Guitarist and composer Joel Shearer on music and emotions, scoring Hollywood films and other things.
Music affects our bodies.
You go to a festival and the whole place is kinetic energy—motion. It creates a hypnotic pulse. You let go of the head and get drawn into your body.
That’s how Joel Shearer thinks about music.
“I’ve always approached music in this way. I’m not an educated musician, I haven’t formally studied music. I know shapes, sound, tone. I’m fascinated with how sound works, and knowing how to stack sounds and arrange tones.”
Shearer has played on countless records with artists like Alanis Morissette, Goo Goo Dolls, Cher, Damien Rice, Joe Cocker, Dido, Nelly Furtado, and many others. More recently he started scoring films, including Janis: Little Girl Blue and a collaboration with AR Rahman for 127 Hours.
But the topic that gets him most excited is the relationship between music and feelings.
“I’m fascinated with sound and how it contributes to emotions. If you’re composing a song and you have a crappy sound, it’s not going to feel good. Our nervous system is designed to navigate that. That’s what I’ve been learning subconsciously over the past 25 years.”
Joel is generous with words. Talking to him is a captivating drift, touching on everything from music and gear to philosophy, meditation and movies. He spoke about healing music, ambient guitar techniques, effects pedals, and what’s exciting about music production today.
What interests you about the relationship between sound and emotions?
I got into creating atmospheric spaces within pop music. In a pop song, I would always want to find an element that floats through everything. I developed this way of playing the guitar very softly—with very little attack so you don’t hear the plucking of the strings. It doesn’t even sound like a guitar anymore! Then I would create these ambient sound beds in the music. I started and ended songs with ambient sound beds in my own bands. I did long segues and had these long journeys when we played live.
Fast forward to the last couple of years. I deepened my fascination with frequency and vibration. I got interested in how frequencies affect us in positive and negative ways. I researched the effect of sound on the body.
At the same time, my spiritual practice started to get more defined in terms of mediation. I moved to Topanga Canyon in California up in the hills by the water—it’s quieter than LA. There, I started paying attention to my nervous system and how music was affecting me. How noise and volume, and the chaos of society were affecting me.
I started paying attention to my nervous system and how music was affecting me. How noise and volume, and the chaos of society were affecting me.
I explored the effect of different frequencies, like the tuning standard 440 Hertz versus 432 Hertz. Look it up online: they use a metal vibration plate and put sand on it. Then they send a frequency to vibrate the plate: 440 Hz then 432 Hz. This is called cymatics, it’s a way to make sound visible.
At 440 Hz you see the sand create a shape, but it’s a much sloppier shape than when you send it 432 Hz. 432 Hz is said to be mathematically consistent with things in nature and sacred geometries. We are all vibrations, all of us, everything in the world. It’s spirituality but it’s also science.
How are you exploring these concepts in your music?
I started a performance piece where there’s 8 speakers around a room. Everybody’s in the middle, they sit or they lie down. Shoes off, no cellphones, no cameras—just focused.
With my electric guitar I send different frequencies around the room. I started calling this my ambient guitar ‘sound baths.’ I tune my guitar down to 432 Hz and then improvise. No planning. Everyone comes in, I get a feel for the room and I start making sound. Then I just let my body tell me what to do.
It’s been unbelievable. I do them every month now. After touring with the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, the percussionist Orpheo McCord and I became close friends. He was doing something similar with the marimba, so now we’ve been collaborating.
There’s been a lot of interest in it this—people are curious and invite me to play. I feel like I’m actually contributing in some way other than just putting pop music into the world.
You spoke earlier about wanting to get away from the egocentric focus of the music industry. Tell me more about that.
It’s an amazing time in the world for the ego! Social media is a platform for the ego. Not that that’s a bad thing, we need our ego to survive.
I don’t want to shy away from social media because they’re actual tools to promote your work. If I’m doing a sound bath, I want people to come! I think it’s a valuable tool, but it feels like there’s no candidness anymore…
Everything is rehearsed—you take a selfie. “I don’t like it.” Take it again. We are losing our ability to be in the moment. The further we go into ego-based society, the further away we step from our natural world.
Everybody is in front of screens in their own worlds all the time, even with Virtual Reality—which is amazing technology. But we’re so in awe of technology that we forget it’s all irrelevant to a certain degree. If the power goes out, we don’t have any of that technology.
We need to look in each other’s eyes, we need to be able to have a conversation with one another, we need to touch each other. Intimacy is not something that’s rehearsed, it’s pure presence.
For me, the point of making music right now—especially with this ambient project—is to get people in a room to become present together.
And with music, improvisation is like that—you are in the moment. You’re listening to the people you’re playing with. It’s a dance, it’s a language, it’s a conversation. I don’t know if technology is teaching us to be better conversationalists. I think it’s teaching us to be better isolationists.
Music is really a gift. It’s a language that we all understand without having to speak it.
On the other side, music has also become a thing that we take for granted. It’s often in the background, as background noise. Everywhere you go there’s music playing. While you’re working, shopping, eating. In some ways, that aspect of music is a sad loss of the gift of music. Music is really a gift. It’s a language that we all understand without having to speak it.
That reminds me of Brian Eno’s ambient music manifesto, He talks about how ambient music is not meant to be a background layer—that’s called muzak. Ambient music is more of a “surrounding influence,” it’s meant to be noticed and have an effect on you.
To me, ambient music is something in the background that isn’t distracting you, but it’s affecting you. It’s not taking you away from your thoughts. If anything, it’ll bring you more into the place where you are.
Ambient music is not taking you away from your thoughts. If anything, it’ll bring you more into the place where you are.
I think of ambient music as something that isn’t linear—there are no chord progressions and no structure. It’s more something you experience. There’s not that much to listen to, sometimes it’s quite boring. But it feels so good.
That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with ambient music—not add to the background noise. It’s also very cinematic. After I play a sound bath, I have people telling me “man, I went on a journey” or “I had all these visions come to me.” That’s important for us, to have visions and to be taken on journeys. Because that’s where we learn and grow. That’s where we discover the next thing.
You mentioned the cinematic aspects of music. You’ve done some music for film—notably 127 Hours and Sons of Anarchy. How do you approach scoring a film?
That’s a new world for me. I’m fascinated by it for various reasons. It’s still open, there are literally no rules. For instance the score for Iñárritu’s Birdman is just drums, that’s amazing! Or There Will Be Blood is just dissonant violins.
A film score does its job when the composer’s sounds help tell the story the director is trying to tell. That can be anything from a huge classical opus to a sonic wash of noises that evolve.
That’s where we learn and grow. That’s where we discover the next thing.
I think film is an interesting place because it’s experimental. There’s a lot of experimental music going on in the film score world. When you hear a good film score it affects you in an emotional way. Nils Frahm and Jóhann Jóhannsson for instance are doing beautiful yet simple scores that are so gorgeous.
Your primary instrument is the guitar. How do you approach ambient music with guitar, and what does that mean technically?
The guitar is a very fluid instrument. There’s so many subtle things I can do with my hands with one sound. I can hit the strings harder. I can use different parts of my fingers. I can use my nails. I can use a pick. I can slide my fingers around. I can bend notes. I can add vibrato. There’s so much language at the tip of my fingers, I can change any sound.
The guitar is a very fluid instrument… There’s so much language at the tip of my fingers, I can change any sound.
I can give you one sound on the guitar and make it sound a million different ways. That’s why I think the guitar is a very special instrument—for me. There’s so many things people can do with violins and cellos. There’s amazing players that can touch a piano and get totally unique sounds out of it.
I’m also very much into effects. I’ve been playing with effects forever. When I was 15, the bass player from my band had to take away my delay pedal—I just had it on all the time! I loved how it sounded, how infinite it could be… I also put reverbs into other effects. I love exploring sonics.
What are some of the key boxes on your effects pedal board?
I always have a few ways to loop. I still love the Line 6 DL4 delay. I don’t even use the delay function, I just use it as a looper.
In terms of delays, I have an Empress Superdelay. I like the Strymon Timeline for some things—it’s digital so you can program it. I love Eventide, I think they make amazing effects. I have their Space pedal and an H9. Neunaber make this really beautiful reverb that I really enjoy. Those are some of the more ambient effects.
I don’t like pedals that emulate other things, I prefer those that are themselves.
I’m not so into the glitchy pedals, I’m into the musical pedals. I don’t care about a delay pedal sounding like a tape delay if I want it to sound warm—I have real tape delays. I don’t like pedals that emulate other things, I prefer those that are themselves.
How does LANDR fit in your process?
I’m very moved by the technology that LANDR has created for people. There are so many young musicians that are making music who don’t have money to get their songs mastered. And everything has to be competitive now—it needs to be hot and loud.
A platform that allows musicians to drop in their music and have it amplified in a way that’s presentable and competitive in the market—that’s amazing.
And then I started thinking, what about the professional musicians? I don’t always want to pay for mastering. Every time I make something I’ll throw a plugin on it. But I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not an engineer! So LANDR is an amazing platform for the ambient music that I’m doing, or if I write a song with an artist. Instead of just putting an L2 limited on it and calling it a day, I’ll send it into LANDR and it’ll sound better.
Now you have the digital distribution, and it’s a one-stop shop. I find it inspiring, and I’m super grateful to be a part of the community. I don’t know if I’ll use LANDR mastering for everything I do, but I’ll definitely throw my tracks in there to see how they will sound. I can make creative decisions based on the master I get back.
It’s an amazing platform to further the creative process. It gets the quality of what you’re putting out into the world better. It’s easy for people to plug in a synth and play without knowing how sound and frequencies work. I’ve put a few songs through LANDR mastering and I’m very happy with the result.
How do you feel about our current moment in music production?
I think it’s an interesting time to be making music. Some say the music business is over. But I see it the opposite. The music business is more alive than it’s ever been! There’s more opportunities to get music into the world, and to do it independently.
Some say the music business is over. But I see it the opposite. There’s more opportunities to get music into the world, and to do it independently.
You don’t have to be a musician anymore to make music. You can be a creative person, get a computer, learn Ableton and make music. I know a lot of musicians that are frustrated by that, but I find it fascinating. As we evolve as a species, the kind of music we make is also evolving.
I’m more inspired than ever because I’m thinking so much further outside of the box than I did before. Whereas before it was just guitar, now I’m looking at all the different opportunities to make different types of music. The thing used to be: “I need a band, I need to find a singer.” Now it’s just: go make music!
These are crazy times, so I want to make a lot of gorgeous emotional music that inspires people to go inward to check out their shit.
Now more than any other time that I’ve been alive, we need to put good art into the world. Because art is the thing that leads people’s consciousness. We have to do it—there’s too many political things happening. There’s too many bloated white people ruining the world. Men need to chill the fuck out! These are crazy times, so I want to make a lot of gorgeous emotional music that inspires people to go inward to check out their shit.
Latest posts by Leticia Trandafir (see all)
- Inspiration Is for Amateurs: EmmoLei on Lyrics, Music Videos and Process - August 15, 2017
- Alain Mongeau and Patti Schmidt on the MUTEK Legacy - August 12, 2017
- The Effects of Frequencies: Joel Shearer on Letting Your Body Guide the Music - August 4, 2017