad song. Talk to us about lyrical choices when you write – that translation from an experience into communicating it in a song.
When I translate an experience to a song, I often think of what I actually say during that experience. “[Here it comes, I’ve been drinking.] But it’s alright, I feel fine” is something I would actually say when I know I’m doing something I will later regret. I try to sum up the moment in the least boring way possible, while adding specific references here and there to add originality.
This is an uncomfortable question and one I have asked myself for years. How do you see yourself as a songwriter? As an artist/performer?
This stumped me when you asked this on the phone. And it is still stumping me! I consider myself a songwriter first and foremost. Writing is more important than performing, to me. So in that way, I see myself as a storyteller with a decent voice and musical skillset. As an artist/performer, I try to connect with an audience the way Billy Joel does onstage. Also, it’s important for me to find a balance between sincerity and quirkiness/humor. While my more serious songs tend to be pretty heavy, I also want to make sure I don’t take myself too seriously. Does this answer the question?
I think it does indeed. How do you think your audience sees you?
People have told me I have a very clear sound and idea of who I want to be as an artist. They say I sound a lot like Regina Spektor. Whether my audience likes me or not, they usually don’t see me as “mainstream.” I am proud to be unique and write music much different from the music on the radio.
As a performer what are your most favorite venues and why?
I like playing for people who listen to me. So, the venue with the most consistently attentive listeners would be the music room in my house. My family doesn’t have to worry about hurting my feelings if they don’t like one of my songs. I have endless support from them, so negative feedback every once in a while is greatly appreciated. I love playing for them because I know they care, and they always listen.
It is quite a different experience to connect with a stranger, though. I performed with my high school band (we played rock covers—Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Grace Potter tunes, as well as some of my originals) at FloydFest, a four-day festival in Virginia. To be able to play at the same event as my favorite artist, Grace Potter, was an immense honor, and I was freaking excited! Hundreds of strangers came out to listen, and I belted my songs with pride. That may have been my favorite venue just because it was a big deal for me and my band to play at such a huge festival.
What is it that you want to accomplish as a songwriter? As a performer?
While I continue to hone my sound, I want to develop that without changing who I am. I want to collaborate with as many writers as I can, and I want to write music out of my comfort zone. As a performer, I always strive to be more engaging and to better my musicianship. I am taking voice lessons and piano lessons here at UM. My goal is to put on a great show every time I perform.
You have been incredibly candid and thank you for that. Is there anything else you need to tell your fans and new fans about Justina Shandler?
While staying true to myself, I also want my fans to know I am constantly pushing my own boundaries as a songwriter. I am branching out and appropriating elements of other genres. My music is changing, so they will never be stuck with the same stuff from me.
What’s coming up for you?
I recently put out my first EP, “Pleasure’s All Mine”…you can listen and purchase here: www.justinashandler.bandcamp.com
Currently I’m playing saxophone in a funk band, which is taking up a lot of my time. But I am also writing for my next album! With producer friend Steven, we plan to put out an album soon!
Thank you Justina for a delightfully informative and candid chat. Dave and I are impressed with your courage as a songwriter – you are a true craftsman, and a remarkable talent. More good things will surely come. We will be watching your career with interest.
Justina Shandler’s EP ‘Pleasures All Mine’
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Interview by Ken Lehnig