NJ singer-songwriter Shannon Hawley: ‘Grief is a form of praise’

Point Pleasant native Shannon Hawley on using joy to sing about tragedy, and recording her powerful new album, Starthrowers.

When NJ singer-songwriter Shannon Hawley prepared to record songs for her forthcoming album Starthrowers, she took to four wheels. Not a car, roller skates. The old school ones.

“Because I’m so intense in talking about grief and death, the way I would prepare to go into the studio is I would roller skate and sing songs really loud,” Hawley says. “And it felt so liberating, kind of associating my heart being open and joyful.”

That prep work paid dividends. For instance, In the latest single from the album, “Mercy,” you’ll hear the story of the grief that comes when someone dies young—the first verse takes the perspective of Hawley’s paternal grandmother, who died of heart failure at 24 in Belmar Beach, and the second verse’s narrator is Hawley’s father, who died at 42 from a brain tumor. And yet, whatever prep work Hawley put into the recording session, whatever work she did to process her grief, transforms the tone from something that could’ve been sad, dour, tragic, etc. into something powerful and resilient. 

“This isn’t like a journal entry. This is years and years of processing grief and knowing that grief is a form of praise. To have lived at all, to have loved deeply at all is such a gift, is the point of life,” Hawley says. “That capacity to love that deeply is also related to the capacity to grieve.”

The name of the album, Starthrowers, alludes to Loren Eiseley’s essay “The Star Thrower,” in which the narrator walks along a beach and sees a man picking up starfish from the shore and tossing them back into the water, saving their lives, though there are many to save and many more dying on the shore or at the hands of others. The narrator is at first skeptical and then decides to join, to renew life for those starfish no matter how odd it looks, and opines more will come. 

Hawley wanted to pay homage to the star throwers in her life, and to vow to be one for others, with the naming of the album

“The title track ‘Star Throwers,’ it’s mine and my sister’s grief right after my dad died. My family swooped in and kept us alive, tossed us back into the land of the living to get us through. That was an indoctrination of being a star thrower. My life of service is to be a star thrower and to find others because it matters.”

Process, it’s clear, also matters to Hawley. She’d sing Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” in order to calibrate the energy she needed to sing the songs on her album. Hawley’s also a sound therapist and breathwork facilitator, which means she’s aware of the therapy, for lack of a better word, that comes with bringing awareness to breath and sound—a lesson she first learned living in LA.

“I’m a pretty sensitive person, especially with sound. I think that’s true of most musicians, and I was having a hard time with the noise,” Hawley says. “So I started going to these sound bath meditations and they helped relax my nervous system enough so I could cope. It felt like a great way to not get burnt out and offer something that really helped me, that really aimed my nervous system enough so I could get back to music. Breathwork I got into because I’m sensitive to sound but that’s too woo-woo for people, so I got into breathwork. Everyone can do it. Everyone has access to it.”

Starthrowers represents a change in sound for Hawley, whose debut album A Different Kind of Progress, came out eight years ago and features a unique, intimate sound that alternates between the sometimes caustic, sometimes playful Fiona Apple and the easy-going, feel-good folk of Mason Jennings. You’ll hear a much more powerful, electric sound on Starthrowers, thanks in part to producer Hector Gundlach, who has more EDM/House sensibilities and whose influence is felt in the vibrating synths on the album. It’s a fun mashup—folk scaffolding, pop ornamentation.

“The bones have to be good, then you get to play. It really felt like playing in the studio, and I wanted to be more playful. The [songs] aren’t heavy, but they’re very, very personal and very much like a healing journey and about grief and praise, so it felt really fun.”

Shannon Hawley’s Starthrowers will be released March 24, and she’ll play Count Basie Center for the Arts on April 1.