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Local Music Spotlight: ‘Piano was where I fell in love with music,’ Shawn Stratte says

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 2, 2021

Shawn Stratte’s new four-track EP is titled “Burn.”  (Elliott Fulbright)
Shawn Stratte’s new four-track EP is titled “Burn.” (Elliott Fulbright)
By Julien A. Luebbers For The Spokesman-Review

Shawn Stratte is most recognizably a pianist, a staple at the Ridler Piano Bar (where he plays Fridays and Saturdays) and Zola’s (where he performs with a group of talented local musicians). He plays with a delicate and practiced touch, sings with a relaxed and soulful voice.

These feature prominently on his latest EP, “Burn,” which finds Stratte turning to his favorite instrument, the keys, to drive his writing. “Piano was where I fell in love with music,” Stratte said. But you might not guess that from his 2020 album “Take a Break,” which he described as “more guitar-driven.”

That album showcased Stratte’s capabilities as a multi-instrumentalist and a vocalist, but it is his work on the keys that is most impressive. Starting from age 5, he learned the piano from his family and on his own, an education dependent on a huge amount of self-motivation. “I would go through theory books,” he said, “just go all the way through.

“There was some breakthrough, I think when I was probably 11 or 12. And then it all just sort of made sense.” But even then, music didn’t seem like Stratte’s professional goal. He studied math in college, and for a time that was to be his career.

But then he found himself with a jobless summer. “I didn’t have anything to do, so I ended up playing on a cruise. And that kind of started the whole thing.”

Cut to today, and he’s releasing his second record, and he’s a fixture of the local live scene.

The EP is four tracks, featuring two new pieces, an Elvis cover and a rework of one of his older tracks, “(If You’ve Got) Money” featuring local soul artist Blake Braley. It’s an exciting mix of creation, classics and collaboration.

The Elvis Presley cover, for example, is a mellow, almost romantic cover of the time-told classic “Burning Love.” Stratte pairs an almost bedroom-pop guitar with sweet vocals and a delicate drum part. It’s a new take on the track, but one that draws on the original’s strengths and reinterprets them in a new context.

The reworked version of “(If You’ve Got) Money” benefits immensely from the addition of Braley’s vocals. The original track was a strong declarative piece, in which the narrator states in plain terms what’s important in a relationship: “I don’t care if you got money / and I am not impressed by your cars / … / I just wanna be your companion.”

But with Braley and Stratte singing together, the piece comes to life. “I love that song,” Braley said. “That was originally on the first record. It was the one that resonated the most with me, so it was cool that (Shawn) asked me to sing.”

Together, their voices give the track strength in numbers. They sing in a harmonic unison, and then each take a verse of their own, allowing their voices to fan out and take up all the space the track has to offer. The kicked-back, bouncy beat carries them along through the end of the track.

The EP’s finv al two tracks are riveting and delicate piano compositions. In “Burn,” Stratte sings the line “You’re gonna burn in hell” with brutal sangfroid. Yet with the tromping, deep drum of the song’s open and close, the emotion is all there. It’s almost ironic how warm the sound is, considering Stratte’s lyrics.

“Don’t Fall in Love” possesses similar qualities, but draws heavily on a melancholy and slow-moving piano part. Similarly, Stratte’s vocals are very delicate as he winds his way through a song rife with hurt.

As a four-track EP, “Burn” is a wonderful piece to behold. Stratte has a sort of ease about his work. It’s relaxed and yet tightly composed and performed, with clever interpretations (the Elvis cover) and wonderful additions (Braley’s vocals). The record’s soft-spokenness is another of its strengths, as he achieves so much with relatively pared-down compositions.

Stratte’s EP “Burn” is set for release Sunday for streaming. For more information on Stratte, follow him on Instagram @ShawnStratte and catch him live every week at Ridler Piano Bar on Fridays and Saturdays and at Zola’s on Thursday nights (excluding the first and last of December). Also follow Blake Braley on Instagram @BlakeBraley.

Julien A. Luebbers can be reached at julien.luebbers@gmail.com.

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