Years ago a blogging friend told me about parcels of raw land that were for sale in a huge alpine valley in Southern Colorado. We were so taken with the beauty of the place that we bought five acres. Then one day I read a blog post she’d written about a friend of hers who was already living there. He’d made a documentary about his life there. I watched the trailer for the film…and was blown away. Meet Eric Shiveley.
1. Eric, can you set the scene for us and describe the San Luis Valley where you live and work?
The San Luis Valley is a flat, scrub-brush desert that straddles the Colorado/New Mexico border. It's walled on the east by the Sangre De Cristo mountains, the west by the San Juans, and the south by mesas and tarantulas. It's a huge valley, but because it's so flat it looks small until you have to cross it. It's also one of the coldest areas in the lower 48 (the temperature averages 40.8 degrees over a year, and the January 2007 average temperature was 12 degrees). Although it's the sunniest part of Colorado, spring is long, icy cold, and very, very windy.
But from June until October it's the prettiest place you've ever seen. The skies, thunderstorms and sunsets are beyond description. And you wonder why no one lives or visits here. That's the other thing, no one lives here. Pueblo is two hours away, and a trip there is like going to New York City.
Alamosa is the biggest town (8,000 people?), right in the center of the valley. I live a few miles east of town in the open desert. You can see Great Sand Dunes National Park from my kitchen window.
2. Your documentary, Everyone But You, tells the story of your move to the San Luis Valley to build a recording studio on land you had purchased there. The part that amazed me was that you taught yourself filmmaking while making the film. How long did it take you to make it?
It was a year of filming, then another year of filming and editing. It's a good thing it took so long because after two years I knew much better how to cut everything that wasn't needed.
3. Was the final film the one you set out to make or did the story change over time?
What I planned to make is still there, but the best parts came up on their own. The "planned" (for lack of a better word) and unplanned storylines end up woven together, and I don't think the two could work without each other. If the movie works, that's why. You see this guy with a plan. He follows through, and then gets drop-kicked into the oblivion by the powers that be.
4. Everyone But You was screened at some film festivals and was well-received. What was the festival experience like for you? Are there plans to show it at future festivals?
The experience was a bit strange but with a few moments where, you know, it's like your dream comes true and it's real.
Since I was a complete nobody it's almost a miracle the movie got the recognition it did. At the time I thought it deserved more, but it's a two-hour movie made on a low-res camera, again by a complete nobody. So it had everything working against it. You expect it to be hard when you have no agent or connections, but to live it and have selection committee members tell you how they had to fight to get you in because you're not a big name is something that stays with you.
Eventually you get tired of selling and it's time to get back to work on something else. So I stopped pushing the movie.
5. You’re a very talented singer-songwriter and musician. (All of the songs in the film are original.) I’m a big fan of your music. Has your songwriting changed since you moved to the SLV, and if so, how?
Thanks and thanks for listening. Weird, but before I lived here in the valley I wrote songs about living in a trailer in the desert, then I ended up here in my trailer in the desert. I don't know if my writing has changed, but you're always trying to do something you haven't, or that doesn't come naturally. And playing with other people helps because you hear new things. It's like this: A) One of my friends loves Neko Case and I liked the songs she sent me, B) I've always wanted to write something like the Gipsy Kings, and C) A friend from the coffee shop told me about turning south at Deming, New Mexico to get inexpensive dental care in Mexico. So I tried to write a Gipsy Kings/Neko Case song and named it "Greetings From Deming." It's on my new album.
I don't think your writing changes as much based on where you live as what you hear (and like) from friends, satellite radio in the coffee shop, or wherever.
You get sick of playing the same grooves so naturally you keep trying ones you haven't.
6. Your most recent CD is Eden’s Light. When you set out to make a CD, do you have an overarching theme in mind for the entire CD, or do you wait until you’ve written quite a few songs and then start selecting songs to record?
Yes, all. I don't know how other people do it, but I usually have this big, vague, dark story in my head. It's not something I force, and the songs aren't literal chapters or anything, but it's all loosely but deeply related. When you have most of the songs sketched out, you say, "Oh, this is way too depressing, I'll write a happy song for the beginning of the album." And that song ends up the darkest thing you've ever written. And so it goes. But you do know when you're done. And the only fun (and relatively easy) part is the packaging. The story and hard work are done, and for some reason it's fun, even though it's just as detailed as the writing and recording. It's like getting dressed up in your fancy, studded western suit for a gig.
7. In the film you document some of the jobs you took recording music for other bands and artists. Do you still take recording/engineering jobs? Has your studio produced client work for you in that area or do you use it primarily to record your own music?
These days I just do a song or video here and there for friends, for dirt cheap or free. If I record someone I want it to be great, and when I try to sleep I think, "Aw man, that should be a church organ at the beginning instead of strings." So for me it's not worth what a band without a budget can afford.
8. As a DIY musician, what challenges do you face when marketing and promoting your music?
Good question. I won Best Composer at a top-tier film festival. When I got home I gave a copy of the soundtrack to our local public radio station, figuring they'd at least listen. During the next pledge drive I went in to make a donation and they told me to take something from their free bin. There was my soundtrack, never been played. If you're unknown you're up against every law of nature. Your hometown doesn't give a shit until you're famous somewhere else, and the world at large mostly only wants what they already know. Everyone does it. If you like Wilco but their new album bores you on first listen, you'll give it several more chances. If you've never heard of the band, you probably won't. Because of that, my goal has always been to wait until I have something great and polished before throwing it out there.
People don't realize how much they like polish. Presentation is probably 88% of this life.
9. The San Luis Valley is a very sparsely populated area and you live miles from the nearest town. What’s a typical day in the SLV like for you?
We all wake up at four, adjust the buffalo hides on the mules to make sure they don't freeze, and then hitch a buggy ride to the tradin' post to barter some egg-pone for chicken-pone and a twopence of shoelaces. Then we scamper home over hill and dale to count the chickens and make sure the dial-up wasn't interrupted in the middle of that goat porn we've been downloading forever.
Anyhoo, Alamosa is pretty much like living anywhere but without the traffic. We have a four-year college and a 24-hour Walmart.
10. I love how your dogs make unexpected appearances in your projects. Can you tell us a little about them?
I love my doggies. I never thought I'd have Chihuahuas, then I met Macy (she's in my movie) and her Chihuahuas. Soon after you get a Chihuahua, everyone else's dog seems three times larger. And you can't believe you used to think Chihuahuas are useless. Chihuahuas have it harder than you can imagine. Children think they're toys and yank them around like dolls. Then they snap at the kid and get beaten by the kid or a parent. Look at any Chihuahua rescue site and see how badly they're abused. The poor dogs are defenseless. Anyway I love Senor and Toro, and I wish people were nicer to Chihuahuas.
11. What’s one thing you’d like to see happen in your creative life in the coming year?
If I can make one absolute knockout video for a song on "Eden's Light" that would be cool. Maybe I could let the album go and start the next one. I'd like to make one more album and be done.
Thanks to Eric for a great interview!
In 2000, when independent bands were just beginning to release CDs, Eric Shiveley recorded his first album in the basement of his Denver home, with no previous experience writing, recording or singing. The album, 'Everything Is Good' received overwhelming praise from a Denver/Boulder scene that was just beginning to get recognition that would soon explode. The Boulder Daily Camera wrote, "Several tracks could be Shiveley's ticket to the big time." But when Eric saw a legion of bands record one album and spend a year touring with very little gain, he decided to work on his writing and recording and put off promotion. Four more albums and a two-hour documentary later, Eric finally released "Eden's Light" (which he considers his first "real" album) in 2010. But that's only the beginning of the story.
A note from Eric: Several people have been unduly kind and supportive of me and my music. They're on the Music & Friends page of my site. Please visit them. And thank you Marilyn.