|Photo courtesy of the Skeleton Keys|
For Shane Hunt, music was always a conduit not simply for self-expression, but a way to relate to others.
“Music is the best catalyst for conversation I have ever discovered,” Hunt said. “You instantly have something to relate to anybody with. I can channel all that energy, enthusiasm or anguish and create something that not only helps me, but will touch or affect others also. Music transcends language barriers, religious beliefs or ethnicities – it’s a universal dialect. It’s not difficult to be enthusiastic about that.”
Shane Hunt, Sydney Sprague, and Sam Mitchell make up The Skeleton Keys, a new group in Phoenix ready to leave their unique mark on the Valley. Hunt plays guitar/mandolin, Sprague plays guitar/ukulele, while Mitchell plays violin/mandolin, and all three contribute on vocals. What’s more, Hunt’s comments show performing is something more to the trio than just playing music – they want to connect with their fans and make them feel something new.
“I tend to describe my songwriting as an attempt to encapsulate a particular moment or emotion,” Hunt said. “It’s like exorcism – you try to take an energy that is pervading your spirit and drive it out. Songs are a binding agent for that spirit. I look at where I am mentally and emotionally, feel what the tone of the song is, and imbue the melody and lyrics with the feeling I have currently, or with a past feeling that stands out to me.“
Another sign of great performers is how easily they adapt to change. The Skeleton Keys have changed since they first began, and have risen to many challenges. When Hunt was first performing, he played solo, but once he saw Sydney Sprague perform at a local “Chicks with Picks” showcase, he just had to introduce himself.
“We had very similar interests and songwriting styles,” Hunt said. “We blended very easily.”
When Hunt and Sprague began playing together, it quickly became a natural fit. Later, while Sprague was working as an intern at a recording studio in Austin, Hunt began writing for a music journal, AmpKicker.com, covering groups in the Valley and national acts.
Sam Mitchell was playing violin for one such group when she crossed paths with Hunt. But while Hunt was present to watch the group perform, Mitchell’s skills kept his attention through their whole set.
“I mentioned to her I was recording songs, and I would love to hear what it sounded like with her violin on them,” Hunt said. And later, when Mitchell parted ways with her former band, Hunt asked her if she would still be interested in working on the material together.
Eventually the three met and clicked instantly. The Skeleton Keys were born.
“When we met, Sydney and I were instant friends,” Mitchell said. “It’s not fake, everybody is really into it – everybody loves playing music. It’s music for music’s sake. I wrote stuff that fit in with their music, and went from there. We did a lot of covers, along with their own songs, to set the tone and develop our own rhythm and dynamic.”
Hunt agreed, saying when groups sit down to write a set, there is often conflict regarding band direction.
“But with us, it was instant chemistry. Everyone got along great,” he said. “When we first walked in, we played a blend of my songs and Sydney’s songs… but we started to see the dynamic change. As a singer/songwriter, you write simply and for yourself; but I started to change in the way I approach songwriting. I write with the group in mind now, leaving space for Sam’s violin or for Sydney’s vocals.”
Mitchell adds she truly believes strings elevate and provide depth to rock music.
“I was determined to show everyone violin will fit into rock music,” she said. “It does fit into rock music. It was hard getting into a band – first, because I’m a girl; second, because I play violin.”
With The Skeleton Keys, Mitchell is thrilled to have found a group who appreciates her skills on violin, as well as builds their set around giving her a chance to shine.
“Before, in other groups, the fit just wasn’t right,” Mitchell said. “I came into this group now with bad experiences based on prior situations, but I was really blown away. I came home saying, ‘I really like doing this! I really like music again.’”
Hunt said there is a tangible difference between Sprague and himself playing as solo songwriters compared to the dynamic of when they play together.
“I tend to write songs so I can still squeeze all the emotion, impact and intensity out of an audience I can when I play them by myself with an acoustic guitar,” he said. “So when I started to write for the band, my process started to change a bit to incorporate Sam and Syd’s strengths and sensibilities into my own style. There is a definite contrast to things I’ve written on my own to what we are writing together now. There is space created for solos, and there is a lot of room for harmonies, for example.”
The Skeleton Keys are ready to spread the word they are performing around town, and will soon head into the studio to record an album.
“Living off something we love so much would be amazing,” Mitchell said. “We’ve played consistently for a few months. We plan to get photos, merchandise and our album going very soon. I don’t care if we don’t get crazy big; I just want to get where we can do this for a living.”
Being an artist professionally is a major hurdle for most musicians, and Hunt knows there are many who are quick to condemn and sometimes dismiss performers. To every musical hopeful out there, he is just as quick to remind them for every criticism, there is a hand reaching out to offer help and support.
“You can’t allow your expectations to dictate your actions in the music business,” he said. “You have to just exist in the moment and allow things to happen to you… it’s an incredibly scarring and simultaneously intensely fulfilling experience. It’s like being in love with someone – it has the capacity to make you rapturous or completely devastated… so much of it is contingent on the type of energy you take to the situation. So if you’re open to good things, they will find you eventually.”
The Skeleton Keys aim to open many doors in the music industry and in the minds of their fans for the foreseeable future.
by Matt Marn