Interview: Producer Shannon Sanders, 'I love to make music.'
Shannon Sanders

Shannon Sanders is a songwriter and producer from Nashville. He has won two Grammys, including one for his work on Voyage to India by India.Arie. By phone, he discussed his passion for music from an early age, his latest single “Fight On,” and his next project. 

AXS: How did you get started in music?

Shannon Sanders: The question is how did the music get started in me. I tell people all the time that music is my first language. I remember being musically sensitive even as a child. I remember hearing songs when I was maybe eight or nine years old and being so moved that I burst into tears. It connected with me at a crazy level, but I couldn’t communicate it. I would go to church with my family. My grandfather was a pastor. The choir would be singing, and spirits were high. I couldn’t wait until I could spend time building the neurological pathways between what was in my head and my hands or my voice so I could communicate that.

It was about that time that I started to study music. I started playing trumpet in third grade. At the time I went to a school that was K through 12. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was first chair in the high school band. It’s always made sense to me. I just had to figure it out.

AXS: Trumpet was your first instrument?

SS: It was my first instrument. Without realizing it I was getting the theory from studying in school. Then going to church with my family, I was learning to feel music. I learned to play what I felt with no sheet music in front of me. At school, there was sheet music, and you had to interpret what was in front of you. At church with my family, it was all about whatever was in your heart. While I was learning one side of it at school, I was learning the other side simultaneously.

When I was a teenager hip-hop was exploding. I happened to gravitate toward some of the most creative guys in the school. They’re still some of the most creative people I’ve ever met. We started making songs together. I would beatbox and program the drum machines. At the same time, I was going to the only high school in Nashville with a studio. Without realizing it I set myself up to be a producer the whole time. I didn’t realize it because nowhere would I use all my creativity at the same time. If I’m at school, they didn’t need me to program drum machines. They didn’t need me to play keys. They needed me to play trumpet. When I go to church, they need me to play keys and sing. When I’m with my friends, they need me to beatbox or program beats and write songs. No one needed all of me at the same time. It wasn’t until I was grown and I was able to go to the studio by myself that all of my creativity was available to me at one time. I could put it all together. That’s when it started to come together for me. I was maybe 20. My dad gave me some studio time at a karaoke studio. I was making tracks. I had a track of my own on a cassette. When I went to karaoke spots, instead of using a karaoke track, I’d use my own track to sing to. That was the first time it was all available to me at one time. I was like, “OK, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

AXS: The majority of your work now is producing?

SS: I write and produce. “Fight On” is me singing, but it’s really a producer initiative. It’s about me being able to express the breadth of my creativity where I’m not locked into a genre. We’re creating content where we can leverage it in different spaces. I’ve been able to work with a lot of talented artists. There’s some great music that’s just living on my hard drive. I’m excited to have the opportunity to get it off my drive and out to the world. Something may not have been for an artist’s project in particular. Now it’s for my project. Instead of it being the artist’s music featuring me, now it’s my music featuring the artist. That’s what I’m excited about. The things that I know the world needs to hear, now I have the opportunity to put it out. “Fight On” was one of those things that was living on my hard drive. It just happened to be me singing. This is an initiative where I get to feature people in the (Nashville Urban) Choir, which is an ensemble of some of the city’s most talented independent artists.

AXS: You’re working on a lot of projects. What’s the next one?

SS: I’m working on the new record with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The next thing might be an EP. Three songs are strong enough to go. There’s one called “Get Down.” Me and this rapper did this whole project. Three of these would make a mini-EP and they’re ready to go right now. One of those songs is sure and it’s called “Get Down.” It’s called the Slay the Dragon project. It’s just another way for me to say “kill the game.” That’s what we’re trying to do, kill the game and create content in a lot of spaces. People a lot of times want to put your creativity in a box. You want to look at me and let me be the producer. I’m really super wordy. Everything that I’m producing, I’m writing. I’m equally a songwriter, musician, producer, and singer. That’s what my life has been committed to. People call me what they need me to be. I got one Grammy for R&B and soul, and I got another one for rock. I’m glad that I have an opportunity with these singles to reach some of the breadth of my creativity. “Fight On” I call urban Americana. This next one is going to be hip-hop. After that, it will probably be straight-ahead pop. After that, it might be R&B. It just depends. I’m really confident in operating in all of those spaces. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to express that now.

AXS: Is there any particular artist that you admire as far as not being limited to any one thing?

SS: Stevie Wonder has always been a hero of mine. He never allowed himself to be boxed in, and he was prolific. In his heyday, he constantly produced music. You can hear his many influences, and he was proud to put all of that on display.  

As a producer, I’d have to say Quincy Jones. He started as a jazz musician, but he didn’t stop there. He arguably did his best work at 50 years old when he produced Thriller for Michael Jackson. He never allowed you to box him in. He did “We Are the World” and The Color Purple. He did huge movie soundtracks and scores while making some of the biggest pop and jazz records of all time. That’s how you do it. That’s how you don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed.

AXS: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?

SS: I would say that I’d be a pilot. It’s risky, but at the same time, it’s exhilarating. I’ve seen commercial pilots who get out in a little crop duster on the weekends and fly just to fly. They fly because they love to fly. On the weekends, they can barrel roll. They can get out and do what they’re passionate about on the weekends. I think this is a lot like that. I love to make music. It’s something I’ve always done and always will. The thing I do for work is the same thing I do to relax. I might be in the studio for 12 hours, then I might play for 30 or 45 minutes to unwind at home. It’s who I am.