Living the Highlife

Written by Chase Hoffberger on . Posted in Posts.

Doug Shaw has never been to Africa, but the continent’s musical roots have managed to make such an impression on him that you’d think he’d learned songwriting in Nigeria.

“It’s definitely less of a studied thing than it is a feeling,” the 27-year-old, who performs as Highlife, admits. “The circular nature of that music is really something that I feel well in command of. I don’t know African music region to region in an encyclopedic way, but I intuit the feeling of it well, and it’s become a part of how I play now. I have more of a feeling of the circular aspect of it than maybe having certain different reference points.”

Circular’s a good word for it. Shaw’s Best Bless EP, out this week, was written in a style he calls “circular songwriting”: devoid of any defined backbeat, each song has a celebratory, seemingly endless feel. But his foray into the world of African music has also taken quite an ambiguous path.

Born in London to a British father and a mother from Wisconsin, Shaw quickly took to America’s wealth of roots and folk recordings. When he turned 19, he used his dual citizenship to move across the Atlantic, settling in Eugene, Ore., where he soon found himself spending days drinking liquor with old men and nights gigging with Sacramento retro poppers Baby Grand. Both would lead to his eventual pilgrimage to New York in 2005, when Shaw left Baby Grand after an East Coast tour.

For years Shaw meandered through living situations and band rosters within the city, playing guitar with Mira Billotte’s mythically witchy White Magic and bass for cosmic pop party starters Gang Gang Dance.

He birthed Highlife on a 2008 trip to Trinidad’s Gaspar Grand Island, where he recorded four of Best Bless‘ five songs; “Wet Palm Trees,” a barebones closer featuring nothing but Shaw’s voice and an acoustic guitar, was recorded on a St. Lucia beach one New Year’s Eve. Shaw suggests that the Caribbean lifestyle allowed him to grow so familiar with Highlife’s West African roots.

wasn’t a good island for cane production in the 18th and 19th
centuries, so it was primarily used as an island for breeding slaves,”
he explains. “All that Calypso and guitar music fed back to West Africa
and blended with their rhythms, making what’s known today as Highlife

Shaw left Trinidad shortly after laying down the original recordings to Best Bless and
stopped in London to rerecord the album before returning to Brooklyn.
He put down most of the tracks himself, though help came in the form of
Billotte, who contributed background vocals to the Vampire Weekend pop
of “Tuareg Dancehall,” Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti bassist Tim Koh and
Jesse Lee, who plays drums in Gang Gang Dance. A first single, the
celebratory “F Kenya Rip,” was released shortly after completion of the
project and was well-received by music websites, but the rest Shaw kept
under wraps until the EP’s release.

Fans may just be getting used to the songs on Best Bless by
the time his Oct. 6 show at Zebulon (with Lichens and Callers) rolls
around, but Shaw’s already got his mind on putting together new

looking forward to getting something else out there soon,” he says of a
new project, which he hopes to release in the spring of 2011. “Just the
fact that ‘F Kenya Rip’ has been around for a year and people have that
record; I’m just looking forward to getting another document out there.”

expect to see Shaw shooting from the same circular system, either. The
Park Slope resident is focused on not being the kind of artist who gets
stuck on one style—during our interview he played an acoustic guitar and
a Shruti box, an Indian harmonium instrument, and made references to
performing sometimes with an acoustic guitar, sometimes with a full band
and sometimes with nothing but his own voice. So, assume nothing.

already has a large weighting on the influence of African music,” he
says, “but I have many different styles. Maybe the next thing won’t
sound like this too much.”

But Doug, it’s all good if it does.

>> HIGHLIFE Oct. 6, Zebulon, 258 Wythe Ave. (betw. N. 3rd St. & Metropolitan Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-218-6934; 9, $TBA.